…then read some of this graffiti excavated from the ruins of Pompeii:
- Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!
- Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy privates.
- Apollinaris, the doctor of the emperor Titus, defecated well here.
- I screwed a lot of girls here.
- Sollemnes, you screw well!
You can read more amusing examples here. Needless to say, even a history buff like me finds it difficult to remember that, in many ways, we humans haven’t changed all that much. Our ancestors thought and behaved very much like we do.
We forget how the average person went about their everyday lives in the ancient world. We focus on the great characters and events of history – on the epic stories, on the glory and might of civilizations, etc – but neglect the humble, mundane, and very familiar qualities of the typical commoner.
There’s a lesson to be learned even from this crass and humorous display. I think it’s captured very well by Cord Jefferson of the The Nation:
Do a simple Google search for “America’s moral decline” and you’ll encounter thousands upon thousands of shrill rants from people convinced that our “sex-crazed” society is rapidly decaying. For decades now, the professional right has made a big business out of pretending that TV, the rise of gay culture, rap music, and dozens of other things have contributed to the fall of a once greatly moral world, all the while seeming to forget that Thomas Jefferson is known to have taken sexual advantage of his slaves and Benjamin Franklin is believed by some to have been part of a drunken orgy club.
It may make you feel nice to pretend that the societies that gave rise to the modern world were ones of pure honor and decency, but that’s not reality.The world isn’t on a moral decline, because there was never a time when the world was particularly morally superior. If we can glean anything from the Pompeiian graffiti, it’s that even citizens of history’s most immaculate and important civilizations liked their sex and poop jokes. And that fact is as humbling as any magnificent and ancient temple.
While it may be sad to think that we haven’t changed much as a species, I think in many ways it’s a good thing. We’ve come a long way, and while we still struggle to meet a higher standard of social justice and morality, we can put our present failings in perspective: we’re nowhere near as bad as we’ve always been. Progress may be a slow and often stagnating path, but we’re certainly not in any serious decline.