The Gustavian Weekly

Classics professor discusses ancient graffiti | The Gustavian Weekly

By Elsa Beise - Staff Writer | October 12, 2018 | News

On Thursday, Oct 4, Gustavus faculty, staff and students were able to attend a lecture given by Professor Rebecca Benefiel, professor of classics and Department Chair, at Washington and Lee University.

In her lecture, Professor Benefiel discussed how to relate ancient street art to the lives of civilians in that time.

“Professor Benefiel’s talk was about analyzing ancient graffiti to learn more about the daily lives and interests of real people in Pompeii. For example, someone who lived in the largest and most famous house in Pompeii, clearly had a real interest in gladiators, while someone who lived in another house in a similarly wealthy district was interested in literary quotations and clever wordplay,” Profesor Yurie Hong, Department Chair of the classics department and associate professor of gender, women and sexuality studies at Gustavus, said.

Professor Benefiel gave an engaging presentation on this topic and has the credentials to support it.

She is the leader of a project that is pioneering the way for more research in this field.

“We were so excited to have Professor Benefiel come to campus, not only because she’s an excellent scholar who works on fascinating topics, but because she is also at the cutting edge of digital humanities and archaeological research,” Professor Hong said.

Hong continued, saying, “[Benefiel] is the director of the Ancient Graffiti Project (, which is a database of graffiti found at Herculaneum and Pompeii. This project makes it possible for non-specialists and the general public to access information that is quite hard to find and interpret on your own. It’s a wonderful resource for teachers and students and really democratizes the study of the ancient world,” Professor Hong said.

Professor Benefiel’s discussion was unique in that her sense of imagery and detail created an easy way for listeners to paint a specific picture in their head of what exactly she was talking about.

“I loved how she walked us through the intricacies of figuring out what the graffiti says and what kinds of information we can glean about the people who lived and died in these houses. It really brought the scene to life. She talked about how these graffiti–because they’re small and intimate and are inscribed on the walls of social spaces inside people’s homes–were likely written as part of a social activity in conversation with someone else. It called to mind images of a couple of Pompeians huddled together over shared writing the way you might write notes on a napkin to someone at a dinner party,” Professor Hong said.

Students enjoyed being able to listen to such an engaging presentation and an interesting topic.

“This was a worthwhile lecture because it introduced students to the idea that while graffiti today is not commonly liked or accepted, it was the means of communication at that time, and today we can understand more about the culture because it is there,” Sophomore Holly Fitterer said.

Even those who didn’t necessarily have a solid background in classics could enjoy and engage in what Professor Benefiel had to say.

“I thought Professor Benefiel’s lecture was very engaging and approachable for people who don’t have a background in classics. Her presentation was very informative and I left thinking about the ancient world in a different way than I did before,” First-year Maddie Sandish said.

Professor Hong especially appreciated Professor Benefiel’s attention to a topic that not everyone immediately thinks of: the lives of everyday people in ancient times.

“When people think about classics, they tend to think about the famous figures (Socrates, Julius Caesar, etc.) and the big ideas and events that ancient Greece and Rome are famous for, like democracy, tragedy, empire, etc. It can be easy to forget that real people lived in these times and spaces. Studying sources like ancient graffiti makes it possible to reach back into the past and learn about the interests and concerns of every-day ancient people through their own hands,” Hong said.

Hond added, “There is extra poignance in the fact that this graffiti exists because the volcanic eruption that buried the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum killed the people who wrote it. In a world where it can be too easy to forget about the humanity of people who seem too far away or different from us, I think that anything that can help us understand, empathize, and acknowledge another person’s humanity is a valuable and worthwhile endeavor.”

Professor Benefiel had a very approachable nature about her, which made listeners feel welcome to engage in important dialogue.

“I enjoyed that she joked around with us, and when we asked questions, she was very good at answering them,” Fitterer said.

Professor Benefiel even got breakfast with some classics majors and took time out of her day to get to know Gustavus students.

“[At breakfast we] talked about, not only our plans for the future, but the things we are currently doing in the classics department. This fellowship was very much appreciated, as we could get to know her more. Having her on campus was a great treat,” Fitterer said.

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