Rome, and Other Four Letter Words – Profanity in the Ancient World

Posted: February 18, 2013 in Uncategorized


Did Caesar curse a blue streak when Brutus pulled out his knife? When Marcus Antonius took up with Cleopatra, did his formerly doting wife Octavia utter foul observations about her husband’s heritage and manhood as she kicked a nearby slave?

One of the biggest challenges in writing historical fiction is the language – how does a writer make historical fiction come alive? How does one combine ancient sensibility and authentic terms with a more modern cadence to make it accessible for the typical reader? With great difficulty, honestly. And even then you get flack.

I was challenged by a few readers and friends recently regarding my thriller novel FURIES and the earthy vernacular I employed in some of the dialogue. I got a bit “sweary”, according to one reviewer. I was surprised and fascinated by the response. I can’t argue with a question of taste – profanity isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It puts some people off. But the historical accuracy of profanity in the ancient Roman Empire is another question entirely. Did the ancients swear?

#@$%, yeah!

We have little direct view into the language of the streets of classic Rome. As for the writings of the time, only a small percentage remain, and they’re no more profane than Mary Poppins. (Interesting side note: Julie Andrews is known as a prolific curser off-screen. In the out-takes, the hills may have been alive with the sound of something more than music.) I digress. As succinct as Veni, Vidi, Vici is, it is likely not a realistic dialogue between two friends, or enemies, conversing in a back alley in dark corners of ancient Alexandria over a game of dice.

In FURIES, the protagonist, wealthy merchant Tarquitius Aculeo has lost his fortune after a disastrous series of investments. Abandoned by family and friends, he and his last remaining slave find themselves destitute, living in a grungy flat over a marble-makers shop. The everyday person of the time is without voice. How can we know how they actually spoke to one another? What we find in the standard documents, treatises, plays and letters from Cicero barely scratch the surface. The occasional dirty limerick from Martial notwithstanding.


To offer an analogy, the statues that remain from those times are carved from gleaming marble, pure and white. But what we see now are unfinished representations. They were supposed to be painted with lifelike colours, even dressed in togas and tunics and such. It’s like the original Madame Tussad’s. When we look at these statues now, we’re missing the colour. And yes, the colour version looks gaudy, but the principle remains. The same problem exists in understanding the language of the people, understanding how these people interacted on a day to day basis.

One of the best sources for such information is the graffiti found in Pompeii and Herculaneum, scrawled over the doorways of taverns, baths, barracks, shops and brothels. The translations provided by Prof. Brian Harvey at Kent State offer a snapshot in time of common people using what one must assume to be their everyday language. Before they had a chance to clean things up that is. It reveals a people that would have been a lot more interesting to study than Miss Mackenzie, my high school Latin teacher, ever talked about.

There are the standards :

–          Declarations of true love (“Crescens is sweet and charming”)

–          Hate (“Serena hates Isidorus”)

–          Accusations (“Atimetus got me pregnant”) – not good? Hard to know, unless Atimetus was my great grandfather times a hundred or so, in which case, Go Atimetus!

–          Personal commentary (“Epaphra, you are bald!” or “Virgula to her friend Tertius: you are disgusting!”, “Epaphra is not good at ball games”, “Phileros is a eunuch!”). Ouch.

–          Homilies (“A small problem gets larger if you ignore it.”)

–          Classified Ads (“A copper pot went missing from my shop.  Anyone who returns it to me will be given 65 sestertii”)

–          Rooms to rent ( “The city block of the Arrii Pollii in the possession of Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius is available to rent from July 1st”)

–          And the true classics (“Satura was here on September 3rd).

Veni Vidi Vici indeed.

The vast majority would make the average classicist blush :

–          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.

–          Amplicatus, I know that Icarus is buggering you.  Salvius wrote this.

–           I screwed the barmaid

–          Theophilus, don’t perform oral sex on girls against the city wall like a dog

–          I have buggered men

–          Secundus likes to screw boys.

–          I screwed a lot of girls here.

–          Hermeros screwed here with Phileterus and Caphisus.

–          Sollemnes, you screw well!

–          Gaius Valerius Venustus, soldier of the 1st praetorian cohort, in the century of Rufus, screwer of women

–          Two friends were here.  While they were, they had bad service in every way from a guy named Epaphroditus.  They threw him out and spent 105 and half sestertii most agreeably on whores.

–          Take hold of your servant girl whenever you want to; it’s your right

–          Virgula to her Tertius: you are one horny lad!

–          If anyone sits here, let him read this first of all: if anyone wants a screw, he should look for Attice; she costs 4 sestertii.

 The academic translation says “screw”. Not so bad. But the original Latin typically used in graffiti is futuit. If the ancient authors wanted to say a ‘gentler’ word like screw or copulate, they could have said copulatus. Futuit, you may have guessed, was the original F word.

There was some actual potty talk :

–          Lesbianus, you defecate and you write, ‘Hello, everyone!’

–          Secundus defecated here three times on one wall.

–          Apollinaris, the doctor of the emperor Titus, defecated well here

Again, the language has been modified for prudish sensibilities. In these examples, we say defecate. But more properly, it’s “shit”. For example, a warning often found in Roman tombstones is Cacator cave malum, or “Shitter Beware” :

–          ‘Anyone who pisses or shits here, may the Gods above and the Gods below be angry with him’

Apparently, public restrooms weren’t always accessible in those days, leaving tombs to serve double duty. Ahem. And yes, cacatore means ‘shitter’. People don’t really change, and even the pungent onomatopoeia of great curse words only change a little.

Some pithy declarations to be found in the Pompeiian graffiti:

–          Chie, I hope your hemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than they ever have before! (Did the ancients not yet discover the wonders of high fibre diets?)

–          Let everyone one in love come and see.  I want to break Venus’ ribs with clubs and cripple the goddess’ loins.  If she can strike through my soft chest, then why can’t I smash her head with a club? (Sounds like a valentine Antonius Soprano might have sent)

–          The one who buggers a fire burns his penis. (True that)


And finally, “O walls, you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.”

Thank all the gods past and present they did not. Or we never would have known just how the ancients talked. Which was essentially much like ourselves. Or Julie Andrews and me, at least.


  1. JP Gagnon says:

    You know Dan, i don’t give a sh!t if you swear in your books, as long you continue to write those fu$?@&% stories!!


  2. Jonathan says:

    Awesome post! I love it. Too many people have the idea that classical societies were somehow more polite (and if you believe the movies, that they all talked with an English accent). In reality, they were just as vulgar as us–or even more so. I laughed out loud at some of these. Thanks, Dan. 🙂


    • dljohnstone says:

      Hey Jonathan – I had a feeling you’d like this one. Yeah, the English accent thing is funny when you think about it – and they go posh accent for the nobles and guttersnipe accent for the unwashed. But what’s the alternative? Redneck Romans? Valley-Girl Romans? Hmmm, we may be on to something…

  3. I’m laughing aloud here….thanks for sharing; I can relate to the difficulty of accurately approximating the language of the times we’re spotlighting in our writing.

    Perhaps that’s why I don’t write historical novels…unless you count the mid-twentieth century. That was hard enough for me, as I had to focus on my younger incarnations…

    • dljohnstone says:

      It’s kind of fun once you get the hang of it.

      I for one vote that mid-20th century does NOT count as historical fiction. Though I suppose linguistically things may have shifted just a tad

  4. Michelle says:

    I think a lot of people just assume we are a lot ruder these days than in historical times, but I’m pretty sure that human nature wouldn’t have really changed that much, we’re probably just a bit more creative with the words we use nowadays 🙂

    • dljohnstone says:

      I think you’re right about the first part. But they could be pretty creative with their profanity back then. I couldn’t repeat some of the words I found – for one thing, there are no modern translations that quite match without getting into long, embarrassing explanations …

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