Caesar was ‘ere: name etchings at the Colosseum

by Craig Evans

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Here is a photo of names etched into an interior wall of the Colosseum. I was there the other day while visiting Rome. Inside that ancient arena it is hard not to be drawn into musings about universal human truths. My own thoughts fixed on the idea of the spectacle and how societies, ancient and modern, are organised around staged performances. This is somewhat aided by the design of a circular, tiered structure which encourages a sense of belonging to a mass group with a common purpose while also marking social status differences. The presence of a ‘Royal Box’ for distinguished guests at Wimbledon suggests that this social function of the arena has survived into today’s world.

But it is not my intention to talk about how the Colosseum or modern stadia represent a microcosm of wider society. After all, this is a blog about language, and the sight of an expanse of etched names on the Colosseum walls gives me plenty of cause for language-themed reflections on human behaviour through the ages.

At first glance, it seemed to me that the etchings were meant to be there. For the most part they uniformly fitted within the space of individual bricks, creating the impression of a collection of plaques having merged over time with the surrounding wall. On closer inspection, I noticed the haphazardness of the writing styles and etching depths. Dates – 1930, 1960, some from more recent years – came to my attention. It quickly became apparent that the names on the wall were not part of some kind of official memorial, but rather, were the result of numerous individual acts of self-monumentalisation over the years.

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On my return home, I wanted to find out some more about the Colosseum name etchings. A quick internet search brought up results dominated by stories of recent arrests for vandalism: two Californian women charged in March with ‘aggravated damage on a building of historical and artistic interest’; a Russian man fined for carving his initial into the ancient monument last year. However, etching words on the walls of the Colosseum is not a new phenomenon. A few years ago, graffiti thought to be from the third century was discovered, and by the time of the 1800s the Colosseum’s ‘graffiti had become a tangled, overwritten record of tourists’ visits’.

What fascinates me is the idea that, for hundreds of years, visitors have felt compelled to leave their mark on the Colosseum. Even today, at the risk of imprisonment or a heavy fine, tourists persist with their efforts to etch their names into the walls. Is it the sense of being part of something old and potentially timeless that drives them to take this risk? Perhaps they feel that the mark of their name on the Colosseum will somehow give them a small slice of immortality? Rome, after all, is the ‘eternal city’.

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From a language point of view, while a date or combined names may locate someone in time, I am curious about those who have etched a single initial to mark that they were there in that place at that time. The mark of one alphabetic character leaves no record of the identity of the author, neither does it represent an expression of uniqueness in the way that a made up character might. This seems to suggest, therefore, that the act of etching is not about communication with some imagined omnipotent force or future historian, but rather, it is about the tokenism of a name or initial as the symbol of someone’s identity. By leaving this they leave a piece of themselves, and it is not the piece that represents life (blood, perhaps?) but the piece that arguably represents being human: language.

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