shipwreck beggars: popular pictorial communication in ancient Rome

shipwreck victims

In ancient Rome, shipwreck victims begged for money using pictures.  A Roman satirist who died in the year 62 wrote:

am I going to part with a penny if a shipwreck victim sings a song?  Are you singing with a picture of yourself in a shattered ship on your shoulder?  The person who wants to bend me with his sorry tale will utter a genuine lament, not one concocted overnight.

So break off a portion of your green turf {land in the country} and give it to the penniless man, to stop him wandering around with his picture painted on a sea-blue placard. [1]

Another Roman satirist, who wrote no later than in the second century, described a shipwreck survivor:

satisfied with rags covering his freezing crotch and with scraps of food, while he begs for pennies as a shipwreck survivor and maintains himself by painting a picture of the storm. [2]

These passages attest to the prevalence of pictures in ancient Rome.  A Roman poet who died in 15 BGC complained:

The hand that first painted obscene pictures and set up disgraceful things to view in innocent homes corrupted the unknowing eyes of young girls, and denied them ignorance of sin itself. [3]

Another Roman poet from about the same time pleaded ironically:

Now, goddess, help me now (since the many pictures in your temples witness that you can heal) [4]

Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried in ashes with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 GC, contained many frescoes, including erotic frescoes. A tavern in Ostia Antica from about that time include an extensive scheme of low-culture frescoes.  Shipwreck victims begging for money had little money to commission or purchase pictures.  If shipwreck beggars in ancient Rome used pictures, pictures were accessible to everyone.

Shipwreck beggars may have used pictures to overcome language barriers in cosmopolitan Rome.  In addition to Latin and Greek, Rome contained many uneducated persons who probably understood mainly only local, ethnic languages.  One small picture of a shipwreck probably didn’t support pictorial storytelling.  Such a picture might have identified a beggar cross-linguistically as being particularly worthy of sympathy.

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Notes:

[1] Persius, Satires 1.89-90 (picture reference: “cantas, cum fracta te in trabe pictum / ex umero portes?”) and 6.31-3 (picture reference: “ne pictus oberret caerulea in tabula”) from Latin trans. Braund (2004).

[2] Juvenal, Satires, 14.300-2 (picture reference: “mersa rate naufragus assem / dum rogat et picta se tempestate tuetur.”) from Latin trans. id.

[3] Propertius, Bk. II.6, from Latin trans. A.S. Kline.

[4] Tibullus, III. Illness in Phaecia, from Latin trans. A.S. Kline.

[image] La Balsa de la Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa), Théodore Géricault, 1818-19. In the Louvre, Paris.  Thanks to Wikipedia.

Reference:

Braund, Susanna Morton, trans. 2004. Juvenal and Persius. Loeb Classical Library 91. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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