National Geographic News
Graffiti on the Colosseum in Rome, Italy.

Ancient graffiti (in red) is covered by tourists' markings inside Rome's Colosseum.

Photograph by Gregorio Borgia, AP

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy.

A full moon shines above the Colosseum in Rome. Photograph by Xiuyu He, My Shot

A.R. Williams

National Geographic News

Published January 29, 2013

A facelift of the Colosseum in Rome that began last fall has revealed centuries of graffiti. Removing the accumulated grime and calcification, experts discovered layers of inscriptions on the section of a wall seen here—designs in red and faded gray from antiquity, and lettering in black left by visitors in modern times.

Built in the first century, the Colosseum may have held crowds as large as 50,000 people. Its numbered entrances and covered passages were designed to get spectators in and out quickly and to separate the high and mighty from the hoi polloi. (Read about Rome's border walls in National Geographic Magazine.)

The wall in this picture flanked a passage that led to an upper tier. There, women, children, and slaves perched in the cheap seats to watch the bloody spectacle of gladiators and wild beasts battling for their lives on the arena floor 60 feet (18 meters) below.

Even in the dim light of this passage, the designs painted in red would have been easy to see against a background of white plaster. Today, the meaning of the designs in this particular spot is a mystery, though patches of newly cleaned plaster on other parts of the wall show a palm frond in red (a symbol of victory) and the letters "VIND," which may be part of the word vindicatio, or vengeance. (See photo of street art graffiti)

In the area above what looks like the large "S," meanwhile, Roman graffiti expert Rebecca Benefiel sees the faint gray profile of a face. "That was the single most popular image to draw in ancient graffiti," she says.

In the Roman period people rarely wrote their messages on top of existing graffiti. "There was a different understanding of writing on a wall," said Benefiel, a classics professor at Washington and Lee University. "You left space."

By the 19th century, the Colosseum was a famous monument, and its graffiti had become a tangled, overwritten record of tourists' visits. "Writers were aware of being in a historic place," said Benefiel. "They were making a mark to emphasize their presence."

Names and dates were important. So was place of origin. On this wall, in 1892, J. Milber wanted the world to know that he had traveled from the city of Strasbourg.

Officials in Rome say they plan to open this passage to the public once the restoration work is done. Presumably some kind of barrier will prevent future tourists from adding their own autographs for posterity.

13 comments
M. H
M. H

Wow people really don't change much do they?

Francis McCauley
Francis McCauley

Was there in September, 2013, and any restoration work going on did nothing to hinder a wonderful experience, my third. Saw no graffiti however.

Haley Shine
Haley Shine

I too found it strange that the graffiti was so large, I did see an article about graffiti in a bathroom in First-century Rome (my latin teacher found the article.) The graffiti at that time was meant for a modern "texting" type of thing. The messages would be left for other people to see and the respond. This graffiti does appear to be different, it is larger perhaps a design on the wall? "Victory and vengeance!"

Christian Schoen
Christian Schoen

Is there a possibility to examine the exact age of the grey face?

Changchun Tang
Changchun Tang

stunning! I wish the scribbles could be demystified sooner or later. that Arena is always my place-to-be...before Italy breaks down (ahh)

Ken Luther
Ken Luther

For a good time, call Martha, IV III VII I

david giles
david giles

People called Romanes they go the 'ouse??

Donald Goldsmith
Donald Goldsmith

@david giles Sorry Brian was Not Here so Romanes Eunt Domus could not possibly have been on this wall.. Citizens of Rome should Know their language better than some back country Judean suffering under the yoke of the Roman Imperialist State.

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