One of Pompeii’s loveliest—and most erotic—houses has just been reopened, after 20 years of restoration. The House of the Vettii is lined with pornographic frescoes, including a famed one of Priapus, the Greek god of fertility, with his huge member balanced on a scale opposite a bag of money. It’s not alone in showing just how smutty the ancients could be. At a recently excavated thermopolium, or snack bar, in Pompeii, there’s a wonderfully rude graffito:

Nicia Cinaede Cacator.
Nicias, you catamite shitter!

Recently, graphic mosaics have also been found at the Roman site of Antiochia ad Cragum in Turkey; they’re meticulously designed—and extremely rude. Narcissus and Ganymede are depicted admiring what you might call their own bulging assets. These mosaics were used to decorate a Roman latrine, showing how the Romans beautified even the most humdrum of rooms, and how open they were about sex.

It’s hard for us prudish 21st-century Westerners to understand this, because we’re so programmed to think of the past as being innately more conservative. That principle applies particularly to Latin, the supposedly grand language. If you want to know how everyday Romans—not Virgil, Tacitus, or Julius Caesar—actually talked, then look at Roman graffiti.

House of smut: the Casa dei Vettii, in Pompeii.

It still survives in great quantities, scrawled above the bar in Pompeii tavernas, scribbled on the walls of houses in Rome. The graffiti is often in very good condition, although it can be quite hard to make out—with no divisions between the words, and the letters written in a recognizable, but hard to decipher, ancient font. Once you do work it out, you’ll find that, just like schoolboys today, the Romans loved their graffiti to be rude.

Nicias, you catamite shitter!

In the house of Claudius Eulogus in Via Dell’Abbondanza, one of Pompeii’s main streets, there is a piece of graffiti with a very modern sensibility:

Move te fellator.
Push off, cocksucker.

In the basilica in Pompeii, there’s the line

Lucilla ex corpore lucrum faciebat.
Lucilla made money from her body.

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum.

On a nearby wall, someone has written,

Sum tua aeris assibus II.
I’m yours for two bronze coins.

It wasn’t just rude words they loved to write. In the Domus Tiberiana in Rome, there’s a picture of a crudely drawn man with an oversize penis for a nose. Graffiti artists were also fond of drawing dogs, donkeys, and horses. But they liked phalluses most.

Still, the romantic old Romans did rise above pornography in the eternal search for romantic love. Plenty of lovelorn graffiti survives, including this in the house of Pinarius Cerialis in Pompeii:

Marcellus Praenestinam amat et non curatur.
Marcellus loves Praenestina, but she doesn’t care for him.

The hand that wrote this on a wall 2,000 years ago reaches out across the centuries and touches your heart.

Harry Mount is a London-based journalist and the editor of The Oldie. Et Tu, Brute? The Best Latin Lines Ever, is his latest book, co-written with John Davie