The SATOR ROTAS Square of Pompeii: a Graffiti like no Others


Of the two SATOR squares discovered so far in Pompeii, one is private and the other public.

The first SATOR Square was found in 1925 on the bathroom wall of the house of Paquius Proculus Publius and his wife, unfortunately not very well preserved private incription (1).

The other inscription, a complete one, a SATOR ROTAS Square, was discovered in 1936 on a black sandstone plaque decorating a column of the large palestra located near the amphitheatre. It is located in the west colonnade of this public place, which served as a gymnasium and a space for wrestling and physical exercise.

It is this second inscription that we will now discuss.


As this inscription includes in its center the SATOR Square and as this square is written upside down, it is about the palindrome ROTAS. We will call this reverse reading of the SATOR Square, the SATOR ROTAS.

We notice almost at first sight, that it is the same hand which engraved the SATOR ROTAS Square as well as below, the two words SAUTRAN and VALE. We also see that another hand added the D letter above the vertical TENET and just below the same vertical TENET these letters ANO, but horizontally this time, what actually indicates that the signature of the square with the words SAUTRAN and VALE existed indeed from its origin, if not ANO could have been written then, vertically and without encumber just below the vertical TENET.

We note well the second hand to be engraved the letters less deep and to have a slightly different form, like for example the A.

This graffiti is interesting: we find there united the SATOR ROTAS Square and its signature with another graffiti, added afterwards, which we will call the graffiti's graffiti. 


The two words SAUTRAN and VALE are considered by many to be a signature. VALE, in fact, always finished any letter or missive written at that time; it meant: Good bye ! Take care ! Best regards, etc. Adding VALE at the end of this inscription is like making this square an open letter to the public... This fact is interesting, because we would be, to our knowledge, in the presence of the unique example of a SATOR signed in Latin by its author. As this grafitto is engraved on the stone, it also means that, from the beginning, its message was destined to last.

Furthermore, the SATOR Square begins with ROTAS: the engraver preferred the reverse version of the square to take advantage of ingenuously returning some letters of his own name... We therefore propose to read: SA(UT)-R(AN) which becomes SA(TU)-R(NA), Saturna, by simply making turn or rotate between them U and T, as well as A and N. 

Why precisely these letters? In examining the inscription carefully, we notice that SAUTRAN was written in two steps: SAUT in

a first draft, then the person moved to the right to continue writing RAN. It is therefore easy to return only the last letters of these two syllables.

Saturna: real name not very popular or name invented for the occasion? In any case, it reminds perfectly the fact of turning... Moreover, due to its position (if we exclude of course ANO added afterwards), this name is parallel just below SATOR that it imitates almost phonetically... It seems that to call oneself Saturna was not very frequent at that time: one was more willingly called Saturnina in those times, like our current Saturnin.

In addition, Saturna could write and must also be educated... so, in addition to being playful and valiant, she was aware of the value and importance of her message, to leave it in writing in a strategic place, engraved in front of an emblematic building of the city: the amphitheater.

This reminds us that it was especially the women who were the most active evangelists after the resurrection of Jesus Christ.


If the signature really represents a woman's name, it would also indicate that the women had access to the palestra, a place normally reserved for men. 

Consequently, we propose two interpretations: either the women were simply authorized to enter this public place (but this fact will be attested only later with certainty, as we will see on a mosaic of the beginning of the 4th century, in the Villa del Casale, Piazza Armerina, in Sicily; see attached photo and note 2), or the monument had already been disused or abandoned before the year 79 and was therefore open to the public.

For our part we prefer the second possibility, given that in 62 after Jesus Christ, 17 years before the famous eruption of Vesuvius, it is recognized that a great earthquake had shaken the city and had also left many monuments fragile. 

It is possible that the large palestra was abandoned then because of the danger which could represent the fall of stones coming from the porticoes or the walls. It is possible, moreover, that the Roman authorities (or its owner, if the building had been built by a private individual) did not consider the repair of this building a priority, having to repair many others more important, notably in the forum, where one still sees in the year 79 the buildings under restoration...

Thus, it would mean that anyone could enter the large palestra at any time as early as 63 of our era, men and women alike, at their own risk.

The most surprising remains the current situation: there is still a barrier that prevents us from entering this large palestra, to protect us from the risk of falling stones still present, even after the renovation works carried out... (3).


Let us now turn to the graffiti added vertically by a second hand, as we said above, an inscription we read in this way:

D-TENET-ANO = D(e)-tenet(e)-ano = Detenete ano = Stop (Arrest) [to] the bitch (bitchy girl)!

What first looks like a badly made triangle, because of the roundness of the column, it was not easy to engrave the roundness of the D in a normal way at this height of the column, the first letter is indeed a D. We notice this same peculiarity with the VALE and the RAN of SAUTRAN: these letters always fall lower at the end and on the right, because of the roundness of the column and because of the position of the hand of the engraver (man or female) in relation to the support.

The D would therefore be read phonetically and the same letter would represent the sound DE (4). 

For its part, DE+TENERE (from TENET), the verb DETENERE, should be transitive (followed by the accusative ANUM of ANUS: the ring, the anus, the foundation); the second engraver makes it an intransitive (and uses the dative ANO)... To better understand this, we would have said in classical and literary Latin: Detinete anum (5).

To be able to discover the meaning of ANO, in our opinion, reality must be simpler, since we do not find ourselves before the case of a lectio dificilior and consequently, the truth can seem to us even more raw, more prosaic: the engraver had to simply take the term ANUS in its pejorative sense of anus, a specific attribute of women, which we translated as bitch (bitchy girl). As a result, the second engraver confirms that the first engraver was indeed a woman and that perhaps he even knew her to some extent.

These two spelling errors, that of the composition of the verb (DE+TENERE which should give in classical Latin DETINERE) and that of its complement (ANO instead of the classical ANUM), are very interesting. Could it be pure ignorance or a mistake made without thinking by his engraver because he was in a hurry or very nervous?

In any case, it confirms that this graffiti was written in vulgar Latin - the spoken language of that time - and also provides us with a lot of information about the literacy level of the population, because this text contains many spelling and grammar errors. Because of the very presence of these errors, we have invaluable indications on the way the Latin was pronounced by its speakers. In addition, this text provides yet another confirmation for us, that of the elision of the letter E, realized by the two engravers (6).

However, it is worth noting the original use of phonetic D in the composition of the sentence and message, as well as verticality, what allows the second engraver to save writing, and, in a way, allows him to visually strike out the text of the first inscription.


The woman also made a mistake when writing the SATOR backwards: she started by engraving ROTAS and OPERA correctly, then continued with AREPO and SATOR, forgetting to write the TENET in the center. When she realizes her mistake, she corrects it by superimposing TENET on AREPO that she had engraved on the 3rd line and continues by superimposing AREPO on the first engraved letters of SATOR on the 4th line. She then rewrites the SATOR at the end, as it should be, on the 5th line. (One notices this superposition in the attached photo, as also in the photo of the introduction of this article).

Finally, we can say that the two people were not used to engrave on stone.

To add that this graffiti may also have been a code for the first Christians, not only because of its message, but probably also as a signpost, as a possible indication of a meeting place in this abandoned place far from the city center.


We propose the following translation of the entire inscription, of the graffiti accompanied by its counter graffiti:

The graffiti (the inscription itself):

    "It is the whole universe

     That with his sovereign strength


    -I testify to that-

     The sower. "



The graffiti's graffiti (vertically):

     Stop the bitch (Arrest the bitchy girl)!


This graffiti's graffiti seems to be a really ironic, even sarcastic commentary towards this Sautran, this illustrious stranger who also signs his work in a mysterious way. If Emperor Nero, who represented the highest Roman political authority, allowed himself to persecute Christians, how much more could the most bitter criticism of the people be allowed against them!

Rome was burned down in 64 and nearly a thousand innocent people (7) were then condemned to an infamous death by a vicious emperor who had lost his mind, but who then knew very well to distinguish between Jews and Christians, because the apostle Paul had surely explained it to him very clearly... (8)

This allows us to date this last graffiti more or less from the same period as the other SATOR Square of Pompeii, i.e. from the beginning of the second half of the first century of our era. 

We have not yet encountered an ancient counter graffiti that is positive, in the sense that it emphasizes and supports the very message of a first graffiti. This graffiti of Pompeii's graffiti must therefore be considered as negative or opposite, in the given context.

Another graffiti "Alexamenos worships his god" (see attached photo), dated from the years 85-95 and discovered in Rome on the Palatine, gives another example of this polemic, of this type of correspondence written on the walls. This time, on the other hand, we discover a reprimand written in Greek against a Christian and, on the next wall, a simple and gentle answer in Latin, probably from the insulted person, who says "Alexamenos is faithful" (9).


Graffiti are of great importance in archaeology: together with epigraphic texts, they form part of non-literary, popular written testimonies, often very lively and able to reveal to us new aspects of the society that produced them.

Let us not forget that the SATOR Square is probably the first Christian Latin inscription which existed in the world, to our knowledge (10).

Also, this SATOR ROTAS Square in particular did not leave anyone indifferent, because this inscription, probably produced in the years 60-65 after Jesus Christ, was already subject to a written commentary since its creation. Proof of this is that the author of the inscription first got involved himself, leaving his signature in hidden form, and that immediately afterwards, a very critical reaction appeared in the public, by adding another graffiti superimposed on this graffiti.

All this must have happened, as it was demonstrated, between the years 63 and 79 of our era, in this city of luxury and also of lust that Pompeii was. This also gives to this graffiti's graffiti, to our knowledge, the honor of being the first example of a written diatribe in Latin against Christians, even before the other inscription in Greek "Alexamenos worships his god".

The SATOR ROTAS Square, this graffiti accompanied by a counter graffiti, is therefore not an inscription like the others: it proves first of all that the truth has left no one indifferent and that history is dominated, not by human reason, but much more by human passions...

Whtbd - what had to be demonstrated,

Olivier Perret

To Read Other Articles?


1. For a complete understanding and translation of this inscription, see our first article in this blog: Do you know the SATOR Square? in

2. , consulted on 2018.03.18.

3. Possibility to examine the situation and state of the large palestra at present:,+N%C3%A1poles,+Italia/@40.75099,14.493462,305m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=es  (consulted on 2018.03.20).

4. If we have not yet found any other strictly identical example in the epigraphy confirming the same use of the letter D, it should be noted here that it is a counter graffiti and not a normal inscription, which is why it is quite normal that it does not correspond to the usual Roman epigraphic norms and standards.

Nevertheless, we allow ourselves this plausible and original interpretation, because we have another almost contemporary example of a Greek inscription, engraved 25 years later in Rome, where the verb is also written phonetically (see also note 9).

5. We would have preferred to read ANO, A+N+O, as Nicolas Vinel (*) does, which would also have admirably supported our thesis that alpha (A) and omega (O), as well as TENET's central N would represent the key letters of the second degree reading of the SATOR Square and would confirm that this reading of the PATER NOSTER was already well known from the first century of our era. This would also have confirmed that the second engraver understood the meaning of the message contained in the SATOR Square. We fear, however, that this was not the case: if the second engraver had been a friend of the first, he certainly would not have shown his support in this way.

(*) Nicolas Vinel, Le Judaïsme caché du carré Sator de Pompéi, The hidden judaism of the Pompeiian Sator square, p. 173-194 in  and especially No. 32 which we quote in full: Or les ossuaires étudiés par E. Testa attestent aussi la lettre D. Rien d'étonnant donc à ce qu'une seconde main ait inscrit à la fois D au-dessus du SATOR et ANO au-dessous, le symbole du serpent étant complété par les deux lettres qui symbolisent l'éternité (le même type de symbolisme apparaît sur une amulette répertoriée par Goodenough, où un serpent imposant est entouré par l'A et l'W du nom divin IAW). Précisons que le symbolisme latin AO est bien attesté dans l'épigraphie judéo-chrétienne, à côté de l'hébreu aleph-taw et du grec alpha-oméga- ce dernier étant déjà utilisé par les Septante, au IIIe siècle.

6. The fusion or elision of the E of OPEERA is called synalea: these are two vowels pronounced from a single emission of voice, OPERA. This process confirms our point of view expressed in our first article on the SATOR Square (see note 12 in  and Jean Subiran, L'élision dans la poésie latine, Paris, C. Klincksieck, 1966). The counter graffiti also confirms this use: Detenet ano to say Detenete ano...

7. The Hieronymian Martyrologue of the 5th century reports precisely 977 saints killed and Tacitus, a historian who was not at all in favour of Christians, reports in his Annals, XV, 44 that "those who confessed were prosecuted, then, on their denunciation, an immense multitude [multitudo ingens], and they were found guilty, not so much of the crime of fire as of their hate for the human race" (free translation from, consulted the 2018.03.22). We think that if Christians had been few in number, only "a few" hundreds, Tacitus could have mentioned their number without difficulty.

8. This is easily deduced from the profession of the apostle Paul: It is the Lord who assisted me and strengthened me, so that the preaching was done by me and that all the Gentiles heard him. And I was delivered from the jaws of the lion (i.e. from Nero). 2 Timothy 4:17

9. See the Wikipedia about the Graffito of Alexamenos: « The image depicts a human-like figure affixed to a cross and possessing the head of a donkey. In the top right of the image is what has been interpreted as either the Greek letter upsilon or a tau cross.To the left of the image is a young man, apparently intended to represent Alexamenos, a Roman soldier/guard, raising one hand in a gesture possibly suggesting worship. Beneath the cross is a caption written in crude Greek: ΑΛΕ ξΑΜΕΝΟϹ ϹΕΒΕΤΕ ϑΕΟΝ. ϹΕΒΕΤΕ can be understood as a variant spelling (possibly a phonetic misspelling) of Standard Greek ϹΕΒΕΤΑΙ, which means "worships". The full inscription would then be read as Ᾰλεξᾰ́μενος σέβεται θεόν, "Alexamenos worships [his] God"». In, consulted on 2018.05.31).

10. As it has been demonstrated, this inscription can be easily understood from the following key: SATOR is Christ. We must remember that Christianity, from its origin, is not a new religion, but rather - thanks to Christ's atoning work through his death on the cross - a restoration of the relationship between God and men, in a personal and sincere relationship based on dialogue and reciprocity.


This bibliography complements the one indicated here in the notes and references, as well as that of our first article: Do you know the SATOR square? in and (information on SATOR ROTAS) (interesting general information on Latin rebuses)

Robert Etienne, La vie quotidienne à Pompéi, Paris 1966


Heinz Hofmann, Satorquadrat in Pauly's Realencyclopadie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft (RE) Supplementband XV Stuttgart 1978 Sp. 478-565

Vulgar Latin: 

Pierre Maraval, Les persécutions des chrétiens durant les quatre premiers siècles, Paris, Desclée, 1992 (Coll. Bibliothèque d'Histoire du christianisme, 30)

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