Much of the magic of ancient Rome is that it is not just the grand that has been preserved. Amongst the huge public buildings, much has survived which shows us about every day Roman life.
We have Roman apartment blocks. We have Roman sewage systems, and public Roman toilets. We have Roman villas and Roman shops. And, with a level of detail that almost defies belief, we have some of the contents of these buildings.
Amongst these artifacts found in the old buildings is the graffito pictured above. Crudely scratched into the wall of a house near the Palatine Hill, it is a simple sketch with a few mocking words for an associate of the artist.
And it may be the oldest depiction of Jesus on a cross that survives.
Alexamenos Worships His God
The drawing and inscription are simple to understand. A man stands at the lower left, his arm raised towards the central figure of a donkey-headed man apparently on a cross. The accompanying text reads “Alexamenos worships his God”.
Alexamenos appears to be a Roman soldier, or perhaps a guard, from his outfit. Around the year 200, the era to which this graffito is tentatively attributed, the pagan citizens of Rome would mock Christians for their beliefs, as seems to be the case here.
It appears that it was a common and mistaken belief in Rome at that time that Christians practiced what is known as “onolatry”. Apion, an Egyptian intellectual and historian, had claimed that Jews worshipped a donkey two centuries before, and it seems that the error had also been applied to Christians.
Hence the drawing is supposed to mock Alexamenos, for worshipping the Christian god with his donkey head inherited from the Hebrew religion. Jesus as a donkey is both a misunderstanding and a joke at the worshipper’s expense.
The graffito was found in 1857 during excavations of what is known as the Domus Gelotiana. Once owned by the emperor Caligula, the building had been converted into a school for young age boys, one of whom was perhaps responsible for the graffito.
Later the entire building would be walled off, fit only to be used for the foundations of buildings built on top of the site. As a result the rooms of the old school remained untouched and sealed away for centuries, perfectly preserving the interiors.
Only one other artifact survives which appears to depict the crucifixion from this early a date. A carved depiction also exists on a gemstone in the British Museum, but in truth that date cannot be said with any certainty.
If it is Jesus, then, this is the first in a long tradition of depictions of the crucifixion in art. Too bad things got started with a mockery and a donkey headed god.
Top Image: The Alexamenos graffito appears to show a Roman worshipping a donkey headed figure on a cross. Source: Jason M Kelly / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
By Joseph Green