The Alexamenos Graffito
In 1857, the Alexamenos graffito was unearthed during an excavation of the Domus Gelotiana, a house in the Imperial Palace of Emperor Caligula.
The palace rests on the Palatine, one of the montes within the limits of the old city of Rome. The Domus Gelotiana (House of Gelotius) was bought by Emperor Caligula in the third century C.E. and incorporated into the crown property. Still a boy at the time, Caligula was quite fond of horse races and purchased the house because it was the closest building on the Palantine to the circus. The Domus consists of an outer part that remains private property, and an inner portion that now belongs to the government. As can be seen in the map of the property, the inner part of the house was made up of small apartments surrounding a courtyard atrium. There is some debate as to the exact location at which the Alexamenos graffito was discovered. The Catholic Encyclopedia suggests that the relic was found on a beam in the Paedagogium, and Rodolfo Lanciani, one of the earliest sources cataloging the graffito, claims that it was discovered in the “fourth room on the left of the entrance.” However, most sources agree that the graffito was originally scrawled within the inner rooms of the Domus Gelotiana.
History of the Domus Gelotiana
After Caligula was assassinated in 41 C.E, the Domus Gelotiana was transformed into an academy for training court pages. The small apartments near the courtyard were used to house the boys attending the school. The name of the institution, the Paedagogium, appears in many of the inscriptions on the plaster walls of the Domus Gelotiana, leading scholars to believe that the Alexamenos graffito was left during the time the house was used to support the academy. The graffito itself consists of a crudely drawn male figure raising an arm towards a crucified man with the head of a donkey scrawled on a beam in the Domus. The Greek words “Αλεξαμενος ϲεβετε θεον,” translated as “Alexamenos worships (his) god,” accompany the figures. The graffiti is dated to approximately 200 C.E., meaning that the cariacature would have been made only a few years after the Apostles began preaching the gospel in Rome. According to Tertullian, an Ecclesiastical writer, Christians in his day were accused of worshiping an ass’s head. The timing and location of the artifact has led many scholars to the conclusion that the Graffito was made in mockery of a Christian named Alexamenos worshiping Jesus.
Shortly after its excavation, Raffaelle Garrucci published a facsimile of the graffito to preserve the details of the work as they were initially discovered, and the relic was moved to the Kircherian Museum of the Collegio Romano. The artifact is now housed at the Palantine Antiquarium in Rome.
Garrucci, R. (1857). Il crocifisso graffito in casa dei Cesari e il simbolismo cristiano in una corniola del secondo secolo: monumenti due. coi tipi della Civilta Cattolica, p.5.
Lanciani, R. A. (1894). Ancient Rome in the light of recent discoveries. Houghton Mifflin & Company, pp. 119-122.
Lanciani, R. A. (1897). The Ruins and Excavations of Ancient Rome: A Companion Book for Students and Travelers. Houghton, Mifflin and Company, pp. 185-187.
Marucchi, O. Archæology of the Cross and Crucifix. The Catholic Encyclopedia, 4.
Photo credit for plan of Domus: Lanciani (1897), p. 185.
Photo credit for facsimile: Garrucci (1857), p. 5.