The Alexamenos Graffito

The graffito shown below is from first century (AD) Rome. The original piece is housed at the Palatine Antiquarium. Sketches of it may be found several places, including: Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987, 2d ed. 1993), 475-76, 2d ed. = 559-61; and Graydon F. Snyder, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine (Mercer Univ. Press, 1985), 27-28. There is also a discussion of it in the Catholic Encyclopedia: Orazio Marucchi, “Archæology of the Cross and Crucifix,” v. 6 (1908), online version (do a text search on that page for ‘graffito,’ it’s about 3/4 the way down the long article).

The original provenance of the graffito is Rome, though the specifics are recounted differently. Ferguson says that it was “scratched on a stone in a guard room on Palatine Hill near the Circus Maximus.” Snyder refers to it as being “found in the servants’ quarters of the Imperial Palace.” And the Catholic Enc. says that “on a beam in the Pdagogioum on the Palatine there was discovered a graffito on the plaster.” (I’ve no idea which of these might be the more accurate statement, or if they could all refer to the same location. See additional notes at end of the page.)

The significance of this graffito is the portrayal (or caricature) of early Christianity by the average Roman. (This has implications for both NT books which are related to Rome: Mark and Hebrews.) It obviously mocks a Christian, suggesting that his worship is ill-founded. The human figure with the ass head on the cross is presumably Jesus, which may represent the old calumny against Jews that they worshipped an ass. If early Christianity was popularly perceived as a variant of Judaism, this association is understandable when associated with the crucifixion.

(^ From <>, no source or other info given.)

^ From Lanciani’s Ancient Rome (see below)

The Greek text inscribed here reads as follows:

(using Galilee font) (Unicode) (transliterated)

This is presumably to be translated: “Alexamenos, worship God.”

Whether the second plural verb, SEBETE, is intended as an imperative or an indicative is unclear. Nor is it clear to me why a plural form was chosen, unless Alex is being mocked for what Christians as a group do. The Catholic Encyc. article (linked above) transcribes the graffito as a third person singular, SEBETAI, which makes good sense, but if the sketch here is accurate, that is not a correct reading. [I have received a suggestion from Dr. Gie Vleugels, Departement Nieuwe Testament, Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, Leuven, that this is a phonetic misspelling and should be read as a 3d sing., thus: “Alexamenos, worships God.”]

Thanks to Kevin Woodruff I can also now refer to the description of Rodolfo Lanciani  in his Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1898), ch. 5, The Palace of the Caesars. I inserted the photo from Lanciani’s book above next to the sketch (which is much more readable than the photo!). Lanciani’s comment is as follows:

“But by far the most interesting and most widely celebrated graffito of the whole set is the one discovered at the beginning of the year 1857 in the fourth room on the left of the entrance, removedsoon after to the Kircherian Museum at the Collegio Romano, where it is still to be seen. This graffito, illustrated by Garrucci, Visconti, Becker, De Rossi, and Kraus, contains a blasphemous caricature of our Lord Jesus Christ, — a caricature designed only a few years after the first preaching of the gospel in Rome by the Apostles. Here is a photographic reproduction of the precious sketch. Our Lord is represented with the head of a donkey, tied to the cross, with the feet resting on a horizontal piece of board. To the left of the cross there is the figure of the Christian youth Alexamenos, with arms raised in adoration of his crucified God, and the whole composition is illustrated and explained by the legend, ALEXAMENOS SEBETE QEON [ΑΛΕΞΑΜΕΝΟΣ ΣΕΒΕΤΕ ΘΕΟΝ]: “Alexamenos worships (his) God.”

Kevin also tells me that “the best description of the famous Alexamenos-graffito is in ‘Graffiti del Palatino I. Paedagogium,’ a cura di Heikki Solin e Marja Itkonen-Kaila, Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae III, Helsinki 1966, No 246.” I have not seen this work.

(The sketch posted above, BTW, is from an old book of Christian art for which, unfortunately, I forgot to record the title or bibliographical information when I made the copy several years ago.)