Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Alex Worships His God or The Alexamenos Graffito

The Alexamenos Graffito is a carving that was found on the Palatine Hill in Rome during excavations in 1857. The graffito was scratched into the plaster of a wall in the training school for page boys which was added to the Imperial Palace during the reign on Emperor Caligula (AD 37-41) but used for many years afterward. Archaeologist are uncertain of the exact date of the artifact because of the length of time that the building was in use. Dates range from the 1st to 3rd centuries, which the 3rd century seemingly the most likely.

The graffito is very warn and hard to read but says 'Alexamenos Worships His God' and depicts a man with hans raised, representing worship, in front of a cross on which hangs a human figure with the head of an ass

Though not of any particular significance to theological studies or apologetic arguments I think this is a very important piece of archaeological evidence that should not be overlooked. Firstly it reveals to us that there was an active Christian presence in Rome during these early centuries despite the persecution from the state and society. Secondly it reveals to us that Christianity was misunderstood by the general populace. There were rumours that Christians worshipped a a deity who had an asses head. Thirdly it reveals to us that Christianity was looked down upon by Roman culture as a foolish thing to be sneered at, confirming the words of the Apostle Paul when he wrote 1 Corinthians 1:23 'we preach Christ crucified, an offense to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles'.

As Christians we can be encouraged by this find that the persecution, misunderstanding and shame we sometimes suffer is not a new thing, and that we really have no right to complain. How often have you our your friends been thrown to the lions or dipped in tar and set ablaze?

If you are as yet unsure of the claims of Christianity then I hope that this little piece of evidence lends some legitimacy - if God is not behind Christianity how did it survive the Roman period? Why would people become Christians in the knowledge that they faced persecution and death if it was just another false religion following some whack job who claimed to be God. On top of the risk of death why would they knowingly alienate themselves from their culture, society, friends and family and confine themselves to life as out-casts for anything other than the truth. Don't tell me that men didn't act rationally back then, in an age that was characterised by logic and reason. These men and women made the choice to become Christians not because it was popular, safe or traditional but because they came to the conclusion, by a process of reasoning, with the knowledge of what their choice would mean for them as Romans, that there was indeed a God, that Jesus was His son and that the scriptures were His inspired word and could be trusted.

For more info on the Alexamenos Graffito visit:
Penelope U, Chicago


  1. Greetings Dave,
    Are you aware of the possibility that this in fact represents Set-Typhon, a composite deity that arose because of the survival of the cult of the Egyptian god Set (or Seth, as he was also known) into Graeco-Roman times? Although the Egyptian god Set originally had the head of some fabulous/unknown animal with tall, square-topped ears and down-curving snout, later on he was invariable depicted as a man with the head of an ass or donkey... Numerous references to Set and Set-Typhon can be found in the Papyri Graeco Magicae (a body of work which is as key to our understanding of the survival of Egyptian magico-religious beliefs & practices into Greek & Roman times as, say, the Dead Sea Scrolls is to Jewish & Christian scholarship), including several (crude) depictions of him as a donkey-headed man - one captioned in Greek "terrible yelling god", the initials of which (Sigma, Epsilon, Theta) spell out the name "Seth". Archaeological evidence for the survival of this worship (or, at the very least, the use of spells calling on this god and his powers, even if he wasn't actually being 'worshiped' as such) up until the early 5th Century A.D. have been found as far apart as Rome, Galilee, and even Britain: in short, anywhere the Romans went!
    Despite this survival, though, there were times in Roman history when any kind of 'foreign' magico-religious practice was quite illegal & heavily persecuted (and this would have included such 'Egyptian' beliefs, as it did of course early Christianity) - perhaps the figure in the graffito is cruciform because Alexamenos, as a follower of Egyptian ways, feels his belief or god is "being crucified"? After all, we know only too well what the Romans would do to those they wanted to make a public example of...
    Otherwise very much enjoying your blog, Dave - keep up the Good Work! - and feel free to get in touch if there is anything you would like to discuss.
    With Best Wishes: Matthew Levi Stevens

  2. I enjoyed reading both of your views. Thanks for posting.