Saturday, May 6, 2017

Crestus Graffito

Crestus Graffito
Sources:   (Author unknown) “A Possible Contemporary Representation of the Crucifixion,” The Methodist Magazine and Review, Vol. XXLVII January to June, 1898. W. H. Withrow, ed. (Toronto: Methodist Publishing House, 1898) p. 473-474.

Samuel Ball Platner (as compiled and revised by Thomas Ashby): A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, London, Oxford University Press, 1929. "Domus Tiberiana, pp. 191-194, p. 194.*/Domus_Tiberiana.html and, both accessed May 6, 2017

Arapacana Press, The Alphabetary Heraldic, “Latin Sexual Terms,” Printout pp. 17-22 of 22, esp. pp. 20 & 21. Accessed April 9, 2010.

Although this graffito, immediately above an illustration of rope-dancers, was for the moment after its discovery, was alternately thought of as a reference to the Crucifiction of Jesus Christ back in 1898, it still has a connection with Roman “crucifixion.”  It has since then been properly interpreted as several lines of love verse, and the illustration a depiction of rope-dancers. It was then brought to the attention of Methodist Magazine by a Professor L. Reynaud, their correspondent in Rome.  He writes:

A distinguished archaeologist, Prof. Orazio Marucchi, the director of the Egyptian Museum of the Vatican, has devoted himself for many years to the study of epigraphy, and now he has brought himself into great prominence owing to his discovery of the graffito referred to. The picture is scratched on the level of the ground close by the angle of one of the passages which lie under the structures adjoining the Bridge of Caligula, in the immediate neighbourhood of the Clivus Victoriae.  The building is really a gallery made by Caligula to connect the palace with the Forum.…

… The ‘graffito’ of the Crucifixion is very crude, as is so often the the case in sketches of this kind.  It is believed that the picture was drawn by a soldier who took an active part in the Crucifixion on Mount Calvary.  The figures are about fifteen centimeters (six inches) high.  At the right are two crosses, and soldiers mount ladders placed against them.  Each person in the great tragedy is duly inscribed with his name, and ‘Piletus’ was undoubtedly intended for Pontius Pilate.  The inscription of twelve or fifteen lines begins with the word ‘Crestus,’ which is already known as a rough form of the name of Christ.  M. Marucchi deciphers part of it: ‘Crestus, virgis coesus decretus mori, super palum virus fixus est,’ which is to say, ‘Christ, after been beaten with rods, having been condemned to die, has been attached living to the cross.’  Various interpretations have been made of other parts of it, some of the lines being love verses.  It was, however, quite customary to add to or subtract from such inscriptions; so this objection of the archaeologists does not militate against the theory that the picture really represents the Crucifixion.  Some contend that Prof. Marucchi is mistaken, and that the scene represents a ropewalk, but what object would Roman soldiers have in portraying a ropewalk, and how does this do away with ‘Crestus’ and ‘Piletus’?  M. Marucchi makes a great point in showing that behind the central figure there seems to have been a third cross, for it is still possible to distinguish a third ladder running up the same height as the others and also a third rope hanging downward like the rest.  All doubts will probably be set at rest when Prof. Marucchi publishes a pamphlet upon the subject.

The New York Times, once Marucchi published his findings, had this to say:
The reputed discovery of a graffito in Rome (graffito meaning an old scribbling on a wall) has awakened some curiosity among archaeologists. The scratching has been interpreted by Prof. Marucchi to represent the crucifixion or refer to it. Other archaeologists declare this graffito not to be a new discovery, but to have been noted before this, and to be understood as a rough sketch of some rope dancers. One name Prof. Marucchi's opponents insist is "Filetus" and not "Pilatus." Those who differ, too, from Marucchi think that "Crestos" is not to be interpreted as Christ. In the last account of the find Prof. Marucchi states that it will require further study before the positive interpretation of the graffito can be understood.
Professor Marucchi after this went on record as stating that the illustrative graffito was a depiction of a group of rope dancers [1] who are in my opinion preparing a frame for a production, probably for Caligula or a later Caesar. These rope dancers form a crew of seven naked men and an eighth in a full-length dress, apparently playing the part of a woman.  One of the naked men is labeled “Piletus,” which is hardly an appropriate depiction of the Roman prefect of Judaea, Pontius Pilate.  The crosses, or bare tropaea, have ladders leaning against them and ropes hanging from them, possibly intended to be stretched overhead across the space in between like clotheslines. The crosses are also connected at the top with a horizontal beam, from which dangles the third ladder, suspended by a rope.  And the twelve to fifteen lines of verse above them? Those are love verses, that have nothing to do with Jesus Christ.

Not only are they love verses, but I have figured out that they are rather rude homoerotic love verses! I have deciphered for myself the first six lines; the rest are illegible as seen in the Methodist Magazine reproduction. The title and the five initial verses I ave presented as follows:


Virgis erast coesus secretis moribus
Super palum a virum fixum
Non, requies non somnis clavdit ocelios
Per cunctos noctes estuet omnis amor
Ex ano nocitias viroso fuit.


With rods he was chewed-up/consumed in private in [various] ways;
On top of a palus—oh!—a man is fixed!
No, a rest without sleep Orelios finishes.
Throughout all the nights a passion may burn with desire for all men;
From the anus the news is rank!

As you can see, and check for yourself, even though I could not find the meaning of the last word of the third verse except maybe as a proper name, these lines are homoerotic and very, very rude!  But I do not fault Professor Marucchi for initially interpreting this as relating to the Crucifiction, because the first two verses could easily be interpreted as the preparation for, and the act of, “crucifixion” by impalement: the first verse depicting someone being beaten with rods and the second verse is obvious. But since palus (accusative palum) was a Latin sexual term for phallus--an erect penis—and virga (ablative virgis) another euphemism, these two lines are properly love verses.  Yet, even a Roman of Caligula’s time could misinterpret these two lines as depicting an impalement and the softening up of the prisoner for it.
[1] Samuel Ball Platner (comp. and rev. by Thomas Ashby): A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, London, 1929. "Domus Tiberiana, pp. 191-194, p. 194: “For the graffiti (representing rope dancers) in a room at the lower level on the clivus Victoriae see Marucchi, Di alcuni graffiti del Palatino (1898); cf. Forum Romain et Palatin, 1903, 378380; BC 1895, 195196; AL 954.”

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