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1,500-Year-Old Graffiti reveals Gladiator Battles

1,500-Year-Old Graffiti reveals Gladiator Battles


The Italian word graffiti dates only to 1851, online sources say, but the practice of drawing and scribbling on walls and surfaces in public places dates back millennia. In fact, a Professor from Princeton University in New Jersey did a talk in Toronto in 2015 in which he revealed the discovery of  hundreds of pieces of ancient graffiti in the Turkish city of Aphrodisias depicting gladiator bouts, religious controversies, sexual imagery and other aspects of city life from 350 to 500 AD.

Angelos Chaniotis, with Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, said in a talk at the Royal Ontario Museum, "Hundreds of graffiti, scratched or chiseled on stone, have been preserved in Aphrodisias — more than in most other cities of the Roman East” area that stretched from Greece to parts of the Mideast.

Three religious factions posted graffiti around the city, Chaniotis told a meeting of the Classical Association of Canada in Toronto. They were the polytheistic Pagans, Jews, and Christians.

"To the Christian symbol of the cross, the followers of the old religion responded by engraving their own symbol, the double ax," Chaniotis said. The double ax or double cross is a symbol of Zeus and was minted on city coins. Christians wrote in abbreviated form “Mary gives birth to Jesus” around town to refute the Pagans.

Zeus and Hera on a coin with Zeus' symbol the double ax in the reverse

Zeus and Hera on a coin with Zeus' symbol the double ax in the reverse (Photo by Exekias/Wikimedia Commons)

In addition, archaeologists found a representation of a menorah. "This may be one of the earliest representations of a Hanukkah menorah that we know from ancient times," Chaniotis said.

The graffiti started declining when Justinian became Byzantine emperor, 527 AD. In the decades that followed, Justinian restricted or banned polytheistic and Jewish practices. Aphrodisias, which had been named after the goddess Aphrodite, was renamed Stauropolis. Polytheistic and Jewish imagery, including some of the graffiti, was destroyed.

The sporting life seems to have preoccupied the ancients as much as it does modern people.

Pictorial graffiti connected with gladiatorial combat are very numerous. And this abundance of images leaves little doubt about the great popularity of the most brutal contribution of the Romans to the culture of the Greek east.

Chaniotis said the many graffiti concerning gladiatorial games is evidence people of the East enjoyed the bouts, which often were to the death.

A plaque in the stadium shows two gladiators, one with a net and trident, the other with a shield and sword, doing combat. Scenes show a trident-armed gladiator exulting and pointing his triple-headed spear at his downed opponents; a sword-wielding man chasing a trident-armed man; and the two in combat being refereed by a third party.

The ancient Roman stadium in Aphrodisias, Turkey

The ancient Roman stadium in Aphrodisias, Turkey (Photo by Dennis Jarvis/Wikimedia Commons)

"Probably a spectator has sketched scenes he had seen in the arena," Chaniotis said."... an insight (on) the perspective of the contemporary spectator. The man who went to the arena in order to experience the thrill and joy of watching — from a safe distance — other people die."

There were three chariot-racing clubs in the city of Aphrodisias, Chaniotis said, and chariot-themed graffiti was common, according to Live Science.

A market area with a park and pool features a lot of chariot-racing graffiti. It was possibly where the clubhouses of the racing clubs were. The clubs were the reds, green and blues. One graffito says, “Victory for the red.” That must have been inscribed a different day than the one that said “the fortune of the blues prevails.” Alas for green: “bad years for the greens,” said a third graffito.

A modern re-enactment of a Roman chariot race at Puy du Fou theme park

A modern re-enactment of a Roman chariot race at Puy du Fou theme park (Photo by Midx1004/Wikimedia Commons)

There were also pieces of sexual graffiti in Aphrodisias, Chaniotis said. "A plaque built into the city wall has representations of phalluses of various sizes and positions and employed in a variety of ways."

In 2017, the Aphrodisias archaeological site finally made the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It had been on Turkey’s World Heritage Tentative List since 2009. The ancient location has now been recognized for its well-preserved sculptures, monuments, inscriptions (perhaps including the abovementioned graffiti?), structures, and marble quarries. “As a result of the intense efforts by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Turkish National Commission for UNESCO and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with the adoption of this decision, the number of inscribed properties of Turkey on the UNESCO World Heritage List has increased to 17,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry stated.

Featured image: Graffiti in Turkey from 1,500 years ago shows a gladiator with a net and trident and one with a sword and shield. (Drawing by Nicholas Quiring, photo by Angelos Chaniotis)

By Mark Miller

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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