Graffito blasfemo—or, Christ and Horus
This is the earliest depiction of the crucifixion we have—it’s either this or a gem from the British Museum, anyway. It’s call “the blasphemous graffiti” (graffito blasfemo) and was found in 1857 in a palace that used to be owned by Caligula and was then turned into a boarding school for imperial pageboys—it was carved in about 200 AD. It was hidden behind a wall during renovations, as these things often are—hence it was preserved.
The legend says, “Alexamenos worships [his] god.” And what we see here is what is taken to be a legionary or guard as he prays to Christ. The traditional interpretation is that it’s a piss-take—it mocks Alexamenos because he’s a Christian, because he prays to the “donkey-headed god”; it seems like a straight insult—Jesus has the head of an ass.
Round the corner from this depiction, there’s graffiti in another hand that reads, “Alexamenos is faithful.” It seems like a riposte to the insult—just like people put graffiti and counter-graffiti in toilets today. Overall, I think it humanises the ancient Romans—the whole scenario is very familiar from our world, from Twitter.
It’s a troll, in effect—and, perhaps, it’s connected to when the palace was turned into a boarding school; it does seem like the sort of thing a 14 y.o. boy might scrawl on a wall.
However, there’s more to it than that. You might think, “Oh, it’s an insult—just like people mock Christians today.” Yet the ass may be there because it was held at the time by some pagan writers that the Jews worshipped an ass—a point countered by Josephus. By extension, many people thought Christians worshipped an ass as well—since that was the Jewish god.
At one point, an apostate Jew paraded round dressed as an ass to mock the Christians—so it seems to have played in all directions. Anyway, there was confusion and ambiguity about the “ass god”.
Esoteric clarification: the donkey was also a symbol for Horus—who was also dismembered, just like Jesus on the cross. In fact, it was not uncommon to see Horus depicted as crucified—and the “mythical crucifixion” had come on the scene long before Jesus arrived. It came from Persia—and you can even find images, such as the one below, of the god Orpheus crucified.
In addition, Greek cities used to hold prisoners of low station, like carpenters, for sacrificial execution to expatiate the city’s sins—especially if the weather was bad or the city seemed to be punished by the gods. So the themes of humble men who die for our sins and crucifixion for mystical purposes were well-established in the Empire.
Hence when people say that to the Romans the crucifixion was like if someone wore an electric chair model round their neck today and said they worshipped it—as the comedian Bill Hicks did—they are quite wrong. The Roman would have understood that a crucifix could be symbolic and that people could be sacrificed to expatiate sins.
So I’m not so sure the graffiti is an insult—or if it is then it hits on an unintentional truth: you could represent Horus as an ass, and Jesus was related to Horus—there are similarities in their stories; and so the event depicted above could be a crossover between the Horus cult and the early Jesus cult.
As for “Alexmenos”, his name means “I defend with strength, bravery, and power”—so it sounds like a good name for a soldier or a guard. You will also notice that he gives the saluto romano to Christ, he doesn’t kneel in prayer or supplication—and it has been hinted that this graffiti was associated with marginal or non-standard Christians (whatever they may be).
Addendum: the “Y” in the top right-hand corner is the old “Υἱός” from the Christian acrostic “IΧΘΥΣ”—the fish. It means “son”—the whole means “Jesus Christ Son of God, Saviour”. Well, that’s my take on it, anyway—others are mystified by the “Y”.