Hundreds of graffiti messages engraved into stone in the ancient city of Aphrodisias, in modern-day Turkey, have been discovered and deciphered, revealing what life was like there over 1,500 years ago, researchers say.
The graffiti touches on many aspects of the city's life, including gladiator combat, chariot racing, religious fighting and sex. The markings date to a time when the Roman and Byzantine empires ruled over the city.
"Hundreds of graffiti, scratched or chiseled on stone, have been preserved in Aphrodisias — more than in most other cities of the Roman East(an area which includes Greece and part of the Middle East)," said Angelos Chaniotis, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton New Jersey, in a lecture he gave recently at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum.
"Graffiti are the products of instantaneous situations, often creatures of the night, scratched by people amused, excited, agitated, perhaps drunk. This is why they are so hard to interpret," Chaniotis said. "But this is why they are so valuable. They are records of voices and feelings on stone." [See Photos of the Graffiti in the Ancient City of Aphrodisias]
The graffiti includes sexual imagery, with one plaque showing numerous penises. "A plaque built into the city wall has representations of phalluses of various sizes and positions and employed in a variety of ways," Chaniotis said.
Trident man vs. sword man
The graffiti also includes many depictions of gladiators. Although the city was part of the Roman Empire, the people of Aphrodisias mainly spoke Greek. The graffiti is evidence that people living in Greek-speaking cities embraced gladiator fighting, Chaniotis said.
"Pictorial graffiti connected with gladiatorial combat are very numerous," he said. "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." [Photos: Gladiators of the Roman Empire]
Some of the most interesting gladiator graffitiwasfound on a plaque in the city'sstadiumwhere gladiator fights took place. The plaque depicts battles between two combatants: a retiarius (a type of gladiator armed with a trident and net) and a secutor (a type of gladiator equipped with a sword and shield).
One scene on the plaque shows the retiarius emerging victorious, holding a trident over his head, the weapon pointed toward the wounded secutor. On the same plaque, another scene shows the secutor chasing a fleeing retiarius. Still another image shows the two types of gladiators locked in combat, a referee overseeing the fight.
"Probably a spectator has sketched scenes he had seen in the arena," Chaniotis said. The images offer "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."
Chariot racing is another popular subject in the graffiti. The city had three chariot-racing clubs competing against each other, records show.
The south market, which included a public park with a pool and porticoes, was a popular place for chariot-racing fans to hang outthe graffiti shows. It may be "where the clubhouses of the factions of the hippodrome were located — the reds, the greens, the blues," said Chaniotis, referring to the namesof the different racing clubs.
The graffiti includes boastful messages after a club won and lamentations when a club was having a bad time. "Victory for the red," reads one graffiti; "bad years for the greens," says another; "the fortune of the blues prevails," reads a third.
Religion was also depicted in the city's graffiti. "Christians, Jews and a strong group of philosophically educated followers of the polytheistic religions competed in Aphrodisias for the support of those who were asking the same questions: Is there a god? How can we attain a better afterlife?" said Chaniotis.
Graffiti was one way in which these groups competed. Archaeologists have found the remains of statues representing governors (or other elite persons) who supported polytheistic beliefs. Christians had registered their disapproval of such religions by carving abbreviationson the statues thatmean"Mary gives birth to Jesus," refuting the idea that many gods existed.
Those who followed polytheistic beliefs carved graffiti of their own.
"To the Christian symbol of the cross, the followers of the old religion responded by engraving their own symbol, the double axe," said Chaniotis, noting that this object was a symbol of Carian Zeus (a god), and is seen on the city's coins.
Aphrodisias also boasted a sizable Jewish population. Many Jewish traders set up shop in an abandoned temple complex known as the Sebasteion.
Among the graffiti found there is a depiction of a Hanukkah menorah, a nine-candle lamp that would be lit during the Jewish festival. "This may be one of the earliest representations of a Hanukkah menorah that we know from ancient times," said Chaniotis.
End of an era
Most of the graffiti Chaniotis recorded dates between roughly A.D. 350 and A.D. 500, appearing to decline around the time Justinian became emperor of the Byzantine Empire, in A.D. 527.
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.
But while the city was abandoned in the seventh century, the graffiti left by the people remains today. "Through the graffiti, the petrified voices and feelings of the Aphrodisians still reach us, and they still matter," Chaniotis said.
The lecture by Chaniotis was the keynote address given at the annual meeting of the Classical Association of Canada.
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Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.