Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Rude Crestus Graffito

Source: Methodist Magazine and Review,
Vol. 47 (1898), p. 474
In the late 19th Century, a discovery of a graffito with two crosses or bare tropaeum frames was made. Initially it was thought to be a depiction of the Crucifixion of Christ, although there was a difference of opinion among scholars, with some saying it was a depiction of a rope-walk. Eventually it came to be recognised as a depiction of a team or krewe of rope-dancers. I will quote from the 1898 Volume of the Methodist magazine and Review, "A Possible Contemporary Presentation of the Crucifixion," the section itself quoted from an article in a contemporary issue of L'Illustrazione Italiana at the time. 1
"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. One reason that even the archaeologist has great difficulty in making out the topography of the Palatine is that it is covered with a vast series of substructures which supported the palaces and afforded rooms and passageways for the servants and especially the soldiers. At any moment a force of soldiers could be concentrated at any point of danger.
"It is not surprising that the soldiers for diversion used to scratch lines and drawings on the rough plaster of the wall. The 'graffito' of the Crucifixion is very crude, as is so often the case in sketches of this kind. It is believed that the picture was drawn by a soldier who took a more or less active part in the Crucifixion on Mount Calvary. The figures are almost fifteen centimeters (six inches) high. At the right and left are 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. There is considerable doubt as to the meaning of the rest of the inscription. M. Marucchi decipers 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 or subtract from such inscriptions; so this objection of 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, and how does this do away with 'Crestus' and 'Piletus'? M. Marucchi makes a great point in showing that behind the central figure there seens 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. Other professors say that the 'graffito' represents the preparations for a battle. All doubts will probably be set at rest when Prof. Marucchi publishes a pamphlet upon the subject. This pamphlet is in preparation. The 'graffito' is carefully protected by a grating, and it is probable that the study of it may bring new details to light, but at the present time the evidence points to its being a representation of the Crucifixion." 
The New York Times, once Marucchi published his findings 2, 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.

As it turns out, scholarship consensus finally agreed that the lower part of the graffito was a depiction of a krewe of rope-dancers instead, concluding (correctly in my opinion) that Crestus was not Christus, and Piletus was not Pontius Pilatus. Platner refers to the graffito thusly, "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, 378‑380; BC 1895, 195‑196; AL 954." 3 

I agree with the interpretation of the lower pictorial part as a depiction of a team of rope-dancers. According to the provided sketch, all the dancers save one appear to be entirely naked: this appears to be a performance in private, perhaps before one of the Caesars of the First Century. The writing appears consistent with a type found in Pompeii, which was destroyed in 79 CE. "Piletus", meaning "Liberty", is one of the apparently nude dancers. The two crosses are connected by an overhead beam from which the central ladder is hanging with an attached rope.

The written top part of the graffito is more difficult to decipher, but I am in agreement that the title "Crestus" is not "Christ" but rather a latinisation of Χρηστος (useful, serviceable, able in body for sexual intercourse) and the lines do not refer to any crucifixion! But the first two lines appear to be so. For they read, as far as I can tell, "virgis erast coesus secretis moribus / super palum a virum fixum." The lines could be translated either of two ways: first, "With green rods he was chewed up by [various] methods in private. On top of a palus -- oh! -- a man is fixed." Second, "With wangs he was consumed in secret manners. On top of a phallus -- ah! -- a man is fucked." Nota bene: the latin virgis could mean, either with green rods or with wangs (virile members). Likewise, palus could mean either an impaling stake, the acuta crux (projecting / transgressive "seat" of a Roman execution utility pole), or a phallus. So it was possible that the ancient reader interpreted the lines either way, sometimes both ways. It may be possible that a well-known person named Crestus at that time was recently put to death. I was able to decipher the next three lines and they prove the written part of this graffito is rude homoerotic verse! The lines appear read, "non, piequies non somnis clavuit 4 Ocelios 5 / per cunctos noctes estuet omnis amor / ex ano noritias viroso fuit." They appear to translate as: "No, a true rest not with sleep he fucked Ocelios. During entire nights the love of all men may burn with desire; from the anus the news is rank." So this is definitely not about some Crestus who was executed by suspension on a pole, but rather another Crestus who was definitely able (and more than willing) to perform in male-on-male sexual intercourse. 

1. L'Illustrazione Italiana, quoted in "A Possible Contemporary Presentation of the Crucifixion" The Methodist Magazine and Review, W. H. Withrow M.A., D.D., F.R.S.C., Toronto, Methodist Publishing House, Vol. 47 (1898), pp. 473-474. Google preview.
2. The New York Times, "The Week in the Art World.; Sales and Exhibitions -- Tissot's Work -- Notes from Europe." New York City, The New York Times Company, 26 February 1898. Entry Link to PDF.
3.  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. Lacus Curtius,
4. This appears to be a misspelling of clavit or culavit (he drove), from culare (to drive, thrust, shove; push one in/by the culus, i.e., anus).
5. Ocelios is apparently a proper name.

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