The “Christianos” graffito from Pompeii

The buried Roman city of Pompeii was rediscovered in 1748, and excavations for antiquities have continued ever since.  Modern archaeological methods only originate around 1880 with Flinders Petrie in Egypt; so a great deal of work was done under conditions that all of us today would lament.  Sometimes this means that we cannot be certain of what was truly found.

I read in the last few weeks an article by Wayment and Grey in the JJMJS, revisiting the primary evidence for a famous but largely forgotten find; that of a graffito which mentions the Christians.[1]  The original discovery and publication were such a mess that the item has largely been forgotten or dismissed as imaginary.[2]  The authors go back to the sources, to try to shake out what, if anything, can certainly be said.  It seems to me that they do a fine job.

The actual sequence of events seems to have been as follows.

In 1862 the Neapolitan excavator Giuseppe Fiorelli and his team excavated a large building in the less-reputable side of Pompeii, opposite one of the larger brothels.[3]  It had two entrances, and was described as a caupona, an inn.  In the atrium he found a bit of graffiti, drawn in charcoal on a wall.  This apparently included the word “Christianos”, on the basis of which Fiorelli grandly named the building the hospitium Christianos, the hotel of the Christians.

Before it was completely destroyed, another Neapolitan scholar, Giulio Minervini, a few days after the find,

“warned of the finding, rushed to Pompeii and . . . with diligent care and without any concern to read a meaning rather than another, sketched the signs appearing on the wall.”

Shortly afterwards a German scholar, Alfred Kiessling, also visited the site and transcribed what he could see.  He also published the existence of the find, and that it had already disappeared.

Two years later in 1864 G.B. de Rossi visited the site and confirmed that the graffito was not now to be seen.  But he obtained from the lax Fiorelli a statement of what the inscription had said when he saw it, and also a copy of Minervini’s sketch of the item, and Kiessling’s.  He published what he had, in a not too coherent manner.[4]

The formal edition of the graffito was printed in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL IV. 679).  Unfortunately this was rather a mess, based on the sketch by Kiessling, who saw it only when it was on the point of disappearing, and containing features not found in any of the sketches.

The end result was three transcriptions, plus an edition, all differing very significantly and some not even containing “christianos”.

Furthermore anybody who has looked at ancient graffiti even a little – or even damaged painted texts like those in the Mithraeum of Santa Prisca – will be very well aware of how difficult it is to read them, and how subjective the readings tend to be.

Finally, and exasperatingly, there were not lacking those fools who, based on this, made up entirely imaginary “pious” fairy-tales about a “hotel of the Christians”, a neighbouring Jewish hotel, the presence of St Peter and St Paul, and every element of hagiographical invention.  There are various “cross” items in Pompeii, which have been seen as evidence of a Christian presence, without any adequate justification; and likewise the mysterious ROTAS square, of which the same can be said.  There are certainly people capable of seeing evidence of Christians in contexts which actually do not support them.  Older Italian literature – and much of the literature on this item is Italian, and also difficult to access – is particularly prone to this kind of excess, in my experience.

In the circumstances it seems entirely natural to consign so dubious an item to obscurity.

The charm of the Wayment and Grey article is to sweep all this dross out of the way.  Instead they try to locate the original sketches, and then to do some real, modern archaeology to determine precisely what the building actually could, or could not, tell us, about its function.

The results are really very interesting; although of course we must see what the specialists think of this.

The first element in this was to place the materials in due order.

Wayment and Grey give the Minervini sketch as follows:

The Kiessling version, after a few days, they give as this, only covering the last two lines:

Seen in this order, it is evident that the rain has washed away the C of Christianos, and part of the S, creating I.  Most of the other differences are likewise explicable as the effect of weathering; although not the mysterious appearance of the 8X at bottom left, which Kiessling could see but Minervini did not.

In 1962 Guarducci attempted to clarify the meaning of the inscription.[5]:

Bovio is listening to the Christians, cruel haters.

With “sevos” read as “saevos”. The name Bovius is rare but attested.  The graffito then becomes a jeer, of a kind not unfamiliar to us all.

The authors go on to offer a fresh critical edition of the material; and also to investigate the house, which they find unsurprisingly to be a dodgy inn with a room also equipped for prostitution with a stone bed.  All this is valuable, and I can only refer the reader to it.

Is the inscription genuine?  I think we can be sure  that it did exist!

But did it really read “CHRISTIANOS”?  In my immensely unqualified opinion, there seems no good reason to suppose otherwise.  Three separate and reputable people saw it (and the CIL editor did not); and the differences in their transcriptions may be a consequence of weathering as the graffito decayed in the Neapolitan rain.

What can be deduce from this?  Well, not that much.  It means only that somebody in the area had something to say about the Christians, very shortly before ash buried the city of Pompeii.  Beyond that … it is quite hard to be sure.  But no harder than with many other written items, we should add.

But the wise man will await the verdict of the specialist.  All the same, the article is a nice piece of work, which gives us back something lost in confusion.  It also highlights how costly sloppy archaeology can be.

  1. [1]Thomas Wayment & Matthew J. Grey, “Jesus Followers in Pompeii: The Christianos Graffito and the ‘Hotel of the Christians’ Reconsidered”, in: Journal of the Jesus Movement in Its Jewish Setting 2, 2015, 102-146.  Online here. (PDF)
  2. [2]For instance Eric Moorman, “Christians and Jews at Pompeii in late nineteenth century fiction”, in Hales &c, Pompeii in the Public Imagination from Its Rediscovery to Today, Oxford (2011), p.171 f., here, states (probably correctly) that “most historians and archaeologists today agree that the ‘evidence’ for Christians is dubious to say the least”.
  3. [3]Region VII, Insula 11.
  4. [4]G.B. de Rossi, “Una memoria dei Cristiani in Pompei”, in: Bulletino di Archeologia Cristiana 2 (1864), p.69-72.  Online here.
  5. [5]M. Guarducci, “La più antica iscrizione del nome dei Cristiani”, in: Romische Quartalschrift, 57 (1962), pp. 116-125.

The Annals of Eutychius of Alexandria (10th c. AD) – chapter 6 – part 1

Let’s return to translating the history composed in Arabic in the 10th century AD by Eutychius, or Sa`id ibn Bitriq, the Melkite Patriarch of Alexandria.  Last time we finished off chapter 7.  I seem to be working backwards through the intensely tedious rewriting of Old Testament narratives; because the further we go back, the less historical value Eutychius has. So now we reach chapter 6  It’s fun to try to recognise the bible characters in the unfamiliar Arabic names!  But this section is pretty much straight out of the OT.

1. After him his son Ukhuziyā reigned in Samaria for two years.  This took place in the nineteenth year of the reign of Yūshāfāt, king of Judah (1).  His conduct was as evil as that of his father and he was devoted to the worship of idols under the guidance of his mother Izbil, who had killed Nābūthā.  Ukhuziyā, king of Israel, fell seriously ill.  He feared for his life and sent a messenger to the priests of the idols, to ask them whether he would be cured of his illness or not.  On the way, the messenger came upon the prophet Iliyā.  The prophet Iliyā said to the messenger:  ‘Say to the king: “You will die.”‘  The messenger returned to the king and informed him [of what had happened].  Then the king told him:  “Describe the man who met you”.  He replied:  “He was a thick-haired man and wore a tight leather belt around his waist”  The king said: “It is the prophet Iliyā”.  He then sent one of his commanders to him with fifty men.  Iliyā was sitting on the top of Mount al-Karmil.  The commander told him: “O prophet of God, come down because the king is calling you”.  Iliyā replied: “If I am the prophet of God, may a fire come down from heaven to devour you and those who are with you”.  A fire came down and devoured them.  Then the king sent another commander with fifty men. He said: “O prophet of God, come down, because the king is calling you”.  Iliyā replied: “If I am the prophet of God, may a fire come down from heaven to devour you and those who are with you.”  And in fact it happened just like that.  Then [the king] sent a third commander with fifty men who spoke to him like the first two spoke to him, and he and those who were with him suffered the same fate.  Finally the king himself went to him and Iliyā came down to him and said: “You will not heal from your sickness, but you will die because you have worshiped idols and for your bad conduct in the presence of God, powerful and exalted”.  In the days of Ukhuziyā, king of Israel, and Yūshāfāt, king of Judah, Iliyā was raised to heaven.  Ukhuziyā, king of Israel, died of his illness and was buried with his father.

2. After him his brother Yūrām, son of Akhāb, reigned over the children of Israel, in Samaria, for twelve years.  This took place in the twenty-second year of the reign of Yūshāfāt, king of Judah.  The Ammonites and the Amalekites went out against Yūshāfāt, king of Judah with a great army, and Yūshāfāt was afraid of them.  There was a great outcry at night among the soldiers of ‘Ammān and’ Amāliq, and they killed each other, while the survivors fled before Yūshāfāt.  Yūshāfāt’s men set about ransacking their camps, tents and household goods for three days.  Then Yūshāfāt returned to Ūrashalīm.  Later the king of Moab moved against Yūrām, king of Israel.  Yūrām sent to seek help from Yūshāfāt, king of Judah, against the king of Moab.  He also sent for help from the king of the Rūm who was then in ash-Sharāh[1].  The three kings joined forces and went out against the king of Moab, taking the desert road in order to take him from behind.  They walked in the desert for seven days.  They missed the drinking water and so risked dying of thirst.  The prophet Elisha was there with them, telling them:   “Tomorrow these valleys will be filled with streams and God will give you the victory over your enemy”.  It happened as the prophet had said.  God gave them victory over the enemy and made a great slaughter of the men of the king of Moab.  Seeing that he was defeated, the king of Moab entered the fortified tower, took his firstborn and slaughtered him on the walls of Moab, offering him as a burnt offering.  The Israelites were terrified before such a scene, they stopped fighting against him and withdrew.  Yūshāfāt, king of Judah, died and was buried in the city of David.

  1. [1]Edom, rather than Rome!

The “Apotelesmata” of Apollonius of Tyana – now online in English

Anthony Alcock has sent in a translation of a curious anonymous Greek text in 8 chapters, concerning the Apotelemata (Talismans) of Apollonius of Tyana.  The content is astrological, concerned with names and words.

The work appears in medieval Greek astrological manuscripts, but also in a Syriac version as an appendix to the gnostic apocryphal Testament of Adam, itself perhaps dating from the 2-5th centuries AD.  There are also Armenian versions of part of it, themselves clearly translated from an unknown Arabic text.[1]

A Greek text was printed with Latin translation by Francois Nau in the Patrologia Syriaca 1, pp. 1362-1425, back in 1907, and another by Franz Boll in Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum 7: Codices Germanici, p.174-181, in 1908.

The translation is here:

I was able to find some discussion of this work in an article by Christopher P. Jones, “Apollonius of Tyana in Late Antiquity”, in: S.F. Johnson, Greek Literature in Late Antiquity: Dynamism, Didacticism, Classicism, 2016, p.57 f. The article is online here.

Jones writes (paragraphing mine):

“… Boll thought the work an ‘impudent fiction’ composed shortly before Eusebius’ Reply to Hierocles, while Nau was inclined to defend it as genuine; the obviously later ingredients, such as the reference to a church built by Apollonius in Tyana, he explained as later interpolations. The work cannot be by Apollonius and, as Speyer has noted, must be much later than Boll supposed, though it is still an interesting document deserving of consideration here. …

The writer reveals his Christianity at every point, both in his subject-matter and in his choice of words. He thinks that Apollonius was born early enough to predict the birth of Christ, and even (if the obvious interpretation is correct) that he founded a church in Tyana.

As for language, ναός denoting a Christian church is first apparently found in Eusebius, and προσκυνητός seems almost entirely a Christian usage. For στοιχειόω in the sense of ‘enchant’, ‘perform talismanic operations upon’, Sophocles’ Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine Periods cites no example before Theophanes Continuatus (not earlier than the ninth century).

A span of 800–1200 is presumably about right for the composition of the work. It may be relevant that Tyana was an episcopal see as early as 325, and after being lost to the Arabs was recovered for the Byzantine empire in the tenth century; the site has also produced remains of a church datable to that same century. 

Though irrelevant to Apollonius’ fortunes in late antiquity, therefore, the treatise shows the same acceptance of him into Byzantine Christianity that is implied inter alia by his appearance in art as a prophet of Christ.

Thank you, Dr Alcock, for making this interesting text more widely accessible.

  1. [1]M. E. Stone, Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and Armenian Studies, 2006, p.473 f.

From my diary

This Christmas break has been very welcome after a period of six months in which I was away from home, Monday to Friday, every week.  I’ve not done much with it, beyond a few essential professional chores which come with the end of the year.  Indeed no sooner was I home than I went down with a cold, as so often happens when one goes on holiday.  That disposed of the period up to Christmas.  This week I have mainly been pottering about.  One can’t work all the time!

I’ve been slimming down my book collection and disposing of items that I don’t think that I really need to keep.  Most of these have been fiction of one sort or another, and have been donated to a charity shop.  I seem to be going through a phase of disposing of books.  Somehow I feel that I have too many.

I also had a pile of books beside my desk for conversion into PDFs.  I purchased for a dollar or two a second copy of certain Penguin classics that I wanted in searchable form.  These have gone under the guillotine and through the sheet feeder, and are no more; but their PDF lives on.

At the moment I am converting an exceedingly cumbersome volume into PDF in the same way.  It is so cumbersome in book form, indeed, that I gave away a complimentary copy some months ago; and then, infuriatingly, found that I needed to consult it.  Replacing it cost $150.  It goes greatly against my instincts to destroy a paper book.  But it is useless in paper form, for I can locate  nothing in it.  So … it is passing through my sheet feeder as I write.

Six more books remain on the shelf beside my desk, awaiting similar treatment.  Two were review volumes, that I shall probably never look at again.  Another is an Italian textbook that I can’t even use unless I scan it.  At the end another bookcase will be empty, and thankfully so.

Increasingly I find that fiction is something disposable that I read on my mobile phone in the evenings in hotels; while reference volumes are more useful, generally, in a searchable PDF form.   What does that leave?  It leaves volumes of sentimental value, in the main.  It leaves reference volumes like Quasten which I find useful to have in paper form as well as in PDF.  It leaves Christian paperbacks, and joke books, and books that I read on paper and have no reason to turn into electronic form.

All the same, it does mean that a diminishing amount of my books are physical books.

It is also interesting to see the effect that Amazon Kindle publishing has had on fiction.  Much of this is electronic-only.  It is, and it feels, disposable; pulp, really.  There is no question of this stuff being treated like literature.  The loss of the physical volume means that I find myself downgrading the book itself.

Of course the more we have in electronic form, the more we need backups!


When “it was no longer possible to become a saint”; Byzantium in the 11th century

A curious claim met my eyes recently, in the Ashgate Research Companion to Byzantine Hagiography, vol. 1.  On p.148, as part of Symeon A. Paschalidis “The Hagiography of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries”, we read the following words (overparagraphed by me):

An important catalyst in the decline of hagiographic production in the eleventh century… was the contesting of the elevation of new saints.  During this period the view was widespread that it was no longer possible to become a saint.

The philosophical position of the philosopher John Italos, a pupil of Psellus, who called into question all miracles attributed to Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints, also had some influence in this respect.

Our two most important sources for this dual contestation are two texts…

This sounds rather interesting.  The two texts are:

  • Nicetas Stethatos, Against those who accuse the saints (Κατὰ ἁγιοκατηγόρων). [Update: Online here at Academia; OCR version below.]
  •  John the Deacon and Maistor, against those who call into question the cult of the saints and argue that the saints cannot help the living, especially after their deaths.

These texts are hardly accessible, however.  Paschalidis himself has published the Stethatos text in S. Paschalidis, “Nicetas Stethatos’ unedited speech Against those who accuse the saints and the question of sanctity in eleventh century Byzantium” [in Greek], in: E. Kountoura-Galake (ed.), The Heroes of the Orthodox Church. The New Saints, 8th-16th c., [NHRF/IBR, International Symposia 15], Athens 2004, p. 493-518.  The relevant portion is 515-8.  [1]

The reference given for the other item is J. Gouillard, “Léthargie des âmes et culte des saints: un plaidoyer inédit de Jean Diacre et Maïstôr”, TM 8 (1981), 173-9.  “TM” turns out to be that not entirely well-known journal, “Travaux et mémoires du Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance”, which I gather has a home page (if no content) here.  I am unclear whether this even contains the text; how one might obtain the article is quite unclear also.

I think by this point we are perhaps outside our period.  But it is very interesting that these questions are being raised around the time of the great collections of hagiographic material.  Perhaps some medievalist could obtain and translate these texts and place them on the web?

UPDATE: A kind correspondent notes that Paschalidis has a scan of the first text online at here.  This is not searchable, which means you can’t use Google Translate on it. I have therefore run it through Abbyy Finereader 12 and the output is here:

UPDATE: 12 Feb 2024.  I’ve re-OCR’d the text in Finereader 15, and run the results through ChatGPT 3.5 and Bard AI.  The results are not great.  I attach them out of interest.

I didn’t bother much about accentuation, which no doubt didn’t help.

  1. [1]Available for purchase here for 35 euros, at a Greek bookseller.

John the Lydian, “On the Roman months” – version 2.0 now online!

Regular readers may recall that Mischa Hooker translated John the Lydian’s four books On the Months for us all a year or two back.  The fourth book has 12 sections, one for each month, and we also did the other three books.  It’s a mass of 6th century antiquarianism, as the author tries to hold on to the Roman heritage in a world that is fast becoming Byzantine.

At the time, Dr H’s translation was the only one into any modern language.  Another English translation did appear soon after, but with very little circulation or impact; and not nearly as good.

But Dr Hooker has not left the work alone.  In fact it turns out that he has continued to work on it since, revising his translation and equipping it with a monster introduction and similarly enormous appendix of similar materials.  And he has sent a PDF of the revised and combined version to appear here, as a nice little Christmas present for us all.

Here it is:

I’ve also uploaded it to here.

I think that there will be further revisions over time.  It is really a very learned, very excellent piece of work.  But then … see for yourself!

Update 10 Feb 2024: I have retrieved the Word .docx files and uploaded them: John the Lydian 2nd edition


The amazing drawings of Constantinople by Antoine Helbert

Today I came across a series of drawings of Byzantium which were all made by French artist Antoine Helbert.  They may be found here.

The one that caught my attention was this one, showing columns with the statues of emperors atop them, in the Augustaion outside Hagia Sophia.

Augustaion. By Antoine Helbert.

It gives a very nice context to the famous statue of Justinian.  At first I thought it was an old photograph; but of course that would be impossible.  It is magnificent!

There are very many more.  Some will be familiar – often passed around the web without attribution.



Brockelmann’s GAL translated into English??

Anybody who wants to know anything about Arabic literature must rely on the seven-volume textbook by Carl Brockelmann, Geschichte der Arabischen Litteratur.  The work lists the authors and their works from the beginning in the 6th century down to modern times, with a bibliography for each.  Unfortunately the work is a complete mess, with inscrutable abbreviations and so on, mainly because Brockelmann fell into the hands of a swindler who cheated him badly in the publication.  But it is all there is.  It is possible to find all of it online these days; but it is in German, and it is quite unreadable.  (Christian Arabic literature was omitted).

Imagine my delight, therefore, to hear from Prof. Joep Lameer, that he has been producing an English translation.  This is appearing through Brill.  Better yet, he is fixing some of the most baffling features:

The present English translation reproduces the original German of Carl Brockelmann’s Geschichte der Arabischen Litteratur (GAL) as accurately as possible. In the interest of user-friendliness the following emendations have been made in the translation: Personal names are written out in full, except b. for ibn; Brockelmann’s transliteration of Arabic has been adapted to comply with modern standards for English-language publications; modern English equivalents are given for place names, e.g. Damascus, Cairo, Jerusalem, etc.; several erroneous dates have been corrected, and the page references to the two German editions have been retained in the margin, except in the Supplement volumes, where new references to the first two English volumes have been inserted.

An introduction by Jan Just Witkam – who in a Brill reprint of Brockelmann explained finally why the GAL was such a mess – is a very welcome addition.

Dr Lameer has not tried to rearrange the material – a very wise decision.  Just getting it into usable form is quite a massive enough undertaking.  He writes:

I’ve been working about three years on this, full time. It was quite a job, I can tell you! I expect that by the end of Q2 2018 the whole thing will be done.

This marvellous undertaking may well spark a renaissance of studies of Arabic literature.  For the first time it becomes possible for ordinary people to get a handle on what exists.

So far there are 3 volumes on the Brill website; the first two volumes of the original edition, and the first volume of supplements.  But I understand from Dr. L. that a fourth volume is complete and with the publisher.

I would go and buy a set at once myself.  I would recommend that everyone do so.  Except… volume 1 alone is $210.  The ebook is the same, which is cheeky.  Online access is $3,500, although of course this is intended for libraries who get grants for such things.

If I understand how the project was structured then Brill are genuinely trying to recover some significant costs here.   That is quite understandable.  It is wonderful that the project has been undertaken at all.  But once those costs have been recovered, would it be too much to ask that they consider producing the volumes at $25 each in paperback?  Let a million copies be sold!


Universities Spend Millions on Accessing Results of Publicly Funded Research

Mark C. Wilson, a senior lecturer at Department of Computer Science, University of Auckland, writing for The Conversation (h/t Slashdot):

University research is generally funded from the public purse. The results, however, are published in peer-reviewed academic journals, many of which charge subscription fees. I had to use freedom of information laws to determine how much universities in New Zealand spend on journal subscriptions to give researchers and students access to the latest research — and I found they paid almost US$15 million last year to just four publishers. There are additional costs, too. Paywalls on research hold up scientific progress and limit the public’s access to the latest information.

Even better is that one university was paying markedly more for the same access than the others.

It’s just four companies, doing this.  How long will this cartel be permitted to plunder us all?