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."
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.
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."
Some of the most interesting gladiator graffiti was found on a plaque in the city's stadium where 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).
"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."
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.
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.
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