A graffiti records an acclamation for the continuity of a strong Roman power.
The content of this text is brief and unequivocal. Rome is celebrated as an all ruling (πανβασίλια/panbasilia) power (κράτος/kratos) which should never vanish (ὀλῆται/olêtai). This commentary will therefore not focus on a stock message which even appears in the traditional collection of Latin poetry – or Anthologia Latina (IX. 647). Instead, the most interesting feature of this graffiti resides in the fact that it was not scribbled in Rome or the Italian peninsula, but on the walls of a house in Ephesus, the capital of Asia. As such, this testimony is interesting to study the spread of imperial ideology across the provinces of the eastern Mediterranean.
Roman power and Ephesus were deeply intertwined. Already in the late Republican era, this coastal city hosted an important community of Italian settlers mostly dedicated to trading activities (negotiatores) and tax collection (publicani) in what Strabo considered the biggest emporium on western Anatolia (XIV.1.24; see Kirbihler, Des Grecs et des Italiens). When Augustus decided to authorise the structures of his imperial cult, Pergamum was designated centre for the Greeks and Ephesus for the Romans. However, the Ionian polis also promoted its Hellenistic past as shown by the foundation of Salutaris while maintaining the civic structures typical of a Greek city (e.g. Erastus and his admission into the boule). The famous sanctuary of Artemis also played a very prominent role in the formation of a local identity and was favoured by the Roman emperors from an early stage (e.g. Paulus Fabius Persicus’ and Popillius Carus Pedo’s edicts). Localism and imperialism were therefore compatible in a city that acted as administrative centre of the rich province of Asia. In this context, the birthday of Antoninus Pius was lavishly celebrated and images of the emperors worn out because of the continuous use. At the same time, local benefactors such as T. Flavius Damianus could be building a new portico for Artemis’ processions and paying for the expensive stay of Lucius Verus’ army on its return from Parthia. Architectural landmarks such as the nymphaeum of Trajan and the so-called temple of Hadrian also combined Greek and Roman features and furnished an urban splendour commended by the emperors (Publius Vedius Antoninus). Hadrian, for example, was praised by the Ephesian population as particularly generous once he had visited the city twice and received hymns and thanks. All this collaboration, nonetheless, did not always prevent conflicts as attested by a revolt of bakers that brought the city and its institutions to a halt.
The architectural splendour of Roman Ephesus – lumen Asiae (Pliny, Natural History V.120) – was displayed not only in public buildings but also in the domestic sphere. The large residential area facing the famous Library of Celsus on the western slope of the Kuretes street is a clear testimony of this. Called by the Austrian excavators Hanghaüser, these terrace houses display lavish decorations and many painted walls. On one of the units belonging to the II Hanghaus, our graffiti was carved together with many messages mostly in Greek but also in Latin, ranging from food prices and poems to an allegedly mocking representation of Commodus (Tauber, “XII: Graffiti und Steininschriften,” p. 336, GR 241). These walls are known to have hosted important local personalities such as G. Fl. Furius Aptus, benefactor of agonistic festivals, priest of Dionysos, and father of the 2nd century senator T. Fl. Lollianus Aristobulus (see Rathmayr, “Das Haus des Ritters”). In the 3rd century, detailed archaeological excavations show that these rooms were still in use, at least until traces of fire and destruction appear on levels that have been dated after 250 CE (Karwiese, Gross ist die Artemis, p. 122; Ladstätter, “Die Chronologie,” p. 26-29). Historically, these signs can be connected to the account of the Historia Augusta, which records that groups of Goths plundered and burnt both Ephesus and the temple of Artemis in the reign of Gallienus (HA, Gall.Duo VI.2; cf. Zosimus I.28.1 and Jordanes, Getica XX.107). The problematic historiographical source is, moreover, supported not only by archeological materials but also by epigraphic evidence. An inscription found in nearby Lydia dates to 263 CE and records the capture of a local inhabitant by a group of Barbarians (SEG 34.1271; see Robert, Hellenica VI, p. 121-122). Related testimonies from the Asian shores therefore confirm the dire circumstances that the population of the province had to endure in this decade (I.Didyma 159, I.Milet. 339; see Salomon, 1971). This situation of extreme insecurity is not exclusive to western Anatolia, when Greece, for example, suffered the attacks of the Herulians, Syria was open to the Sassanian raids and, finally, the Palmyrean dynasts managed to usurp Roman control (see e.g. Potter, The Roman Empire, p. 257-280). For some of these territories, such proofs of imperial weakness were not novel. The catastrophic lack of Roman defence in Ephesus was, by contrast, unprecedented.
For this reason, the context of this graffiti is particularly interesting. Under the protection of the imperial system, Ephesus flourished as one of the most important urban centres of the Ancient World. In the mid-3rd century, however, Rome was not all-ruling any more, its power had almost vanished and the same walls on which the propagandistic message was scribbled suffered destruction and fire.