More wired than a Roman Internet café
Eureka! Student discoveries and a continuing mystery in the heart of ancient Rome
Eureka! That's the word purportedly exclaimed by the famous ancient Greek scholar Archimedes (third century B.C.) when he settled into a bathtub and suddenly realized that the volume of displaced water must be equal to the volume of his submerged limbs. Now, when scientists and researchers make amazing discoveries—or when miners find gold—we tend to picture them shouting this now famous word. In reality, however, to paraphrase Isaac Asimov, researchers typically utter something more akin to "hmm… that's funny." This is exactly what happened just a few days ago, in an ancient bath complex in the heart of Rome.
Let's start with some background. Two years ago I taught a January Term course called "In Search of the Trojan War." Our itinerary included visits to dozens of ancient sites in both Greece and Turkey, including the ancient city of Ephesus on the Aegean coast. Although I had visited and studied the city many times before, it was during this trip that I had the first chance to walk the Arcadian Way, a half-kilometer long, column-lined promenade named after the Roman emperor Arcadius who had it built in the late fourth century A.D. Interestingly, numerous eight-spoked wheels of various diameters had been carved here and there into the paving stones (Fig. 1). I counted about seventy in all. What was their purpose? In an earlier blog, I speculated that the circles may represent a "wind-compass" or "wind rose," an orientation aid indicating the direction of the eight most common winds in the days before the magnetic compass. As I researched the topic further, I found that a Swiss researcher had already speculated that the wheels served as game-boards. Since one wheel included an inscription of the word TYCHE, the Greek goddess of fortune, I had to admit that his hypothesis was rather better than mine.
Fig. 1. The Arcadian Way in Ephesus, built in the late 4th century. Photo by Dan Davis.
That was that, I thought. Then I stumbled upon an article authored by Tuomas Rasimus of the University of Helsinki. Rasimus had collected some 200 years of scholarship on the subject of Christian imagery, particularly that associated with the acrostic ICHTHYS. In ancient Greek, the word simply means "fish," but each letter also stands for the initial letter of each word in Jesus' longer title—Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior (Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς Θεοῦ Υἱὸς Cωτήρ). Some early Christians simply drew a fish (now referred to as the Christological fish symbol) to indicate their faith (perhaps covertly) to one another. Others drew an anchor, or the Christogram ☧, chi-rho, which are the first two letters of Christ superimposed upon each other. On a published alabaster fragment from Rome, however, he found an eight-spoked wheel with the word ICHTHYS spelled out directly below it. From this Rasimus theorized, rather ingeniously, that the wheel functioned as a monogram for ICHTHYS itself, with each letter of the word represented by the outside circle and various spokes of the wheel (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2. Letters of the word ICHTHYS within the eight-spoked wheel. (Image after Rasimus 2012, 343, fig. 5)
This is where the "hmm… that's funny" part of the story comes into play.
Last month during my January Term course in Italy—titled "The Rise and Fall of Rome"—I asked my cohort to be on the lookout for these eight-spoked wheels as we walked and talked among the ruins and museums of Rome, Ostia, Pompeii and Herculaneum. I figured that 40 eyes were better than two. With visions of solving a Dan Brown mystery, off they went. One student found an eight-spoked wheel scratched onto ancient plaster in a house in Herculaneum, the city buried by the lava of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79., but it was difficult to determine whether it was ancient or modern. (Unfortunately, modern tourists are known to scratch on exposed ancient plaster anything that comes into their head, as long as the guards are not around.) Another student found two very faded wheels scratched onto the steps of the Basilica Julia in the Roman Forum.
The most interesting discovery was made by Joshua Nelson, Luther class of 2015, in the museum of the Baths of Diocletian in Rome. A marble plaque that lacked a title plate included two fish below a series of five, six-spoked circles (Fig. 3). After he pointed it out to me, we both stood staring at it for some time. Hmm, I thought, that's funny. The circles look like loaves of bread found still in ovens at Pompeii, many of which were in the shape of a pizza (Fig. 4). Didn't Jesus feed the five thousand with two fish and five loaves of bread? Clearly the scratchings on the plaque were recalling the story of the feeding of the multitude as described in all four canonical gospels (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:31-44, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:5-15). By extension, then, were all six- or eight-spoked wheels meant to represent loaves of bread in order to recall their association with this miracle?
Fig. 3. Marble plaque depicting five loaves and two fish, from the Baths of Diocletian, Rome. Photo by Joshua Nelson.
It remains unknown whether the wheels of Rome and Ephesus represented the monogram ICHTHYS, the bread from the feeding of the multitude in the four gospels, or the bread of the Eucharist of John 6:32-58. Perhaps it was meant to recall all these elements. Regardless, it seems safe to say that the best explanation for the wheels—in Ephesus, Rome or any other area of the former Roman empire—is that they served as symbols of Christ at a time when Christians were living alongside pagans during the fourth and fifth century.
Still, it remains to be explained why early Christians employed the symbol so energetically on the Arcadian Way in Ephesus. Perhaps the answer lies in the graffiti-rich pagan and early Christian catacombs of Rome, which were closed during out stay in the eternal city. With a little luck, our next January Term will include some underground exploration…