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Successful farming required knowing the best times to plow, sow, and harvest. More than that, however, most people had long used the movements of heavenly bodies to regulate their lives. The division of each day into daytime and night, of daylight hours into before and after noon, did not require deep knowledge of the heavens. Feriae (“festivals,” sing. feria) were a key part of the public calendar, and the Romans had a great number of them throughout the year. The ancient state was first and foremost a religious institution—the ancient state existed to serve the gods.

Persecution by the state, however, was rare, and by the time that this graffito was scratched into the wall, there had only been three relatively significant attacks on Christians: during Nero’s reign (54–68), under Domitian (81–96), and under Marcus Aurelius (161–180). If the date for this graffito is correct, if it was made sometime in the late second century or the third century, then it is possible that this caricature reflects popular support for persecution. The fact that there is another piece of graffiti related to Alexamenos, in a building next door to the one under discussion here, supports this view.

One powerful example of this comes from Dio Cassius. He relates how a crowd greeted the emperor Marcus Aurelius with the number eight displayed on their hands, a quiet but powerful reminder that he had been away from Rome for eight years. Another example comes from the author Apuelius (d. after 170 CE), who in 158 or 159 was tried on accusations that he had used magic to induce a rich widow to marry him. He was acquitted, but his Apologia (Greek for “defense”) records much about the trial. In one section, he deflates the prosecution’s assertions that Apuleius’s wife, Pudentilla, was 60 when he married her.

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