It was drawn 2,000 years ago and does not depict superheroes, cute little animals or thieves in a luxury car, but the workers of the ancient city of Capitolias, in the north of Jordan, one of the 10 Greek-Roman cities listed by Pliny the Elder as the Decapolis, a group of semi-autonomous Hellenistic cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, between present-day Israel, Jordan and Syria.
The painting, which is the oldest example of modern “comic”, with the phrases pronounced by the protagonists spelled out next to their figure, was found in a tomb in today’s city of Beit Ras, during the modernization of the streets in 2018.
The tomb is divided into two burial chambers, and contains a large basalt sarcophagus and little else, unfortunately already looted by the graves robbers of the past. It dates back to the dawn of the construction of the city, during the 1st century BC, and is richly decorated with some pagan iconographic scenes and images of everyday life.
There are about 260 painted figures, and depict deities making banquets while humans bring propitiatory offerings, but also characters resembling architects or foremen that stand alongside laborers who are transporting materials on the backs of camels or donkeys, with stone cutters or masons climbing walls, sometimes resulting in accidents. This precise and picturesque scene of a construction site is followed by the last painting, in which a priest offers another sacrifice in honor of the city’s guardian deities. Finally, displayed on the ceiling and walls on both sides of the entrance is a more classical composition evoking the Nile and the marine world, in which nymphs ride aquatic animals flanked by cupids, while a central medallion combines signs from the zodiac and the planets around a quadriga.
The paintings seem to represent the various phases that were necessary for the founding of a new city in the Roman Empire, including consulting the gods, the choice of site during a banquet, clearing of the plot, raising of a wall, and finally offering a sacrifice to the patron deity, in this case Jupiter Capitoline who, not surprisingly, gave the name to the city: Capitolias.
There is a good chance that the man buried in the tomb is the person represented while officiating in the scene of the sacrifice from the central painting and, consequently, he can be considered the founder of the city.
The comics alongside the characters are written using Greek letters, but the language is Aramaic, widely spoken by the Semitic peoples of the Near East. The mixture of cultures is an extraordinary testimony to the multi-ethnicity of this strip of the Roman Empire, where the thrust of the nascent Latin culture and ancient Greek culture coexisted alongside the pre-existing Semitic cultures such as that of the Nabataeans. The grammatical effect of Aramaic written using the Greek alphabet is completely singular, because in the Semitic language the vowels are not explicit, while in the tomb painting they are.
In the comics you can read fairly simple but meaningful sentences:
“I am cutting (the stone)”
One worker exclaims, while another less fortunate worker says:
“Alas for me! I am dead!”
Surely an ancient testimony of accidents and deaths on construction sites, a modern problem, too. It won’t be as fun as Mickey Mouse, but it’s still a grave…