Finding similarities between ancient mosaics
The day is done. The dishwasher is rumbling away, the boys are arrayed on the sofa in front of the TV, the dog is stretched out in the part of the sitting room that he has claimed as his own and I slink off, tea in hand, to my computer. It’s my way of unwinding. A quick check for any interesting mosaic pins on Pinterest, a glance at mosaic matters on Twitter (oh, how I love it’s brevity), followed by a longer, slower look at what fellow mosaicists are up to on Facebook, clicking through to interesting links they’ve posted which often leads on to another link and then another… And as the idle minutes pass, day after day, I start to notice certain similarities between ancient mosaics from all over the Roman world.
Hardly surprising, one might say, given that well-worn themes are repeated over and over again in mosaics of the time. Then (and sadly, often now) mosaics were a high-end commodity reserved for the rich, so their subjects of the mosaics tended to reflect the interests and pretentions of their owners.
In a precarious world where natural disaster or invasion were a constant threat, it was understandable that one would want to adorn one’s floors with upbeat images that took one’s mind off the ever present possibility of famine, disease or physical attack. Scenes of successful hunting trips where wild animals ran willingly and cleanly into outstretched spears were common.
So too were gladitorial battles showing one’s enemies being mauled. Seas teeming with fish, baskets brimming with fruit, the potentially deadly vicissitudes of the seasons reduced to familiar personifications, normally volatile divine beings depicted looking benignly relaxed and mythical beasts tamed and domesticated underfoot were all popular motifs.
Not just subject matter but design elements too recur throughout the empire. The ubiquitous guilloche and wave borders are an obvious example and urns also seem to have had a special place in the Romans’ hearts. There are urns with leopards:
And just ordinary birds:
But when one thinks how extraordinarily large the Roman empire was, some similarities between ancient mosaics begin to seem more remarkable. Wikipedia tells us that the ‘Roman Empire was among the most powerful economic, cultural, political and military forces in the world of its time. It was the largest empire of the classical antiquity period, and one of the largest empires in world history. At its height under Trajan, it covered 5 million square kilometers and held sway over some 70 million people, at that time, 21% of the world’s entire population.’
These three all from within the same general region of eastern Turkey – two from Zeugma and one from Hatay – could just be a simple example of keeping up with the Joneses:
Five million square kilometres with only horses as a means of transport over rough, unfamiliar terrain; carrying heavy equipment, vulnerable to attack, far from home and exposed to the elements. Reading about a modern day project to retrace the movements of the emperor Hadrian in Following Hadrian’s fascinating blog gives you an idea of just how vast were the distances travelled and how dogged and undauntable the Romans were.
Experts tells us that master mosaicists roamed the known world with pattern books of popular designs which goes some way to explaining the similarities between ancient mosaics. Of course, there was trade too and military expeditions so one can see how ideas for mosaics would have been exchanged and copied.
And where distances were not that great as between these two mosaics, at Corinth and at Athens, a mere 85 kilometres away, it doesnt seem far fetched to suppose that the same designer and even mosaic making team could have been responsible for both works or that one mosaic was a direct copy of another.
But other variants turn up thousands of miles away. This one was in Rome:
And remarkable similarities in both subject and design occur much further apart. These two mosaics are separated by about 1,300km:
Maybe one could argue that close similarities between ancient mosaics might just be a result of the fact that some designs dont allow much lee way. After all an octopus can only ever be an octopus. But this octopus from Aquiliea shows how differently octopi can be rendered in mosaic:
And there is a vast difference between this rough ‘sketch’ of two birds at an urn from Palazzo Massimo Museum in Rome:
And this minutely rendered design from Pompeii:
I suppose a full understanding of how mosaic designs were shared across the empire and how different laying styles and techniques were developed will never be fully known and the fact that hundreds of mosaics must still lie undisturbed not to mention the countless others that have been destroyed over the centuries means that drawing comparisons between ancient mosaics will always have its limitations. What is clearer, though, is that the mosaic work of the ancients had a profound influence on the making of subsequent mosaics; from the Byzantine era where borrowings and adaptions from Roman designs were commonplace:
To the present era where we still cant get enough of them (Oceanographic Museum of Monaco):
Coming up soon: Mosaic memorials, ancient and modern.