In a previous post, I commented on ancient Roman dining habits — tossing bones, shells, and scraps on the floor — and shared a mosaic that records this practice in exquisite detail. At the time, there were two things bothering me. First, what do we know about the mosaic? Second, it seemed a little strange to me that a rich Roman would have spent so much to mock Roman dining habits. Unlike a painting or sculpture, one can’t easily move a mosaic if the subject becomes boring. It turns out that my hunch might have been correct, and that this floor was not a joke, but something much more serious.
At the University of California, Berkeley library, I found two books that had detailed discussions of the mosaic: Die Sammlung antiker Mosaiken in den Vatikanischen Museen (The Collection of Ancient Mosaics in the Vatican Museums), by Klaus E. Werner, with contributions from Guido Cornini , Giuseppina and Claudia Ghirardini Barsanti, and Vaticano I Mosaici Antichi (Vatican Ancient Mosaics), by Paolo Liverani and Giandomenico Spinola. With neither book being in English, I turned to Google Translate to get a sense of the text. And it worked relatively well! The translations were ugly at times, but the meaning usually came through.
The Full Floor Context
The mosaic was found in 1833 during construction work in the vineyard of Achille Lupi near the Bastione di Sangallo / Porta Ardeatina (see A Rome Art Lover’s Web Page for photos of the area). The best guess is that the work is from the time of Hadrian (who ruled from 117 to 138 CE), with alterations possibly made later in the Antonine era (138-192 CE), the Sevaran era (193-235 CE), and possibly even after Constantine (fourth century CE). [Werner] One thing that is clear is the name of the artist, since it is at the edge of the mosaic near the room’s entrance: “ERACLITO FECE”, i.e., “Heraclitis made this.” [Liverani and Spinola]
The entrance to the triclinum has six theatrical masks with other theatrical symbols on each side (olive branches, cloth, an amphora and more). The other three sides of the border are the unswept floor mosaic (“certainly inspired by the famous work of the mosaic Sosos Pergamum quoted by Pliny the Elder”). In the middle of the room is a reference to Egypt and the Nile with crocodiles, birds, aquatic plants, and figures representing Isis and Osiris. These three themes — the theater, an unswept post-banquet floor, and the Nile — are connected. They refer to the quest for intellectual and physical pleasures, with the Nile symbolizing the joining of the two (at the time, the Nile delta was regarded as a wonderful place to live, both for physical and intellectual reasons). [Liverani and Spinola]
Memento Mori in Mosaic Form
Liverani and Spinola contend that the mosaic’s remnants of a meal represent the death of the food. And so the unswept floor and theater motifs point to the memento mori — “remember you must die”— and the fact that although the banquet, a theatrical performance and our lives must eventually end, we must make the most of them. They write that Pythagoras describes a tradition of leaving inedibles on the floor until the feast was over because this food was meant for the dead [Ed. notes: 1) this sounds like an ancient equivalent of pouring one out, 2) Liverani and Spinola’s book has plenty of footnotes but they failed to note which of Pythagoras’s writings described this tradition.]. Consequently, the spirits would be irked if sweeping was premature. This section of the text contained a possibly illuminating phrase that wasn’t translated very well: “Ma in questo caso non sembra trattarsi di cibi caduti, quanto, invece, dei loro resti: fra questi avanzi traspare quindi solo il riflesso di un lusso che non inquina.” —> “But in this case it does not seem to be of food falling, as, instead, of their remains: among these leftovers transpires then only the reflection of a luxury that does not pollute.” I’m not sure what to make of this. [Liverani and Spinola]
This interpretation makes more sense than the mosaic as a joke. Having this theme in your main dining would show your guests that your are a pious, serious person who respects the ancestors. At the same time, the themes remind the guests to have a good time.
I wasn’t the first to come across these observations of Roman culture. I recommend checking out these posts for further reading and photos of other unswept floor mosaics from the ancient world:
- Mouse Interrupted: Historical background on the unswept floor design
- (what is this?): Photos of mosaics showing the unswept floor as well as photos of mosaics illustrating snarling dogs (an artistic version of the “beware of the dog” sign). The unswept floor theme was used for a long time: from at least the 2nd century BCE to the 5th century CE.
- (what is this?): Commentary on the idea that the food mosaic was a tribute to the dead, and notes on memento mori.
Vaticano I Mosaici Antichi (Vatican Ancient Mosaics), by Paolo Liverani and Giandomenico Spinola, Musei Vaticani, 2002
Die Sammlung antiker Mosaiken in den Vatikanischen Museen (The Collection of Ancient Mosaics in the Vatican Museums), by Klaus E. Werner, with contributions from Guido Cornini , Giuseppina and Claudia Ghirardini Barsanti, Città del Vaticano : Monumenti Musei e Gallerie Pontificie, 1998
Photo credit: Photo of Roman mosaic from Wikimedia Commons, deeded to the public domain by the creator.