2.5 African mosaics: things Roman and things African?
Between the second and the fifth centuries a thriving tradition of mosaic floor decoration developed in North Africa (see Figure 4). There is only limited evidence for the dating of African mosaics, but the earliest seem to be closely influenced by Italian interior design, particularly stucco wall plaster, wall painting and monochrome mosaic floors. We can investigate this by looking at examples from the early second and third centuries. Look now at Colour Plates 1–4 and watch the two brief video sequences, ‘Mosaic from Acholla’ and ‘Mosaic from La Chebba’.
Please click to view Colour Plate 1: Mosaic from the 'Baths of Trajan', Acholla, AD 120–30. In the centre Dionysus is in a chariot pulled by two centaurs; in roundels to either side are personifications of Winter (right) and and Spring (left) supported by grotesque elements with animals and plants. Around these is a frieze of sea nymphs, sea animals and sea monsters. Around the edge are friezes of grotesque figures and plants similar to stucco and painted work in Rome and Campania. Bardo Museum, Tunis. (PDF, 1 page, 0.4 MB)
Please clickto view Colour Plate 2: Dionysus in a chariot pulled by two centaurs, detail of Colour Plate 1 (PDF, 1 page, 0.4 MB)
Please click to view Colour Plate 3: Personification of Winter; detail of Colour Plate 1. (PDF, 1 page, 0.5 MB).
Please clickto view Colour Plate 4: Personification of Spring, detail of Colour Plate 1. (PDF, 1 page, 0.5 MB).
Mosaic from Acholla (2.5 minutes)
Transcript: Mosaic from Acholla
Mosaic from La Chebba (2.5 minutes)
Transcript: Mosaic from La Chebba
As you have just heard on the video, these kinds of compositions (see Figure 5) are very similar to the details found in Italian interior decoration, for example in the buildings of Pompeii just before its destruction or in the Domus Aurea, the palace built by Nero in Rome (see Plate 7). So in this case the African mosaics seem to be reproducing motifs and styles of composition which were current in Italy at the time. Through the second and third centuries African mosaics developed their own repertoire of motifs and styles, and the prevalent types of mosaics diverged from their Italian counterparts. So, for example, the mosaic in Colour Plate 5, with its use of colour and vegetal motifs in a geometric pattern, displays a set of characteristics not found elsewhere.
Please click to view Plate 7: View of the cryptoporticus with illusionistic candelabra and figures from the Domus Aurea (Golden House of Nero), Rome. (German Archaeological Institute, Rome, DAI 846497) (PDF, 1 page, 2.5 MB).
Please click to view Colour Plate 5: Mosaic from Thuburbo Maius with geometric plant motifs and a panel in the centre featuring a playwright reading a scroll in front of a plinth supporting Greek stage masks, late second century AD. Bardo Museum, Tunis. (Photo: Gilles Mermet) (PDF, 1 page, 1MB)
The mosaic may be showing new decorative styles but the central panel, which sits awkwardly slightly off-centre in the mosaic, shows a very traditional Hellenistic figure of a poet or playwright reading a scroll in front of theatre masks. Alongside the popularity of geometric patterning, a major development in African mosaics was the use of figured compositions on a white background – see, for example, the mosaic of Neptune and the four seasons in Colour Plate 6.
Please click to view Colour Plate 6: Neptune and the four seasons personified as female figures, from La Chebba, mid second century AD. Lower right: Spring with roses; upper right: Summer with wheat; upper left: Autumn with grapes; lower left: Winter with ducks and olives. Neptune in the centre is on a chariot pulled by sea monsters, half-horse and half-fish, with a Triton and a sea nymph in support. Bardo Museum, Tunis. (Photo: Bardo Museum) (PDF, 1 page, 0.5 MB)
A very popular theme in these mosaics is the illustration of hunting scenes, as for example the mosaic from El Djem in Colour Plate 7. Within its geometric border the mosaic may be divided into three sections forming a narrative of a hare hunt. At the top two horsemen and a hunter with a spear are moving through a wood. In the middle the hounds and their handler are approaching a hare hiding in a bush. In the lower part of the scene the horsemen and hounds are pursuing the hare. The overall composition is very different to the earlier mosaics. The mosaic has a narrative of the progress of the hunt. There is a vitality and sense of movement which is lacking in the earlier mosaics: the figures are not as meticulously moulded and less detail is seen in the drapery and plants, for example. The very schematic shadows are used to provide a ground level for the figures.
Please click to view Colour Plate 7: Hare hunt from El Djem, mid third century AD. Bardo Museum, Tunis. (Photo: Bardo Museum) (PDF, 1 page, 0.4 MB)
Please click to view Colour Plate 8: Chariot race in the circus from Gafsa, Tunisia, sixth century AD. Bardo Museum, Tunis. (Photo: Bardo Museum) (PDF, 1 page, 0.3 MB)
Another theme which became popular in African mosaics was the circus (see Plate 8). The circus had its origins in Rome at the Circus Maximus, but the popularity of the chariot races spread and in Africa they were particularly popular throughout the Roman period and even later into the Byzantine period (see Colour Plate 8). Even small towns such as Thugga had a circus. Elsewhere in the empire only the largest towns and provincial capitals had a circus. The mosaic in Plate 8 (and seen in the ‘Exploring Thugga’ video segment below) shows both the exterior and the interior of a circus. Three sides of the circus are shaded by an awning and empty rows of seats are shown on the fourth. Four chariots are shown, although there are eight starting gates on the right of the circus. The charioteer at the top right is carrying the palm of victory, as is the charioteer Eros from Thugga shown in the video. In the mosaic from Gafsa (Colour Plate 8) emphasis is placed upon the spectators as well as the circus action.
Please click to view Plate 8: Mosaic of a circus from Carthage, late second to early third century. Bardo Museum, Tunis. (Photo: Musee National de Bardo, Tunis) (PDF, 1 page, 2.9 MB)
The circus (1 minute)
Transcript: The circus
Consider which of our four models of cultural interaction best fits the evidence of the African mosaics sketched out here. Write down your choice (or choices), and note down the evidence which supports your choice in your Learning Journal.
The mosaics display a variety of influences, and it is possible to identify Roman and Hellenistic traits. Uniquely African traits are harder to identify, but this style of mosaic with coloured figures on a white ground can clearly be seen as developing in Africa and neighbouring areas; it can be contrasted with different styles which were common in Asia Minor, Italy, Gaul or Britain. The mosaics are discussed further below.