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Edible Imagery in Roman Dining Room Floor Mosaics
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Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli Floor of Triclinium - House pf the Triumph
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 Floor of Triclinium - House of the Triumph of Neptune at Acholla (Tunisia)

For the upper class Roman, his entire house was a critical element in the lifelong and all-encompassing work of self-advertisement. As a perpetual candidate for one public office after another, whose home was also his office, where clients, cronies and business associates came to exchange favors and broker deals, he designed each room down to the last detail to make precisely the statement he wished to make about himself.The code of Roman social symbolism was elaborate and the levels of self-presentation straightly hierarchical: certain rooms were fully public and their message meant for all. An example of this level is the atrium, a kind of reception room where tradesmen or casual visitors might be asked to wait.  Still other rooms were reserved for the admission of more intimate business associates or clients; such was the tablinum or personal office. Only close friends, peers, or those one really hoped to impress would be invited to dinner, so the triclinium, or dining room, constitutes a third and more important level of social coding. The visual language of social symbolism was as commonly understood by the ruling class as their Latin speech, and could be read at multiple levels simultaneously.

On the surface, the decorations of a room might feature use-appropriate imagery simply to identify it. This décor could take the form of wall or ceiling paintings, for example, or pictorial floor mosaics. Since only rarely have the painted walls or ceilings of Roman houses been preserved, one of the most useful features for identifying room use is floor mosaics. Thus we might expect the floor of a dining room to display images associated with food or drink, eating and partying. In actuality this is not as common as one might expect. What are far commoner are oblique references to drinking in particular; often these take the form of images of Bacchus, the god of wine, frequently in a mythological setting; or images of grape vines and grapes. The advantage of such subtle referencing is that it not only proclaims that this is a room where wine will flow, but that the master of the house is a well-educated fellow who knows his Greek mythology.

Far less common are direct references to food or eating, although they do occur from one end of the empire to the other, and from the earliest period at which we find mosaics until the late days of the empire.

One of the earliest examples of food on the floor (1st c. BCE), and one with the greatest amount of context preserved, is the floor of the triclinium in the House of the Faun at Pompeii. This enormous and luxurious house actually predates the Roman occupation of Pompeii; the owners were a wealthy family of Samnites, a highly civilized tribe of mercantile Italians. As neighbors of the Greek settlements in Italy, the Samnites were heavily influenced by Hellenistic Greek styles and tastes even before the Romans embraced them. The dining room floor features a central emblema, or discrete pictorial image, of Bacchus riding a tiger, a reference to the god’s triumphal procession to India, part of his mythology. As such, it is an appropriate indication of the drinking that will take place in the room. But at a deeper level the scene is a veiled reference to Alexander the Great, who also conquered the East. The validity of this reading is strengthened by the fact that the entire house is filled with references to Alexander and especially to Alexandria, the Egyptian city founded by Alexander. A second emblema, seemingly with no connection to the first, depicts an assortment of fish, biologically correct in every detail, At the center of the scene are the unlikely pair of a lobster and a squid locked in combat. To be sure, this image evokes the promise of delicious bouillabaisse to come: Pompeii was a coastal town and seafood was an important element of any Italian banquet. But the surprising combination precisely of a lobster and a squid is an unmistakable reference to Aristotle’s On the Generation of Animals, a treatise on what is essentially the food chain. Very likely the entire scene, which occurs elsewhere in the Pompeii area as well, derives from a copybook version of a famous painting, an illustration of Aristotle such as might have been found in Alexandria’s famous library or in the attached research center known as the Mouseion. Thus to those in the know, the Samnite host identifies himself with the Alexandrian lifestyle, learned and luxurious at once. It is even possible that his family fortune was made through commerce in the Eastern Mediterranean, centered on the port of Alexandria.

A similar evocation of Hellenistic luxury is conjured up by versions of the brilliant trompe l’oeil called the Unswept Floor (Asarotos Oikos), which occur in Pompeii, at the emperor Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, and in various provincial locations. They are all linear descendants of the 2nd c. original created for the royal palace of Pergamum by the Greek artist Sosos, according to Pliny. The unswept floor depicts the detritus of a banquet: crab claws, grape pips, snail shells, even a marauding mouse, executed in deceptively three-dimensional style. It bespeaks the conspicuous consumption that has marked the recent banquet, and of course for the Roman adaptors it also evokes palace life in the fabulous east. But beyond that, the wittiness of this floor treatment is manifest: one is almost afraid to step for fear of “smushing” something. Identifying the various bits of garbage must have amused the diners then even as it does viewers today. The host marks himself as a man of sophisticated humor, and one who appreciates his Old Masters.

From the 2nd century CE we have three examples of food on the floor. One is from the villa at Marbella (Malaga) in Spain. The mosaic scheme throughout the house consists of black and white geometric patterns, with occasional emblemata in color. Along the edge of the covered walkway or peristyle that edges the courtyard which forms the heart of a Roman house, a decorative band appears only across the face of the walkway fronting the house’s two dining rooms. This consists of a frieze of cooking implements, cups of drink, and cuts of meat—rabbit, chicken and pork ribs. Most are executed in black silhouette as if hanging against a white background; others in white silhouette, laid upon black trays or tabletops. The chief purpose of this decoration, unique in the house, seems to have been to identify the dining rooms behind, or more precisely to mark the way to the rooms. The interior courtyard of a house, where its familial dining rooms, bedrooms and specialized reception rooms were located, was the most privileged area of the establishment, where only one’s intimate friends and family would be invited. Thus the coded secondary meaning may be seen as a combination of plenty and hospitality—but also of intimacy, informality. Offering the guest a glimpse of the preparatory stages of the meal as he approaches is rather like the gesture of inviting a guest into the kitchen nowadays: “consider yourself part of the family.”

Another example from the 2nd century is found in the House of the Triumph of Neptune at Acholla in modern Tunisia, ancient Proconsular Africa. Here the smaller of the two triclinia is adorned with a geometric grid of small emblemata of foodstuffs: baskets of fruit, fish, birds and game animals. This is a very common style of decoration in North Africa, where scenes of daily life predominate over mythological subjects as nowhere else. Such still life patterns are called by modern scholars xenia, the Greek word for hospitality, since according to one level of reading they evoke the ostentatious plenty offered to guests in this wealthy province. Elsewhere in Acholla, the contemporary House of the Lobster shows a similar array of xenia panels featuring the eponymous lobster, a gazelle, deer, peacock, guinea fowl, goat and also artichokes and baskets of fruit.

Occasionally we see the more ungainly image of dismembered joints of meat. At Enfidaville in Proconsular Africa there appears what is clearly a thigh, perhaps of sheep, as at Cherchel, also in Africa—but its context is lost. Perhaps it is part of a grid of xenia. A very similar emblema comes from the House at Micklegate Bar in York, England. Possibly the secondary reference is to meat offered in sacrifice, or even to the sparagmos, the rending apart of live animals practiced by the ecstatic devotees of Bacchus. This may identify the owner of the house as a votary of Bacchus, or simply be yet another advertence to the divine madness of drunkenness: how can one criticize guests who fall into such a state when it is the gift of a god?

One of the most open references to the menu itself is found at Antioch in the province of Syria, at the House of the Buffet Supper (e. 3rd c. CE). Here emblemata of dishes of eggs and other appetizers begin the grid, followed by fish, ham and fowl, typical entrees. Finally a cake represents dessert. All three images are surrounded by breads, drinking vessels, and the garlands that decorated tables and diners alike at a Roman banquet. The owner wants to identify himself as a thorough and impeccable host. The grid is centered by two large scenes: in one, Ganymede, the cupbearer of the gods, gives drink to the eagle of Jupiter; in another an overflowing wine bowl is surrounded by birds. Of course this proclaims “here we shall eat and drink like gods,” but there may be a political subtext as well. The eagle is also the imperial bird of Rome. Perhaps the owner of this Syrian house is implying that he enriches or feeds the empire, either as a merchant or gentleman farmer or as a bureaucrat, and that lesser beings find him a generous patron, even as the birds drink from the great vessel while the proud peacock looks on.

Niki Holmes Kantzios

Niki Holmes Kantzios received her MA and PhD in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology from Bryn Mawr College, and a BA in Classical Studies from the University of Texas at Arlington. She has done fieldwork in Greece and Israel, and as a professional artist has also served as illustrator for many articles and excavation reports. Her teaching experience has ranged from grade school to college age, from the Latin language to anthropology to history. She is currently an instructor at the University of South Florida, teaching Classics courses in the History and Humanities Departments.