Museum of Bardo: (left) Virgil between Clio, the Muse of History and Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy; (right) upside down detail showing Aeneid I:8 "Musa, mihi causas memora, quo numine laeso" (Muse, recall to me the reasons by which divine will having been offended)
This floor mosaic was found by mere chance in a military camp outside Sousse in 1896 and it soon became one of the masterpieces of the recently founded Alaoui (Bardo) Museum in Tunis. It cannot be regarded as a real portrait of the poet because it is dated at least IInd century AD and Virgil died in 19 BC, but it is not a merely conventional one, as in some mosaics which portray a group of poets, e.g. at Trier. In the quoted verses the poet asks a Muse for help, and almost all commentators indicate he refers to Calliope, the Muse of Epic Poetry. The mosaic instead says that Virgil needed the help of two different Muses depending on the subject he was dealing with. The landlord who placed the mosaic in his reception or dining room had in depth knowledge of the poem and he suggested his guests a theme for a conversation of his liking.
Museum of Bardo: the Great Mosaic from Sousse in the new wing of the Museum. It was formerly in the Grand Salle des Fêtes of the Palace
On the floor is the great Mosaic from Susa, 160 metres square, one of the finest which exists
in any country. It represents Neptune in his chariot surrounded by fifty-six medallions of gods and goddesses, each set in a beautiful garland of foliage.
Murray Handbook for Travellers in Algeria and Tunis - 1895
The mosaic was found in 1886 during the construction of barracks and the French military authorities planned to use it for the decoration of their headquarters at Sousse, but René Marie du Coudray de La Blanchère, the first director of the Bardo Museum managed to place it in the largest hall of his museum.
House of Sorothus: (left) horse raising in Sorothus' farm; (right) two winning horses: Adorandus is marked with the name of Soro(thus), Crinitus with the brand of the farm; the palm is a symbol of victory; see other mosaics depicting horses for chariot races
The officers who superintended the excavations of the Mosaic of Neptune noticed that it bordered on other floor mosaics. In 1888 they conducted new excavations in a very discreet manner and they were eventually able to decorate their headquarters with an interesting mosaic which depicted the raising of horses for chariot races and some horses which won them. In 1943 the military headquarters were bombed and the mosaic was severely damaged. The fragments were sent to Tunis for restoration, but only in the 1980s they were recomposed and eventually moved to the Museum of Sousse.
The Mosaic of Neptune was situated in the oecus, the main reception room; that of the farm in a rather small room. The mosaics are dated late IInd/early IIIrd century. Apart from the name on the horses, no other references to Sorothus were found; the landscape of his farm which is depicted in the mosaic does not belong to the region around Sousse; it might have been situated in the mountains of Numidia, between Thamugadi in Algeria and Sicca Veneria because an inscription referring to saltus Sorothensis (Sorothus' forest or mountain pasture) was found in a village there.
In December 1898 the Musée Municipal de Sousse was founded to house the growing number of floor mosaics which were being discovered during the construction of the modern town and of military and civilian facilities. This mosaic was found in 1904 in good condition and it raised the enthusiasm of the Société Archéologique de Sousse, an association founded in 1903 by Louis Carton, a very active military doctor with a strong interest in archaeology.
In addition to its very fine execution it calls the attention of the viewer for the billowing mantle of the god. It is a case of velificatio, i.e. the highlighting of the divine nature of a personage by depicting a velum (veil) above him/her. It is typical of the iconography of Aura (Breeze); the two women with this garment in a famous relief of the Ara Pacis are thought to represent Aura and Water. It can be noticed in other Roman mosaics of Neptune, e.g. at Utica or in association with other gods, e.g. Bacchus/Dionysus or sea creatures.
The proceedings of Société Archéologique de Sousse say that its members made an excursion to Blibane to see the excavated site. Had there been ladies in the group they would have been alerted not to go near a very particular floor mosaic, similar to what used to happen at Pompeii until the 1950s. The depiction of phalli is fairly common, but not that of the female sex. The letters O CHA RI are a reference to Chari(sma), an aphrodisiac, a corruption of the original meaning of the word, i.e. spiritual gift of grace. The open eye and the snakes were other apotropaic symbols (see similar floor mosaics at Antioch).
Neptune was one of the twelve Olympian gods. He had to be portrayed always in a respectful manner. This caution was not needed with Oceanus, the ancestral personification of all waters and at the same time the great river which surrounded all the land. He had claws of a crab as horns, but mosaic makers often added other parts of sea creatures and depicted his hair as seaweed with the overall effect of making him a ridicule figure. You may wish to see other grotesque images of Oceanus at Thuburbo Majus, Utica and faraway Zeugma on the River Euphrates.
Mosaic makers occasionally took some liberties in portraying Oceanus, but they were very serious about accurately depicting the fish and the other sea creatures which showed up on the table of the rich. This mosaic perhaps embellished a triclinium, a dining room. It shows also two fishing techniques: with traps for the octopus and the trident for some large fish. The mosaic makers probably made use of illustrated books for their work. A similarly detailed illustration of sea creatures can be seen at Tarragona. A thorough illustration of fishing techniques was found in a mosaic at Thugga, but in other mosaics they were shown in a comical manner by replacing fishermen with Cupids, e.g. at Uthina and Villa del Casale in Sicily.
Fragment of mosaic depicting "navis tesseraria", a messenger and police boat of the African fleet (IInd cent.)
Centuriatio was a Roman system of land organization to prepare a large territory to house small farms run by veterans. It also involved the opening of roads for the transportation of crops to a harbour. A large centuriatio covering Central Tunisia had roads converging towards Hadrumetum which therefore was a very important port. Some of the wealthy landlords of the town embellished their houses with images of ships they saw in the harbour. In many mosaics, e.g. in those of the shipping agencies at Ostia there are simplified depictions of merchant ships, including one of ships of Sullectum, a port south of Sousse. This mosaic provides a better understanding of the structure of a Roman ship, albeit not of a merchant one, because it has rowers. The fish and the eye at the bow of the ship had apotropaic purposes. Another mosaic found near Sousse depicts the unloading of a merchant ship.
(left) Part of a large "Nilotic" mosaic from El Alia, which was found in 1897 (late Ist century); (right-above) detail showing the capture of a goose; (right-below) pygmies in a similar small mosaic
The Museum was redesigned in 2012 and the mosaics are basically grouped by subject. This mosaic is placed near the other ones depicting sea related subjects. It actually should be in a group of its own on stylistic grounds, because its overall design is completely different from the other floor mosaics which all have decorative frames. This type of mosaic originated in Alexandria and it depicted scenes set in the River Nile, very often with some comical aspects. It is pretty rare, although it has been found in all parts of the Roman Empire, from Lebanon to Rome and Germany. One of the largest and finest examples decorated a villa of Emperor Hadrian at Palestrina. Occasionally some "Nilotic" scenes were used for black and white mosaics, e.g. at Porto or for reliefs, e.g. at Sagunto.
This fine mosaic was discovered by the Army when building a new arsenal in 1897. It depicted four kantharos (jars) from which a grapevine grows with Cupids and birds harvesting it, a very popular subject (see a similar mosaic from Uthina and a detail of one at Thysdrus). The most interesting part however is the central one which is not framed to give the feeling that the action occurs in the vineyard itself. The subject is a military one because it refers to the conquest of India by Dionysus, but the theme is treated in a joyous and peaceful manner. The god stands on his chariot accompanied by a Victory and preceded by a maenad, a female follower of the god, playing a tambourine. The chariot is drawn by panthers, because the traditional account says that the god was fond of this legendary animal, either because it leaped gracefully as a maenad or because of its total savagery, similar to the drunken frenzy of the god and of his followers. In mosaics the panthers were depicted as females of lions, tigers, leopards or just big cats (see two examples from Delos). The subject is treated in a simpler way in mosaics in Algeria, Libya and Spain.
Mosaic of the Love between a Satyr and a Maenad (early IInd century); the way the scenes are framed can be seen also in a mosaic at Thysdrus
This floor mosaic was found in 1899 in a cubiculum, the small bedroom of a Roman house. It was oriented towards the end of the room so that its very well depicted scenes could be properly seen from the bed. It had the clear purpose of eliciting love emotions in the couple by depicting eight scenes of a love affair between a satyr and a maenad. Considering that the ancients were accustomed to nudity in works of art, the scenes cannot be regarded as pornographic. You may wish to see a similar mosaic at Pupput and the fresco decoration of a cubiculum at Mamfis in the Neghev Desert and in a house of Rome.
Details of floor mosaics depicting Ganymedes (early IInd century AD) which were found at the end of the XIXth century: (left) from a "cubiculum"; (right) from a "triclinium" with eight medallions depicting animals
The Loves of Zeus were another popular subject for mosaics; they were often portrayed in a large floor mosaic as at Italica; the depiction in isolation of the love affair between the god and Ganymedes inside a cubiculum had the same purpose of the scenes of love between the satyr and the maenad, especially when considering the posture of the eagle at the back of the boy on his knees.
Mosaic of the Head of Medusa, a Gorgon, from a bath establishment (IInd century AD)
The subject and the geometrical optical decoration are identical to a mosaic at Thysdrus and very similar to mosaics at Thapsus and Pergamum, but the execution of the head of the monster is particularly impressive. The purpose of the mosaic was to chase evil spirits (see a sarcophagus at Antalya). The geometric pattern can be observed also in black and white mosaics in Rome.
"Emblema" (central section) of a IIIrd century mosaic from the House of the Masks
In the 1960s a Roman house was discovered outside the south-western walls of the town. A small part of the floor mosaic of a reception room was moved to the Museum, while the rest of it and the other floor mosaics were left on the site. The similarity in subject makes one wonder whether it was inspired by the earlier mosaic portraying Virgil. It is known as the Mosaic of the Tragic Poet, a reference to the name of a well known mosaic from Pompeii. The poet sits in a pensive posture between a tragedy mask and a container of scrolls (which appears also in a mosaic at Vichten in Luxembourg), while a young man, presumably an actor, holds a comedy mask. A similar subject was depicted also in a mosaic at Thuburbo Majus.
Mosaic of the Winning Horses of the Four Factions (IIIrd century)
Chariot races were popular throughout the whole Roman Empire; facilities, organization and rules of the races were all based on those which were in place at Circus Maximus in Rome. Local authorities aimed at providing their citizens with an entertainment which was almost identical to that in the capital of the Empire. In Rome four factions competed with one, two or three chariots and the agitatores (charioteers) wore a red, blue, green or white costume. Similarly in this mosaic and in many other ones, e.g. at Carthage, we see four charioteers wearing costumes of these colours. Often horses were named together with their charioteer, e.g. in mosaics at Thugga and Trier, but in this case the focus is entirely on them.
Mosaic of Magerius (IIIrd century); (inset) a servant holding bags of money
The large majority of the floor mosaics at the Museum were found at the end of the XIXth century. The Mosaic of Magerius was discovered in 1963 at Smirat, a small village, 15 miles south-west of Sousse, not far from Thapsus, in what must have been a very rich countryside villa. A very long inscription has attracted the attention of archaeologists. It depicts a venatio, a fight with beast in amphitheatres which was very popular as an alternative to gladiatorial combats. Both the fighters and the beasts (leopards) have names. Magerius was presumably the owner of the villa and the person who offered the performance. The inscription is divided in two parts; on the left under the heading "PER CURIONEM DICTUM" there is a public announcement requesting a payment for the show; on the right under the heading "AD CLAMATUM EST" the reaction of the audience, from which we understand that Magerius is going to pay and this explains the central figure holding bags of money. The financing of these shows was often a mean to progress in the local political scene. Emperor Augustus listed the entertainments he offered to the people of Rome among his deeds. The mosaic is characterized by the depiction of dramatic combats with blood spilling everywhere, similar to a mosaic depicting gladiatorial combats in Rome.
This enormous floor mosaic decorated a triclinium; the couches were placed in the part of the room which was marked by a geometric decoration; this feature can be observed also at a triclinium at Pupput. Twenty wild animals were depicted with accuracy in the act of running away; they are not ferocious beasts, but antelopes, ostriches, deer and wild horses. We know also from other mosaics, e.g. one at the Bardo Museum that venationes, fights with wild animals, did not exclusively involve lions, bears, boars and other savage beasts. Ostriches in particular attracted the attention of the audience and we see them in a mosaic at Sicca Veneria and shipped to Rome in a large mosaic at Villa del Casale showing the trade of wild animals.
Mosaic of the Wild Animals: detail showing the four hunters
Four hunters having very distinct facial features and wearing bright costumes were portrayed in the upper part of the mosaic. They are ready for the show; the blond one with long hair holds a white napkin to signal the start of the action (it was used also for the chariot races).
The mosaic of Theodoulus is a rare example of Christian mosaic in Tunisia which is not related to a tomb. It was found in a house of Sousse and it is generally dated VIth century, i.e. after the 539 Byzantine conquest of the country because of the Greek name written at the top. It has a clear Christian character which retains features of pagan mosaics: e.g. a grapevine growing out of a Kantharos, a palm tree (a traditional symbol of victory, in this particular case also of abundance because of the size of its fruit) and the four couples of birds could be a reference to the Four Seasons.
Some of these features can be traced also on the tombstone of Pascasius, which is very similar to other examples which were found at Pupput and Uppenna, two locations north of Sousse.
The Museum houses also some mosaics which are shown in the page covering the Museum of Thysdrus and a very fine baptismal font from Thapsus.
Small statues (IInd century): (left) African boy holding a dove; (right) Sitting Cupid with a quiver
The statue of the boy holding a dove was found in 1899 and it soon became one of the most interesting exhibits of the Museum. At the time no detailed records were kept of the exact location where this and other statues were found. It was partially restored and it is thought it was made in Turkey at Aphrodisias, a town known for its quarries and its sculpture workshops. The statue embellished a small room, similar to one of Eros and Psyche at Ostia.
The statue of the Sitting Cupid was found in 1901 and it decorated a fountain. The white marble is perhaps a Pentelic one which suggests the statue was made at Athens.
The statue of Emperor Hadrian was most likely bought from Aphrodisias or another workshop in Turkey after the Emperor visited the town in 128. It is extremely similar to other statues of the Emperor at Perge.
The relief was found in Sousse in 1898 during the development of the new town to the north of the Arab one. Based on comparisons with reliefs on a triumphal arch at Benevento it is thought to portray Emperor Trajan. Considering that the rear part of the shoulders was not sculptured in great detail it is likely it stood on a monument of some height, but not necessarily on an arch.
These small tiles have been found in more than eighty sites in Tunisia. In many cases they were found in the workshops where they were made and very rarely on the building which they decorated. Another fine collection is on display at the Museum of Bardo. They are not part of the traditional decorative elements of a Carthaginian or Roman building, but they resemble the pinakes, votive terracotta tablets which have been found in ancient Greek cities in Southern Italy, e.g. Syracuse and Locri.
The image used as background for this page shows a floor mosaic with a decorative pattern which calls to mind the flag of South Korea.
Aphrodisium and Sullectum
Sidi Ghrib Roman Villa
Thapsus and Leptis Minor
Mosaics in the Museum of Bardo
Mosaics in the Museum of Sousse