Forget stuffy archaeology! How about a 2000 year-old mosaic of someone’s favorite mules: Tipsy, Modest, Lame, and Dainty? I am not making this up.
In Roman times, much like today, a seaport was about moving cargo. In Rome’s ancient port, Ostia Antica, cart drivers and their mules were the prime movers and the lifeblood of the city.
Combine these hardworking muleteers with the Roman penchant for baths, and the result is The Cart Driver’s Bath, complete with a mule-and-cart themed mosaic floor.
Roman mosaics were a common feature of private homes and public buildings throughout the empire. Some mosaics were strictly ornamental, while others, such as the floor mosaics in Ostia, were primarily designed to provide a durable walking surface. This durability made mosaics one of the most common relics found in ancient Roman sites, and Ostia Antica has a wonderful collection.
Like every other Roman city, Ostia had slaves, workmen, merchants, and a few wealthy people. Rich Romans preferred the company of other rich Romans (particularly at bath time), so they built baths for themselves as well.
The Baths of Neptune are the most impressive, with Neptune riding in a chariot drawn by hippocampi (mythological seahorses). He’s surrounded by dolphins, tritons (mermen), and sea nymphs.
I’ve always enjoyed mosaics, but until my visit to Ostia, I didn’t fully appreciate the intricacy of their design. There’s a walkway near the entrance where I was able see and touch the individual stones (called tesserae). Using the geologist’s trick of pocket-change-for-scale gave me a much greater appreciation of the tiny size and huge number of stones involved in creating these practical works of art. Each tesserae was cut, laid, and grouted in place to produce a long-lasting walkway.
Directly behind the theater, in the Forum of The Guilds, was another clever use of mosaic: advertising. The guild was made up of important town merchants: ship-owners, marine suppliers, importers and exporters – who did double duty as their own Ad Men. Shaded by ancient umbrella pines, the delightful black-and-white mosaics shows an amphorae for the wine merchant.
Most of Ostia’s ornamental mosaics have been carted off to museums, but there are a few that remain on walls and arches throughout the complex.
And on a final note, we’ve tossed around a few ideas about what this guy is doing. Is he:
• Showing off new dental work?
• Trying to heave a bad oyster?
• Saying “Read my lips” ?
What do you think?
6. By dalbera via Wikimedia Commons