Mosaic with a Symposium scene
Period: Eastern Mediterranean, ca. 3rd-4th century A.D.
Material: Stone tesserae and glass paste
Dimensions: 250 x 350 cm
Formerly in the Joseph Ziadé collection, Beirut, Lebanon, 1950s, thence by descent, with Farid Ziadé; Ex- Lebanese private collection, acquired from Farid Ziadé in 1982; European private collection, since 2000.
Exhibited : Château de Boudry, Neuchâtel, Switzerland, ongoing.
Despite minor damage (particularly along the borders) and small repairs, the mosaic is complete and remarkably well preserved, especially considering its size and the number of tesserae used (many thousands).
This mosaic is impressive for its outstanding color and iconographic palette, as well as for its size and state of preservation. It features a scene from the daily life of the Roman aristocracy, a very realistic and lively symposium (banquet). This work, which certainly adorned a floor in the villa of a wealthy private citizen living in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, was placed in a room intended for symposia.
The scene shows nine guests, more or less dressed, lying on a large couch in the shape of a horseshoe (known as a stibadium and used especially during the last centuries of the Imperial period), around which seven servants are busy ensuring that the banquet participants are perfectly at ease. At the back of the large room, one sees a door ajar and a window with a sliding curtain that probably looked into the inner courtyard of the house.
The couch, whose shape foreshadows the Christian images of the Last Supper, occupies a large part of the room. It surrounds three circular low tables, elegantly covered with openwork and embroidered tablecloths, on which are arranged large silver dishes containing the poultry meat consumed during the meal.
Although the guests appear to have already eaten and drunk a great deal, the dinner (which, for the Romans, was the main meal and took place in the late afternoon, before nightfall) here reaches the stage of the main course, consisting of three ducks or geese that one of the servants, equipped with a long knife, is about to carve.
The mosaicist has indicated an impressive number of details, including the following significant examples: each figure (servant or guest) differs from the others by his attitude, by his position and especially by rich and varied somatic characteristics, so that each image becomes an individual portrait; the interactions between the figures are perfectly rendered by their gazes and/or gestures; the two servants on the right are in charge of a large bronze vessel, a sort of samovar used to serve heated wine, mentioned by Cicero as a very prized vessel; on the left, another servant, apparently asleep, is responsible for a cylindrical object, probably a wall lantern in oiled parchment; a mouse nibbles food scraps under a table; a cat turns towards the viewer.
But the most striking detail in this mosaic, which gives it its name (in Greek, asarotos oikos designates the unswept floor), clearly is the room’s floor, completely littered with the remains of the meal eaten by the guests. Fruit and vegetables, but also fish, seafood, shellfish and remains of poultry and pork reflect the extravagant eating habits of Roman aristocracy at that time.
The asarotos oikos (or asaroton) is a curious iconographic subject attested from the Hellenistic period. According to Pliny the Elder (Natural History, XXXVI, 184), the inventor of the theme was Sosus of Pergamon, a famous mosaicist of the 2nd century B.C., whose work is known to us only through copies. The scenes of unswept floors remained a popular subject until the Roman Imperial period, as documented by the decorated floors discovered in several provinces, not only in Italy but also in North Africa and in Anatolia. However, our mosaic is probably the only known example in which the theme of the asarotos oikos is directly associated with a symposium.
Among the examples that have survived up to modern times, one should mention the following: the mosaic in the Museo Gregoriano Profano, in the Vatican, which comes from a Roman villa on the Aventine Hill and is signed by Heraclitus, a mosaicist of Greek origin; a more fragmentary specimen from Aquileia; the example in the Bardo National Museum, in Tunis, which, like our scene, is characterized by a dark rather than a light background.
ANDREAE B., Antike Bildmosaiken, Mainz/Rhine, 2003, pp. 46-51 (Vatican).
BLANC N. and NERCESSIAN A., La cuisine romaine antique, Paris, 1992, p. 181 (Aquileia).
BLANCHARD-LEMEE M. et al., Sols de l’Afrique romaine: Mosaïques de Tunisie, Paris, 1995, pp. 73 ff.
DUNBABIN K.M.D., Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World, Cambridge, 1999, fig. 26.
HAGENOW G. Der nichtausgekehrte Speisaal, in Rheinisches Landesmuseum, 121, 1978, pp. 260-275.
Published: CHAMAY J., Banquet à la romaine, in Art passions: Revue suisse d’art et de culture, Geneva, September 2013, pp. 72-75.
HALM-TISSERANT M., ??????, ????????: Du menu’ au hors-d’uvre’: La notion de détail dans l’art et dans le discours sur l’esthétique, in Ktèma, 37, 2012, p. 89, notes 91-92, pl. 1.c.