Roman Mosaic depicting a fishing scene
Culture: Roman, Ro-Imperial
Period: 2nd-3rd century A.D.
Material: colored stone tesserae
Dimensions: Dim: 125 x 208 cm
Acquired on the European Art Market, 1990.
Despite minor restorations and the missing upper part, this mosaic still retains its charm and interest thanks to the abundant details and the richness of the depicted scene. The pastel colored tesserae vary from grayish blue, blackish gray and ochre-beige to reddish brown.
The subject of this vast composition, which would probably have decorated the floor of a banquet hall or the thermae of a patrician Roman villa from the 3rd century A.D., is Marine Life. In the center, two fishermen are at work in their small craft, with its slightly raised bow, its tilted stern and its oars attached to its side. This boat is of a type that Mediterranean fishermen regularly used and that mosaicists have often represented. All around the panel, the large area of grayish blue tesserae indicates the sea, populated by a large number of marine specie, while the two busts occupying the corners of the image represent marine gods, Okeanos, and the personification of the sea, Thalassa (they can be identified by the Greek words ??????? and ??????? inscribed on the sides of the boat). The two men, who appear old and tanned by the sun sport different shades of colors that differentiate their anatomical details. With one hand, they are pulling a big fish from the water, which vigorously struggles to escape; with the other hand, one of the two fishermen gives his companion a previous prey, which will be placed in a keepnet or in a large jar. The unlimited resources of the sea, both full of life and a life-giver, are beautifully expressed by the number and variety of the animals represented around the boat. The very accurate details emphasize the artistic quality of this mosaic, which includes shellfishes (crab, lobster), different kinds of “blue fishes”, mollusks (octopus, squid) and shells.
Fishing, or more generally marine life scenes are well attested in the iconography of Roman mosaics, especially in North Africa, although examples abound in other regions of the Roman Empire too (Near East, Italian world, etc.). Their frequency reflects the importance of the sea in the economic life of ancient cultures, as the sea provided food, raw materials, work and better routes of communication. These mosaics were often accompanied by the bust of Okeanos, a god of fecundity and power, but as unpredictable and wild as the sea. He looks tousled and is equipped with many attributes related to the marine element, like crab claws on the head, corals serving as antennas, while his beard and hair sometimes resemble seaweed. His counterpart, here, is a much less common figure; Thalassa, (who has no own mythology) a young woman with abundant and uncombed hair, with claws (or, less probably, wings) and corals on the head.
ANDREAE B., Antike Bildmosaiken, Mainz/Rhine, pp. 141-159.
BLANCHARD-LEMEE M. and al., Sols de l’Afrique romaine, Paris, 1995, pp. 121 ff.
DONATI A. and al., Pesca e pescatori nell’Antichità, Milan, 1997, pp. 14 ff (mosaic from Sousse).
Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC), vol. VIII, Zurich-Dusseldorf, 1994, s.v. Okeanos, pp. 31 ff.
Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC), vol. VIII, Zurich-Dusseldorf, 1997, s.v. Okeanos, pp. 907 ff.; s.v. Thalassa, pp. 1198-1199.