unSwept Away

Detail of Heraclitus's MosaicBones of fish and fowl and stones of fruit, shells of crustaceans and oysters and a walnut or two, as well as capers and olives—these, the remnants of a very large Mediterranean meal. As for the cleanup it was all the more onerous—at least for the minions if not for the mice—since the guests had cavalierly tossed the leavings on the floor. How barbaric! Yet this was not the aftermath of a feast of a band of hungry Neanderthals some sixty thousand years ago but that of a banquet of the powerful and wealthy and educated in Ancient Rome. Perhaps their actions boiled down to what the philosopher Epictetus had to say back then in the first century, essentially that feeding the stomach should be secondary to feeding the mind.[1] If food had to take a backseat to discourse and Homeric declamations then it only stood to reason that keeping your place at the table neat would have been a triviality considered best ignored. Or perhaps the Roman elite were entitled slobs. In any case, the leftovers strewn across the floors of formal dining rooms inspired mosaic artists; they turned them into a trick-of-the-eye motif, using tiny tiles of colored marble and glass, specially cut and arranged.

Aptly called asàrotos òikos, or “unswept room,” it became a genre of its own. The earliest example, according to Pliny the Elder’s oft-cited mention in his Natural History appeared in the 2nd century BCE—about the time wealthy Greeks took a shine to mosaic ornamentation, which superseded decoratively painted wood in their villas. “[T]he most famous exponent [of the style] was Sosus, who at Pergamum laid the floor, [and] represented refuse from the dinner table and other sweepings, making them appear as if they had been left there,” Pliny wrote, identifying the only mosaicist from the cradle of Western civilization known by name.[2]

Three centuries later, the Romans copied the Greeks, filling their residences with mosaic wall and floor decorations. Asàrotos òikos was in demand. They cropped up in posh, private homes in Tunisia and in Pompeii, and in Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli. And in another villa atop Aventine Hill in Rome—that one signed by Heraclitus and said to be a replica of Sosus’s. Like Sosus, Heraclitus saw to include both a mouse and his shadow as he nibbles on a walnut shell.

 

 

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[1] Epictetus, Enchiridon, 41.

[2] Pliny, Natural History, xxxvi, 184, translated by D. E. Eichholz, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, reprint, 2001.

Additional sources: Niki Holmes Kantzios, “Edible Imagery in Roman Dining Room Floor Mosaics”; A Companion to Greek Art, Tyler Jo Smith and Dimitris Plantzos, eds; Roger Ling, Ancient Mosaics, Princeton University Press, 1998.

(Image: Heraclitus, Unswept Room, detail, Gregoriano Profano Museum, Vatican Museums)

 


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