Underfloor heating, winemaking, aqueducts and road networks, the Romans brought many things with them when they arrived and settled in the Moselle valley over 2,000 years ago. Luxurious installations are to be found in the remains of the rural farmsteads. Some of them were almost palace-like in their dimensions and were decorated with splendid mosaics.
A famous example of Roman mosaic art is the gladiator and wild beast mosaic from the Villa at Nennig. Located on the right bank of the river Moselle, south of Trier, this gladiatorial pavement floor is one of the most important Roman artefacts north of the Alps. Protected by a dedicated building built about 150 years ago, and covering an area of roughly 160m2, the mosaic vividly portrays musicians, scenes of hunting and gladiatorial contests.
In the third century AD it dominated the atrium (reception hall) of a large magnificent palace. The mosaic later disappeared below ground until it was discovered by chance by a farmer in 1852. The excavations conducted between 1866 and 1876 revealed only a part of the once splendid and extensive ground as well as the foundation walls of the imposing central building and several adjacent buildings. A coin of Commodus (struck ca. 192) found under the mosaic during the restorations of 1960 dates the construction of the villa to the end of the 2nd century or the beginning of the 3rd century AD.
Walking around the interior of the protecting building, the entire scene of the mosaic can be viewed from a raised platform. The mosaic comprises of seven octagonal medallions surrounding two central quadrangles, one decorated with a scene of gladiatorial combat, the other occupied by a marble basin. An elaborate pattern of geometrical designs borders each scene.
Fig. 1: Organist and horn player
The beginning and the end of the Roman games were often accompanied by music. The mosaicist has depicted the water organ (hydraulis), know in the ancient world since 300 BC. The 27 organ-pipes rest on a hexagonal podium which also serves to store water for the organ. The organist plays the keyboard situated behind the pipes. The curved horn, which is braced and supported on the shoulder of the player by a cross bar, is a cornu.
Fig. 2: Javelin thrower with leopard
The games usually began with venationes (beast hunts) and bestiarii (beast fighting) gladiators. Here the beast is wounded by the venator’s spear and tries to pull the javelin out. It succeeds only in breaking it in half. Delighted with his success, the proud venator received the acclamation of the crowd.
Fig. 3: Tiger and wild ass
Another variety of venatio consisted of putting animals against animals. The Romans loved to see large and dangerous animals fighting each other. In this scene, a wild ass, laid low by blows from the tiger’s paw, has fallen to the ground. Standing proudly, the victor of this unmatched contest looks around before starting his bloody feast.
Fig. 4: Lion with keeper
This scene depicts a lion, with only the head of the ass still is in his claws, being forcibly led away from the arena by his aged keeper. This was the first of the illustrated panels to be discovered in 1852.
Fig. 5: Three venatores and bear
In this panel, which is in the center of the mosaic, a bear has thrown one of his tormentors to the ground, while the other two attempt to drive the animal off by lashes from their whips. The venatores are wearing knee-breeches and very broad belts in addition to the leg wrappings. Later their clothing was reduced to the tunica.
Fig. 6: Combatants with cudgel and whip
The introduction to the gladiatorial contests consisted of a prolusio (prelude). The various pairs fought with blunted weapons, giving the foretaste of their skills. This scene depicts a contest between two combatants attacking one another with cudgels (short thick sticks) and a whip.
Fig. 7: The gladiators
In the afternoon came the high point of the games, individual gladiatorial combats. These were usually matches between gladiators with different types of armor and fighting styles, supervised by a referee (summa rudis). This scene represents simultaneously the highlight and the conclusion of the games. It depicts a combat between a retiarius, armed with trident and dagger, and a secutor, while a referee looks on.
Fig. 8: The inscribed panel
After the restorations of 1960/61 the following text was inserted: This Roman mosaic floor was discovered in 1852, reconstructed in 1874 and restored in 1960. The original medallion has been destroyed, perhaps intentionally, by later occupants of the villa.
The villa complex included a bath house with heated rooms, small pavilions and magnificent gardens. A two-storied colonnaded portico (140 m long) ran across the façade of the main building, flanked by three-storied tower wings with massive walls.
A necropolis laid to the south of the villa. Only one of the two tumuli survives. It is assumed to be the funerary monument of the owner of the villa, a small-scale copy of the tomb of Augustus in Rome.
I was struck by how well preserved the mosaic was. The great efforts in Nennig at preserving what remains of the Roman villa make for a fascinating visit. The Moselle Valley’s ancient Roman heritage has a lot to offer to tourists and scholars alike. More than 120 antique sights along the Moselle and Saar, the Saarland and Luxembourg are testament to the Gallo-Roman era north of the Alps (further information here).
Ausonius (310-395 AD), a Latin poet and tutor to the future emperor Gratian, wrote a poem called Mosella, a description of the river Moselle:
“What colour are they now, thy quiet waters? The evening star has brought the evening light, And filled the river with the green hillside; The hill-tops waver in the rippling water, Trembles the absent vine and swells the grape In thy clear crystal.” Mosella, line 192; translation from Helen Waddell Mediaeval Latin Lyrics ( 1943) p. 31.
More photos can be viewed from my image collection on Flickr.
Römische Villa Nennig
D. 66706 Perl-Nennig, tel. +49 6866 1329
April – September: Tuesday to Sunday 8:30 am – 12 noon and 1 – 6 pm
October, November and March: Tuesday to Sunday 9 – 11:30 am and 1 – 4:30 pm
Closed from December to February and on Mondays
Sources: The Roman Mosaic at Nennig: A Brief Guide (n.d.) by Reinhard Schindler / Gladiators and Caesars: The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome