On a recent trip to Southern Spain, I travelled along the Roman Baetica Route and visited many of the archaeological sites and museums that Andalusia has to offer. Among the plethora of ancient treasures to be found in the region, I was particularly impressed by the incredible mosaics I came across.
The Roman Baetica Route is an ancient Roman road that passes through fourteen cities in the provinces of Seville, Cadiz, and Córdoba, which correspond to modern-day Andalusia. It runs through the most southern part of the Roman province of Hispania and includes territories also crossed by the Via Augusta. The route connected Hispalis (Seville) with Corduba (Córdoba) and Gades (Cádiz). The word Baetica comes from Baetis, the ancient name for the river Guadalquivir.
Before the arrival of the Romans, the area was occupied by the Turdetani, a powerful tribe and, according to Strabo, the most civilized peoples in Iberia. The south of the Iberian peninsula was fertile and agriculturally rich, providing for export wine, olive oil and garum (the fermented fish sauce). The economy was based mainly on agriculture and livestock, along with mining. This economy formed the basis of the Turdetani’s trade with the Carthaginians who were established on the coast. The Romans arrived in the Iberian peninsula during the Second Punic War in the 2nd century BC and annexed it under Augustus after two centuries of war with the Celtic and Iberian tribes. Soon, Baetica became the most romanized province in the Peninsula.
Hispania Baetica was divided into four territorial and juridical divisions (conventī): the conventus Gaditanus (of Gades – Cádiz), Cordubensis (of Corduba – Cordoba), Astigitanus (of Astigi – Écija), and Hispalensis (of Hispalis – Seville). Trajan, the second emperor of provincial birth after Claudius, came from Baetica, though he was of Italian origin. Hadrian came from a family residing in Italica, while her mother Paulina was from Gades.
Museo Arqueológico de Sevilla
Located in Maria Luisa Park and originally built as part of the 1929 exhibition, the Archaeological Museum of Seville is one of the best museums of its kind in Spain. The focus is on the Roman era, but there is also a prehistorical section which includes the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. The galleries on the first floor are devoted to the Roman era with statues and fragments rescued from the nearby ancient site of Italica. Many mosaics are exhibited there, and other highlights include sculptures of locally born and raised emperors; Trajan and Hadrian.
One of the most impressive mosaics housed in the museum is the opus tessellatum mosaic from Ecija, depicting the mythological scene of Bacchus’s triumph over the Indies. The god is portrayed crowed with bunches of grapes in a chariot drawn by tigers. He wears a woman’s chiton covered by a nebris belted at the waist, and he holds the reigns with his left hand and a thyrsus in the right hand. Accompanying him in the chariot is a nude figure of the young Ampelos. In front is a satyr, covered in a fawn’s skin and holding a shepherd’s crook in his left hand.
Another splendid mosaic is the figurative mosaic representing the well-known episode of the Judgement of Paris that led to the Trojan War. It was found in 1985 in a Roman villa in the town of Casariche alongside a rich series of geometric mosaics. The mosaic of the Judgement of Paris is in opus tessellatum and is dated to the 3rd century AD. It decorated the atrium of the Villa del Alcaparral. The composition follows the tradition of Hellenistic pictorial motif core surrounded by geometric motifs. It depicts the moment when Paris, seated on a rock wearing a Phrygian cap and holding a pedum (a shepherd’s crook) in his hand, offers the golden apple of Venus.
Read more about the Judgement of Paris on theoi.
In the same room as the Casariche mosaic is a mosaic fragment coming from nearby Italica. It was found in the so-called House of Hylas, named after the mosaic. Thought to date from the early 2nd century AD, the centre panel (emblema) of a larger mosaic depicts the mythological scene when Hercules’ companion and lover Hylas was kidnapped by Nymphs because of his beauty while off on a mission to fetch water. Hylas, carrying a pitcher, approaches the water spring where the nymphs trap him. He desperately looks toward Hercules for help, who is unable to save him. The subject matter was inspired by an epic poem by Apollonius of Rhodes on the mythical expedition of the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece.
Read more about the Hylas on theoi.
Another room in the museum (room XII) houses more figurative mosaics. The first two depict the personification of Spring and Autumn. Spring is represented as a young girl with flowers in her hair. Autumn is dressed as a mature woman next to a stripped tree.
On the wall next to these are two other mosaic fragments of great interest since the themes are less frequent than the previous ones. They represent one of the Romans’ favourite modes of entertainment: the races and games in the circus. Two quadrigae (Roman chariots led by a four-horse team) driven by their charioteers are represented, competing for triumph in the arena.
The last mosaic located in room XII is from Italica and is an emblema with a lion which would be inserted into a larger mosaic.
Finally, in Room XX called the “Imperial Room” for the numerous imperial portraits exhibited, another figurative mosaic is dedicated to Bacchus. The god appears in the central medallion adorned with ivy leaves. Around him are symbolic representations of the seasons, tigers with thyrsus, old bearded men and lions that lay down on the evil eye. (see the full mosaic here)
- Lebrija Palace
One of the least known of Seville’s museums is the Lebrija Palace, a 16th-century palace with a wonderfully varied private collection. Countess Lebrija bought the palace in 1901 and reconstructed it for 13 years until 1914. The Countess loved archaeology, and during these 13 years, she purchased Roman mosaics and amassed many other antiquities. Her magnificent collection included a spectacular range of mosaics taken from Italica, most notably one representing the god Pan which paves the palace’s central courtyard. Pan, who is in love with Galatea, can be seen in the central panel of the mosaic serenading her on his flute. The medallions show the love stories of Zeus with Leda, Europa, Ganymede, Antiope, Danae, Io and Callisto, while in the corners are representations of the four seasons. The galleries surrounding the patio are paved with Opus Sectile dating to the 3rd century AD.
In 1999, the descendants of the Countess and the current owners decided to open the house to the public as a museum. The public can visit the ground floor and view the Countess’ great archaeological collection and discover the passion of a true collector.
See more images of Palacio Lebrija here.
The archaeological site of Italica is located in Santiponce, not far from Seville. It is one of the most important places in Andalusia’s archaeological heritage. Italica was founded in 206 BC during the Second Punic War by the Roman commander Publius Cornelius Scipio who settled his Italian veterans on this site. Although the nearby town of Hispalis (Seville) would always remain a larger city, Italica became an important centre of Roman culture and was awarded the title of colonia. Hadrian gave the colony his family name, Colonia Aelia Augusta Italica. Under his rule, Italica enjoyed a period of splendour during which its architectural development flourished with the construction of new public buildings such as the amphitheatre as well as houses with well-preserved mosaic floors. About twenty intricate mosaics lie amongst the uncovered ruins still in situ.
Some of the houses uncovered include the House of the Planetarium with its hexagonal mosaics depicting the seven planetary divinities who gave their names to the days of the week. In the centre is Venus (Friday). Anticlockwise from the bottom centre are Jupiter (Thursday), Saturn (Saturday), Helios or Sol (Sunday), Luna or Selene (Monday), Mars (Tuesday), and Mercury (Wednesday).
The House of the Birds is a large residence endowed with a great number of mosaics of high quality. One of them, the Bird Mosaic, gave its name to the house and consisted of a central panel surrounded by 35 small squares representing different species of birds.
The House of Neptune is named after a mosaic with all kinds of aquatic animals. In the centre is Neptune, the god of the sea with his trident. The mosaic is surrounded by a wide edge that is decorated with Nilotic scenes where one can see crocodiles, a hippopotamus, a palm tree, and several pygmies fighting ibises.
“Carmonenses, quae est longa firmissima totius provincia civitas“
(Carmona is by far the strongest city of the province)
– Julius Caesar (Commentarii de bello civili)
In the past, Carmona was one of the main enclave settlements on the lower Guadalquivir, with nearly five thousand years of continuous occupation. Julius Caesar mentioned its “mighty wall” in his De Bello Civile while the city received the dispensation to mint its own coinage bearing the name “Carmo”. Carmo became a major crossroads on the Via Augusta and an important outpost in the Roman empire. Two mosaics can be seen in Carmona, one in the City Museum with an allegory of the Summer season and another one in the Town Hall with the head of Medusa.
- Museo de la Ciudad de Carmona
- Ayuntamiento de Carmona
The courtyard of the Town Hall of Carmona contains an important Roman mosaic, which was found in the old quarter of the town.
- Museo Arqueológico de Cordoba
Córdoba (Roman Corduba) was the capital of the Roman province of Hispania Baetica. The Via Augusta connected the city with Carmo (Carmona) and Hispalis (Seville) in the west and Tarraco (Tarragona) in the northeast. The most important Roman buildings still standing today are the Roman bridge, the Temple of the Imperial Cult, the Mausoleum and the remains of the Palace of Emperor Maximian in the Archaeological site of Cercadilla. Great Roman philosophers such as Seneca the Younger and poets such as Lucan came from Roman Cordoba. Córdoba has the largest urban area in the world, declared World Heritage by UNESCO.
The Archaeological Museum of Cordoba houses an emblema of a mosaic with a rare depiction of Pegasus. Pegasus was the immortal winged horse which sprang forth from the neck of Medusa when she was beheaded by the hero Perseus.
- Salón de los Mosaicos (Hall of Mosaics) – Alcazar of the Christian Monarchs
A series of exquisite mosaics from the 2nd and 3rd century AD are displayed in the so-called Hall of the Mosaics of the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, a medieval Moorish palace and castle located in the historic centre of Córdoba. The mosaics were discovered in 1959 during excavation work under the Plaza de la Corredera. They once belonged to a wealthy Roman mansion.
Among the mosaics of the collection are:
Oceanus, the divine personification of the sea depicted with lobster claws protruding from his head and dolphins and fish escaping from his beard.
The Cyclops Polyphemus and the goddess-nymph of the sea Galatea. The Cyclops is represented with three eyes, one set in the middle of his forehead. He is draped in animal skin and holds a staff. Galatea is seated on the back of a Ketos, a wolf-headed sea monster with the body of a snake and the tail of a dolphin. The Cyclops Polyphemus loved the beautiful sea nymph. However, Galatea loved a handsome Sicilian river god named Acis. Polyphemus jealously killed his rival by crushing him against a huge rock.
Eros and Psyche embraced. Psyche was a mortal woman of extreme beauty. Zeus rewarded Psyche with immortality because of her love and sacrifice for her beloved God Eros. The theme of the mosaic is taken from “The Golden Ass” (Asinus aureus), one of the most important works written by the 2nd-century writer Apuleius.
Another mosaic shows the head of Medusa, one of the three daughters of the marine goddess Phorcys, as a central motif. The round, childlike face of Medusa is depicted with multicoloured vitreous paste tesserae of great strength. However, the tesserae that framed the image of Medusa have not survived. The rest of the pavement is decorated with geometric designs, made up of rectangles on a black background and Salomon’s knot squares on light backing tones.
The significant archaeological excavations in progress in Ecija have shed new light on the city’s past and its importance during Roman times when Colonia Augusta Firma Astigi was one of the four government capitals of the Baetica province. Mosaics and objects of great artistic value have been found during various excavations. Noteworthy are the remains found during extensive excavations that took place at Plaza de Espana and Plaza de Armas.
- Museo Historico Municipal
The Municipal History Museum of Écija is housed in the Benameji Palace, a magnificent example of Baroque architecture from the 18th century. It contains a large room dedicated to the Roman mosaic pavements that were unearthed during the excavations. The set of mosaics from Écija is one of the most important from the Roman West due to its quality, variety and size.
The Mosaic of the Four Seasons was found during the excavations of a Roman house at a depth of 2.84m below the present-day street level. It is a mosaic of outstanding artistic quality. The theme is related to the four seasons as well as the apotheosis of the god Annus (Year), the Roman deity who personified the cycle of the year.
The Mosaic of the Nereids is a fragment of a marine themed-mosaic with a Nereid riding a sea monster. It paved one room of a Roman house, perhaps of the private baths area.
The Mosaic of the Double Kidnapping is a very rare mosaic depicting both the myth of the kidnapping of Europe and Ganymede. For the abduction of Europe, Zeus transformed himself into a bull. For the abduction of Ganymede, he turned himself into an eagle. A head, possibly Bacchic, emerges from the sea.
The Mosaic of the Triumph of Bacchus is a beautiful polychrome mosaic floor that once belonged to a wealthy Roman house. The central medallion or emblema shows a quadriga drawn by male and female centaurs. The god Bacchus triumphantly rides the chariot. Circles, octagons and hexagons depicting various characters of Classical mythology (Leda and the swan, Orpheus and a nymph, Narcissus, Castor with a horse, Silenus, Pan, a satyr and a Maenad) as well as allegories of the seasons surround the central medallion.
The Mosaic of Oceanus is the latest found in Écija, dating back to the 4th century AD. Depicted in its centre is Oceanus, who is portrayed as an old bearded god with long hair and a rivulet of water streaming from his mouth. Four birds representing the four seasons surround him.
The last mosaic is the Bacchic mosaic of “The Gift of Wine”. It depicts scenes of the myth according to which the god Bacchus donated the secrets of the cultivation of grapes and wine-making to humanity. The central scene shows Bacchus as a child riding on a panther, dressed only with a chlamys (small wrap) and holding a thyrsus. Several objects related to his myth are placed around him: a rhyton (drinking horn), a tympanon (tambourine) and a krater, a vase used to mix wine and water.
- Ayuntamiento de Écija
In the Town Hall’s Chapter House, a mosaic depicting the Punishment of Dirce can be seen. Dirce is shown being dragged by a bull, a punishment inflicted by the two sons of Antiope, Zethus and Amphion, whose mother she had mistreated.
VILLA ROMANA DE FUENTE ALAMO
The Roman villa of Fuente Alamo is situated next to a stream and surrounded by olive groves, about 3km away from the town of Puente Genil. It is a Hispanic-Roman villa built in the 3rd – 4th century AD that was devoted to wine and olive oil production, like many others that proliferated around that time in Hispania. Fuente Alamo is well-known thanks to its mosaics in an excellent state of preservation. The three most important figurative mosaics are The Triumph Bacchus, the Three Graces and the Nilotic mosaic (now in the Archaeological Museum of Cordoba, although not currently on display). There are also geometric mosaics of different periods, manufacturing methods, and bichrome and polychrome compositions. These mosaics provide us with information about the interests and social status of the villa’s owner.
The first mosaic is known as The Triumph Bacchus. In the lower scene, Bacchus, bearing a crown of vine leaves and grapes, attacks the Indians. Satyrs and nymphs, loyal followers of Bacchus, come to the attack while the Indians try to defend themselves. One of them, standing on his feet, brandishes his sword and shield in a vain attempt to survive. Rejoicing his victory, Bacchus marches triumphally in the upper scene in a chariot pulled by tigresses. Carried by a small donkey are Silenus, Bacchus’ former tutor and man of great wisdom. At the centre of the composition lays the god Pan, protector of shepherds and flocks, as well as Bacchus and Ariadne. The apse is paved with a mosaic depicting a shell divided into 28 segments. It is highly possible that it once held a representation of the Goddess of love, Venus, emerging from the sea in a shell. With this design, the owner of the house wanted to symbolize the spirit of fertility, regeneration and vitality.
The second mosaic represents the Three Graces, the goddesses of grace, beauty, adornment, joy, festivity, dance and song. Their names are Aglaea (“Splendour”), Euphrosyne (“Mirth”) and Thalia (“Good Cheer”). They preside over the ceremonies, dances and all pleasant social events. In Classical art, the Three Graces were usually depicted as naked women holding hands and dancing in a circle, like in this mosaic from Fuente Alamo. To their left, Pegasus, the god’s winged horse, is fed by a nymph; to the right, a satyr is engaged in his favourite activity, pursuing the nymphs.
The following mosaic floor is a geometric mosaic made of thousands of tesserae of different colours, with a size of 8 to 10 millimetres. A band formed by triangles in red and black colour frames the two panels of the mosaic. The larger panel is framed by a border decorated with two-stranded braids. Tri-dimensional elongated cubes give movement to the scene, embracing a labyrinth where our imagination gets lost. The square in the centre is decorated with Salomon’s knot. The design of the smaller panel features pelta motifs, and a semi-circular shield pattern.
MUSEO DEL MOSAICO DE CASARICHE
The town of Casariche is located 122 km east of Seville. In the new Roman Mosaic Museum (inaugurated in 2014), you can see the collection of mosaics extracted from the nearby Villa del Alcaparral. Among the mosaics discovered is the mosaic of Judgement of Paris exhibited in the Archaeological Museum in Seville and presented earlier. The museum desires to have the mosaic returned from Seville. The digital image reconstruction below shows how the mosaic would be exhibited in the villa.
The Roman villa of El Alcaparral was discovered in 1985. It is a late Roman villa Rustica whose existence extended from the mid-3rd century AD to the early 5th century AD. The villa belonged to a wealthy aristocratic landowner who traded with Byzantium during the crisis of the Western Roman Empire. At the crossroads of the trade route, the estate controlled a vast territory dedicated to olive oil exportation.
A mosaic floor with a central octagonal medallion portrait, probably an allegory of Spring, paved the oecus, the main hall or salon in a Roman house.
Another oecus near the tablinum had a geometric mosaic with octagons framed by a border of braids and a meander border. Unfortunately, the mosaic was deteriorated by fire.
For more information:
- Official website of the Roman Baetica Route: http://beticaromana.org/
- Youtube channel of the Roman Baetica Route: https://www.youtube.com/channel
- Écija tourism website http://www.turismoecija.com/
- Website dedicated to the Roman mosaics of Écija: http://www.mosaicosromanos.es/
- Facebook dedicated to the Roman mosaics of Écija: https://www.facebook.com/mosaicosromanos/
- The Roman Baetica Route guide: http://beticaromana.org