This pavement mosaic resides at the Museo Nazionale at Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, along with scores of other beautifully preserved floor mosaics. This particular mosaic dates to the 2nd century and features a gorgeous Nilotic scene that was a typical subject for both pavement mosaics and wall frescos. There is a very famous mosaic from Palestrina that features a very detailed and complex Nilotic scene. These scenes were “common throughout the Mediterranean from the later Hellenistic period through the Roman Empire, depicting the Nile in flood. The protagonists of Nilotic scenes are often dark-skinned pygmies or dwarfs who do battle with hippopotami and crocodiles or engage in sexual activity” (Barrett, abstract). In this mosaic, we see that the pygmies are engaged in hunting the hippopotami, but are generally avoiding the crocodile. Interestingly, on the right side of the pavement, a pygmy has deserted the hunt and instead hopped on top of the hippo for a ride. Other pygmies in the scene are fishing, reaping the plenty that the Nile provides during its flood.
The beautiful green flora and fauna, along with that of the river itself and the crocodile are actually made with a colored glass. I found this to be incredibly exciting because in most of the books that I’ve been reading, I’ve come away with the sense that colored glass, or smalti, did not develop until later on in more medieval times. However, if we look at the date for this mosaic (2nd century) and the date for many of the glass Christian mosaics are starting in the 300’s, and then it is not so surprising that there were some glass techniques used during the time when this mosaic was made. Stone tile, however, was much more popular. It was not until after the fall of Rome and the rise of Christendom that glass became the favored material used in mosaics. The broad spectrum of colors available can be seen most clearly in the birds that border the main Nilotic scene. The reds, oranges, purples and greens are all very vibrant and add a beautiful liveliness to the birds. Comparing this bright scene with another Nilotic scene down the hall from this one (same time period) which is done in mostly black and white tile, one can appreciate the hard work of the artist in this one perhaps a bit more because of his attention to detail and his desire to strive for colorful stones that reflect the birds they are meant to recreate.
An interesting aspect to this pavement is its complicated border. This mosaic does not have a simple wave-crest or meander border around the main scene as one might expect. However, it has more pictures with birds, flowers, player’s masks and geometric designs. The border pictures even have borders of cable and wave crest designs. The border pictures are accessible from every point of entry (meaning that you can see them the right way when you walk into the room), but are upside down upon exit. The geometric borders twist and twine along, making the whole pavement more intricate, and are different colors in order to distinguish themselves from each other, but they still match main colors in the Nilotic scene. It is significant that the wave crest border is chosen because it nods to the water element of the Nile. The cable border could also be considered significant because it is endless, much like the infinity symbol, and could reflect the cyclical nature of the Nile flooding annually to bring water to the farmlands and thus ensuring another harvest.
The bit that I do not fully understand is the presence of the player’s masks in the border. Many scholars think that the pygmies featured in the many Nilotic scenes that have been discovered are ridiculous and a form of mockery that the Romans made of the Egyptians. The masks could indicate that this is certainly the case. However, there is the astute observation by Caitlin Barrett that these were indeed reflective of religious ceremonies that the Egyptians observed with the annual flooding of the Nile. Theater itself has religious origins, dating back to the Greeks (and probably before). It could be a connecting aspect between theater and the flooding of the Nile, or it could indeed be a mockery, as the Romans did invent satire and used the Greek formula for comedy to mock certain ideas or persons. I suppose the significance of the masks would be up to the viewer, and his or her own views on Egypt. We do know that Rome went through a bit of an Egyptomania phase after Augustus conquered Egypt and brought it into the Empire. Evidence of this is in the plethora of obelisks that decorate Rome and the tomb of Cestius, which is modeled after a pyramid. This obsession and recent victory could certainly have colored the viewer’s (and the artist’s) view of the Nile and religious rites surrounding it.
Barrett, Caitlin. "Nile Inundation Theology in the Roman World: "Nilotic Scenes" from Campania" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The 62nd Annual Meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt, Marriott Downtown, Chicago, IL, Apr 01, 2011 <Not Available>. 2014-01-10 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p495462_index.html>