Roman Mosaics from the House of Leukaktios

The multivarious arrangement of mosaic floor pavements in Greek and Roman houses provides us today with clues as to the presumed function of the rooms they decorated. This is something that Pierre Gros recently evoked in his L’architecture romaine, his excellent synthesis of Roman architecture published in Paris in 2001 by Picard. The architectural layout and decoration, especially the mosaic floors, of the given rooms in the House of Leukaktios have lent support to this idea, contributing to an understanding of specific purpose and function, which can be deemed as very likely.

It comes hardly as a not surprise that a black-and-white geometric mosaic pavement filled a vestibule which was entered from the street and which led to a small private balneum (a kind of bath, previously believed to be a kitchen) and an undersized courtyard which gave entry to a small reception room and the big courtyard. The same can be said of the small courtyard where the mosaic floor is very modest in character, similarly to the mosaic pavement in the big courtyard which covers some 85 square meters. The latter, a tetrastyle or four-columned atrium which was the actual core of the house, had an unroofed inner pool (impluvium) surrounded by roofed porticoes on four sides. All the floors were covered with black-and-white geometric mosaic pavements with a degree of ornaments one step higher than in the case of the previously described units. The atrium served to collect rainfall water, but it also provided light and fresh air inside the building. Most of the ground-floor rooms could be entered from the porticoes. The staircases to the upper floor also led off not far from here.

Rooms of more significance for the owner received a different floor decoration. For example, a small room with wide entrance in the form of an exedra had a colorful guilloche mat rendered on the floor in mosaic technique. This small room was used to receive clients and visitors of the owner and his wife, whose visit was intended to be short. The arrangement of mosaic ‘carpets’ also helped to identify the main triclinium or dining hall, the andron used by the owner of the house (occasionally perhaps with his wife) possibly as a small triclinium, which is also an exedra, that is, a hall with a wide entrance. A room opposite the andron/triclinium served as a ginaeceum, meaning that it was prepared for the owner’s wife, her daughters and other small children. A special servant’s entrance from the street ran along one wall of this room, next to a room with a kitchen. The northern portico, which was less official and stately, and narrower than the other wings, opened onto a number of cubicula or bedrooms (R17; R12; R13 was reached from andron R14). These were small units with ordinary mortar floors which could have been covered originally with mats.

On the upper floor at least one room was decorated with a figural mosaic in a geometric frame. The decoration told the story of Achilles in hiding among the daughters of King Lykomedes of Skyros. The ceiling which supported this pavement in the room above collapsed at a relatively late date, presumably quite a while after the owner and his family had evacuated the structure in fear of an earthquake. The fall shattered the pavement into hundreds of fragments, but sufficiently well preserved for the panel to be reconstructed. This is a task for the near future.

The floors of the House of Leukaktios bore mostly geometric mosaics executed in the opus tesselatum technique. Modest black-and-white geometric ornaments appeared on floors of passages (vestibule, small courtyard and porticoes of the big courtyard) and by the walls of the various rooms in a part of the floor that was mostly screened from view by standing furniture (R4 reception exedra, R14 andron/triclinium, R1 triclinium, R9). The central parts of mosaic pavements in practically all of the rooms took on the form of more or less elongated rectangular carpets, adapted to the shape of individual rooms. The carpet decoration in the small courtyard is an exception, for it was made to fit around the podium of a small chapel or statue base. In the reception halls (R4 reception room, R1 triclinium, R14 andron/small triclinium) and rooms of special function (R6 impluvium, R9 gynaeceum) the geometric ornaments constituted a frame for figural decoration in the form of pseudo-emblema. In one case, we even appear to be dealing with an emblema executed in a technique bordering on opus vermiculatum (R1 triclinium). The geometric frames were richly colored and varied in design.

 

List of mosaic floors from the House of Leukaktios:

Room R18/R22 (vestibule) – Fig. 9

Carpet motif surrounded by two black fillets with a white fillet in between. Ornament consists of a network of crosswise, perpendicularly intersecting lines of black shields forming octagons with concave sides.

 

Room R11 (small courtyard) – Fig. 3

Panel delimited by a triple black fillet. Central composition consisting of black tesserae set diagonally, in diagonal lines intersecting at right angles (trellis motif).

 

Room R4 (reception exedra) – Fig. 2

This room as well as the small courtyard R11 was interpreted initially and wrongly as dining rooms. Color carpet consisting of a guilloche mat motif, surrounded by a number of alternating white and black fillets and crowstep motif repeating the same color scheme.

 

Geometric mosaic pavements are found in practically all of the four porticoes and in the impluvium :

 

Porticoes – Figs 1, 4, 5

Two different geometric compositions were used in the decoration of the porticoes, each one repeated in two of the four wings of the courtyard. In three of the wings there is a single carpet panel, in the fourth wing two smaller and very narrow panels were designed around a gap in between where the mouth of the cistern was located.

The composition in two of the wings consisted of the bichrome gird-pattern of tangent ellipses non joining, forming alternately big (with white-colored rhomboid motifs in the center) and small concave squares. The panel is framed in a double, white and black border and set in a white pavement filling the sides of the portico (so-called auxiliary or surround band).

The other composition is based on white hexagons touching at the corners and forming alternately four-armed stars and squares. The latter bear inscribed white diamonds. The hexagons have black squares inscribed in them. The panel is framed with a black fillet and is set in a white auxiliary field.

 

Impluvium – Fig. 1

The pool is decorated with a composition of pseudo-shields made up of triangles inscribed into squares, divided into four sectors forming a chessboard-pattern. The center squares mark the lines of symmetry between the sectors; large white equilateral triangles are inscribed into these squares. In a center panel a circle is inscribed in a square and in it a polychrome wreath containing a Greek inscription: EYTIXΩΣ ΛEYKAKTIΩ, wishing Leukaktios good fortune. These well wishes for the owner of the house were said out loud by guests entering the atrium and heading for the andron in Hall R14.

 

Room R14 (andron/triclinium) – Fig. 6

The mosaic consists of a wide irregular outer band shaped like the Greek letter Π. The wider part is presumed to have held the couch of the lord of the house with the table and footstool that were set before it. The chair of the lady of the house would have stood next to it. This is a scene observed on a few funerary wall paintings from Cyrenaican tombs and could well reflect the realities of the day. It is likely that two couches for the guests were stood at the other sides. The bichrome, black and white composition consists of diagonally intersecting at right angles small lozenges and squares joining at the corners and inserted into larger lozenges. The squares are filled with swastikas or diamonds. The center square panel is framed with a double guilloche featuring a rich geometric design and doubled at the sides with two narrow bands of tangent recumbent lozanges. The overall carpet ornament can be classed as a honeycomb-pattern of tangent squares forming hexagons and equilateral triangles formed of intersecting twelve-sided figures. The hexagons, squares and triangles in the composition are filled with different color motifs. Inside, opposite the entrance, there was a round pseudo-emblema which was destroyed already in antiquity.

 

Room R9 (gynaeceum) – Fig. 7

This room has been interpreted as a triclinium, but upon consideration there is a number of elements arguing against this identification. Indeed, it seems likely that the hall was used by the lady of the house. There is a small cistern, about 20 cubic meters in volume, located under the pavement in this room. The carpet composition on the floor starts with an auxiliary border at the sides of the room, decorated with a ivy scroll motif. The outer border frame consists of forming irregular octogons, here bearing an inscribed rectangle with double guilloche, tangent to two opposed peltae, alternately upright and recumbent. The inner frame is made up of a chessboard-pattern of right-angled isosceles triangles in four colors made to set off the particolored squares. The center panel is a figural pseudo-emblema with a scene of the sleeping Ariadne being found by Dionysus who is accompanied by a satyr, Tropheus, Pan, a maenad, Eros and a panther. It is the fourteenth Roman mosaic to depict this myth. All 14 panels were made between the second half of the 2nd and the end of the 4th century AD. Four have been found in the western part of the Roman Empire, the rest in the eastern domains.

 

Room R1 (triclinium) – Fig. 8

The hall is a triclinium, rather than the reception room it was believed to be right after its discovery. The wide, irregular outer border pavement in the shape of the Greek letter Π forms a black-and-white composition of diagonally lines of squares joining at the corners and intersecting perpendicularly. The fields thus formed have inscribed diamonds. The second border frame is of the same shape and it features a latchkey-meander of swastikas motif complemented alternatively with squares containing a Solomon’s knot. The next Π-shaped frame combines motifs of row of spaced swastika-meander with single returns and rectangles in a rainbow colors. The panel inside these border frames contains a figural emblema (?) framed with a simple guilloche and a finely executed wavy-ribbon motif. The representation is undoubtedly that of Nike (Victoria) with spread wings, shown in stereotypical fashion, with a tabula ansata bearing the Greek inscription: EYTIXΩΣ ΛEYKAKTIΩ, again wishing Leukaktios good fortune. The picture was damaged and repaired already in antiquity, at which time the name of the previous owner was changed to that of the new buyer (a similar change of name had occurred in the atrium of the house).

 

Room on the upper floor

The fragmented mosaic pavement from the upper floor was preserved sufficiently for a provisional and incomplete identification of the subject. The figural panel was framed with a geometric border consisting of a simple guilloche and wavy-ribbon, among others. Legends in Greek have identified a number of the figures in the scene, permitting the representation to be placed within the Achilles cycle, most likely a depiction of Achilles on Skyros. They are Briseis, Deidameia, Odysseus, Hippodameia(?), Achilles and a vignette of the Parthenon.

 

Style and dating

A stylistic analysis of the geometric and figural motifs of the mosaic of the House of Leukaktios, set within the framework of comparative studies on the mosaic floors from the region of Cyrenaica and the provinces of the Roman Empire, leads me to conclude that the floors of this residential home were commissioned in one of the local mosaic ateliers representing the so-called Cyrenaican school. Several archaeological and stylistic arguments speak out in favor of the period between AD 215 and 225 as the most likely time for the creation of these pavements. They appear to have remained in use in the house until its abandonment about the middle of the 3rd century AD (262?) after a massive earthquake in the region. The house was subsequently taken over by local craftsmen and it is then that some of the pavements suffered damages (trad. by I. Zych).

 

 

Dr. Marek Titien Olszewski*

Warsaw, 15 January 2010

 

Bibliography on the mosaic floor decoration and conservation from the House of Leukaktios:

 

●K. Chmielewski, “Ancient Mosaics in Ptolemais (Libya). Discover, conservation, Maintenance”, Papers on The 10th Conference of The international Committee for The Conservation of Mosaics. Conservation an Act of Discovery, Palermo, October 20-26, 2008, p. 41.

●Tomasz Mikocki, “New Mosaics from Ptolemais in Libya”, Archeologia (Warsaw) 55, 2004 (2005), p. 19-30, Figs. I-X.

●Tomasz Mikocki, “An Achilles Mosaic from the Villa with a View at Ptolemais”, Archeologia (Warsaw) 56, 2005 (2006), p. 57-68, Figs. I-IV.

●Marek Titien Olszewski, “Images allusives : Dionysos et Ariane dans l’espace réservé aux femmes (gynécée) ? Le cas de Ptolémaïs et Cyrène en Cyrénaique”, Actes du X Congresso Internazionale. Association Internationale pour l’Etude de la Peinture Murale Antique, Neapol 17-21 september 2007 (in press).

●Marek Titien Olszewski, “Mosaïques de pavement de la « Maison de Leukaktios » à Ptolémaïs en Cyrénaique (Libye). Essai d’identification des pièces”, Archeologia (Warsaw) 58, 2007 (2009), p. 89-95, Fig. XI.

●Marek Titien Olszewski i Piotr Zakrzewski, “The Decoration of the dining Rooms at Ptolemais in Cyrenaica (Libya) in the Light of the last Researches”, Actes du XIe Congrès Internationale pour l’Etude de la Mosaïque Antique, Bursa (Turkey) 16-20 october 2009 (in press).

 

Fig. 1. Aerial view of the House of Leukaktios (fot. M. Bogacki)

 

Fig. 2. Room R4 (reception exedra; fot. M. Bogacki).

 

Fig. 3. Room R11 (small courtyard; fot. M. Bogacki).

 

Fig. 4. Black-and-white geometric mosaics in the porticoes (fot. M. Bogacki).

 

Fig. 5. Black-and-white geometric mosaics in the porticoes (fot. M. Bogacki).

 

Fig. 6. Room R14 (andron/triclinium; fot. M. Bogacki).

 

Fig. 7. Room R9 (gynaeceum; fot. M. Bogacki).

 

Fig. 8. Room 1 (triclinium; fot. M. Bogacki).

 

Fig. 9. Room R18/R22 (vestibule; fot. M. Bogacki).

 

 

*Marek Titien Olszewski, archaeologist and expert on ancient art and mosaics, researcher specializing for the past 20 years in the decoration of Roman houses, as well as public and sacral buildings. Author of several studies of mosaic floor and wall painting decoration in Graeco-Roman antiquity. Having received his PhD from the Sorbonne in Paris, he took up the position of Assistant of professor at the Institute of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw. Long associated with the CNRS, AIEMA and AIPMA; he was a Andrew W. Mellon Fellow (2004 and 2005). He is presently working on the mosaic floors from Ptolemais (since 2007).