Ancient Rome: mosaics against envy

Recurring themes show the hoped-for protective effect of the chosen motifs

Mosaic "The Little Hunt" from the town of Casale. © Luz Neira
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Decoration with protective function: Many of the magnificent mosaics in the villas of the ancient Roman Empire were not mere decoration, but were supposed to protect against evil spirits. A team of international scientists has found that the Romans often depicted motifs with symbolic power against the evil eye or envy. Many elements of Roman religion are also preserved in the mosaics.

In many preserved villas and numerous archaeological excavations from the Roman period are decorated with ornate mosaics floors. Especially in public buildings and in the houses of the rich and influential Romans come these works of art - these citizens could afford them the most. The Roman floor mosaics were particularly well preserved in the places of Herculaneum and Pompeii, destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, where they survived the centuries protected by a dense ash layer.

Many Roman mosaics combine ornaments with detailed pictorial representations. Some show everyday scenes, others seem to have more mythological meaning. However, these impressive images are more than art: they also give valuable clues about the way of life, philosophy and faith in the time in which they were created. For scientists, they are therefore important sources.

Sacrifice scene on a mosaic in St. Roman en Gal © Luz Neira

Pierced eyes against evil eye

The team around Luz Neira of the Spanish Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) was particularly interested in how religion and superstition are reflected in the mosaics from the time of the Roman Empire. For this they have analyzed whether certain motives are particularly common. "The most common images show marriage, religious sacrifices or scenes against the evil eye, with the intention of protecting against envy, " says historian Neira.

Protection from the evil eye, for example, should provide the image of an eye pierced by a lance and surrounded with animals. In some cases, inscriptions complete the mosaic. Mosaics with such motifs had, according to the researchers, a protective function: The Romans believed that to prevent evil spirits. display

Mosaic found on the Greek island of Cephalonia. The long inscription evokes sorrow for those who are jealous of the inhabitants of the house. Ne Luz Neira

Strangled with envy

In the entrance area of ​​a house, on the other hand, the residents liked to place pictures that were supposed to protect the envy and resentment of their fellow citizens: Mythological figures with a striking phallus were apparently popular as motifs for this purpose. A mosaic on the island of Cephalonia shows a man who is squirming and jostling himself with envy of someone else's house on the ground.

Also frequently depicted are religious rituals such as weddings and funerals or magical practices. All these themes are not only found in the mosaics of individual epochs, but can be found throughout the history of the Roman Empire. "This is very significant, because it documents certain transmitted crosses that are descended from pagan figures, " says Neira.

(Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, 22.12.2014 - AKR)