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Floor Mosaic with Gladiators and Hunters

Roman art

This mosaic depicts, on different perspectival planes, a few gladiator scenes (munera) and a panther hunt, (venatio). The figures, described with brightly hued tesserae, face each other in the arena, the ground of which is evoked with dark strips against a white background. What we see are the final moments of combat, and the figures are labelled with their own names and the title VIC(TOR), or winner. Various types of gladiator are represented: the secutor, or pursuer; the retiarus, or net fighter, and the heavily armed hoplomachus. On the left, a victorious secutor is shown dealing a final blow to an unseen adversary; another secutor, Mazicinus, lies on the ground, covered by his shield, vanquished by the retarius Alumnus. The next figure, whose clothing identifies him as a hoplomachus, has just mortally wounded the retarius Callimorfus. In the background, a young figure in smaller scale has been interpreted as either an incitator or the victorious gladiator. On the right, there are two scenes from a panther hunt.

The mosaic was discovered, with four others of similar size and two smaller ones, in the floor of the cryptoporticus of a large suburban villa unearthed on the Borghese estate at Torrenova, along Via Casilina, during excavations carried out in 1834 for the prince Francesco Borghese Aldobrandini. The practice of displaying imagery with scenes of munera and venationes in private buildings, to celebrate the virtutes of the master of the house, spread during the late second century CE.

Scholars have dated the mosaic to between the third and fourth centuries CE.

Object details

3rd-4th century A.D.
marble tesserae
5701 x 2199 cm

Unearthed in 1834 during excavations on the Borghese estate in a hamlet of Torrenova, along Via Casilina. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • XIX secolo interventi nella prima figura a sinistra, nella seguente denominata Mazicinus; in Callimorfus e nella belva ferita in basso
  • 1908 R. Lazzari
  • 1926 C. Fossi
  • 1960 P. Saltelli
  • 1989 Consorzio ARKE'
  • 2020/2021 Istituto Centrale del Restauro: progetto scientifico di diagnostica e di restauro


In 1834, during excavations for the prince D. Francesco Borghese Aldobrandini on the Borghese estate in a hamlet of Torrenova, in an area called Vermicino-Quarto della Giostra, along Via Casilina, the remains of a lavish floor mosaic were unearthed in a room in a large suburban villa. The mosaic, of which remain five large rectangular panels and two smaller ones, was removed using the strappo method and brought to Rome, where it was kept, until 1839, in the Casino dell’Orologio. While there, the mosaics were restored by Gaetano Ruspi and Filippo Scaccia (Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, busta 347, fascicolo 6) and then moved to the Salone, where Giuseppe Santalmassi made drawings and engravings of them. According to Luigi Canina, who was present when the mosaic was discovered, it ‘was used to ennoble the floor in a cryptoporticus or a closed portico, arranged along one side of the innermost peristyle of the above-mentioned ancient villa. The mosaic covered an area measuring about 140 palmi long and 12 wide, and the room seems to have been built for this express purpose. Two thirds of the mosaic were found in good condition, and the remaining part was missing. It was divided into five panels framed by a meander motif, also mosaic in two simple hues’ (Canina 1834, pp. 193–194). The only part of the floor that has been preserved is the portion with figures, measuring in total 27.9 metres, while the meander frames are lost. The scenes are arranged in a single narrative frieze depicting multiple moments of a single episode. The theme is the final moments of gladiator combat, munera, and the hunt, venationes, and the names of the figures appear alongside them. The figures, shown against a white background, wear lavish polychrome clothing embellished with geometric decorations, orbiculi. The animals are also rendered in lively hues. The ground upon which the action takes place is evoked by strips of yellow and green, and shading is used to lend depth to the figures.

The panel depicts two distinct episodes: on the left, gladiator combat; on the right, a panther hunt. There is a description of the panther and its introduction into Rome for the Circus games in Pliny the Elder (Naturalis Historia 8.62–65).

Almost all of the figures are labelled with their own name, some with the addition of ‘US VIC’: ‘US’ probably stands for the ending of the name, while VIC(TOR) identifies the winner. In an exhaustive study published in 1961, Rocchetti observed that onomastics alone could not be used as proof of a late date for the mosaics. In any case, the names seem to have been very common in antiquity. The name Mazicinus was very common in Africa, and identifies the gladiator as a barbarian, since linked to the Mazices, a people of Mauretania Tingitana. It appears with the spelling Matziceus in a funerary mosaic in the Christian basilica in Kelibia. The name Alumnus is documented in the third century and is found in the mosaic of athletes in the Lateran. Callimorfus, a name documented in numerous variants, is found in the mosaic of Cecilianus with Circus scenes in Barcelona. And Serpentius was the name of one of the last emperors of the Western Empire.

The clothing of the first gladiator on the left, portrayed on two carefully aligned panels, identifies him as a secutor, with a smooth, dome-shaped helmet – that gives the adversary nothing to grip – and a gladius, or short sword. In the arena, this class of gladiator was pitted against a retiarius, evoked in this mosaic by a broken trident.

The secutor is wearing a simple galea on his head, with the part covering his face rendered in yellow and the rest a greenish-bronze hue. The two parts are held together with strips of red, possibly pieces of leather that would have made it easier to put on, and a piece of grey fabric protects his neck. His right arm is covered with a lavishly decorated sleeve, embellished with red trim and six gold-edged flaps with laces. In his right hand, which is covered by a piece of armour decorated with a red cross on a yellow background, he brandishes a dagger, ready to strike his adversary. He wears a grey and white subligaculum around his hips, held up by a belt called a balteus, which is decorated with squares divided into black and yellow triangles. Ribbons hang down from his knees and his feet are protected by bandages that come up to his calves. The figure is captured just as he is about to deliver the final blow to his adversary. The muscles in his back are clearly defined and his body leans forward, his left foot supporting the surge. The next secutor, Mazicinus, depicted from a ‘bird’s eye view’ that was very popular in the third century, is lying on the ground under his shield, killed by the retiarius Alumnus. The concave, dark green shield is decorated with a net-like pattern of red and yellow lines and a central medallion embellished with a lozenge divided into red and yellow rectangles. His feet, turned to the right, stick out at the top and are wrapped in grey bandages. His dagger lies on the ground near his head. The retiarius Alumnus, standing to the right, is also portrayed across two perfectly aligned panels. His upper body is slightly turned, and he looks directly at the viewer. His right arm is raised, and he brandishes a dagger called a sica, dripping with blood, in a sign of victory. Behind his head and shoulder, we can glimpse a piece of metal armour called a galerus, which was typical of this gladiator class. His left arm is covered with a lavishly decorated sleeve similar to that of Mazicinus, with a disc-shaped decorative element on his shoulder. His colourful balteus, which holds the white and grey subligaculum around his waist, is decorated with symmetrical vertical stripes of dark red, red, purple and yellow and fastened with a green fibula.

The next gladiator, indicated as a victor, is wearing the clothing typical of the hoplomachus, including a lavishly worked galea, a pierced visor and a bronze crest. The lower part of his left leg is protected by a greave and his right arm is covered with a bronze scaled sleeve. There is a smaller-scale figure, labelled IDEVSR, overlooking the scene in the upper middle of the composition. This is probably an incitator, whose job was to urge the combatants to fight in the arena, although it could also be an evocation of the winner. He is young, with long hair and wears a loincloth. His right arm is wrapped in a length of brown fabric, and he holds a leather whip in his raised left hand. The next figure, the retiarius Callimorfus, is lying on the ground, dying from a chest wound. His right arm is draped over his head, and he has let his dagger drop to the ground. His face expresses his suffering.

The venatores on the right are in the midst of a victorious struggle with two panthers, one of which has already fallen to the ground, while the other lunges ferociously towards his adversary. The hunter at the top is only partially preserved, and we can see his white tunic with black trim and a gold orbicula, all of which Canina notes are accurately described according to common practice at the end of the third century CE. The hunter at the bottom is labelled with the name Serpentius and wears a lavish white and grey tunic decorated with polychrome geometric embellishments. His left arm and back are protected by a richly decorated piece of armour. He wears shoes and his calves are wrapped with laces. The figure is shown from behind, in the midst of running the animal through with his spear, blood flowing copiously from the wound.

Although enough survives that we can understand the imagery overall, the losses and past restoration work, which changed the original design, do present some challenges for our interpretation of the mosaic.  At the end of the second century CE, the practice of decorating the home with scenes of munera gladiatoria and venationes, in celebration of the virtutes and merits of the patron, spread across Italy. Mosaic decoration could be limited to panels decorated with isolated subjects or a single narrative frieze with more complex scenes.

The emblema type is represented by two mosaics unearthed along Via Appia and now in the archaeological museum of Madrid. The first, discovered in 1720 near the church of Quo Vadis, probably decorated the floor of a room in a funerary building. Only two polychrome images of quadrigas survive; the gladiator scenes are known solely from two paintings in the Eton Collection. The second, discovered in 1670 in the Orto del Carciofolo, outside Porta Capena, and also comprising just two polychrome figured emblemata, must have decorated the walls of the baths in a vast building.

An example of a continuous narrative with hunting scenes is found in a polychrome floor mosaic from a room in a domus on the Aventine Hill, dating to the fourth century CE (Blake 1940, p. 118, pl. 30).

As for the Borghese mosaic, the scant information about the context in which it was discovered, save for Luigi Canina’s publication, means that it can only be dated based on stylistic analysis, which points to between the third and fourth centuries CE.

Giulia Ciccarello

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  • Scheda di catalogo 12/01008370, P. Moreno 1975; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020