This mosaic, discovered with four others similar in size and two smaller ones, must have originally decorated the floor of a cryptoporticus in a large domus excavated in 1834 on the Borghese estate at Torrenova, along Via Casilina, for the prince Francesco Borghese Aldobrandini. The mosaics, which depict gladiator combat (munera) and hunting scenes (venationes), would have celebrated the prestige and virtutes of the patron in private spaces. This panel depicts arena combat between three pairs of gladiators in the presence of three incitatores. The figures are labelled with their names.
Scholars have dated the mosaic to between the third and fourth century CE.
Unearthed in 1834 during excavations in a hamlet of Torrenova, along Via Casilina. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.
This mosaic, along with four others of similar size and two smaller ones, came from a large villa discovered on the Borghese estate in a hamlet in Torrenova, in an area called Vermicino-Quarto della Giostra, on Via Casilina. The excavations were carried out in 1834 for the prince D. Francesco Borghese Aldobrandini. Luigi Canina, who was present at the moment of the find, believed that the building was already known two centuries earlier and that the name of the site derived from the term used at the time for gladiator games. According to the architect, the mosaic ‘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 decoration that survives is the part with figures, measuring in total 27.9 metres, while the meander frames are lost. The composition was conceived as a single narrative frieze, depicting the final moments of gladiator combat, munera, and hunting scenes, venationes. Most of the figures are labelled with their names. The figures wear colourful clothing richly decorated with geometric embellishment (orbiculi) and the action plays out on strips of ground defined by yellow and green tesserae against a white background.
The mosaics, which were removed using the strappo method, were brought to the Casino dell’Orologio in Rome, where they were restored by Gaetano Ruspi and Filippo Scaccia, who completed the work in 1839. In the later drawings and engravings by Giuseppe Santalmassi, the panels were in the Salone. The mosaics depict different phases of combat, in some cases showing the fighting underway, in others having concluded. The names of the gladiators appear alongside them and, in two cases, accompanied by the letter Theta, indicating death. On the left, the retiarius Licentiosus is dealing the final blow to the gladiator Purpureus with a dagger he holds in his right hand. Licentiosus, portrayed with long blond hair, is protected by a metal shoulder guard called a galerus that extends to cover almost his entire head. He is wearing a thong (subligaculum) held in place with a belt (balteus) of alternating red and yellow rectangles. His chest is covered with a piece of fabric decorated with a square divided into two colourful triangles. At his feet, Purpureus is stretched out on the ground, dying. He wears a smooth helmet called a galea, a silver cuirass called a subligaculum and a balteus embellished with half crosses. Below this pair, there is a figure smaller in scale, wearing a red thong held in place with a white belt around his hips and a green length of fabric draped over his left arm. This figure, who holds a whip, is probably an incitator, an individual employed by the amphitheatre to urge the gladiators to fight. Turned to the right but without an interlocutor, his position in the mosaic does not seem to be original. Next comes the fight between the retiarius Entinus and the secutor Baccibus. The former has a massive, almost deformed body; the latter, heavily restored, is portrayed fleeing, his back turned to the viewer while looking at his pursuer. Above the two figures is a brown trident, placed horizontally. On the right side of the composition there are two more incitatores, Astacius and Iaculator, in this case both similar in size to the gladiators and holding whips. Below, we see a duel between a hoplomachus (a gladiator class distinguished by heavy armour) named Astivus and a retiarius named Astacius like the incitatore. Astivus is lying on the ground, while his opponent deals the final blow. The dying gladiator wears a balteus around his waist decorated with green squares in a yellow frame, a scaled sleeve and a galeus on his head. Astacius, standing on a diagonally arranged shield, has one arm protected by a scaled metal sleeve and wears a subligaculum held up with a red baleus. All that remains of the last figure on the right, Rodan, is the upper half of his body. He is lying on the ground, dying, his head protected by a galerus. Above him, we see an outstretched arm, which probably belonged to a now lost figure.
Luigi Rocchetti, who published an exhaustive article on the mosaics in 1961, dated them to between the late third and early fourth centuries CE, based on various observations. The scholar notes great attention to the physiognomy of the gladiators in contrast to that of the venatores in the other panels and even an almost caricature-like treatment of the features of some of the fighters, one example being the exaggerated musculature of the secutor Baccibus. Emphasis is placed on the plasticity and facial features of the figures in the arena, in accordance with what is sometimes called Roman ‘expressionism’, the opposite of late Hellenistic classicism, κοσμιότης, or the ‘composed beauty’ found in monuments with scenes of battle from the second half of the third century, fruit of the Gallienic Renaissance. The incitatores are instead flat and inexpressive, with minimal anatomical detail and portrayed with rigid frontality, empty gazes and identical hair. The cookie-cutter, repetitive rendering suggests a single model was used. As for the clothing, Rocchetti notes that this type of geometric embellishment, called orbiculi, was especially widespread starting in the post-Diocletian period, as attested by various fourth-century exemplars, including the Piazza Armerina mosaic. Turning to epigraphy, the style of some of the letters, like the ‘A’ in Astacius, with the oblique stroke sticking out on the right, is also found in the edict on prices issued by Diocletian in 301 CE. (Hübner 1885, p. 387, no. 1097). Starting at the end of the second century CE, the themes munera gladiatoria and venationes were primarily found in Italy in private contexts, where the decoration was aimed to exalt and self-celebrate the prestige and virtues of the master of the house. In Petronius’s Satyricon, we find frescoes depicting gladiatorial scenes decorating the house of the freedman Trimalchio, already in the first century CE. Mosaic decoration could comprise isolated subjects set in frames within complex decorative compositions or more structured imagery treated like a single narrative frieze.
There are numerous exemplars in Rome from private contexts. One, a polychrome mosaic with hunting scenes, arranged to form a single narrative, decorated a state room in a fourth-century domus found on the Aventine Hill (Blake 1940, p. 118, pl. 30).
The emblema type is represented by two mosaics unearthed along Via Appia and now in the archaeological museum of Madrid. All that remains of the first, unearthed in 1720 near the church of Quo Vadis, are two polychrome pictures of quadrigas, while the figures of the gladiators are known solely through two paintings in the Eton collection. The mosaic must have been part of a large floor decoration divided into squares, inside a space in a funerary monument. The second, of which all that remains are two polychrome figured emblemata, must have decorated the walls of the baths in a vast building discovered in 1670 in the Orto del Carciofolo, outside Porta Capena.
In the absence of information about the context in which it was discovered, save for Luigi Canina’s publication, the Borghese mosaic can be dated to between the third and fourth centuries CE, based primarily on stylistic analysis.