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Floor Mosaic with Gladiators and Hunters

Roman art

This mosaic, which was found along with four others of similar size and two smaller ones, must have originally decorated the floor of a cryptoporticus in a suburban villa that was excavated in 1834 on the Borghese estate at Torrenova, along Via Casilina, for the prince Francesco Borghese Aldobrandini. It is embellished with hunting scenes (venationes) and gladiator combat (munera), in keeping with the custom of displaying self-celebratory imagery in the domus. The gladiator scenes depict the concluding moments of arena combat, with three pairs of gladiators, each labelled with his own name. Numerous scholars have dated the mosaic to between the third and fourth century CE.

Object details

III-IV secolo d.C.
marble tesserae
5387 X 2246 cm

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

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • XIX secolo - Interventi nel fondo monocromo bianco
  • 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


The panel, displayed opposite the door to Room 4, depicts two scenes of gladiator combat, called munera. The mosaic, composed of reassembled fragments, has a large lacuna in the middle that was filled with white tesserae by the restorers. On the left, we see three pairs of gladiators of different types, each labelled with his own name, at the end of combat. The first pair comprises the winner, Talamonius, who towers over the retiarius Aurius. Talamonius, who is turned towards the spectator, has long hair (a typical marker of barbarians) and wears scaled armour that covers his chest and right arm. His subligaculum, a kind of undergarment, is cinched by a belt called a balteus, and his left shin is protected by a brightly coloured greave called an ocrea. In a sign of victory, his left foot steps on the upturned palm of Aurius, who lies on the ground in an unnatural pose that underlines his death. Aurius, a retiarius, also has long hair and wears a metal shoulder guard called a galerus, detached from his back and his hand, and a balteus decorated with alternating green and red embellishments. His body is surrounded by his weapons and the letter ‘theta’, indicating his death.

Above, rendered in perspective, we see the retiarius Cupido, dying on the ground, felled by the secutor Bellerefons. The figures are represented on a strip of yellow tesserae meant to evoke the ground in the arena. Cupido is portrayed with long hair like the two previous figures and wears a galerus that sticks out behind his head; he also has a trident, the shaft of which we can see behind him. The secutor Bellerefons, who is kneeling, is portrayed just as he is about to deal the fatal blow, having flung his adversary’s shield out of reach. His head is covered by a galea and he wears a balteus around his waist decorated with yellow and red geometric embellishments.

In the middle of the composition, we find the kneeling figure of the retiarius Melea, who brandishes a long dagger in his right hand. His right arm is probably restored, while his chest is covered with colourful geometric embellishments, a rectangle and a circle, the latter with a red cross in the middle. In front of the gladiator’s left knee, we see the foot of the next figure, who is lying on the ground. He is probably a secutor, his legs wrapped with bands and his right arm protected by a yellow sleeve bound with strips of red leather.  He holds a long dagger in his right hand and his left arm, which supports his upper body, rests on what might be the inside of a shield. Blood drips from his stomach to the ground. Behind him, in the middle ground, we see a young man in smaller scale labelled with the name Eliacer. He is wearing a white loincloth and holds up a length of fabric with his left arm. His right arm holds back a horse, part of which is lost. He could be an incitator, whose role was to goad the combatants into fighting, or an evocation of the winner. The last gladiator on the right, Pampineus, is a cataphractus, a class of gladiator who wore full armour. His head is protected by a galea and he wears a surcoat cinched around the waist by a balteus and yellow greaves on his legs. His one visible arm is covered with a scaled sleeve. In his left hand, he holds a richly decorated shield, while he deals a blow with his right to a figure that is entirely lost except for one foot.

The mosaic was discovered, along with four other large ones and two smaller ones, in 1834, during the excavation of the Borghese estate in Vermicino-Quarto della Giostra (a hamlet of Torrenova on Via Casilina) for the prince D. Francesco Borghese Aldobrandini. Luigi Canina, who was present during the excavation, believed that the complex had been already found two centuries earlier and that the name of the site derived from the term used at the time for gladiator games. The mosaics decorated the floor of a room in a lavish suburban villa. As reported by Canina, 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 mosaic was removed using the strappo method and brought to Rome, where it was kept in the Casino dell’Orologio until 1839. After being restored by Gaetano Ruspi and Filippo Scaccia, the mosaics were installed in the Salone, where Giuseppe Santalmassi made drawings and engravings of them. The only parts of the original composition that survive are the ones with figures, measuring a total of 27.9 metres, while the meander borders are lost. The composition overall comprises multiple scenes of a single event, illustrated in a single narrative frieze. The themes are gladiator combat, munera, and hunting, venationes, with the action taking place on fields of yellow and green tesserae representing the ground, against an all-white background. The figures wear elaborate, colourful clothing decorated with geometric embellishments called orbiculi.

Luigi Rocchetti, who published one of the first exhaustive studies on the mosaics in 1961, noted that the gladiators in the present panel are portrayed in a more detailed way compared to the more summary rendering of the features of the hunters in the other panels. The physical features of the figures seem to be especially accentuated in the rendering of the musculature of the arms and legs, in keeping with the taste of the late Severan period. But, even more striking, the unnatural features of the fallen, the retiarii Aurius and Cupido, like the sunken eyes, deformed features and dishevelled hair, seem aimed to inspire pity.  This is what is sometimes called Roman ‘expressionism’, the opposite of late Hellenistic classicism, κοσμιότης, or the ‘composed beauty’ found on monuments with scenes of battle from the second half of the third century, fruit of the Gallienic Renaissance. In particular, the unruly locks of the portrait of Gallienus in the Museo delle Terme, Rome (Felletti Maj 1953, no. 304) and a head from the same period in the Altes Museum, Berlin (Bovini 1941, p. 149, fig. 13).

As for the clothing, Rocchetti held that the geometric orbiculi, like those on the garments worn by the retiarius Melea, are of a mature form typical of the post-Diocletian period. This type of embellishment is especially found in exemplars from the fourth century CE, like the Piazza Armerina mosaic.

Turning to epigraphy, the style of a few of the letters, like the ‘L’ in Bellerefons, with a down-turned lower oblique stroke, confirm the dating, in the author’s view, between the third and fourth centuries. While the ‘A’ in Aurius, with a marked 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). Lastly, the names Cupido and Aura, referring to two horses, are found in a mosaic unearthed in Sousse and rendered in a way very similar to those in the Borghese mosaic.

Starting at the end of the second century CE, the themes of the munera gladiatoriae and venationes were primarily found in Italy in private contexts, where the decoration was aimed to exalt and self-celebrate the prestige and virtutes of the dominus. In Petronius’s Satyricon, the house of the freedman Trimalchio is richly decorated with frescoes depicting gladiatorial scenes already in the first century CE. Mosaic decoration could comprise isolated subjects set in frames within complex decorative compositions or more complicated imagery treated like a narrative frieze. A continuous narrative in polychrome mosaic with venationes scenes was found on the Aventine Hill in Rome and probably decorated the floor of a lavish domus dating to the fourth century CE (Blake 1940, p. 118, pl. 30).

Other examples include two emblemata found along Via Appia and now in the archaeological museum of Madrid. All that remains of the first, unearthed in 1720 near the church of Domine Quo Vadis, are two polychrome pictures of quadrigas, while the figures of the gladiators are known only through two paintings in the Eton collection. These fragments must have been from a large floor decoration divided into squares, inside a space in a funerary monument. As for the second, of which all that remains are two polychrome figured emblemata, it must have decorated the walls the baths in a vast building discovered in 1670 in the Orto del Carciofolo, outside Porta Capena.

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 12/01008371, P. Moreno 1975; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020