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Focus on a mosaic

ΣYΝΑΡΙΣΤΩΣΑΣ or ‘The breakfasters’

The mosaic with the 3 seated figures (news 6th August) was revealed by the French team, directed by Catherine Abadie-Reynal, in the high-status residence in Trench 6. To one of the archaeologists, Aurélia Masson, the imagery of the mosaic was immediately familiar and below she recounts the initial results of her detective work to learn more about it.

A conversation piece

This mosaic is located in what was probably the triclinium or dining room of this richly decorated house. It is of a very high quality and in a near perfect state of preservation. The mosaic is made up of three main elements. A geometric border surrounds the main panel on three sides indicating where the couches for the diners would have originally been placed. The frame details lively images of cupids fighting with wild animals (lion, panther etc.) while the garlanded heads of men and women gaze from the corners and axis. Finally the striking central panel (1,75m x 1,50m) is framed by a finely interwoven band and is positioned facing the diners once they were seated on the couches to the west . The theme of the mosaic would have provided a ‘talking point’ for the dinner guests.


Central panel showing "the breakfasters"

The central panel

The scene shows 3 women and 2 young girls against an architectural backdrop. Two of the women are seated on a couch covered with a blue-green fabric; they are turned towards each other as if in conversation. In front of them, is a round three-legged table on which there is a metal bowl. The third woman, slightly further away to the right of the table, sits on a solium, a high seat with a concave back, her white hair, covered with a veil shows her to be older than the other seated women. One of the two young girls is offering her a bowl, while the other stands behind the couch to the left of the scene.

The inscription

An inscription that should be read as one word is visible above the women; Synaristosai, (ΣΥΝΑΡΙΣTΩΣΑΣ), or ‘the breakfasters’. It refers to the title of a play by Menander, a Greek comedy from the 4th century BCE. Two possible comparisons for the mosaics are immediately apparent. The first is a small panel with very fine tesserae, conserved at the National Museum of Archaeology in Naples. This is from the supposed villa of Cicero at Pompeii, and is known under the name ‘the magicians’. The second, later and in a coarser style, belongs to a group found in the so-called house of Menander on the Greek Island of Lesbos. The inscriptions on the series of panels of the Lesbos house modified the original interpretation of the mosaic at Naples. Apart from the title of the comedy, (which is in the genitive while that at Zeugma is in the accusative), the Lesbos mosaic provides us with the name of 3 female characters ΦІΛΑΙΝΙΣ (Philainis), ΠΛΑΓΜΑΓΩΝ (Plagnaigon), and ΠΥΕΙΑΣ (Pyeias).

Comparisons – Lesbos & Pompeii

The central scenes of these three mosaics are very similar. In each, three women are seated in front of a round table. The bowls recall the theme of dining. Even the detail of the solium, associated with the character of the older woman, is present in the house of Menander mosaic. One difference, however, should be noted; while in the Zeugma panel, two young servants are present, in the other panels there is only a child, also probably a servant. Either the mosaic designers were working from different versions of the comedy or they were limited by space on these smaller panels. As at the house of Menander and at Pompeii, the three women are wearing theatrical masks. However, these masks do not coarsen the form of the face; their features are hardly exaggerated and the mosaic designer has chosen to use the same colour range for the mask and tunic of each woman. All of these elements provide a sense of naturalness and grace that is not apparent in the distorted expressions of the women in the panels at the house of Menander and at Pompeii. If the 2 young girls are not wearing masks it is no doubt because the mutes do not wear them in Greek comedies.

The comedies of Menander were quite a popular theme in classical iconography in Turkey where they inspired the theme of a fresco at Ephesus.

 

Zosimos has made’

A second inscription below the main panel gives us the name of the mosaic creator ΖΩΣΙΜΟΣ ΕΠΟΙΕΙ or ‘Zosimos has made’. It is the same artist who left his name on the mosaic of Aphrodite, found in another house at Zeugma. More extensive research will allow us to make stylistic comparisons and a more detailed interpretation.

This way for the Mosaic Gallery