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Three Antioch dining rooms

Janet Huskinson

Dining rooms feature regularly in the study of Roman floor-mosaics. They were important reception rooms in the house, where the patron could display to visitors unmistakable signs of his status and culture; and more specifically, the figured scenes in their mosaic pavements tended to reflect the wining and dining that happened there, as well as other kinds of entertainment. As they were often distinctively shaped (with places for the couches, in various arrangements) they are more easily identifiable in terms of function than are many other rooms. So altogether dining-rooms offer some useful opportunities for considering floor-mosaics in their social and cultural setting, as I hope to show with a brief discussion of some examples from Antioch on the Orontes in Syria.

The floor-mosaics from Antioch are of course famous as a sequence which stretches from the late first to the sixth centuries AD. Although many were found in isolation, with little in the way of surrounding walls from which to restore the building-plan, it does seem that the great majority had decorated private houses. Where house-plans can be reconstructed the dining room was often sited in a co-ordinated arrangement, with an entrance lobby, and then some kind of courtyard beyond with a pool or fountain. So diners were 'invited' into the room itself, and from their couches often found themselves facing relaxing views, of water playing outside or even the sea beyond, and also of the mosaics on the floor.

In their first major publication, by Doro Levi in Antioch Mosaic Pavements (Princeton 1947), the floor-mosaics of Antioch were described in detail and discussed in terms of their iconography and composition. This work has had a major influence on the subsequent study of the Antioch pavements. The emphasis has largely been on their style and iconography, although regional studies have grown in importance: Janine Balty, for instance, has drawn Antioch examples into her work on mosaics from the whole of Syria, while Claudine Dauphin made some interesting connections between Antioch and Palestine in her more quantitative research on mosaics in the Levant.[1] But a recent trend in interests has opened up a different approach, which sets the mosaic pavements of Antioch in the wider context of the city's cultural life. Christine Kondoleon's contributions in the catalogue Antioch: The Lost Ancient City illustrate this well.[2] Using the kind of multi-disciplinary approach she took so effectively in her book on the pavements of the House of Dionysus at Paphos, she has analysed the mosaics of three particular houses in Antioch in terms of the impact that they may have had on viewers in cognitive and in visual terms.[3] Dining rooms (triclinia) are obviously important in this since their images offered a particular range of experiences to the diner: Kondoleon herself unpacks the symbolism of the scenes that decorate the floor of the triclinium in the Atrium House. These reminded diners of the delights and dangers of Dionysiac pleasures (in the entrance mosaics), and also offered them more philosophical topics to reflect upon as they gazed down from their couches at images of the Judgement of Paris and of Aphrodite and Adonis. Kondoleon's work is important for its emphasis on cultural ideas, which can unlock a range of meanings for the mosaics scarcely considered before. For the iconography of wining and dining Katherine Dunbabin has provided a series of crucial articles which identify some of the practicalities of these occasions, but which also set them in historical context, in the social and cultural life of the city.[4] This paper is particularly indebted to the work of these scholars.

Dining rooms at Antioch are such a rich source of evidence for the culture and society in Roman Antioch, not just because they provide a rare opportunity to match room function and decoration, but also because the layout of three couches was Roman in background, whilst most of the figured decoration was Hellenistic in tradition.[5] In triclinia the three couches were set out around a figured scene which diners could view as they reclined at their meal. In its simplest lay-out the couches rested on a plainer area, the shape of a rectilinear U, with the figured decoration in a single framed panel between; but in more expansive versions the decoration comprised several scenes arranged like a (rather squat) letter T (as in the Atrium House, or in Room 13 of the House of Menander). There are many examples of these arrangements at Antioch, and one instance of the later horseshoe layout for the sigma couch.[6] But each case gives an opportunity for the diners to interact with the images set below their couches: Kondoleon noted how the panel of Aphrodite and Adonis in the Atrium House faced diners on the prestigious top couch and gave them a chance to see themselves 'reflected in the divine pair', dissolving barriers between the real and the represented.

The three triclinium pavements considered here are all much simpler in design than the Atrium House with only a single figured scene, but they have many of the same elements in terms of content. They offer a variety of images, with which the ancient viewer might have engaged with in different ways. (Surprisingly few figured scenes in Antioch triclinia actually show things to do with eating and drinking.[7])

The House of Menander, Daphne (Room 11)

This is quite a small, intimate room in one of the largest houses discovered in Daphne. Levi dated the mosaics to the second half of the third century, but the house itself seems to have been remodelled during its long period of occupation and its architectural history is not entirely clear.[8] However, it had several triclinia, which highlight the importance of the symposium in Antioch's high society.

This particular scene gave the house its modern name. It shows Menander reclining on a couch at a table, with Glykera and Comedy (Komodia) standing beside him; all the figures are identified by inscription.[9] Menander wears a wreath of leaves, and Comedy holds a mask and staff with another mask placed on a box by her feet. Menander was one of the most popular playwrights at this time and Comedy represents his craft. Although Glykera was a leading character in one of his plays, the Perikeiromene, this woman is more likely to be Menander's mistress who had the same name. Certainly there are strong erotic undercurrents to the scene (with the exchanged glances and Menander's muscular physique) which evoke the festive mood of the drinking party.

But this is more than a simple image of a symposium. Menander's work was often recitated at dinner parties, as Plutarch describes in Convivial Questions 712B. So at a simple level this image can be explained as alluding to the kind of 'dinner-time' entertainments that happened at symposia: recitations, music and 'intellectual' chat. But the fact that the depicted figures are themselves shown at a drinking-party adds an element of reflexivity to the image and its dynamic in the decoration of the room: diners would have gazed down at Menander, reclining in a typical symposium scene, as they too lay on their couches to listen to recitations from his plays. It is as if the mosaic scene has turned him into another guest to join the party and to entertain the others — a real social coup by the host!

A similar effect is found in another small triclinium in the house (room 19), where the figured scene depicts a man and woman reclining at a banquet, with a small maidservant and a girl performing on the harp. Here again there is a direct link between the image and the viewers' own activities in the rooms: the depiction of after-dinner entertainments is a way of involving the real-life diners, and also visually represents the particular function of the room in the social life of the house.

House of Dionysus and Ariadne, Seleucia

In contrast to these two images which reinforce the idea of the real entertainments that guests enjoyed at dinner, the decoration of the next dining room appears to offer them an other-worldly experience. Dionysiac scenes were — not surprisingly — very popular in Antioch pavements at this time. They were part of the mythological repertory inherited from the Hellenistic period; and of course they offered a lot of images and ideas to do with drinking and celebration, including moralistic values about the dangers of excess (as Kondoleon shows in her analysis of the Drinking Contest between Heracles and Dionysus in the Atrium House). But they could also contain a spiritual value, since Dionysus remained a powerful deity in the Greek east well into late antiquity.

This pavement in the House of Dionysus and Ariadne at Seleucia dates to the late second or early third century.[10] This was a small, hillside house, with a strong Dionysiac theme to its surviving mosaics.

Behind a portico decorated with Dionysiac dancers and a scene of Perseus and Andromeda (its other panels are lost) are two triclinia. In one the floor-mosaic is virtually all destroyed, but in the other it is well-preserved. Enclosed by plainer surfaces on which the couches would have stood is an elaborately framed panel which would have been the focal point for diners. In the centre Dionysus is shown standing over Ariadne as she sleeps in a rocky landscape, with a small Eros hovering above. The god's face is destroyed, but he gestures as if in amazement; his pose is solemn and statuesque. In a symmetrical arrangement at the sides, in front of some rather schematized buildings, a maenad (left) and bearded satyr or Silenus (right), stand half-facing this central encounter. The maenad wears a long-sleeved chiton with high belt and wreath, and holds an empty cup in her left hand; the satyr too is wreathed, and carries an empty cup and a thyrsus. These two figures are familiar from many other dining rooms in Antioch and beyond, and in fact also appear as dancers in the adjacent portico. But in this mosaic they stand with a quiet sobriety, half-turning to witness the mythological event and also to look out at the real-life diners: they seem to bridge the gap between myth and reality. This function is emphasised by the fact that the satyr wears traditional theatrical dress, the woolly body-suit traditionally worn by the Papposilenos in Greek theatre; it is a detail which reinforces the illusionism of this mosaic, also to be found in the architectural setting which resembles a rather minimalistic stage-set.

Taken together, therefore, these figures evoke the divinity of Dionysus as he confronts the mortal world, embodied by Ariadne. Rather than contributing to an atmosphere of festivity, loosened by the god of wine, this triclinium scene seems to offer a spiritual encounter to diners. The episode at its centre represents the union of immortal and mortal, through the god of wine, while the two figures at the side seem to be drawing the human diners into contemplation of this mystic experience, or perhaps even, to participate. Here is a moment which transcends the physical and material experience of wining and dining.

Virtually all the figures and subjects discussed so far have come from a traditional Hellenistic cultural world — mythological and intellectual — which is not surprising for Antioch. The final example is somewhat different.

House of Cilicia, Seleucia

This floor-mosaic decorated a dining room (Room I) in the House of Cilicia at Seleucia, but now only survives in various pieces.[11] Nevertheless its layout was clearly typical of Antiochene triclinia with the central figured scene surrounded on three sides by a border of a geometric 'coffering' pattern. The corners of the border were filled with roundels with busts of river personifications, facing diagonally outwards. Two survive, in which the personifications are shown nude apart from mantles across their shoulders and crowns of weed on their hair. They are distinguished by inscription as Tigris, who has shaggy hair and beard, and a more youthful Pyramos, who is beardless. The central panel of the mosaic was damaged in antiquity and by the time of excavation the left-hand side was also largely lost. The fragments of the original scene show two women in rather an empty landscape. The left-hand figure seems to have been reclining on the ground, holding a cornucopia. The figure on the right, half-turned to face the centre, is identified as a personification of Kilikia. She sits on rocks in front of a pillar and tree, and holds a fan in her right hand, lifting her left hand to her face. She wears a mural crown, pearl earrings, and heavy mantle enveloping most of her body, and as Levi noted, she looks very like the famous statue of the 'Tyche of Antioch'.[12] Pyramos was a river in Cilicia. As the Tigris is here, some people have suggested that another river was the Euphrates, and one of the other personifications Mesopotamia. If indeed there was a third figure, then there is the attractive possibility that the she was Syria, lying between Cilicia and Mesopotamia, and the two missing rivers were the Orontes and Euphrates.

What we have here are personifications to do with the Roman empire. Cilicia was a neighbouring province to Syria in which Antioch was situated. There are no recorded personifications of Cilicia before the Roman period, so although the figure looks so thoroughly Hellenistic in style, the context is definitely a Roman political geography.

Even if there is a lot that is conjectural about this mosaic, its theme of geographical personifications can be said to suggest something about the location of this part of the world in the context of the Roman empire. The personifications — rivers and regions — follow traditional Hellenistic figure-types, but their combination in this pavement seems to pick up on the imagery of Roman imperial triumphs.[13] In this, it is a unique subject in the dining rooms of Antioch.[14]

These three mosaics are good illustrations of the variety of images in triclinia pavements, and of the various ways is which they engaged with the real-life diner. In the first two cases this relationship seems quite intimate: it offers the possibilities of some interaction between the depicted image and the guests, as they 'listened' to Menander or witnessed the mystic Dionysiac event. Was some similar interaction expected in the 'Cicilia' imagery? That is harder to see; but there may be some clue in the political history of Antioch at this time. During campaigns on the eastern frontier in the later second century AD emperors frequently resided there, and this house may have been used by someone with more 'Roman' political interests. But though Antioch had a turbulent history in terms of external events, mosaics show little of this.

On the other hand triclinia pavements clearly show the mix of cultural references contained, and presented to diners in Antioch for their contemplation and enjoyment. In these examples the iconography and figure style is deeply Hellenistic, even in the 'Roman' image of Cilicia.

Their subject matter included imagery which touches on two central aspects of society in the Greek east during the Roman empire: Greek literary culture, and its use by patrons to represent their social standing and aspirations, and the power of Dionysus, not just in wining and dining, but as a divinity. Given the strength of this Hellenic influence 'Romanization' was scarcely visible in the decoration of these Antioch triclinia.


1E.g. J. Balty, Mosaïques antiques du proche-orient. Chronologie, iconographie, interprétation, Annales littéraires de l'Université de Besançon 550 (Paris, 1995); C. Dauphin, 'Mosaic pavements as an index of prosperity and fashion', Levant 12 (1980) 112–134.
2C. Kondoleon, Antioch: The Lost Ancient City (Princeton, in association with the Worcester Art Museum, 2000).
3C. Kondoleon, Domestic and Divine. Roman Mosaics in the House of Dionysos (Ithaca and London, 1994).
4E.g. K.M.D. Dunbabin, 'Wine and water at the Roman convivium', Journal of Roman Archaeology 3 (1993) 116–141; 'Convivial spaces: dining and entertainment in the Roman villa', Journal of Roman Archaeology 9 (1996) 66–80; 'Ut Graeco more biberetur: Greeks and Romans on the dining couch' in edd. I. Nielsen and H.S. Nielsen, Meals in a Social Context: Aspects of the Communal Meal in the Hellenistic and Roman World (Aarhus, 1998) 81–101.
5Dunbabin, op. cit. (1998) 95–98: the Roman form was itself probably influenced by the arrangement in Hellenistic palatial halls.
6House of the Buffet Supper: D. Levi, Antioch Mosaic Pavements (Princeton, 1947) 127–136.
7E.g. the 'Buffet Supper' and the many images to do with Dionysus such as the Drinking Contest with Heracles in the Atrium House.
8Levi, op. cit., 198–216.
9The Art Museum, Princeton University 40.435; Levi, op. cit., 201–203, and Kondoleon, op. cit. (2000), 156 no. 40.
10Hatay Museum no. 945c; Levi op. cit., 141–156; pl. XXVII–IX.
11Levi, op. cit., 57–59, fig. 21, pl. IX b–d. The pavement was split up: the Kilikia panel is now in Norman University of Oklahoma [M126,A]; the Tigris panel in Detroit Institute of Arts [40.127]; and Pyramos in Smith College Museum of Art [1938.14].
12Levi, op. cit., 58–59.
13For similar imagery: the mosaic from Mas'udije, Syria, dated to AD 228/9, which showed Euphrates between two female personifications taken to be Syria and Mesopotamia: Levi, op. cit., 394–395, fig. 154; 540, fig. 203.
14For emperors in Antioch at this time: G. Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria (Princeton, 1961) 225–235.

© Janet Huskinson 2002. This article was originally published in Mosaic 29 (2002) 21–23.
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