According to Greek legend, the city of Troy (in modern Turkey) was besieged for ten years by the Achaeans, a coalition of Mycenaean Greeks fighting to recover Helen of Sparta, who had been led away from her husband by the Trojan prince Paris. This war has inspired countless retellings, including Homer’s 8th-century BC Iliad, an epic poem focusing on a period of a few weeks in the final year of the conflict. How far did Homer’s version influence later representations of the Trojan War and its protagonists? A mosaic recently excavated in Rutland offers tantalising clues about the myth’s reception in Roman Britain.
The first hints of the mosaic’s presence emerged last year, when Jim Irvine spotted pottery fragments and intriguing cropmarks on farmland owned by his father Brian Naylor. Jim contacted Leicestershire County Council’s archaeology team, and Historic England secured funding for the site to be investigated by the University of Leicester Archaeology Services (ULAS), after which geophysical surveys combining magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar revealed a sprawling late Roman villa complex complete with barns and potential bathhouses. Some of these structures were explored further through excavation – and within one apsidal structure, buried beneath 30-40cm of rubble, was the impressive 11m by 7m mosaic depicting the Greek hero Achilles and Hector, leader of the Trojan forces.
The excavated scenes will be broadly recognisable to any readers familiar with the Iliad, representing a dramatic section of the poem immediately after Hector has killed Patroclus, a beloved companion of Achilles. The grief-stricken Achilles kills Hector in turn, but his revenge is not complete: he degrades the Trojan’s corpse by dragging it behind his chariot, until King Priam of Troy pays a ransom for his son’s body.
In the Rutland version of the narrative, three oblong panels dynamically depict Achilles’ triumph over Hector, the dragging of his body, and his return to Priam – but with an element of dramatic licence, as John Thomas, Deputy Director of ULAS and project manager on the excavations, told CA. ‘There’s nothing like it from the UK, but consultation with my Leicester colleague Jane Masséglia suggests this isn’t a precise retelling of the scenes in the Iliad,’ he said. ‘In the first panel you have Hector and Achilles facing off on chariots, but if you read the Iliad, you’ll find that they actually fought on foot, so that’s a distinct change from Homer’s version.’ While the second panel, which shows the dragging of Hector’s corpse, does fit with the Homeric narrative, John added, in the Iliad the gods protected Hector’s body from harm, while the mosaicist created a grislier image with blood flowing from the Trojan’s wounds.
The most significant diversion, however, comes in the final panel, which depicts King Priam’s ransom of Hector. In the mosaic, a figure holding a giant set of scales weighs Hector’s body against gold vessels that his father heaps on to the other side. In Book 22 of the Iliad, Homer has Achilles initially refusing to return Hector’s body, even if his father should offer him the prince’s weight in gold. His defiance is not taken literally, though – Hector’s corpse is exchanged for gold and other items delivered by Priam. The weighing scene does feature in a later Greek dramatisation of the Trojan War, however: Phrygians, part of a lost trilogy by Aeschylus (c.525-c.455 BC). ‘Aeschylus added that scene for dramatic effect because it would have been shown on stage,’ John explained, ‘so it seems that what we’re seeing here is a mishmash of different interpretations of that story that made their way into this Roman retelling.’
The inclusion of the weighing scene is unusual, but one broadly contemporary parallel does exist, John noted: a late 4th-century mosaic from a villa at Caddeddi in Sicily, which once had 12 panels illustrating the Trojan War, includes the motif (see https://the-past.com/feature/living-in-luxury-in-rural-sicily-the-late-roman-villa-of-caddeddi).
Searching for a source
ULAS’ finds indicate that the Rutland villa was occupied between the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, though details of the mosaic might hint at the site enduring longer. Anthony Beeson, who specialises in Romano-British mosaics and Classical iconography has drawn comparisons with the late 4th-century mosaic excavated at Boxford in Berkshire (CA 333 and 371), which depicts Greek mythological figures including the heroes Pelops and Bellerophon, the latter’s winged steed Pegasus, and the monster Chimaera. Anthony said the Rutland floor looks similarly late, probably having been laid in the late 4th or even the early 5th century AD. This is based on similarities of style in the figure-work with mosaics at Boxford and Croughton, and from the outfits worn by Priam’s royal retainers, which resemble costumes from the 5th-century Vergilius Romanus manuscript, an illustrated collection of works by the Roman poet Virgil (c.70-19 BC; his Aeneid chronicles the aftermath of the Trojan War from the Trojans’ perspective, and the episode of Dido and Aeneas appears on another 4th-century mosaic, at Low Ham in Somerset). Might this apparent flourishing of enthusiasm for Classical stories in later Roman Britain, displayed in such an ostentatious way, suggest that changes were afoot, prompting the elites to visibly reassert their cultural interests?
As for the imagery’s origins, David Neal, an expert on and illustrator of Romano-British mosaics who was a key member of the Rutland team, has suggested that its scenes could have been copied from an illustrated manuscript book. ‘The rectangular shape of the panels corresponds to the shape of some manuscript illustrations,’ David told CA. ‘The continuity of the scenes/subjects between the “pages” is also very well done indeed, and I do not see it being the inspiration of a mosaicist but a copy taken from a book, possibly owned by the villa proprietor. Another reason for this suggestion is the colouration. There are many shades of tesserae, particularly on the man holding the scales, which to my mind is a fair copy of an illuminated manuscript. I must point out, however, that in places the mosaic is seriously burnt and in certain conditions the tesserae will change their colours within minutes.’
A dramatic display
Like its counterpart at Caddeddi, the Rutland mosaic is located in what was perhaps the main dining space or reception room of an elite country residence. The room in which it was laid had an apse at the northern end, which may have been vaulted. ‘This is a very ostentatious show of wealth,’ John said, noting that his team found polished pieces of marble in the room (perhaps from benches or the bases of columns), as well as traces of painted wall plaster. ‘No doubt the walls were, to our tastes, horribly decorated with garish colours, [but] they might have complemented the scenes on the floor,’ John said. Within the apsidal end of the space, the tesserae flooring is much plainer, which might suggest that this is where the guests would have been seated ‘so that they can see the full glory of the mosaic,’ John said.
The scale of the room’s footings suggest that the building may have had an upper floor, and it is possible that the apse incorporated a large window, he added, which would have helped light the room by throwing sunlight on to the mosaic. ‘We found out in the excavations earlier this year that when the sun shines on it in the right way the figures really pop out,’ John said, noting that the mosaic’s kinetic spectacle is further enhanced by the way in which Hector and Achilles are shown bursting from their frames. While sunlight undoubtedly added drama, an even more immersive experience could have been achieved in dimmer light. ‘If they were entertaining in the evening, by candlelight, potentially, or torchlight, the flickering of those flames would have made it come alive even more, so I’m sure it would have been a proper centrepiece for entertainment,’ John said.
A literary connoisseur?
‘But does this make the inhabitant of a late antique villa in Roman Britain a connoisseur of Homer and Aeschylus?’, asks Peter Kruschwitz, Professor of Ancient Cultural History at the University of Vienna and a specialist in the poetic culture of the Roman Empire. Epigraphic evidence confirms that the Greek language played its role in Roman Britain. Some speakers of Greek even produced Greek poetry in Britain: on Hadrian’s Wall, for example, altars with dedications inscribed in Greek have been found at Maryport and Corbridge (including one commissioned by a woman, ‘Diadora the priestess’), while the latter site has also yielded an ornate gold ring bearing Greek lettering declaring it to be ‘the love token of Polemius’. Nonetheless, an abridged hexameter version of the Iliad was widely disseminated in Latin in the form of the 1st-century AD Ilias Latina, Peter explained, and already Quintus Ennius (c.239-c.169 BC) had adapted the ransom of Hector for the Roman stage, providing another potential Latin source for this episode.
Noting a key difference between the Rutland weighing of Hector (where the scales are yoked around the shoulders of a Trojan retainer) and the Sicilian version of the scene (where the scales are supported by a tripod), Peter suggests a link with performances of Roman popular drama. ‘One might easily imagine staging this topic in a number of different ways. The actual display then would depend on local productions and transformations introduced by specific stage directors and theatre troupes,’ he said.
The villa’s grandeur was not to last, and the mosaic suffered fire damage after the residence fell out of use. The chronology of this decline is still being investigated, but later archaeological finds include two human burials inserted into the rubble of the main mosaic room, at the centre of the apse. This suggests that there was still some upstanding architecture at the time these individuals were interred, and the site seems to have still been attracting attention in the early medieval period. ULAS hopes that radiocarbon dating of the human remains might shed more light on what was happening in Rutland after the end of the imperial occupation. Further clues may also emerge later this year when a joint ULAS/Historic England excavation takes place, and we hope to bring you the fuller story of the site in a future feature. Full publication of the project, including details of dating, interpretation, and cultural influences, will be published by the ULAS/Historic England team in due course.
IMAGES: © University of Leicester Archaeological Service, unless stated otherwise.