In 2017, the final week of a community research excavation at Mud Hole villa in rural Berkshire produced a remarkable find: an intricate late Roman mosaic crammed with intriguing mythological imagery. Located in the village of Boxford, the initial excavation (organised by the Boxford History Project together with the Berkshire Archaeology Research Group, and overseen by Matt Nichol and professional archaeologists from Cotswold Archaeology) revealed only a glimpse of the 4th-century artwork – but it was already clear that the decorative floor preserved the finest surviving British depiction of the Classical hero Bellerophon and his winged steed Pegasus, as well as images of Hercules and other mythical motifs (see CA 333).
When the project returned in 2019, though, the mosaic’s full glory was revealed. As a Greek and Roman art specialist, I was asked by the project to help interpret its imagery. To satisfy the immense public interest surrounding the discovery, within a month of the excavation finishing I wrote an article exploring its scenes for Current Archaeology (see CA 357), as well as a substantial colour souvenir book (see ‘Further reading’ box on p.41). However, all such finds require a longer period of contemplation, and I would like here to present a more up-to-date overview of this remarkable Romano-British mosaic.
The Triumph of Pelops
Within the mosaic’s central rectangle, a depiction of the Pelops legend forms an L shape wrapped around the panel showing Bellerophon. This narrative tells of Pelops’ quest to win the hand of Princess Hippodamia by defeating her father, Oenomaus (king of Pisa and Elis), in a chariot race. It was not a simple contest, however: Oenomaus had learned through an oracle that his future son-in-law would be the death of him, and so challenged all would-be suitors to a chariot race in which he had the advantage of a team of fabulous horses given to him by his father Ares (Mars); the cost of losing was death. The severed heads of his defeated opponents ornamented his palace to deter further efforts. Undeterred, Pelops secured a chariot pulled by flying horses from the god Poseidon, and bribed the king’s charioteer, Myrtilus, to substitute one of the linchpins in the monarch’s chariot for a wax one – during the race, the wheel flew off and Oenomaus perished. (Pelops later rewarded Myrtilus for his complicity by murdering him – Myrtilus’ father, the god Hermes, placed him in the sky as the constellation of Auriga, ‘the charioteer’.) I was able to identify this story on the mosaic thanks to the fact that one of the figures, presumably the ill-fated Myrtilus, is shown holding a linchpin – though confirmation conveniently came the next day as the dig team uncovered another figure straddling the finishing line under the misspelled name ‘PELOBS’.
It is fascinating to find this narrative on a Romano-British mosaic. Although sometimes seen on 2nd- and 3rd-century sarcophagi, the race is otherwise only known from mosaics at Shahba, Syria, and the late 4th-century ‘palace’ at Noheda, Spain. Mosaics featuring Pelops and Hippodamia as lovers are also known at the Arellano villa, Spain, and in a private collection in Beirut, but otherwise the story is rarely represented in surviving Roman art. On the few 2nd-century sarcophagi featuring the race, Oenomaus’ death seems to have been the main focus, but by the mid-3rd century a more-elaborate, tripartite composition appears; this comprises the arrival of Pelops at Oenomaus’ court, the race (set amid circus architecture rather than the open countryside described in the myth), and the triumphal union of the lovers. The same artistic formula is followed by the mosaics from Shahba and Noheda, but Boxford’s version is more inventive, differing from this pattern in a number of ways.
The inclusion of a cantharus (wine cup) in the border above Oenomaus seems a subtle play on the meaning of his name, which translates as ‘man of wine’. Oenomaus himself appears larger than his companions, as befits his importance, and the imagery of ruler and spear-bearing guard recalls contemporary imperial groups, such as that which decorates the late 4th-century silver charger, known as the Missorium of Theodosius I, which was found in Almendralejo, Spain. An interesting variation in the Boxford depiction, though, is that, while Oenomaus is traditionally shown bearded, on this mosaic the surviving portion of his neck suggests that here he was clean-shaven – following contemporary fashions for the image of a ruler. Like the guard, he may also have sported the fashionable striped hairstyle that is found on such images as that of Christ (or a Christian emperor crowned with a chi-rho symbol) on the Hinton St Mary mosaic that is now in the British Museum. It appears nowhere else on the surviving Boxford figures.
The depiction of Hippodamia is unconventional, too: she is naked from the waist up, while all other known representations depict her fully dressed. The Boxford version does, however, echo an image of Princess Alcestis on a mosaic from Nîmes in France. Depicting the story of Admetus and Alcestis (another in which a hero has to complete a chariot-related challenge to win the hand of a princess – in this case yoking a lion and a boar to pull the vehicle, which Admetus achieves with the help of the god Apollo), this mosaic is rather older, dating to the 2nd century. In portraying their own heroine as semi-naked, perhaps the Boxford mosaicists were evoking an old-fashioned artistic romanticism that may have originally derived from images of Venus.
The Boxford mosaic is not only rich in imagery, it also preserves snatches of text picked out in dark tesserae. Above the panel depicting Oenomaus’ court, for example, there is a fragmentary inscription which Dr Roger Tomlin has interpreted as possibly reading [OENO]MAV[S] REGNI (‘Oenomaus of the kingdom’). There is another possible reading, however: as the letter ‘A’ lacks a bar and another letter is fragmentary, then (if you imagine the inscription facing outwards to be read from the east border) you might just fit in the legend IN DEO VIVAS (‘May you live in God’), thus putting a Christian element into an otherwise purely pagan design and adapting the cantharus into the cup of Christ. This, however, calls into question why a mosaic depicting a triumph achieved by deceit, bribery, and two murders would be a suitable subject for a Christian floor, unless Pelops’ triumph over the fear of death itself was enough to sanitise his other failings. At the present time I know of no instance of the Pelops story used in a Christian context. The hypothesis would also leave the major scene of the Court of Oenomaus without any setting or name plate beyond the cantharus, which would be uncharacteristic judging by the clearly labelled Bellerophon panel.
The depiction of the treacherous charioteer Myrtilus, shown secreting the fatal linchpin, is also unusually prominent for representations of this story. Myrtilus is depicted looking toward a clean-shaven charioteer who wears a badly drawn Phrygian cap and a short tunic, and carries a scutica (whip). Such garb is often associated with Pelops who, as a Lydian, is generally depicted in full Phrygian dress, but back in CA 357 I interpreted this figure as Oenomaus, suggesting that the mosaicist had jumbled the iconography while condensing the composition from a larger, more populated, original. The presence of another figure who is specifically named as Pelops and is shown in heroic near-nudity, so different from the charioteer’s depiction, was also persuasive on that point – though, of course, in ancient narrative-art figures do appear several times in the same composition. I would now suggest that the charioteer (whose racing chariot, or quadriga, represents Boxford’s acknowledgement of sarcophagus decorations that set the action amid the architecture of the Roman circus) is meant to depict Pelops.
Given the dramatic narrative of the chariot race, it might seem surprising that Boxford has such a static depiction of the scene: the chariot is stationary, its horses pawing the ground in impatience as they wait for the race to begin – but a little-known 2nd-century sarcophagus from Tipasa in Algeria may hold the key to understanding this composition. Uniquely among sarcophagi depicting the Pelops legend it neither depicts the race, nor the triumph of the lovers. Instead, it shows the hero’s arrival – viewing the grisly remains of his predecessors – and his audience with Oenomaus and his companions (one of them carrying a spear), before finishing with the preparations for the race. It is the most ‘stationary’ of the sarcophagi depictions and the closest to the Boxford portrayal, though the eastern pediment of the temple of Zeus at Olympia (c.456 BC) also shows preparations for the race. This latter structure is an appropriate setting for the Pelops theme, as the funerary races that Pelops staged to honour the deceased Oenomaus were, in legend, the origin of the Olympics.
Having reconsidered my previous interpretation of the Boxford mosaic, I would now suggest that we should view the whole left-hand side of the Pelops mosaic as one scene, with Oenomaus and his court above, and Pelops, as the charioteer, gazing at a severed head outside the palace door while corrupting Myrtilus. The stationary quadriga recalls the Tipasa sarcophagus, on which Pelops is shown in the chariot sent by Poseidon, and Myrtilus is seen removing a wax linchpin from a mould. In other words, all of these episodes, from Pelops’ arrival and viewing of the heads to the court scene, the corrupting of Myrtilus, and the preparation for the race, are cleverly and succinctly encapsulated into a single composition that would have been immediately understood by its informed viewers. The race itself is not shown: the quadriga guides the eye to victorious Pelops at the finishing line, and thus the competition takes place only in the viewer’s imagination. That visitors were expected to have sufficient knowledge of the story to imagine the actual race, whose outcome is here represented by the hero at the finishing line (possibly holding a victor’s palm frond), suggests again the high level of cultural awareness and mythological knowledge among the Romano-British upper classes.
As mentioned above, in his moment of victory Pelops is shown in a state of heroic near-nudity, clad only in a charioteer’s helmet and an elaborately decorated robe which falls open from his shoulders – a unique (and, by the 4th century, old-fashioned) depiction, as in all other known versions he is portrayed fully clothed. There is no room here, however, for Hippodamia or for the romantic finale of the mosaics and 3rd-century sarcophagi. The message is Pelops’ triumph; winning takes precedence above all else.
Bellerophon and Chimaera
Aside from Pelops, the other myth depicted within the central rectangular panel that would have greeted those entering the mosaic’s room from the south is that of Bellerophon killing the monster Chimaera. The iconography of Bellerophon gradually developed into that of St George and the Dragon, so it seems particularly pertinent that the myth was popular in Britain. Like Pelops, Bellerophon proved ultimately a flawed hero and guilty of hubris, but Rome ignored the latter part of his life.
Bellerophon’s triumph came to display the power of good conquering evil and, as such, it was adopted into early Christian art. He almost becomes a sky god with his connection to the sun and the seasons, and this transition to Christianity is displayed on an early 5th-century engraved glass bowl found in Jesuitengasse, Augsburg. This object shows the triumphant, weaponless, Bellerophon flying on Pegasus above the dead Chimaera, while a spring-nymph pours water in front of the steed in tribute to his spring-making qualities. There are some strikingly Christian elements to this depiction, with the victorious hero shown crowned with a nimbus, or halo, and his hands raised in the orans pose that would have immediately marked him out to a contemporary audience as a Christian worshipper. The Augsburg Bellerophon might almost represent Christ himself, although the nimbus was not reserved exclusively for divinities, also appearing behind the heads of royalty. The image of Bellerophon and Chimaera could thus be interpreted differently by pagans and Christians, and a landowner in late antiquity might wish to be flatteringly identified with the hero before his dependents.
The Boxford Bellerophon is impressively dynamic: the mosaicist has foreshortened Pegasus so, with his front legs protruding beyond the frame, he appears to leap from the panel at an angle. While analysing the imagery in greater detail once the excavation had concluded, I also managed to identify the lower jaw and throat of the snake’s head that had formed the end of Chimaera’s tail (this portion of the mosaic is damaged), and noted that the monster is uniquely given a row of teats below her belly. Bellerophon is given an unconventional treatment, too: in a reversal of the Pelops scene, here the traditionally near-naked hero is shown clothed.
Corners and borders
It is not only in the mosaic’s main scenes that fascinating details are to be found. Each corner is decorated with a giant figure called a telamon, who appear to hold up the decorative elements framing the central panels. Telamones, or atlantes, recall the giant Atlas, who in Classical myth supported the sky. Their presence here may reflect the fact that both Pelops and Sterope (Oenomaus’ wife) were considered by some to be Atlas’ children. (By coincidence, Pelops’ granddaughter married an unrelated hero named Telamon.) Two of Boxford’s telamones retain most of their features, the northernmost being beautifully intact, which allows us to admire the artistry of their creator. The mosaicist seems to have attempted to create a trompe l’oeil effect by foreshortening these figures to impart the appearance of standing upright. They step out of blue almond-shaped frames called mandorlas, which are bordered with a braided ribbon motif known as guilloche; these are similarly foreshortened, creating a dramatic effect, as the borders ‘break’ at the top and bottom as the giants emerge.
Boxford’s combination of telamones and mandorlas appears to be unique, though telamones on mosaics are generally incredibly rare – these walking versions are seemingly only matched by four known on a restored, originally square, 3rd-century mosaic in the Vatican’s Greek Cross Room, which was found at Tusculum in 1741. They also recall a 2nd- or 3rd-century fountain-block now in the Musée Romain d’Avenches, which features telamones supporting the roof of a ‘pergola’ that was actually the fountain’s reservoir.
Intriguingly, unique evidence that the mosaic’s coarse red border was laid first as a working platform survives at the south-west corner, where insufficient space remained to fully complete the guilloche of the mandorla, and to comfortably include the telamon’s left foot.
Other aspects of the border help to tie together the mosaic’s wider themes. Cupids (amorini) burst from the borders, clutching victory wreaths (the Corona Triumphalis) and, in one instance, a linchpin, emphasising the Pelops story. A fascinating development between the mosaic’s rediscovery in 2017 and its complete revelation in 2019 was the discovery that Pelops, not Bellerophon, was the main subject of the imagery.
The figure of Hercules is linked to this story, too: his mother, Alcmene, was Pelops and Hippodamia’s granddaughter, while Hercules also cleaned the Augean stables at his ancestor’s old kingdom of Elis, and is credited with having established the pancratium, the violent boxing and wrestling contest at Olympia in Pelops’ honour. He slew the child of Chrysaor (Bellerophon’s half-brother) as well, and was connected to Arion and Adrastus (described below), so his presence in the mosaic provides a unifying figure.
In his Boxford incarnation, Hercules grabs a centaur’s hair while his victim’s left arm bends backwards to grasp Hercules’ wrist. This is ‘the fatal pose’ that was developed in the 5th century BC and was used in art to indicate that a victim is doomed. Its popularity endured for centuries, but it seems to have ultimately gone out of fashion in battle scenes, perhaps because of its theatricality. The motif’s last use on imperial monuments was at Leptis Magna, c.AD 216, but it reappears in Britain on the 3rd- or early 4th-century Horkstow Medallions mosaic. The Boxford image is the latest example of the fatal pose yet traced, and its closest parallel occurs on a side panel of the late 2nd-century Hercules sarcophagus formerly in the Astor Collection.
Another key feature is the depiction of Pelops’ son Alcathous slaying the Cithaeronian lion, a brilliantly dynamic portrayal where the flight of Alcathous’ arrow links two borders in a rare and very evocative way. The action at the beautifully preserved corner adds to the three-dimensional effect attempted by the mosaicist as Alcathous fires an arrow from the bushes, behind the back of the north telamon and into the throat of the fleeing Cithaeronian lion. The mosaicist playfully adds odd leaves to the arrow and lion’s tail. Such a connection of action between separate borders is certainly unique in British mosaics and an extreme rarity if occurring elsewhere in the Empire. One other noteworthy British example, though, is a pair of (damaged) mosaic panels excavated at Dewlish villa in Dorset (see CA 367); these may also have been designed to visually connect, as a charging boar in one of the panels heads towards a hunter in the other.
One more mythical narrative that appears in the mosaic is the taming by Adrastus of Argos of the fabulous horse Arion – a feat that compares with that of Bellerophon bridling Pegasus. Hercules gave the horse (a half-brother to Bellerophon, Pegasus, and Chrysaor) to Adrastus following a campaign in Elis, thus linking this myth with his own. Boxford’s imagery is again unique on mosaics, but it does resemble a 3rd-century BC tomb painting from Egnazia in southern Italy, which is known as The Foal Tamer. Arion also appears with his parents, Poseidon and Demeter (and a young Pelops as cup-bearer) on several bas-reliefs.
Boxford’s mosaic is arguably the most important example of late Romano-British art. This assessment lies not in the technical or artistic abilities of the mosaicists, but in the choice of subjects depicted and what that imparts of the mosaic’s patron and viewers. The innovative approach of the mosaicists and their attempts to produce a trompe l’oeil design is impressive, while the ingeniously connected subjects of great originality must surely have been chosen with care. They display the subtlety of thinking and the longevity of Classical culture in late 4th-century Britain. Whereas many provinces favoured scenes from everyday life or the amphitheatre, Romano-British figural mosaics draw heavily on mythological characters and stories, particularly those recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Hesiod’s Theogony, suggesting a widespread appreciation of such Classics.
The affinity with the Tipasa sarcophagus and other aspects of the mosaic strongly suggest a 2nd- or 3rd-century source, adapted in part to reflect modern trends, such as striped hairstyles, contemporary costume and imperial imagery. The mosaic’s patron perhaps requested the panels to be copied from an illuminated manuscript in his collection, possibly itself copied from an earlier edition. By the 5th century, the same overlapping of borders by figures that is so novel at Boxford, appears on manuscript illuminations and ivory diptychs. Thus, in their apparent disregard for the sanctity of borders, the mosaicists at Boxford, notwithstanding basing the mosaic on an earlier source, were actually following a modern fashion not yet recognised in other British mosaics. Possibly Boxford’s mosaic is also 5th century in date. At Chedworth Roman villa, the recent remarkable carbon dating of charcoal and bone underlying the west wall of the mosaic-floored Room 28 to AD 424-544 (see p.8) challenges received knowledge about the state of 5th-century Britannia.
Unlike the monumental Noheda version that transfers the 3rd-century sarcophagi representations to mosaic, Boxford’s Pelops story is no slavish copy of any known depiction. It shows more originality, adapting in its own way the artistic convention in this rarely portrayed myth of combining a tableau at Oenomaus’ court with the race. If the court and chariot scenes at the northern end are merged into one upright panel, then it is remarkably novel and clever. That the scene focuses on the preparation for the race and not the event itself is significant, as it encourages the viewer’s imaginative participation and flatters their cultural awareness in leaving them to fill in the gaps in the narrative. Today, faced with a damaged mosaic and greater distance from the Classical myths that it depicts, those gaps take a little more effort to fill – but with careful interpretation, the cleverness of the composition becomes wonderfully clear.
Anthony Beeson has written a detailed, highly illustrated account of the mosaic and its iconography. The Boxford Mosaic includes reconstructions of some of the damaged areas of the mosaic, as well as sections by Joy Appleton on the Boxford History Project and Matt Nichol on the villa excavation. The book can be ordered from www.countrysidebooks.co.uk (ISBN 978-1846743924, price £12).