Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.10.18

Christine Kondoleon, Domestic and Divine: Roman Mosaics in the House of Dionysos. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994. Pp. x + 359. $65.00. ISBN 0-8014-3058-5.

Reviewed by John R. Clarke, University of Texas (

The author's stated aim in this ambitious and lavishly illustrated book is to demonstrate the ways in which the mosaics of the House of Dionysos at Paphos, Crete, reveal the relationships between patron and mosaic artists, between the inhabitants and their guests, and between the public and the private spheres. In short, her approach is to write a social history of the house. For reasons that will become apparent, the book ends up being instead a closely-argued iconographical study: very solid, at times brilliant, and eminently useful.

The House of Dionysos was discovered at Kato Paphos Village on the southwest coast of Cyprus; K. Nicolau excavated it between 1962 and 1974. It was a private house of more than 40 rooms in what was a residential area of the Roman town. Although originally it was dated on the basis of the style of the mosaics to the late third century C.E., J. Hayes's subsequent analysis of pottery finds sealed under the mosaics gave a sound terminus post quem of the early second century, whereas a deposit of amphorae provided a terminus ante quem of 200 C.E. The author suggests that mosaics were in place when an earthquake destroyed the house in the late second century.

The plan of the house includes features such as a large peristyle and triclinium, and a fish pond (piscina) that were common in the houses of the pro-Roman cultured elite in the Greek east. The most unfortunate circumstance of the excavation is that the walls had been robbed out to such an extent that there is no clear indication where doorways were located. Kondoleon remarks that not a single entrance was marked on the excavator's 1965 plan. The closest parallels for the layout are in the North African houses of the second and third centuries; in these houses, as in the House of Dionysos, there is no axis of vestibulum-atrium-tablinum but instead direct entrance to the peristyle from the entryway located on it: these are "courtyard palaces" rather than the domus-with-peristyle.

Since the decoration changes according to the relative importance of the space, from beaten earth for the humblest spaces to magnificent mosaics for the most public ones, it is possible -- even in the absence of walls and doors -- to reconstruct possible itineraries for the ancient viewer. Kondoleon locates the entryway, for instance, on the basis of mosaics with the apotropaic "KAICY" and the greeting of "XAIPEI"; she demonstrates how the peristyle panel with the images of Dionysos's gift of wine to Ikarios introduces the triclinium, itself decorated with a threshold panel representing the triumph of Dionysos. Vintage scenes take up the whole central carpet of the triclinium. In this connection the author notes that the triclinium of the House of the Triumph of Dionysos at Antioch has the same subject for the entrance panel and that the room itself is about the same width (8.7 m at Antioch; 8.5 at Paphos). A second reception area, consisting of rooms 8, 9, and 10 (Fig. 3), opens off the peristyle's north portico; such a grouping of spaces of different sizes around the peristyle is common in both North Africa and at Pompeii.

Chapter 2, on the technique and style of both the mythological and geometric mosaics, really discusses technique and style very little. In all, the book analyzes sixteen framed figural mosaics found in six rooms and on all four sides of the peristyle along with five geometric mosaics in five rooms. There are two styles: one employs thick, continuous lines and painterly light and shadow; the other saw-tooth lines (which I would characterize as dentilated). After identifying these two styles in very general ways, the author drops stylistic analysis and goes on to discuss not style but composition and iconography in the Narcissus mosaic (30-40) and in the Phaedra and Hippolytus mosaic (40-50). Kondoleon proposes that in general the mythological mosaics should be attributed to Antiochene craftsmen or craftsmen closely allied with them, whereas the decorative mosaics should be attributed to western craftsmen because the motifs are western.

In her discussion of the Narcissus mosaic the illustrations do not serve the author's arguments well; room 1 is not fully indicated in the drawing (Fig. 4) and there is no way of understanding its orientation from the photograph reproduced in figure 10, where the pieces are not joined.

The discussion of the Phaedra and Hippolytus mosaic of room 7 traces the iconography rather than questions of style; her search for parallels convinces the author that the workshop used model books with figures excerpted from the (Antiochene) original.

Room 8 appears here to introduce a geometric motif -- the lozenge and star -- that "does not easily fall into either the eastern or western groups. . . perhaps because it is so diffused." The multiple-design of room 14, in contrast, has very western roots, particularly in mosaics of the Rhone Valley: the best parallel is from Ouzouër-sur-Trézée in Loiret (fig. 36). (Kondoleon's "multiple-design" is her translation of "à décor multiple" or "Vielmustermosaiken" 66.)

In her consideration of borders, here the meander and the twisted ribbon, Kondoleon points out that they are closer in spirit to Ostian than to Antiochene examples (80), asking a question that becomes a leitmotif of the entire book: "What was the nature of east-west exchanges?" This is particularly difficult to answer in the case of ornament in the House of Dioynsos. Because the house's ornament shows a decided predilection for western compositions, perhaps transmitted via North Africa, Kondoleon concludes that the artists were ". . . steeped in the Hellenism of the Antiochene milieu, . . . but also abreast of stylistic developments in the west" (84).

Despite the author's stated intention to interpret the House of Dionysos in the context of patron, artist, and ancient visitor, the principal value of the book lies in its astute and erudite iconographical analyses. No future study can afford to ignore her investigation of the following representations: Narcissus (room 1); the Seasons (2); the peacock (3); Pyramos and Thisbe (4); Poseidon and Amymone (4); Apollo and Daphne (4); Dionysos giving the gift of wine to Ikarios (4); Akme (4); the Triumph of Dionysos (5); the inhabited vine scroll (5); Phaedra and Hippolytos (7); xenia (gifts of food for guests) and apophoreta (non-food gifts for guests) (9); Ganymede (10); scenes of hunt in the amphitheater, especially the silvae (11, 12, and 13).

Kondoleon begins with the entry area, rooms 1, 2, and 3. She repeats the notion, introduced earlier, that the pool Narcissus looks in the pseudo emblema of room 1 called up in the viewers' minds the basins and fountains in other parts of the house (84). She proposes that room 2 was the original entrance; it has a Seasons mosaic flanked by the words "XAIPEI" and "KAICY". The Seasons mosaic includes in its center an unidentified male bust. Parallels with North Africa prompt Kondoleon to identify him as Annus. In an interesting discussion, Kondoleon hypothesizes that the Dionysiac pageants of the Seasons and the Year, like the one recounted in Athenaeus, Deipn. 5.198a-b, were consciously called up in this domestic decoration to encode tryphe (105-106). As for the Greek words that flank the Seasons mosaics, their sense is both salutatory and apotropaic. The author makes the mosaic of room 2 carry a multiplicity of meanings: it is both a celebration of the earth's fertility and an expression of domestic luxury; at the same time it served to welcome guests and to guard the threshold from malevolent forces (109). The peacock in room 3 is essentially apotropaic, the "eyes" of its feathers warding off the Evil Eye.

The mosaic of xenia interlaced into a "cushion" pattern in room 9 appears also in North Africa where it adorns dining rooms; the Ganymede of 10 relates to dining by analogy with the House of the Buffet Supper in Antioch, where the guest is to associate Zeus's cupbearer with the host's repast (142). By associating the Ganymede mosaic with the xenia and apophoreta of room 9 Kondoleon solves the function of this suite: it is a smaller entertainment area than that provided by triclinium 5 (145-146).

The four mythological panels of the peristyle's west portico become a prelude to a banquet, and despite some parallels with Antiochene pavements, all the panels are Paphian inventions. For Kondoleon they constitute an ad-hoc creation, an attempt of an eastern artist and/or client to reconcile an available western model based on Ovid's tale with his local knowledge of the legend (156).

Kondoleon's discussion of the complex icongraphical combinations and permutations of Pyramos and Thisbe, Poseidon and Amymone, and Apollo and Daphne serve to demonstrate how hard it is to construct a genealogy for a given representation of a myth. Much of what we know has to do with accidents of preservation. New finds could change the picture we have at present of the sources, the movement of workshop and/or patternbooks, and the hybridization of imagery such as we find in the House of Dionysos. Kondoleon's analysis of the unique representation of Dionysos, Akme, Ikarios, and "The First Wine-Drinkers" shows that the artist went beyond ordinary narrative to create a gloss on the myth: the dignified drinkers, Akme (personification of temperance) and Dionysos to the left contrast with the inebriated shepherds to the right. These groups frame the figure of Ikarios in the center (174-184). The author, then, reads a "local mentality" in the selection, interpretation, and combination of themes of the west portico, proposing that the concept of water as a geographical theme unites the three disparate myths by relating them to the adjacent large pool (189); she also suggests that they allude to the "civilized" practice of drinking wine mixed with water (190).

The author devotes Chapter 6 to the representation of the Triumph of Dionysos which adorns the threshold of the triclinium, concluding that the characters in the triumph attest to the use of graphic designs from model books (191 and 220). She depends heavily on Matz's typology for sarcophagi, yet must conclude that the Paphos Triumph follows no strict model; it seems plausible that sculptors' cartoons provided patterns used by mosaicists, yet among mosaic representations it is only the Paphian Triumph that reflects the exotic Indian Triumph, with dark-skinned captives (219). For Kondoleon, "the Triumph of Dionysos reflects a process, known in sculpture, whereby the artist combines conventional figure types, rather than follows a single model" (220). The Dioscuri panels that flank the Triumph panel represent the divine twins in contemporary military uniforms rather than in Phrygian costume. In addition to this militarization of the divinities -- a fairly common feature in the period -- they become apotropaic protectors of the most important room in the house. Yet even here we are in the realm of hypothesis, and the author admits that "... in an attempt to determine the significance of the Dioscuri in the Paphian house, the discussion has covered a wide chronological span and embraced a diversity of traditions" (228-229).

The triclinium's arbor carpet, the subject of the following chapter, reveals the surprisingly close parallels to a North African type produced from the mid-second to fifth centuries, with the difference that the Paphian pavement employs upright vines rather than ones growing from craters placed diagonally (241-243). Kondoleon sees this use of two types of vine compositions as a "conflation" of eastern and western traditions (253), for upright vine plantings and the addition of rural figures distinguish the Paphian vine carpet as an original -- and precocious -- product of the Severan period (253 and 269).

In Chapter 8 the author investigates the hunting scenes occupying the other three sides of the peristyle. Unusual for the period, she sees them anticipating the large-scale hunting carpets of Antioch by two centuries. In all there are six hunters and eighteen beasts in three porticoes, divided among eleven distinct scenes where venatores pursue and attack exotic beasts. In an effort to illuminate their composition, Kondoleon compares the panels with the black-and-white mosaic from Castel Porziano (Italy) -- even though it is arranged in two registers and the panels are quite long. She also finds parallels in the amphitheater mosaic from Zliten, the frigidarium mosaic of the Terme dei Sette Sapienti at Ostia, and mosaics from Kos and Orbe (Switzerland).

Since the Paphian hunts do not conform to accepted notions of eastern stylistic development for either the second or third century Kondoleon concludes that "Probably they were concocted in response to the patron's desire for fashionable Roman themes and styles. The mosaicists, prompted by the patron and undoubtedly inspired by the actual games performed in the Cypriot amphitheaters, combined such classical devices as multiple frames and narrative illustrations with the idea of a figure carpet." (281) She argues for a much earlier adoption of the figure-carpet style in the eastern provinces than Lavin allows (289).

In her investigation of the hunting scenes' iconography, Kondoleon proposes that unique features of the Paphian hunts suggest that actual performances were the inspiration for the patron's selection (290). The spectacle represented would have been a silva in the amphitheater (303-305). She compares the hunting scenes in the House of Dionysos with the mosaic of Magerius' munus in his house in Smirat, Tunisia (306). This chapter is a highlight of the book; the author's most brilliant point concerns the relationship of spectacle to mosaic iconography; she convincingly argues that we may be looking at the recording of a munus in many unusual juxtapositions; Martial describes in De spectaculis pantomimic performances in imperial ludi where beasts interact violently with condemned criminals forced to act out myths such as Prometheus, or Pasiphae and the Dictaean bull (310-313). The author makes a convincing case for the spectacles of the amphitheater producing a Roman version of "seeing is believing" through such theatrical displays of wide variety of subjects from myth.

Kondoleon concludes that the mosaics of the House of Dionysos provide us with a new appreciation for the "veritable cornucopia of literary and artistic references that leapt at the ancient visitor." (315) I would simply want to investigate this assertion from the point of view of reception; I would ask: Whose cornucopia is it? Is it a cornucopia that I, an art historian with a knowledge of visual and textual representation that both precedes and postdates the actual mosaics of the House of Dionysos, construct? Is it the cornucopia of the highly-educated visitor to that house in 200 C.E.? Or is it the artist's cornucopia? The patron's?

Constructing a profile of the patron is quite difficult: Kondoleon goes a long way toward doing so in her demonstration that the house in its plan and pavements reflects a trend for provincial notables in the Greek east to express their Romanitas in the selection of design elements for their homes (320), and in comparing this trend with the mania for villas-in-miniature that Zanker notes in post-earthquake Pompeii. She sees in the peristyle hunts the patron's association not only with munera, but also the luxury of keeping wild beasts on wealthy estates. Finally, Kondoleon astutely notes that domestic pavements, like epigraphic habits, are indicators of Romanization and the prestige associated with it (322).

No book can deliver all that it promises, and I hope I am not faulting the author unfairly by pointing out that this is primarily an excellent iconographic study that also attempts honestly to address larger issues that cannot be conclusively solved using the evidence of this particular house and its mosaic pavements. For one thing, unlike many houses at Pompeii, we have no epigraphical evidence for the patron, nor a prosopography for Paphos. For another, we are dealing with a leveled building: there is very little of the architecture of the house -- not even clear indications of doorways -- so that discussion of viewing and walking patterns must be tentative. Furthermore, the associated wall and ceiling painting is gone. It is to her credit that Kondoleon has not let these accidents of preservation keep her from pursuing the important issues that go beyond motif-hunting-and-interpretation that characterizes less distinguished books on ancient Roman mosaics. She forces us to think beyond the representation to its meaning both for the ancient viewer and in the broader context of ancient artistic influence and exchange.

A few minor criticisms of a mechanical nature: the photographs are generally very good; however, any photograph labeled "after" is usually poor, the worst being the Pyramos and Thisbe from the House of Lucretius Fronto (fig. 92) taken after a bad photograph of Rizzo 1929. There is no list of figures -- a useful tool that should have been included. The reference in note 43, page 250 to Pompeii I, 7, 1 as the House of the Ephebe is incorrect; this is the House of Paquius Proculus. There are quite a few errors in the bibliography, including in the date and titles of two of my own books.