Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.3.14

Antero Tammisto, Birds in Mosaics: A Study on the Representation of Birds in Hellenistic and Romano-Campanian Tesselated Mosaics to the Early Augustan Age. Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae Vol. 18. Rome Institutum Romanum Finlandiae 1997. Pp. xiv, 524; pls. 79. ISBN 951-969024-7.

Reviewed by Robert Lamberton, Washington University in St. Louis,

Birds in Mosaics is a massive publication. Elegantly produced and lavishly illustrated, it weighs in at nearly six pounds. Even so, it is the tip of an iceberg -- or more accurately, the first volume of the publication of a vast project whose scope can be estimated only imperfectly from the author's Introduction. What T. set out to study, and to publish as a corpus, was the entire range of "bird motifs in Romano-Campanian wall paintings" (1). His work on that corpus led to an appreciation of the importance of the evidence of mosaics for the interpretation of the iconography of the wall paintings, particularly, it seems, of the First and Second Styles. Hence the definition of the present volume: Hellenistic and Republican mosaics depicting birds, and dating roughly from the second quarter of the third century down to the last quarter of the first. Described here are about seventy mosaics depicting 346 birds (2). If I understand the Introduction correctly, this volume will be followed by another on the wall paintings, with similar chronological limits, describing the four birds depicted in the largely non-figurative First Style and the 400+ depicted in Second Style wall paintings (2-3). The total for the corpus of wall painting from Pompeii and Herculaneum currently runs to over 5,000 birds (2). Does this mean that two massive volumes will bring us roughly one-tenth of the way to a published corpus? And will the birds in mosaics of the first imperial century receive treatment comparable to that given their forebears in the volume under review? Symmetry would seem to dictate a positive answer, but the fact that T. illustrates as comparanda for a cockfight scene (cat. LS3) two of the three Fourth Style mosaics depicting cockfights (pl. 5) gives pause. It would be helpful to have a clearer sense than I was able to glean from repeated readings of his Introduction of the scope of T.'s project and the position of this volume within that project.

With that reservation stated, T.'s volume is very impressive. He sets out to identify the birds represented in the mosaics, to examine the contexts in which they are represented, and to ask what significance those representations might have. This last question is situated in the context of the larger one of the sort of knowledge of birds attested in the images. Clearly, mosaicists (and painters of wall paintings) regularly worked from pattern books or cartoons, so representation from observation is seldom to be expected. Each image has a history and comparanda. The likelihood that interesting patterns of representation, thematic continuities, and even symbolic associations might emerge from such a comparative study is very great.

The first stage in the process, however, is necessarily the identification and classification of the images. At last count, there were roughly 10,000 species of birds distinguished by modern taxonomists. In one widely accepted account, these 10,000 species are grouped into 2,076 genera, 164 families, and 24 orders to constitute the class Aves. Many of the species are in turn divided into recognized subspecies, or geographic races. Ancient Greek and Roman notions of the kinds of birds in the world clearly had only the remotest resemblance to this system, which is largely the product of the eighteenth century. D'Arcy Thompson (1936) found about 660 ancient Greek words that seem to designate birds, of which over half are dialect variants and hapaces, many from Hesychius. By my estimate, less than five percent of these ancient names can be shown to designate one of the 422 species of birds that the modern literature recognizes as occurring in Greece (Handrinos and Akriotis, 1997). This is only in part because the ancient references to birds are too vague to allow us to link up ancient terms with modern taxa. Even the best ancient descriptions -- generally Aristotle's -- simply do not coincide with modern taxonomy's notions of what constitutes a kind of bird. Still, the question "What is it?" can hardly be abandoned, and modern taxonomy is the best we can do. T. is on solid ground when he declares as his "central methodological goal" the demonstration that "modern taxonomy remains the only coherent means of the identification of ancient bird representations" (8). Those who have claimed otherwise have simply not given enough thought to the problems of classifying and describing the myriad organisms with which we share this planet. Those art historians who adhere to a conventional taxonomy that designates any medium-sized passerine, for example, as a "thrush" are guilty of unnecessarily blurring distinctions. The goal is the greatest possible specificity consistent with accuracy, and T. approaches the problem in a manner both methodologically sound and refreshingly free of the conventions that render many descriptions of plants and animals in ancient art useless.

How specific, however, can we be, consistent with accuracy? The answer depends on the artistic tradition under examination. T. often refers to Patrick Hoolihan's Birds of Ancient Egypt (1986) as a work based on a comparable methodology. The extraordinary naturalism of the representation of animals in Egyptian art makes possible the identification to (modern) species of a large percentage of those depicted. (And if anyone were to doubt that an art based on endless reproductions of images from pattern books and cartoons can still deliver images so accurate in detail that they look as if they had been drawn from nature, the Egyptian example is ready at hand to remove that doubt.) At the other extreme is the example of Greek pottery, where the images of birds are largely generic and unidentifiable to any taxon lower than order. Like the birds of Greek poetry, these painted creatures have been absorbed into a symbolic matrix that has little to do with the natural world, one dominated by an esthetic sense that has other priorities than the clearly observed detail of plumage or shape. On this scale, Roman wall painting and mosaic fall somewhere in between. As Wilhelmina Jashemski's spectacular publications (1979, 1993) of some of the Pompeii material (enriched by the ornithological expertise of George Watson) have illustrated, Roman painters and their employers clearly did respond to the sort of naturalistic detail that makes the painted image the immobilized presence of the living creature. Some of the painted garden scenes are virtual photomurals allowing the viewer to examine at leisure brightly colored birds that in nature would never allow such careful scrutiny. Watson apparently identified to genus thirty-nine of the varieties depicted, thirty of those to species, and two of those to subspecies (Jashemski 1993, 406). Mosaic, however, as a medium would seem to be at odds with the presentation of such detail and, though naturalism and even illusionism were within the esthetic range of Hellenistic and Roman mosaicists, T.'s material offers an interesting testing ground for the postulate that modern taxonomic categories will provide a useful tool for the classification of these images born of tesserae and tradition.

T.'s success can only be judged on the details, the specific instances, and it must be said that the organization of the book does little to facilitate such evaluation. When we find immediately after the Table of Contents a six-page section entitled "Aids for the Reader and a Selective Glossary," we are put on notice that help is indeed going to be needed. The 197 pages of text comprise an "Introduction" (1-14), "Birds in Hellenistic and Romano-Campanian Mosaics to the Early Augustan Age by their Contextual Subject Typology" (15-130), "Identifiability, Taxonomic and Contextual Distribution of the Avifaunal Repertory of Hellenistic and Romano-Campanian Mosaics" (131-192) and "Conclusions" (193-197), followed by nearly 150 pages of footnotes and a "Catalogue of Bird Motifs in Hellenistic and Romano-Campanian Mosaics to the Early Augustan Age Discussed in Chapter 2" (342-434). Nearly a hundred pages of Appendices, Bibliography, and four Indices complete the text. As their titles suggest, the long introductory chapters are largely attempts to classify the mosaics and images under examination according to a variety of criteria. The discussion of specific images is scattered through them, though most of the identifications are explained in the first chapter and in its notes. The discussion of the identifications is uneven and rarely sufficiently focused to be persuasive, while moving from image to discussion and back again is rendered unnecessarily difficult by the absence of any continuous numbering in the Catalogue. Rather, the sixty-six items are subdivided into sixteen categories, ranging in size from one to eleven and each of these categories is presented in a sequence of its own preceded by a designator consisting of an abbreviation of the full title. For example, CM 1-3 are the three mosaics T. assigns to the category "Cat Mosaics," but this sequence is flanked by PM 1-2 (the two "Partridge Mosaics") and DM 1-2 (the two "Duck Mosaics"). This typology is the basis of the discussion in the first long chapter, and is adequate to that purpose, but as the unique organizing principle of the catalogue it fails miserably. For all its indices, this is a book in which it is next to impossible to find what you want.

I was ultimately reduced to attaching dozens of Post-Its to plates and text in order to get an overview of T.'s identifications, and the result was rather disappointing. By his own reckoning (in the quite misleading Appendix 4, "Taxonomic Checklist ...") we can say something about the classification of 346 images of birds in the mosaics discussed. Of these, fifty-nine (my count) or sixty-seven (T.'s count, p. 139), discreetly identified only as "Sp.", can be placed in no modern taxon below the class Aves. Thus nearly twenty percent are just "birds". (T. undermines the credibility of his statistics and tables by including these sixty or seventy individuals under orders they might belong to -- see Table 5, p. 133, and Appendix 4. Either they are identifiable to order or they are not -- T. cannot have it both ways.) This leaves us about 280 images classifiable at least to order. Twelve orders are represented (according to Appendix 4).

At this point, we run up against the problem of the plates. These are lavish but quite uneven in quality and detail, and hence they often fail to deliver the information necessary to evaluate an identification. To take only the first example (taxonomically speaking): the order Pelecaniformes is represented in the corpus by four cormorants in the Palestrina Nile Scene (NS1 in T.'s Catalogue). Two of these are illustrated, one perched (Fig. NS1,8) and other flying (Fig. NS1,9). The first of these photographs is at a scale that makes it impossible to see individual tesserae, but the other allows such scrutiny. There is absolutely nothing about the color or morphology of either bird to suggest that they are cormorants, and the flying bird, though quite fanciful anatomically, looks like it belongs in the Anseriformes. The plates, then, do not support the claimed identification, but there may be other reasons -- compelling parallels, for example -- for believing it. If we turn to the text, we find that T. originally classified these images as herons, but was persuaded by Meyboom (1995) that "their pose on the stones, which has no parallels in mosaics or wall paintings ... seems indeed a distinctive characteristic identifying them as cormorants" (57). The birds' color ("creamy white and brown" [57] though they seem nearly pure white, with shading, in the plates) is explained as "evidence of the use of monochrome cartoons." Colors, it is true, are unreliable: T.'s only White Stork is actually red, but that identification remains plausible. Still, to claim that a series of white birds with more resemblance to herons or ducks are in fact representations of cormorants seems to me unhelpful and implausible. I'm afraid that, for my money, one order (Pelecaniformes), one family (Phalacrocoracidae) and one genus (Phalarocorax) just dropped out of the total. In the absence of more compelling argumentation, those are just "birds".

As T. points out at some length, the "identifiability" of various taxa varies enormously, and nearly every call is a judgment call. For example, many images of wading birds can be confidently placed in the order Ciconiiformes, and among them many have diagnostic traits further identifying them as herons (family Ardeidae). A small number of species are unambiguously represented, but these are for the most part special cases, such as the Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) frequently found in Nile scenes. The family Anatidae, comprising swans, geese, and ducks provides a plausible, accurate, and adequate category in which to situate a large number of images. In this instance T. also makes use of the subfamily Anatinae, which is less satisfactory. It is particularly (and coincidentally) useful to T. because he can use it as an umbrella term for images that have characteristics both of dabbling ducks (like Mallards) and two aberrant goose-like ducks (Shelduck and Egyptian Goose) -- three species that can be identified among the birds represented in the mosaics, though most images are so imprecise that identification to species is impossible. I doubt, though, that many of T.'s readers will grasp this taxonomic subtlety or find the category helpful or revealing.

It is no surprise that the greatest number of borderline or just plain implausible identifications are among the passerines (order Passeriformes, sometimes designated "perching birds" or "songbirds", though T.'s quaint synonym "songster" is not in general use as either a scientific or a lay term). While the actual claims T. makes about the identification of the ninety-one individuals he places here (Appendix 4, with the caution mentioned above) are admirably tentative, he nevertheless presents his summary in Appendix 4 in such a way as to give an impression that far more distinctions can be made than he can support. Most of the thirty-four "taxa" he invokes have labels like "(49d) passerine sp., p[erhap]s. wheatear sp./Whinchat/warbler sp. (Passeriformes sp., p[erhap]s. Oenanthe sp./Saxicola rubetra/Sylviidae sp.)" Each of these suggestions has some merit, but they by no means cover the range of possibilities for the representation in question. T's noncommittal pluralism is to be applauded, but one has to ask whether it is useful to define such categories, since they involve no diagnostic characteristics that might allow us to identify and add new examples. These birds are just "passerines" -- traits suggestive of actual genera or species may enrich the discussion, but they are unhelpful as classificatory mechanisms.

The book is not well proofread, particularly with regard to Latin binomials. There are a half-dozen mistakes or typos in the Index of Birds (508-515) alone. Some mistaken epithets, such as "Theratopius" (for Terathopius) occur repeatedly (508, 519), and T.'s taxonomy, based largely on an ageing though very good field guide (Heinzel et al. 1984) inevitably shows a few worn spots (e.g., "Bewick's Swan" [Cygnus bewickii] is now generally treated as a subspecies of circumpolar Tundra Swan, Cygnus columbianus). T.'s English is sometimes quaint, as noted, sometimes wordy and difficult, but never unintelligible. A native-speaker proofreader would have removed some unfortunate coinages -- notably "amorine" and "erote" -- and some minor misconceptions -- notably that the English equivalent for (Lat.) genus is "gender" (xiii, 8) and that "Aphrodisian" (35, al.) means "relating to Aphrodite".

Some of these issues are large ones, and some small. I am very happy that we have this comprehensive treatment of birds in Hellenistic and Republican mosaics, and I look forward to its sequels. It does, as T. clearly set out to do, complement Hoolihan's excellent study of birds in Egyptian art, and bring to the study of the mosaics a level of taxonomic sophistication that has seldom been reached in the publication of ancient Mediterranean art. At the same time, it expresses vividly some of the profound differences between the two artistic traditions. The Egyptian tomb paintings strive to recreate and perpetuate the world of the living in all its specificity; the Hellenistic and Roman mosaics are never going to yield information of that order, in part because they were for the living, not the dead.


  • Handrinos, George, and Triantaphyllos Akriotis, 1997. The Birds of Greece. London: Christopher Helm.  
  • Heinzel, H., R. Fitter, and J. Parslow, 1984. The Birds of Britain and Europe with North Africa and the Middle East. 4th ed. London: Collins.
  • Hoolihan, Patrick F., 1986. The Birds of Ancient Egypt. Warminster: Aris & Phillips.  
  • Jashemski, Wihlelmina F., 1979. The Gardens of Pompeii: Herculaneum and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius. Vol. 1 (Text). New Rochelle NY: Caratzas.  
  • idem, 1993. The Gardens of Pompeii: Herculaneum and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius. Vol. 2: Appendices. New Rochelle NY: Caratzas.
  • Meyboom, P. G. P., 1995. The Nile Mosaic of Palestrina. Early Evidence of Egyptian Religion in Italy. Leiden: Brill.
  • Thompson, D'Arcy W., 1936. A Glossary of Greek Birds, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Reprint: Hildesheim, 1966.