Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.62 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.62

Catherine Balmelle, Jean-Pierre Darmon, La mosaïque dans les Gaules romaines. Archéologie de la France.   Paris:  Éditions Picard, 2017.  Pp. 359; 443 color illustrations.  ISBN 9782708410312.  €59.00.  

Reviewed by Hagith Sivan, The University of Kansas (

Extremely attractive, beautifully printed and lavishly illustrated, this survey of Gallo-Roman mosaics provides an introductory overview of a major decorative element in parts of the empire that rarely feature on the mosaic map of the Roman Mediterranean. The book is also the sum total of the formidable erudition of two notable mosaic experts, Balmelle and Darmon, who already have made countless contributions to the study of Gallo-Roman mosaics. In view of ongoing excavations and the likelihood of unearthing more mosaics in the large area covered in this study, the outcome constitutes a timely and welcome presentation that effectively summarizes the state of our knowledge up to this point. Perhaps no less significantly, this book is a product of national pride claiming, forcefully and rightfully, a place of honor for the decorated pavements of the Gallic provinces, side by side with the celebrated mosaics of Italy, North Africa, Greece and the Near East (particularly Syria). As such, it is an excellent example of the close rapport between scholarly circles and the French public, a relationship altogether sadly absent in the USA.

In a way reading Balmelle/Darmon is tantamount to embarking on an armchair travel through sites and museums, each with its collection of ancient mosaics, as well as through France’s Roman past and the erratic lot of archaeological discoveries. It is perhaps a bit of a paradox, yet also a window into the commerce and migrations of ancient mosaics, that in order to look at Gallia itself, in admittedly a rather schematic depiction of a woman with a walled crown atop her head, one needs to travel to Berlin (Pergamon museum) (Balmelle/Darmon p. 13). Gaul, namely the personification of the province, once had graced not a building in Gaul itself but a floor in remote Zeugma on the Euphrates (now in Turkey), where it kept company to the emblems of other provinces, now dismembered and dispersed in no less than eleven public and private collections. 1

The material is arranged chronologically, in three chapters, each with many examples selected to highlight the geographical range, architectural context and locations of the mosaics, prefaced by a short chapter on the architectural contexts of mosaics and ending with a chapter on mosaics as a testimony of social history. Due to the haphazard survival of mosaics, the vast majority of those presented are floor rather than wall mosaics.

“Sur le chantier”, the first chapter, deals with the archaeological/architectural contexts in which mosaics were laid, their techniques, choice of themes, colors, and locations, all of which highlight the connectivity and internal hierarchy of décor in both private and public spaces. Beginning with urban homes, selected examples, such as the large house unearthed in Narbonne (Clos de la Lombarde) (1st-2nd century), articulate the configurations of domestic’s “public” spaces. These included a large banquet room with mosaics aspiring to reflect the degree of the owner’s “Romanization” effected through the adoption of a medium directly imported from Italy, as well as a desire to impress by investing in costly décor. Another example, an imposing home in the city of Vienne (dubbed “Maison d’Amour et de Pan”, p. 23) highlights the house’s internal circulation around a large open peristyle, flanked by a large triclinium and two reception rooms, each decorated with mosaics. The figures that lent their name to the entire structure survived, barely, on a mosaic in one of the two cubicula, a curious aberration in the context of mosaic designs largely dominated by geometrical and floral patterns. In the Gallic countryside, stunningly large estates (villae), bastions of rich Gauls (well documented by Balmelle for late ancient Aquitania in countless previous publications), dominated the landscape as well as the local peasantry. Here denizens and lucky guests expected to feast their eyes on an array of dazzling mosaics, extending even to the bathing annex. Similarly, public spaces (sanctuaries, funerary edifices) likewise reflected the importance of mosaics, as well as other decorative media (such as sculpture), in the overall concept of their architecture. Lastly, the chapter contains a brief section on mosaic craftsmen in their working spaces, their tools, and on collaborative efforts of muralists, mosaicists and sculptors whose combined talents transformed ordinary spaces into breathtaking visuals. Crews of decorators were invariably at work although rare are specific depictions of mosaicists at work.2 We also learn of the dominance of local materials, the result of availability, cost, and possibly of local pride. Balmelle/Darmon return to the subject of the mosaicists in the last chaper.

Chapter 2 covers mosaics from “the origins”, namely fourth century BCE to the first century CE, the former date somewhat misleading since the Massiliote fragmentary pavements prior to the late first century BCE can hardly be classified as mosaics but rather as faint traces of a possible mosaic.3 Beginning with Narbonesis, the first Gallic territory to be incorporated in the administrative structure of the Roman Republic (120 BCE), and its role as a bridge between Italian and Gallic artistic sensibilities in the first centuries BCE and CE, the survey illuminates the mosaics’ intricate geometrical designs, often executed with earth colors, as well as similarities between the emerging art of Gallic mosaics and mosaics elsewhere in the Roman Mediterranean (example: the lush geometrical “carpet” at Brignon (Gard), figs. 68-69 and Delos). Most of the mosaics unearthed in the various oppida that dotted Narbonensis largely date to the reign of Augustus and point, according to Balmelle/Darmon, to “a high degree of Romanization of the local elite of the region achieved within three generations following the establishment of the province” (p. 66-7). Still in Narbonensis, a second section covers mosaics dating to the Julio-Claudian and Flavian periods. This is perhaps the place to note that the dating of mosaics is hardly an exact science and that it often depends on the stratigraphy of the site, or lack of it, as well as on stylistic criteria. The dominance of geometrical patterns (Saint Paul Trois Chateaux providing a handsome sample, fig. 81) remained largely unchallenged. Noteworthy is the emphasis, in some cases, on a central panel with its own distinct colorful pattern (tessellatum), which the mosaicists further embedded in a larger, predominantly white carpet of a different design (example of Nimes, the ‘governor’ mosaic, fig. 89). An intriguing fragment of figural mosaic, an exception in early imperial Narbonensis, depicts a black gladiator holding a trident (clearly a Retiarius)(Aix en Provence), made all the more conspicuous in a field of white tesserae. No less remarkable is the naming of the gladiator, Beryllus, likely a slave whose name recalls a precious stone (fig. 91, precise provenance not specified; cf. fig. 120). The mosaic is best “read” in the context of the rich information derived from gladiatorial tombstones in nearby Nîmes, where inscriptions and funerary stelae attest the complexity of identities in this Gallic province where triumphs in the arena by the socially marginalized were translated into mosaics and commemorative monuments.4 Shorter sections of this chapter deal with mosaics unearthed in Aquitania and Gallia Belgica where a taste for black and white mosaics continued to dominate. A curious exception extends to individual fondness for violent sports as seen on a black and white mosaic from a bathing establishment in a remote Alpine locality, now in Switzerland (fig. 120, inexplicably in the section devoted to Gallia Belgica). It depicts two boxers and likely reflects the popularity of a gymnasium culture apparently solely in Narbonensis.5

The third chapter covers the second till the middle of the third century, representing the apex of what may be termed the Gallic-mosaic palate and art. Here one witnesses both continuity in the shape of the perennial popularity of geometrical patterns, side by side with the efflorescence of figural mosaics of the highest artistic quality in primarily urban context. A brief introduction covers developments in the various Gallic provinces, referring to recent excavations and discoveries. Subsections cover geometrical patterns, traditional and new, noting the intricate designs of borders, and the multiple variations of geometrical themes within one mosaic field, primarily in Narbonensis and above all in the city of Vienne, the provincial capital. A section on figural decoration presents the arrangements of these motives in the overall mosaic fields (often a central medallion of varying shapes), and the iconographic repertory which closely related to pan-Mediterranean preferences, both literary and artistic. Among popular themes Balmelle/Darmon dwell on the Dionysiac sphere, on heroic themes, gods and the cosmos, and on culture and paiedeia, the last particularly interesting within the context of domestic decoration. Here Balmelle/Darmon note the association of visuals with school texts forming the foundations of aristocratic education. Examples include an inevitable Orpheus in a familiar garb yet also a flying Orpheus with transparent drapery spread in the wind and the animals posed as though ready to pounce to the music of the lyre (fig. 220, Aix en Provence). It is unique (p. 174), a tribute to the ingenuity and originality of local (?) artists. Equally unusual is the Gallic (or rather Provençal) preoccupation with minor characters and events from the Aeneid, such as the combat between Dares and Entellus (Aeneid 5.362-484; figs. 196-200). To view one of these mosaics, however, originally unearthed in Villelaure near Aix en Provence, one has to travel to California, the last (?) stop of other mosaics from the same house.6 Still in the second century, figures 221-223 (Trier) display an enchanting image of Muses in conversation on a mosaic entitled the mosaic of the “orators and the muses”, not to be confused with either the Treveran mosaic of the nine muses or with the (later) Monnus mosaic (figs. 248-252) that depict a similar array of muses.7 The earlier mosaic also contains human figures (figs. 222 and 223), a semi-naked man interpreted as a teacher-“philosopher” and his various charges who populate framed spaces of the same mosaic. The last section of chapter III, “la vie sociale” gathers several of the most dazzling Gallic mosaics, including the Lyonnaise circus mosaic (fig. 228), a hunting mosaic from Lillebonne (fig. 237) and a stunning calendar mosaic from Vienne-St Romain en Gal (figs 239-242). There is no doubt, as Balmelle/Darmon maintain, that even the relatively cursory overview of the rich repertory of Gallic mosaics of the Antonine and the Severan periods provides clear cut indications of the creativity and intense activity characterizing the Gallo-Roman mosaic ateliers of the period. The mosaics surveyed reflect the valorization of a culture that embraced with apparent equanimity classical literary paideia as well as brutal physical and sportive feats. These were the decorated floors (and walls) that accompanies the rise of an urban Gallic elite anxious to imitate prevailing imperial modes of ornamentation yet also aspiring to leave its own stamp on locally grown artistic and literary productions.

Late antiquity, the subject of the fourth chapter (specifically from the middle of the third century to the sixth) is launched, logically, with the exceptional place that the city of Trier, capital of the Gallic provinces, and indeed briefly also the imperial capital, occupied. The Trevean late ancient mosaics embellished rooms in private and public structures including the imperial palace and baths. The latter includes the famed charioteer mosaic showing the victorious Polydus (fig. 255). Equally creative is the geometrical carpet enclosing mythic figures such as Heracles (fig. 256) and the wonderful mosaic of the mysteries (figs. 258-260) with its “odd iconography” (p. 207), which represents, it seems, a banquet honoring not only good food but also foundational mythic narratives. Since the mosaic is generally dated to the end of the fourth century one wonders whose dining room it had graced and who were the guests invited to feast their eyes on visual delicacies and deities when Gratian, that most pious young Christian emperor, presided over the court in Trier. One notes the absence of Christian mosaics from the chapter, likely the result of scarcity of the documentation. A good chunk of the chapter is occupied with the south-west of Gaul, a region that Balmelle knows intimately, home to many imposing villae and to a mosaic culture noted for the richness of its vegetal and floral motives. Turning to Gaul of south-east and its mosaics, the authors dwell on the astonishing mosaics of the villa at Vinon sur Verdon (figs. 347-349, not far from Villelaure, above) consisting of three panels (c. 5x2 m.) which display the three graces scantily clad next to a life size naked Dionysus offering vine to Icarios. Along the entire picture runs an inscription borrowed from Martial (Ep. 1.40: "You who grimace and grudgingly read these verses, may you envy everyone and may no one envy you"), perhaps hardly the words to inspire guests with a genuine welcome. Whether the mosaics were intended to serve the owners in an apotropaic capacity is difficult to tell.8 The images certainly act as a veritable visual reference book to classical mythology. The chapter concludes with a nod to central and north-western Gaul. Late antiquity, to surmise from mosaic activities, witnessed a continued and in some areas even accelerated activity, reflecting the continuing resources and tastes of the Gallic aristocracy, the availability of mosaic experts and shared values.

The last chapter, mosaics as a source of social history, picks up an earlier strand (ch. 1) with a discussion of the mosaicists, particularly artists who signed their work, the mobility and atelier-teams of mosaicists. Noting the ever- improving modern technology which enables greater precision of dating as well as more minute analysis of the components and the manner of execution of mosaics than ever before, Balmelle/Darmon draw attention to intriguing similarities between Gallic mosaics and mosaics from other parts of the Roman Mediterranean. One such, between a mosaic from Loupian (Narbonensis) and another at Ryan (Syria), leads to the suggestion that several teams were at work at Loupian, an Aquitanian team bringing its own distinct vegetal-floral style (figs. 336-344) and an “oriental” one bring an “arabesque” iconography, a team likely trained in the east or originating in Syria (pp. 298-300). The migration of themes, then, supports the assumption of the migration of teams across the Mediterranean in late antiquity. The chapter ends with a section on the sponsors of mosaics in the public sphere, civic and religious, namely on mosaics as a form of evergetism of which a handful of inscriptions attest. In the private sphere Balmelle/Darmon discuss how local nabobs would have employed the same mosaicists to decorate their urban and rural habitations. The last section of the chapter deals with lessons of semantics, specifically with what mosaics tell us about the lifestyle of a provincial elite solicitous to be or to become “Roman”. The adoption of mosaics as means of beautification of space constituted a critical aspect of the process. By way of a conclusion Balmelle/Darmon emphasize mosaic commonalities, such as the appeal to the imaginary in figural representations which appeared to withstand the test of time. In spite of the significant transformations that advocated different visual repertory of communal identity, the Gallic “iconographic discourse” (p. 325) continued to hark back to favorite images which could have been transferred with astonishing facility from one context to another.

The book closes with a brief epilogue, a glossary, a bibliography naturally referring mostly to publications in French, and a topographical index which includes references to page numbers but not to figure numbers. I have no idea how many of the French readers of this lovely book are likely to be familiar with all the localities that are presented in a dizzying sequence in this book but the large map that comes with it is both welcome and essential, all the more since not a few locations are in present day Switzerland, Germany and Belgium. There is no index of subjects and rarely are measurements of the mosaic panels provided but the nearly 450 colored illustrations convey, as Balmelle/Darmon no doubt intended, the exceptional range, number and quality of the mosaics that had once graced Roman Gaul.

This is a work of great erudition and remarkable patriotism. It combines decades of hard work, of discoveries, and of the Herculean efforts invested in modern France in preserving the heritage of the past. It is certainly a must for the French public eager to share in the work of its dedicated archaeologists. For students and scholars who need not resort to the detailed Recueil this handsome book opens a wide and alluring window to the artistic panorama of the Gallic provinces of the Roman Empire.


1.   There are apparently at least 41 pieces belonging to the mosaic, dubbed “the mosaic of the provinces”, now dispersed in 11 public and private collections in 7 countries: D. Kennedy et al. (1998), The Twin Towns of Zeugma on the Euphrates: Rescue Work and Historical Studies (JRA Suppl. Series, 27) (Portsmouth, RI 1998), 129. Darmon himself was involved in a large rescue operation at Zeugma.
2.   Cf. W.T. Wootton, "A Portrait of the Artist as a Mosaicist," in Beyond Boundaries: Connecting Visual Cultures in the Provinces of Ancient Rome, eds. S. E. Alcock, M. Egri‏, and J.F.D. Frakes (Los Angeles, 2016), 62-83.
3.   Pp. 54-5 list figures 53-58 but there are only four illustrations, an unusual error for this otherwise well edited book.
4.   Beryllus, CIL XII 3323; 3327 with V. M. Hope, ‘Negotiating Identity and Status: The Gladiators of Roman Nîmes’, in Cultural Identity in the Roman Empire, eds. R. Laurence and J. Berry (London 1998), 179-94; p. 186 for two Berylli.
5.   S. Remijsen, The End of Greek Athletics in Late Antiquity (Cambridge 2015), 152
6.   For a lively description, see the Getty blog.
7.   I could not verify since Hoffmann’s catalogue is not easily available. For good reproductions of the Monnus and the Muse mosaics, J. Hunter, “Identity in Mosaics of the North Western Roman Provinces’ (here).
8.   M. T. Olszewski, ‘Two Late Antique synonymous mosaics from Sheikh Zuweid (Egypt) and Vinon (France), Eng. translation of Idem, Dwie późnoantycznemozaiki synonimiczne z Szeikh Zued (Egipt) i Vinon (Francja), Światowit 4 (2002), 99-105 (abstract in French).

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