Scholars have long debated when, why and how the famous Nile Mosaic came to be laid in Praeneste, modern Palestrina, a town situated just 23 miles east of Rome. In the original introduction to his 1995 monograph on the mosaic, Paul Meyboom resolved to “reach more definite conclusions” in response to these important questions. More than two decades on, the publication of this new paperback edition offers an excellent opportunity to re-assess Meyboom’s ideas concerning the composition, which still do much to illuminate the significance of its iconography and the nature of the cultural and political climate in which it was conceived.
The contents of this new edition are nearly identical to those of the hardback original. The only substantive change occurs among the Figures, where seventeen colour photographs of individual sections of the mosaic have replaced their black-and-white counterparts (Figs. 6, 9, 11-22, 24-25, 27). Printed on non-glossy paper, these photographs are a useful addition, providing readers with a clearer sense of the extraordinary detail of the scenes that make up the composition. It is unfortunate, then, that a handful are out of focus: certainly Figures 12, 21, 24 and 25, by this reviewer’s reckoning.
After a brief introduction containing a cursory overview of (then) recent scholarship on the mosaic, Chapter 1 addresses the reconstruction of the original composition. The chapter begins with an account of the turbulent history of the mosaic in early modern times, starting with its piecemeal removal from Praeneste and subsequent transfer to Rome. It was here that Cassiano dal Pozzo commissioned a series of watercolour copies of the mosaic, each of which reproduced one of the removed pieces. The composition was then damaged, restored and consolidated on several occasions over the following centuries, with the result that its appearance today is different from its original appearance in antiquity. Against this background, Meyboom recounts how Helen Whitehouse’s re-discovery and publication of the dal Pozzo copies permitted her to re-arrange the original parts of the mosaic “in a convincing way” (p. 5).1 His own reconstruction of the mosaic (Fig. 8) is similar to Whitehouse’s in many details, and the same is true of other reconstructions published in the years since.2
Already in this chapter a pattern is established whereby the ideas and observations enumerated in the main body of text are substantiated by a long series of closely printed endnotes. This format permits the author to present his arguments concisely, but readers seeking to learn more about how these arguments have been constructed will be frustrated by the constant need to turn back and forth through the volume.
The second chapter contextualises the Nile Mosaic both spatially and chronologically. Here Meyboom re-examines the function of the architectural complex in which the mosaic was laid, and presents a strong case that it was not part of the famous sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia mentioned by Cicero and Pliny the Elder, nor a sanctuary of Isis, but rather “a group of public buildings on the forum of Praeneste” (p. 14). He dates this complex to c. 125-120 B.C., thanks partially to its architectural correspondences with the neighbouring sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia, and proposes that the Nile Mosaic was also laid at approximately this time.
Chapter 3 contains a scene-by-scene description of the iconography of the mosaic, with each section numbered according to its corresponding dal Pozzo copy. Meyboom begins by describing the scenes of the upper register of the composition, which together depict a rocky landscape populated by Aethiopian animals labelled in Greek and by groups of native African hunters. He is right to stress the correspondences between the animals depicted here and those described by Agatharchides of Knidos in his account of Ptolemaic expeditions to the Red Sea, although not all readers will be convinced by his interpretation of the fantastical creature with a crocodile-like head as the “carnivorous buffalo” mentioned by this author (p. 23). Attention then turns to the scenes of the lower register, which together constitute a panorama of Hellenistic Egypt at the time of the annual flood. The description here is exemplary in its accuracy and detail, although three priests (and not two) follow the main procession of litter-bearing priests in Section 16, contrary to the text on p. 39.
The long fourth chapter, entitled “Interpretation”, attempts to make sense of this complex iconography. The chapter title is misleading in its simplicity, since the interpretation here pertains to the iconography in an Egyptian context, and so relies on an implicit supposition (made explicit only in Chapters 6 and 7) that the Nile Mosaic was a later version of one or more earlier Ptolemaic works of art. In any case, the author here compares the upper register of the mosaic with the painted frieze that decorated a third century tomb in Marissa in Palestine, which likewise depicted a series of Aethiopian animals accompanied by identifying labels in Greek. He then demonstrates how the animals, hunters and landscape of this register combine to form “a synoptic and symbolic representation of Aethiopia” (p. 50), a territory that was explored and exploited by the Ptolemaic kings during the third century B.C.
The discussion then shifts to the lower register, and specifically to the question of whether its individual vignettes should be identified with particular sites and buildings in Ptolemaic Egypt. Meyboom proposes that the Egyptian temple in Section 11 represents the Temple of Osiris at Canopus built by Ptolemy III Euergetes, a theory that remains highly speculative in the absence of much hard archaeological evidence for this building. This identification provides the backdrop for a detailed interpretation of the procession of Egyptian priests in Section 16. For Meyboom, the litter carried by these priests represents the ritual sarcophagus of Osiris, and the scene as a whole depicts a ceremony that took place during the annual Khoiak festival, in which an effigy of Osiris was transported from his temple to his tomb. Several other scenes are likewise interpreted as parts of this Khoiak festival, including the vignette showing soldiers and a priestess celebrating in front of a pavilion. Particularly compelling is Meyboom’s examination of a now-lost fragment of this pavilion scene, known only from its dal Pozzo copy, which featured a large red parasol with a yellow fringe. This parasol is compared to other representations of parasols in ancient art, several of which occur in the context of royalty or royal women, suggesting that the figures represented beneath the parasol originally included “the Ptolemaic queen, and possibly both sovereigns” (p. 68).
Two aspects of this chapter are deserving of comment. The first is the author’s decision to diagnose the iconography of the upper and lower registers of the Nile Mosaic entirely independently, which he justifies with reference to “an essential difference in content” (p. 43), and which later leads him to suppose that the two registers were modelled on separate works of art (p. 103-104). This approach is unnecessarily restrictive, and ignores the possibility for conceptual links between the upper and lower registers of the composition. It is conceivable, for instance, that the juxtaposition of the Ptolemaic ruling couple with the newly reconnoitred territory of Aethiopia would have had ideological implications for an Alexandrian audience, especially when we consider the imperialistic territorial rhetoric that constituted a recurring topos in Ptolemaic court poetry. Also contentious is the author’s overarching theory that the lower register constitutes a visualisation of the Khoiak festivities. While the procession of priests in section 16 may indeed allude to a ritual associated with the Nile inundation, it is less certain whether this religious element constituted the central, unifying theme of the iconography. After all, the procession itself did not occupy an especially prominent position within the overall composition, and it remains possible that the pavilion scene featuring soldiers and the royal couple referred to a military-focused celebration of a different kind. One wonders whether the chapter would have benefitted from a more flexible presentation of the evidence, allowing for alternatives such as these to enter the discussion.
Chapter 5 addresses the function of the mosaic in its Italian context. After re-iterating his view that the mosaic was laid in a public building, Meyboom proceeds to examine a series of near-contemporary Nilotic scenes surviving from Pompeii and elsewhere. He concludes that these comparanda were exotic in function and lacked a clear religious meaning, leading him to propose that the Nile Mosaic was “an early and very elaborate example of a new decorative fashion” (p. 89). Only briefly does he suggest that the mosaic was also imbued with a religious significance in its local setting, owing to the assimilation of Fortuna, the patron goddess of Praeneste, with Isis-Tyche, the goddess of abundance whose presence is implicit in the composition. The lukewarm formulation of this argument may lead readers to question whether the mosaic really deserves to be heralded as the kind of “Early Evidence of Egyptian Religion in Italy” alluded to in the title of the monograph.
The final chapters address how a mosaic of this kind came to be laid in a public building in central Italy. In Chapter 6, the author develops his pre-existing theory that a single workshop was responsible for the mosaics of the House of the Faun in Pompeii and the Lower Complex in Praeneste, and suggests that this workshop specialised in Alexandrian motifs and used Alexandrian models.3 In Chapter 7, these Alexandrian connections are examined more closely. Here Meyboom is careful to distinguish between “models”, material prototypes used by the workshop responsible for the mosaic, and “archetypes”, original works of art whose iconography the models transmitted. After establishing that the models were probably “of considerable size” (p. 98), Meyboom proposes that the archetypes were large-scale wall paintings in Alexandria, probably of the third century. His desire to date these paintings to the reign of Ptolemy III is conditioned by the earlier interpretation of the Egyptian temple in Section 11 as one built by this king, but his closing suggestion that they decorated a royal building in Alexandria remains an attractive hypothesis.
The text proper is followed by twenty-one appendices spread over eighty pages, and by some 191 pages of endnotes. The appendices tackle subjects ranging from the fantastical creatures depicted in the mosaic to the relationship between Ptolemaic Egypt and Rome in the centuries prior to Actium. Particularly interesting is the discussion of illustrated papyrus scrolls in Appendix 19, in which Meyboom expresses doubt that models of this kind were used by the designers of the mosaic on the grounds that “the richness in detail can hardly be conceived within the limited height of a painted scroll” (p. 180). These comments find some support in the sketchy animal illustrations of the more recently published Artemidoros Papyrus, which, despite claims to the contrary, lack the finesse (and polychromy) required to suggest that they could have been used as models for a composition of this kind.4
In sum, while aspects of the composition continue to invite debate, Meyboom’s monograph remains an indispensible resource for study of the Nile Mosaic at Praeneste. Students will benefit from the clear manner in which arguments are presented, and scholars familiar with these arguments still have much to gain from sifting through the goldmine of endnotes. It remains highly recommended.
1. For these copies, see now: Whitehouse, H. 2001: Ancient mosaics and wall paintings, London, 70-131.
2. Recent reconstructions are published in Hinterhöller, M. 2009: ‘Das Nilmosaik von Palestrina und die Bildstruktur eines geographischen Großraums’, Römische Historische Mitteilungen 51, 15-130.
3. For an earlier iteration of this theory: Meyboom, P.G.P. 1977: ‘I mosaici pompeiani con figure di pesci’, Mededelingen van het Nederlands Instituut te Rome 39, 49-93.
4. For the Artemidoros papyrus: Gallazzi, C., Kramer, B., and Settis, S. 2008: Il papiro di Artemidoro (P. Artemid.), Milan.