When confronted by a work of ancient art that represents a subject familiar from well known literary sources, many scholars have succumbed to the temptation of assuming a direct connection, and have looked at the image as an illustration, more or less close, of the original text, or have assumed that the artists, or their patrons, ‘must have’ been mindful of the text in designing the image. But the relationship is much more complex, and the art work needs always to be considered first and foremost as an object in itself, embedded in its own context and created with a wide spectrum of potential references. These references may include allusion to a literary text, but even this can disagree with that text significantly.
This paper examines problems of interpretation raised by the numerous representations of scenes from epic in Roman art, especially mosaics, of the later Empire whose ultimate origins lie in the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid. After a brief discussion of some of the general issues set by these works, and their correspondence, or lack of it, to the presumed literary sources, I focus on three mosaics which exemplify strikingly different approaches to the material, and discuss the possible interpretations to be offered for the choice of scenes and the manner of their portrayal.
First, the mosaic of Ulysses and the Cyclops from the early fourth-century villa at Piazza Armerina in Sicily. This shows a scene found quite frequently in earlier Roman art, and popular especially as a decoration, in sculpture, painting or mosaic, for spaces designed for al fresco dining: Ulysses and his companions in the Cyclops’ cave, with Ulysses offering a cup of wine to the Cyclops. But whereas the other versions all show, in conformity with the canonical story, the eviscerated body of one of Ulysses’ companions lying on the Cyclops’ knee, at Piazza Armerina in place of this there is a sheep, similarly disembowelled. Secondly, a mosaic from Cabezón de Pisuerga near Valladolid in Spain. This shows two warriors fighting, accompanied by two fragmentary inscriptions, one in Homeric Greek recognisable as a quotation from Book 6 of the Iliad (l.120), the other a Latin translation of a later passage from the same book, the two identifying the scene as the encounter between Diomedes and Glaukos. The scene is a unicum, apart from one near-copy from a neighbouring site in Spain, which lacks the inscriptions. While this may be considered a rare example of explicit literary inspiration, there are unusual aspects to the representation that suggest that the sources may be more complex and its function in its context wider than simply a demonstration of the owner’s literary culture. Finally, a recently discovered mosaic from a villa in Portugal (Alter do Chão) has given a new addition to the remarkably small number of mosaics with scenes from the Aeneid, with a previously unparalleled scene of the final duel between Aeneas and Turnus. Here too we may assume a conscious reference to the text, but the very rarity of such scenes raises questions concerning the reasons for its portrayal here, as well as of its iconographic models. Through these examples, I aim to demonstrate both the complexity of the relationship between the visual tradition and the literary, even in the case of the best known works of ancient literature, and the multiple functions that mythology could serve at this date.