Mosaics have always played an integral part in Roman culture and were ways of self-representation and showing one’s cultural identity. In the North African town of Tysdrus in modern day Tunisia, two mosaics were laid down in a affluent home; one was laid with a scene of Seasons and the female personification of Africa; the other was a series of seven female figures, which is the mosaic I will be referring to in this article.
This mosaic is believed to have been laid in the late second to early third century BCE and the figures have been recognised as the personifications of Rome and other countries that formed part of the Roman Empire in hexagonal panels. Rome is situated in the middle, holding a spear and a globe. The other figures have been recognised as personifications of other countries due to their individual and distinctive attributes.
To the bottom right the figure is Egypt; she wears her hair in the dreadlock fashion and holds a rattle, which was used in the worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis.
The bottom panel depicts Sicily. This personification is dressed in the clothes of a huntress along with a spear and shield. What appears to be ‘triple-feet’, or an object in the shape of three feet, is placed in her hair. This could indicate Sicily’s triangular shape.
The bottom left hand panel is Africa. This personification wears an elephant head bust, complete with tusks.
The top personification shows Asia Minor. This personification is depicted wearing a turreted crown, similar to depictions from Asia Minor cities.
The top left hand and top right hand panels have been harder to identify. The left hand personification holds an olive branch and the right a sacrificial jug and dish. The top left hand depiction should be the personification of Greece, since the olive tree is easily identified with Greece, but no precise identification can be established at this time.
The significance of Rome as the middle personification is easily recognised. Rome was the centre of the Empire, the symbol of her strength, her culture and identity. The fact that she is seated in the middle centralises her position and power in the mosaic.
Not only can we see the importance of Rome to the Roman Empire as a whole, we can also see other distinct cultural identities. Floor mosaics were an ideal way of displaying one’s status in Roman society, but it could also represent your cultural identity. Individuals were nor just simply ‘Roman’ or ‘African’ or ‘Greek’, but could have had more than one cultural identity, and this was seen not just by themselves, but by all, and this could be portrayed in a number of ways.
The El Djem mosaic in Tunisia allows us to notice details of the representations and to understand their context and is one of the many ways to understand the culture and identity of the Roman Empire and the people who lived during her time.
Huskinson, Janet (2002) Experiencingn Rome – Culture, Identity and Power in the Roman Empire: Looking For Culture, Identity and Power, Routledge, Milton Keynes.