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Putting the Horse Before the Chariot: Gorgeous Ancient Roman Mosaics Unearthed in Cyprus

Putting the Horse Before the Chariot: Gorgeous Ancient Roman Mosaics Unearthed in Cyprus

A mosaic floor dating back to the 4th century AD has been unearthed in Cyprus. It illustrates scenes from chariot races in the hippodrome. Previously, another team working on the island found a mosaic showing scenes from the labors of Hercules. That mosaic is two centuries older than the one that was just excavated. Together, these mosaics provide a fascinating glimpse into the interests of ancient Romans that once lived on the Mediterranean island.

The chariot race mosaic was discovered in Akaki village, 19 miles (30.58 km) from the capital city of Cyprus – Nicosia. The mosaic’s existence had been known since 1938 when farmers discovered a small piece of the floor. However, it took 80 years until researchers decided to unearth the whole thing. This magnificent find made the village world famous. The mosaic is the only one of its kind in Cyprus and one of just seven in the world.

According to the Daily Mail , the floor is 11 meters (36 ft.) long and 4 meters (13 ft.) wide. It probably belonged to a nobleman who lived there during the Roman domination on Cyprus. The mosaic is stunningly detailed, decorated with complete race scenes of four charioteers, each being drawn by a team of four horses.

Officials examining part of the mosaic found in Akaki village.

Officials examining part of the mosaic found in Akaki village. ( Cyprus Mail )

The researchers believe that the mosaic shows different factions that competed in ancient Rome. They say that the hippodrome was a very meaningful place in ancient Roman times and it was a center for many events. It was not only a place for sports competitions, but also where the emperor appeared in front of the people and projected his power.

The name “hippodrome” comes from the Greek words hippos ('horse') and dromos ('course'). It was sort of an open-air stadium, used in ancient Greece, Rome, and Byzantine civilizations. The hippodrome was used for many different purposes, but the most spectacular ones were the chariot and horse races.

Ruins of a Roman hippodrome in Tyre, Lebanon.

Ruins of a Roman hippodrome in Tyre, Lebanon. ( Peripitus/CC BY SA 3.0 )

Inscriptions are seen near the four charioteers depicted in the mosaic which are believed to be their names and the name of one of the horses as well.

Three cones can also be seen along the circular arena. According to Daily Mail, each one of them is “topped with egg-shaped objects, and three columns seen in the distance hold up dolphin figures with what appears like water flowing from them.”

As Marina Ieronymidou, the director of the Department of Antiquities told journalists during a press conference: “It is an extremely important finding, because of the technique and because of the theme. It is unique in Cyprus since the presence of this mosaic floor in a remote inland area provides important new information on that period in Cyprus and adds to our knowledge of the use of mosaic floors on the island.''

The floor reveals some information about the interests of the upper classes during the 4th century AD. It sheds light on the ancient past of the island's interior and shows that the Roman nobles still cultivated Roman cultural traditions in the 4th century.

Choregos and actors, Roman mosaic. From the House of the Tragic Poet (VI, 8, 3), Pompeii.

Choregos and actors, Roman mosaic. From the House of the Tragic Poet (VI, 8, 3), Pompeii. ( Public Domain )

In July 2016, a team of researchers working in the coastal city of Larnaca in Cyprus discovered a 2nd century floor showing the labors of Hercules. It is 20 meters (65 ft.) long and seems to be a part of some ancient baths. It depicts Hercules performing his feats of strength as penance for killing his wife and children in a rage. Larnaca was an ancient city state of Kition, and it was destroyed by earthquakes in the 4th century AD.

A 2nd century mosaic showing the labors of Hercules that was discovered in Larnaca.

A 2nd century mosaic showing the labors of Hercules that was discovered in Larnaca. ( Cyprus Department of Antiquities )

Cyprus was a very attractive place for the nobles during the Roman Empire’s domination of the Mediterranean. Arguably, the most fascinating site on Cyprus is the ancient city of Salamis, which was settled circa 11th century BC. The motif of the chariot also appeared in tombs that were discovered there, showing a continued interest in chariot-related traditions. As April Holloway from Ancient Origins explained in her article from April 6, 2015:

“Salamis was a large city in ancient times. It served many dominant groups over the course of its history, including Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, and Romans. According to Homeric legend, Salamis was founded by archer Teucer from the Trojan War […] The city contains large, arched tombs, dating back to the 7th and 8th century, BC.

As with any culture, the tombs give a glimpse into the social hierarchy of the ancient residents of the city. Royalty was not buried within the tombs, as they were reserved for nobles. The tombs were constructed from large ashlars (fine cut masonry) and mud brick. When one was buried, the horse and chariot from the procession would be sacrificed in front of the tomb. The sacrifice of a horse in this method was a common ritual for funerals. Tombs also included grave good such as weapons and jewelry.”

Example of mosaic found at the Roman ruins of Salamis.

Example of mosaic found at the Roman ruins of Salamis. (John Higgins/ Flickr)

These discoveries help show how the Roman nobility’s interests transformed over the ages. While some motifs remained popular over the years, others were introduced or altered to reflect current practices.

Top Image: Detail of the chariot race mosaic. Source: Pavlos Vrionides

By Natalia Klimczak

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