Archaeologists always hope for a mosaic. Roman-British sites have yielded some remarkable treasures, from writing tablets at Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall to curse tablets at Bath, but there is something magical about seeing tesserae – the little coloured tiles of a mosaic – emerge from beneath the soil. And few have been more remarkable than those recently found in Rutland, which depict scenes from the latter part of Homer’s Iliad.
There may be debates about the skill of the mosaicist but the scenes have sequential movement and energy that we might more commonly associate with a comic strip. The first shows the duel between Achilles – the greatest Greek warrior of the war of Troy – and Hector, his Trojan counterpart. They fight on chariots: the golden-haired, highly muscled Achilles on the left, the smaller, tunic-wearing Hector on the right. Achilles is naked, cementing his status as the most heroic figure. Hector is literally smaller (even his horses look a little smaller). He is putting up a brave fight, but we’re in no doubt who is the alpha male.
And the next scene proves it. Fire damage to the mosaics doesn’t prevent us seeing Hector lying dead on the ground. This is book 22 of the Iliad: the brief duel between unevenly matched opponents, which does nothing to slake Achilles’ thirst for revenge on the man who has killed his beloved companion Patroclus.
Achilles ties Hector’s feet to the back of his chariot and drags his corpse around the walls of the city he has fought to defend. The final scene takes us to book 24, when Priam – the father of Hector and king of Troy – ransoms back the body of his son with treasure, though the weighing of the treasure is closer to a scene in a lost play of Aeschylus than the Homeric version.
Aeschylus referred to his tragedies as slices from the banquet of Homer, and we should surely see these mosaics in a similar light. They take their inspiration from this poem, continuing a tradition which was already more than 1,000 years old when the mosaics were created.
The Iliad is not just a poem to be read or heard. It’s one to be taken and held up to the light to see what hides in its shadows. It is filled with stories, some told in the briefest asides, some placed centre stage. The cast of characters is huge, and their lives extend beyond the poem: we think of it (rightly) as the great narrative poem of the Trojan war. But it is set in barely two months, in the 10th and final year of the conflict.
So not only has the poem provided inspiration to those who want to retell it for well over 2,500 years. It also provides a starting point for those who want to tell stories about the buildup to the war, or its aftermath. All the tragedians whose work survives to us did this – Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus wrote extraordinary plays about the consequences of the war.
The Rutland mosaics give us a wonderful insight into how far this poem – and plays based upon it – travelled in the ancient world: across a continent and a millennium. Did the owner of the Roman villa know the Iliad, did he even know Greek? Could he have quoted famous lines, and did he understand it? Or was it just a way to demonstrate his wealth and culture to his neighbours? Perhaps it wouldn’t matter if he didn’t understand it, so long as he could afford mosaics that depicted it. These mosaics are also a performance: look what I can afford.
Roman Britain was a relatively peaceful province by the third and fourth centuries AD. And yet the mosaics show one of the cruellest moments in literary conflict: an old man trying to buy his son’s body from his killer. Priam was often remembered in the context of a Greek proverb: call no man happy till he’s dead. Life can always turn on you, in other words. Even a king of great wealth can lose it all and die in misery. So perhaps the villa owner wanted to remember to live in the moment as much as to celebrate one of the great poems of antiquity.
Natalie Haynes’s books include Pandora’s Jar and A Thousand Ships