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The Roman Mosaics at Piazza Armerina

Elvira Valentina Resta

Arts & History Writer

It is not certain when was the first two-piece bathing suit in history invented. However, a "terminus post quem", one of the earliest depictions of the now modern attire, can be seenin a beautiful image of the "Palestrite".This fantastic mosaic, one of the most famous from history, is located inside the villa of the Casale in Piazza Armerina, in the province of Enna in Sicily. Dating back to 320-350AD, the spectacular infrastructure has many themes depicted throughout the pillars, walls and flooring.

In this particular scene, nine women are shown wearing the same clothing that can be seen today in a 21st-century sports center.  We see them covered by the "strophium" (bra) and the "subligature" (briefs) while participating in an athletics competition. In the beautiful artifact, strong women lift weights, others throw a puck, run, or play with the "pila paganica" a ball full of feathers. There is also a female in a toga, preparing to donate rose crowns to the honored and to hand the palm of victory to competitors. Unlike today, in the modern era, in this ancient scenario, the two-piece (bikini) was not used for sunbathing but was used to free the body for athletic movements, gymnastics, and even dancing. The white color of the background allows the elegance of the female figures represented to dominate the visual effects. The artist wanted to avoid the use of strong colors so as not to distract the eye from the beauty and the grace of the turning, athletic bodies-extraordinarily highlighting all the physical dowry.

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Although most of the images are as they were, weather and flooding damage left only the legs of the first woman in the picture intact. One of the two girls on the left side of the mosaic is covered to the feet by a light veil, allowing only glimpses of everything beneath: perhaps in order to convey a game of seduction to the observer. In certain mosaics kept in Rome in the Vatican Museums of the same time period, sportsmen are represented with stocky and ungainly musculature. However, this sublime and unique representation of agile and muscular females who devote themselves to sport, elevates athleticism to a new place of artistic and human potential.

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The Villa has many other magnificent mosaic themes preserved. The largest size 66 meters and 5 wide, illustrates how complex the organization of the shows in the arenas were. The detail in the mosaic describes the capture of animals for the Colosseum in Rome and other venues built for competition. At the time of Augustus, the Colosseum of Rome did not yet exist, however, the mosaic represents the entire Roman Empire, from Morocco to India and beyond. It is a unique document detailing the techniques for capturing animals and their transport. It tells meter by meter, in exquisite mastery the acquirement of animals for the arena matches, and even those sent to private zoos. It beautifully encapsulates the historical developments and importance of these monuments throughout the Roman Empire.


The image begins from Morocco with the imperial troops crowned with laurels, creating a semi-circle with their shields to lure the leopards into a trap consisting of a wooden crate with a dead goat inside. The first in the scene is a leopard mother with her young son, most likely a symbol of the young gladiators "venatores", being led to be sacrificed by fighting to the death.


Now the journey continues, and as you move along the tiles, you meet a Berber lion, the same one that the American media company Metro Golden Mayer adopted as its film production symbol. There is a leopard that kills an antelope, a house with colonnade with curtains symbolizing a village, and then you see the transport of the crates with the captured animals put on a wooden wheel wagon full pulled by oxen. The crate in the center has red tiles, indicating a blood state, usually meaning suffering for us in the modern world, but for the Romans, it indicated strength and courage

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After days of walking, you arrive at a port, perhaps Carthage, and you see the animals being boarded as if it were the Ark of Noah. There are two men with two well-kept ostriches with beautiful plumes, two others forcefully push an antelope, while two sailors deploy the sails. Upon arrival at the boardwalk at the unloading dock,  only an ostrich and a single wooden crate remain in this portion of the image, a cue to emphasize how easy it was for the animals to die during the long journey to Rome. It was an ecatombe, the Romans caused the extinction of many animals on all the shores of the Mediterranean and beyond.


Further in the scene, the large mosaic shows an enormous tiger who has landed on the other side of the shore, symbolizing all the animals captured in the East, while the ship that carried the creatures remains in view. An elephant that is in chains and ropes writhes amongst the activity. Transporting these animals was very dangerous and many methods and artifacts, often cruel, were used to subdue them. The tiger has a kind of muzzle aggressively forcing its mouth open, and a piece of wood protrudes from the horns of wildebeest and an oryx, preventing them from killing their human keepers. Finally, we arrive on the easternmost bank of the Roman Empire, and in the scene on the Nile mosaic, there is a crocodile, a hippopotamus, and the animal keepers pulling a half-submerged rhino from the water.


However, in the image, there is an inconsistency. In Africa, rhinos have two horns and live in savannas in arid environments, and the mosaic creature here lives in water and has only one horn. A mistake? No, this species of rhinoceros is found in India, and this piece shows how the Romans managed to capture exotic and delicate, aquatic animals, restraining them in the Nile before sending them to Rome.

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Going forward along the massive scene we enter Mesopotamia, where there is a concerned official, and at the top, you see a legionnaire attacked by a lion, an oryx attacked by a leopard, two legionnaires on horseback escorting a large wagon with a very large crate. A smaller boatload of men on horseback who arrives in a state of urgency, and behind this is a large tiger that attacks his own image reflected in a mirror. Puppies can be seen being taken away to be raised as pets, and a Griffon tries to devour a man who is hidden in a wooden crate.


The Griffon vulture is a fantastical animal of the imagination, most likely representing the gateway beyond to the unknown world to the Romans. So, with this mystical beast ends the amazing exploration through this historically phenomenal mosaic inside the villa of the Casale in Piazza Armerina that had immense significance to the ancient Romans, and stands as one of humanities greatest relics of their past.


The Roman Mosaics at Piazza Armerina

Villa romana del Casale

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Ambulatory of the Big Game Hunt

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Villa Romana Piazza Armerina

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Mosaico Fanciulle Villa Casale piazza Armerina

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belve che attaccano animali

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Chargement éléphant

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Mosaic in Villa Romana del Casale

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Grande chasse chariot

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Transport d'animaux exotiques villa de Armerina

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