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Bathe at your own Risk

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We need to imagine this as being the bottom of a pool:
water, bathers, and — yipes! sea monsters.

A small building in the via Porta Guelfa in Bevagna, looking for all just like another house, conceals part of the Roman baths, the main attraction of which is this mosaic, dated to the first half of the 2c A.D.

I've always been very puzzled how the Romans, who routinely killed off hundreds of animals in the most brutal way in their larger amphitheatres, could be so obviously fond of animal life: but scenes of animals, accurate, attractive, and fairly often even affectionate, are found from one end of the Roman dominions to the other. This at any rate is a fairly typical mosaic conceit; just as in dining rooms we sometimes find pavements depicting scraps of food the guests might have let fall to the floor, so in baths scenes of marine life are not uncommon.

Here we see the artist attracted to the more amazing oddities of the sea, and that too is quintessentially Roman.

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Pliny the Elder, Natural History 9.xlix.95, my translation:

Lobsters are protected by a fragile shell: they belong to a class of animals that have no blood. They hibernate for five months . . . and at the beginning of spring shed their old age like snakes do, by renewing their outer parts. All other aquatic animals swim: but lobsters float about like reptiles. When they are not being attacked, they move forward, their horns — the rounded tips of which form little balls — stretched out at their sides; when afraid, they hold their horns straight out and move sideways, obliquely. They use these horns to fight each other. . . .

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A stylized swordfish, I think.

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A small decorative composition: two dolphins, an octopus, a marine plant.
This element is rather more akin to Roman fresco work than to mosaic; it is thus a sort of collateral ancestor of the grotesques that Italian artists rediscovered in the Renaissance.

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And then there's this. . . a sea-horse, of course.

Rather than burden this page with too many images loading, you'll find a closeup of the octopus on the Roman Mevania page, one level up as it were:

Page updated: 31 May 03