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The Mosaic of Magerius

"What else would living be if lions and bears held sway, if serpents and all the creatures that are most destructive were given supremacy over us? These, devoid of reason and doomed to death by us on the plea of their ferocity..."

Seneca, On Mercy (I.26)

It is not known where the mosaic of Magerius was found, but presumably it was intended for a public space of the house, such as the dining room (triclinia), where the couches would be placed around the periphery, recreating for the guests the original spectacle in miniature. This detail showing Crispinus ("Curly") being killed, or the dying leopards in the Borghese mosaic, depicts an event that is disturbing to modern sensibilities. That it was meaningful and attractive to the ancient Romans is one measure of the difficulty in presuming to understand different cultural norms. In the mosaic, the audience is not represented; rather, it is replaced by the viewer, who gazes upon the scene. Scenes such as this invariably show wounded animals, their blood spilling on the sand, at the moment they are dispatched. They indicate the interest of the spectator in exotic animals, their variety and number, and ultimately their death in an uncertain contest against a human opponent. The interest of Magerius, himself, as editor of the games is to remind the guests of his beneficence and the implicit honor due him. Presumably over dinner, he would be able to remark on the game, just as Trimalchio, in the Satyricon of Petronius (XXIX), had pictures of himself on the wall of the peristyle, including one of gladiators. In such mosaics, the ferocity of beasts (and the implicit threat of all nature) is subjugated and safely reduced to a dining room decoration.

Such domestic mosaics also prolonged otherwise ephemeral events and brought public spectacles within the confines of the private home. Venationes and gladiatorial combats were infrequent and short lived. Their representation in floor mosaics allowed them to be continually restaged for a new audience, entertaining the guests and enhancing the prestige of the host. And what more appropriate occasion than the banquet, another spectacle in itself.

References: "Death as Decoration: Scenes from the Arena on Roman Domestic Mosaics" by Shelby Brown, in Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome (1992) edited by Amy Richlin; The Art of Ancient Spectacle (1999) edited by Bettina Bergmann and Christine Kondoleon (Studies in the History of Art, LVI); Mosaïques de Tunisie (1976) by Georges Fradier and André Martin.

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