Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene / Alexandria on the Indus (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Friday, July 8, 2016

Roman mosaics, another Hellenistic legacy

The Romans did not “invent” the use of mosaics to embellish the floors of their houses and public buildings, as this art made its first appearance during the Hellenistic era. The invention of mosaics is generally attributed to the Phrygians during the 9th or 8th century BC who used abstracts patterns. The art slowly spread west and  classical Greece used pebbles to create a sort of mosaic flooring as we can still admire in Alexander’s hometowns of Pella and Aegae. The natural pebbles came in all possible shades of gray ranging from black to white, the only true colors being sparingly used on details like for the eyes, lips, hair, sword hilts or brooches.

Yet is were the Romans who truly mastered the art, creating intricate patterns and vivid scenes to embellish their luxurious villas and lavish temple floors and walls. Since the majority of the surviving sites are Roman and generally date from the second century AD, most of the mosaics we know today can be dated as belonging to that era.

The art consisted in creating images by setting small pieces of stones, marble or glass (tesserae) into walls and floors of private houses for the rich and famous, but also in public buildings like temples and bath complexes. As the Romans occupied the entire Mediterranean, their mosaics can be found from Italy to North Africa, and from France and Spain to Turkey and Syria. The art was so popular that it was copied by the Byzantines who kept using it till the 6th century AD, but by then the stones were larger and the pictures were much rougher and less refined.

It is clear that local craftsmen developed their own style, some of them becoming specialized in creating scenes using the tiniest pieces of stone and tesserae. Here Alexandria springs to my mind, where the finest and most expensive mosaics were made to be exported to Libya where they constituted the focal point in larger mosaics like those that still can be seen at Sabratha, for instance.

Last but not least, we should be aware that there is a noticeable difference between floor and wall mosaics in the way the pieces are placed on their support. Unfortunately, that is not evident when admiring mosaics in a museum where they are put randomly on the floor or against the walls. 

The fact is that the floor mosaics are laid out as a flat surface on which we can walk without tripping and which can easily be cleaned. The wall mosaics, on the other hand, are there for the pleasure of the eye only. The most striking example may be the mosaic of Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus and Empress Zoe at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul where the gold background is truly sparkling because the tesserae are unevenly applied. Another example can be found in the two mosaic medallions now at the Museum of Antakya (Turkey), each framing the portrait of a man who keeps looking at you wherever you are in the room.

For those who want to learn more about mosaics in general and Roman mosaics in particular, the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, is organizing a special exhibition Roman Mosaics Across the Empire that runs from 30 March to 12 September 2016.

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