6. Mosaic Floor with Achilles and Briseis

  • Roman, from Syria, possibly Antioch (present-day Antakya, Turkey), AD 100–300
  • Stone and glass tesserae, 231.1 cm × 240 cm
  • 68.AH.12


Although the exact origin of this mosaic is unknown, it was most likely discovered somewhere in the Roman province of Syria, probably in the vicinity of Antioch (present-day Antakya, Turkey). It was purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1968.1


A dramatic passage from Homer’s epic poem the Iliad (1.327–48) inspired the scene depicted on this mosaic: the dispute between the Greek warrior Achilles and King Agamemnon over the concubine Briseis, whom Achilles had taken prisoner during the Trojan War. Persuaded by Athena, Achilles reluctantly gives up Briseis but then angrily refuses to carry on fighting the war. He returns to battle only later, after the death of his companion Patroclus. Six figures are portrayed in the version of the episode represented on this mosaic. A youthful male wearing a chlamys (cloak), probably Patroclus, stands on the far left. Achilles sits beside him holding a lyre and leaning his head on his right hand in a gesture of grief and resignation. A large portion of his upper body is missing, as well as part of his boots. An elderly bearded man standing behind Achilles’s left shoulder may be Phoenix, who accompanied Achilles on the expedition against Troy. The fragmentary female figure next to him is Briseis. Only a portion of her head is preserved. On her left, Eurybates and Talthybios, the two heralds who will take her to Agamemnon, observe the scene. Large sections of the figure closest to Briseis are missing. The final figure, essentially complete, is bearded, holds a kerykeion (a herald’s staff with intertwining snakes), or caduceus, and wears the characteristic broad hat of a herald. Two shields in the background hold up a curtain, representing the tent in which the exchange took place.

The life of Achilles was a popular theme in Roman art, which most often celebrated episodes from his childhood or the occasion when Odysseus discovers Achilles on the island of Skyros and persuades him to join the Trojan War. The story of Achilles and Briseis was not frequently depicted; the few surviving representations appear in a variety of different media and time periods. Although versions of the scene appear in Greek vase painting by the early fifth century BC, the earliest parallel to the Getty mosaic in style and composition is a first-century AD wall painting from the atrium of the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.2 Like the Getty mosaic, this fresco depicts a series of figures on seemingly different planes to create the impression of depth. In the foreground of the Pompeian fresco, Achilles sits next to Patroclus, who turns his back as he seizes Briseis’s wrist. The two heralds along the left side of the scene appear to be slightly behind the central group; Phoenix stands behind Achilles’s chair, his hand resting upon it. In the far background, beyond a row of soldiers, an opening in the tent affords a view of the sea. The fresco is thought to be a copy of a Hellenistic painting in view of its detailed composition, the careful rendering of space, and the expressive features of the characters.

Some of the most complete representations of the episode of Achilles and Briseis survive in late Roman metalwork, including a bronze sheath and a silver missorium of the fourth century AD, as well as an engraved bronze situla dating to the fifth century AD.3 The scene also appears in other examples from late antiquity, such as the relief decoration of a stone architrave dating from the fourth or fifth century AD, a fourth-century AD papyrus, and the painted miniatures of the Ilias Ambrosiana, a late fifth- or early sixth-century AD illuminated manuscript of the Iliad on vellum.4 Although these works are based on the same literary account, the choice and arrangement of the figures vary.


The scene of Achilles and Briseis as it appears on the Getty mosaic is found on only three other mosaics, all dating to the second and third centuries AD. Two of these were discovered at Antioch. The mosaic in the House of Briseis’s Farewell, while very fragmentary, most closely resembles the Getty mosaic in its overall composition, with two heralds standing on the right—one bearded, wearing the herald’s hat and also holding a kerykeion—and Patroclus on the opposite side, holding Briseis’s hand. Achilles appeared in the part of the scene that is now lost.5 The other mosaic discovered at Antioch, from the House of Aion, depicts only three figures, each identified by an inscription: Briseis, Achilles, and Talthybios.6 The final mosaic, the latest of the three, dating to the late third century AD, is from a fragmentary floor of a house in Sparta; it is similarly inscribed with the names Briseis, Achilles, and Talthybios.7

The Getty Museum’s mosaic and the mosaic from the House of Briseis’s Farewell at Antioch demonstrate a remarkable continuity with Hellenistic artistic tradition, particularly in the naturalistic rendering of the figures and the attention to detail.8 The similarities in style and composition of these two mosaics support a contemporary date, most likely in either the second or the third century AD, and suggest that both are the product of a workshop in Antioch or its immediate vicinity.9 In addition, the theme, an uncommon choice for mosaics outside the Roman East, may also reflect a regional preference.


This mosaic underwent extensive restoration prior to its arrival at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Three fragmentary panels of the mosaic had been attached to each other to form one piece, and large sections had been filled in (using AJK dough, an alternative to plaster) to complete the square form of the mosaic. In 1998, Getty conservators disassembled and cleaned the mosaic before mounting it on an aluminum panel.


Spink & Son, Ltd. 1966, 7; London News 1966, 47; Vermeule and Neuerburg 1973, 51, no. 110; von Gonzenbach 1975, 401–8, plate 194; Fredericksen, Frel, and Wilson 1980, 41; Balty 1981, 365; LIMC s.v. “Briseis,” 158–59, no. 6.

  1. Purchased from Spink & Son, Ltd., in London, who had acquired the mosaic by 1966 (Spink & Son, Ltd. 1966, 7). 

  2. The scene appears on a red-figure vase from Vulci in the British Museum (E 76) (LIMC s.v. “Briseis,” 158, no. 1; ARV2 406, 1) and an Athenian red-figure skyphos, painted by Makron, in the Louvre (G 146) (LIMC s.v. “Briseis,” 158, no. 2; ARV2 458, 2). The wall painting from Pompeii is now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples (9105) (LIMC s.v. “Briseis,” 158, no. 3; and von Gonzenbach 1975, plate 193). 

  3. The bronze sheath is in the British Museum (1772,0303.12) (LIMC s.v. “Briseis,” 159, no. 9). The missorium is in the Cabinet des Médailles, at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, in Paris (BnF 56.344) (LIMC s.v. “Briseis,” 159, no. 8; and Leader-Newby 2014, 91–95). This missorium, traditionally known as the “Shield of Scipio,” depicts a grouping of figures similar to that of the Getty mosaic, although the subject is generally interpreted as conflating the episode of Briseis with that of the embassy to Achilles seeking his return to battle. The situla, formerly in the Doria collection, Rome, is now missing (LIMC s.v. “Briseis,” 159, no. 10; and Bianchi Bandinelli 1955, fig. 26). 

  4. The architrave is now in the Coptic Museum in Cairo (LIMC s.v. “Briseis,” 159–60, no. 11). For the papyrus, now in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich (Papyr. gr. 128), see Hartmann 1930, plate 17; and LIMC s.v. “Briseis,” 160, no. 13. For the Ilias Ambrosiana, in Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana Cod. 1019 (formerly F 205 Inf.), see Bianchi Bandinelli 1955, Min. VI, 55, figs. 42 and 105; and LIMC s.v. “Briseis,” 160, no. 12. 

  5. Levi 1947, 46–49, plate 8a; and LIMC s.v. “Briseis,” 158, no. 4. 

  6. Levi 1947, 196–97, plate 43c; and LIMC s.v. “Briseis,” 158, no. 5. 

  7. Christou 1964, 137–38 (Room 2); and LIMC s.v. “Briseis,” 159, no. 7. 

  8. For a discussion of the general characteristics of mosaics from Antioch, see Kondoleon 2000. 

  9. The general stylistic characteristics seem to place the mosaic in the second century AD; see Balty 1981, 365; von Gonzenbach 1975, 401–8; and Levi 1947, 48–49. Campbell compares the modeling of the faces and the weight of the drapery with mosaics in the House of the Drinking Contest at Seleucia, also dated to this period; see Campbell 1988, IV A 21; and Levi 1947, 156, esp. plates 30b and 32d. However, a later date, in the third or even the early fourth century AD, has been proposed by Katherine Dunbabin; see the 1984 consultant report in the files of the antiquities department of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Regarding the origin of the Getty mosaic, Balty suggests a workshop at Antioch, observing similarities between the heads of Achilles and Patroclus in the Getty mosaic and the bust of Spring in the Calendar Mosaic; see Balty 1981, 365; and Levi 1947, 36–38, plate 5b, and between the head of Phoenix and that of Oceanus in a second mosaic from the same house; see Levi 1947, 38–39, plates 6, 149a, both dating to the second century AD.