5. Mosaic of a Lion Attacking an Onager

  • Roman, from Hadrumetum (present-day Sousse), Tunisia, AD 150–200
  • Stone and glass tesserae, 98.4 cm × 160 cm
  • 73.AH.75


This mosaic panel was discovered near Hadrumetum (present-day Sousse), on the east coast of Tunisia, but the exact findspot is uncertain. It was excavated sometime before 1914.1 The J. Paul Getty Museum purchased the mosaic in 1973.2


A ferocious lion attacks an onager, or wild ass, sinking its teeth and claws into the victim’s back and forcing the animal to the ground. The lion faces outward, directly engaging the viewer with its gaze, while the terrified onager struggles, twisting its head backward. This violent event is set in a landscape framed by trees. Blood from the wounded animal flows on the ground toward the bank of a spring or a stream. A guilloche pattern decorates the remains of the mosaic’s lower border.

The image of a lion tearing into the back of its captured prey was pervasive in mosaics of the Roman Empire. The motif had a long history in Near Eastern and Greek art, dating back to the Bronze Age, but immediate antecedents can be found in the fourth and third centuries BC in several Greek pebble mosaics, in which similar compositions appear as part of a decorative border. A mosaic floor of the early fourth century BC from the House of the Mosaics at Eretria depicts a clash between a lion and a horse as part of a larger frieze including griffins and mythical human figures.3 Similarly, the decorative frieze of a mosaic from the Pompeion in Athens shows lions attacking animals in the corners and heraldic griffins reclining along the sides.4 In other examples, individual scenes of animals in combat were enlarged and placed in separate panels of the mosaic, giving them greater prominence. Pavements from a villa in Sparta and from the peristyle of the House of the Mosaics at Motya (present-day Mozia) in Sicily display framed scenes of lions attacking bulls.5 The example from Motya is placed next to an identical composition of a griffin with a horse.6 However, in contrast with the Roman version of the scene represented in the Getty mosaic, there is no indication of a landscape setting in these earlier works.

In Roman mosaics, the motif of animal combats became closely associated with themes of the amphitheater and the hunt, which were immensely popular forms of public entertainment involving wild animals and humans.7 At the same time, images of lions or other wild cats overpowering their fallen prey from behind, often depicted in a landscape setting, frequently appear as individual emblemata. The representations of these ferocious animals on their own, facing outward to confront the viewer, may have served an apotropaic function—warding off evil—rather than a narrative one. The original context of the Getty mosaic is unknown, but it was likely an emblema in a much larger composition that included additional scenes decorating the floor of a wealthy Roman villa.


Elements of the Getty mosaic resemble two relatively small mosaic panels that formed part of the floor decoration of the Imperial Palace of Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, near Rome, dated about AD 120–130. In one example, from the Basilica of the Palace, a lion attacks a bull in a rugged landscape, while another bull observes in the background.8 The second mosaic, which originally adorned the main triclinium, depicts a battle between wild cats and centaurs, one of whom has been taken down by a tiger.9 The exceptionally detailed composition, naturalistic rendering of the scenery, and painterly style of these mosaics follow earlier Hellenistic Greek models, possibly copying a painting or emblema from that period.10 In comparison, the Getty mosaic, although similar to the pavements from Hadrian’s Villa in theme and composition, exhibits shallow perspective and a limited landscape that is more characteristic of Roman mosaics at the end of the second century AD. The Getty panel may have belonged to a series of individual mosaics depicting pairs of fighting animals, as seen in the decoration of the atrium of the third-century AD Villa of the Laberii at Oudna in Tunisia. In this instance, a fragmentary mosaic panel showing a female lion overpowering an onager was one in a series placed between the columns of the courtyard.11

Other mosaics with emblemata comparable to the Getty mosaic feature central mythological scenes of deities, most notably Dionysos, tamer of wild beasts and patron god of the Telegenii, an association in North Africa that participated in the organization of animal spectacles for the arena. A mosaic floor of the mid-second century AD that decorated the triclinium of the House of the Dionysiac Procession at Thysdrus (present-day El Djem) includes a pair of similar panels depicting animal attacks, framed by a guilloche border.12 These were placed at either end of a processional scene of the child Dionysos riding a submissive lion. One mosaic panel depicts a tiger and two onagers in a rocky landscape with trees and is similar in composition to the mosaic with two bulls from Hadrian’s Villa but closer in style to the Getty panel. The tiger attacks one onager while the second ass flees. The companion piece shows two lions on either side of a boar, also in a landscape setting. Like the lion in the Getty mosaic, the tiger and one of the lions stare straight out at the viewer. The expressive features of the lion in the Getty mosaic may place it closer in date to a similar representation of the scene on a fragmentary panel from Carthage dating to the mid-third century AD, now in the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.13 This image, which also depicts a lion and an onager, is one of several animal scenes that once surrounded a central female figure riding in a chariot drawn by stags.14 The figure is probably Artemis the huntress, whose associated imagery, like that of Dionysos, includes wild animals.


Only part of the left and bottom edges of the border survive. Some sections of the mosaic may have been restored in ancient times.15


Foucher 1960b, 17, no. 57.040, plate 7a; Le bien public, Dijon, April 19, 1961; Foucher 1963, 90, fig. 11c; Balil 1964, 7–8, no. 57.040, fig. 3; Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, May 4, 1973, lot 199; Neuerburg 1975, 51; Parrish 1987, 113–34.

  1. According to Foucher, the mosaic was found prior to 1914 near the avenue Tahar-Sfar (formerly avenue Marechal-Fochs) and was then in the possession of the family of the local fire chief; see Foucher 1960b, 17, no. 57.040, plate 7a. Neuerburg, however, writes that it was found at Oued Kharroub, near Sousse, citing Le bien public, Dijon, April 19, 1961; see Neuerburg 1975, 51. 

  2. Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, May 4, 1973, lot 199. 

  3. Ducrey, Metzger, and Reber 1993, 85–96; and Salzmann 1982, 90–91, no. 37, pl. 26. 

  4. Salzmann 1982, 86, no. 19, plate 24. A similar example from Corinth can be found in Salzmann 1982, 95, no. 64, plate 23. 

  5. The mosaic from Sparta, now in the Archaeological Museum of Sparta, is slated to be published by the excavator, E. Kourinou; see Panayotopoulou 1998, 112. For the mosaic from Motya, see Tusa 1997; and Famà 1997. 

  6. In Greek mosaics, the lion motif is commonly accompanied by or interchanged with griffins. A mosaic from an early fourth-century BC house at Olynthus includes a scene with two griffins, in place of lions, leaping upon a stag from either side and sinking their beaks and claws into its back; see Salzmann 1982, 99, no. 78, plate 13. 

  7. Parrish 1987, 128–34, provides examples with bibliography for the mosaics in the amphitheater at El Djem, Nennig (in present-day Germany), and at Antioch, and for hunting scenes at Ain Tounga in Africa Proconsularis, Piazza Armerina in Sicily, and the Great Palace at Constantinople. 

  8. Aurigemma 1961, 169–70, plate 16. 

  9. Schwarzmaier, Scholl, and Maischberger 2012, 232–33, no. 131, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Die Antikensammlung. 

  10. Although it is generally thought that these mosaics represent the highest quality in Roman mosaic work, it has also been argued that they were Hellenistic originals. See the comments by Christine Kondoleon on the mosaics as Hellenistic emblemata produced in the first century BC and preserved as heirlooms in the introduction to the present volume. 

  11. Gauckler 1897, 185, fig. 1 (Atrium 30, 2), 195, fig. 4, and plate 20; Gauckler 1910, no. 370; and Parrish 1987, 119, fig. 9. 

  12. Foucher 1963, 90–96, figs. 11d–e. 

  13. Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, acc. no. 012416. Parrish 1987, 117, fig. 7; and Heap 1883, 415–16. 

  14. For a description of the complete mosaic, now lost, see Heap 1883, 416. 

  15. Neuerburg 1975, 51.