North Africa

More mosaics have been preserved in the Roman provinces of North Africa than anywhere else in the empire, especially in the prosperous agricultural province of Africa Proconsularis (present-day northern Tunisia, northeastern Algeria, and western Libya).1 The region was one of the earliest to come under Roman control following the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC. However, little of the surviving Roman material in North Africa dates from before the late first century AD, and Rome’s influence on the local culture was not dominant until the second century AD, when the area became a primary source of grain for Italy and a source of wealth for aristocratic Romans. Reflecting this increasing affluence, a growing number of public buildings and private residences were adorned with ornate mosaic floors, and from the end of the second century AD onward, mosaics were a standard form of decoration in wealthy Roman villas.

The earliest Roman mosaics in North Africa made use of elaborate black-and-white patterns and geometric designs prevalent in Italy during the first and second centuries AD. Mosaics of this type were probably introduced to North Africa by itinerant craftsmen who had established local workshops along the east coast of Africa Proconsularis by the early part of the second century AD. The impact of the Italian tradition is evident in the earliest mosaics at the prominent centers of Hadrumetum (present-day Sousse) and Thysdrus (present-day El Djem), which display black-and-white geometric designs unparalleled in previous mosaic production in North Africa.2 The local mosaic styles in North Africa, however, soon diverged from contemporary Italian trends by adding stylized vegetal elements and using vibrant color for both figural and decorative compositions. Elaborate, polychrome mosaics similar in composition to that of the black-and-white Getty Medusa mosaic (cat. 1), for example, survive from a villa at Thysdrus and from a bath complex at nearby Dar Zmela.3 This rapid transformation was likely influenced by the abundant supply of colored limestone and marble that was available locally. It is also clear from the decoration of buildings such as the Great Baths at Thysdrus, however, that mosaic floors in the black-and-white style continued to be produced alongside the more elaborate polychrome pavements well into the second century AD.4

Mosaics of a very different tradition also existed in North Africa during the same period, although examples of these are fewer. Detailed polychrome emblemata depicting a wide variety of figural subjects appear as individual scenes within the designs of larger floors. These picture panels were often set in a decorative geometric field or distributed around a primary scene that was associated with mythological figures, combats in the amphitheater, or the hunt. The Getty’s Mosaic of a Lion Attacking an Onager (cat. 5), which depicts a single scene surrounded by a guilloche border, belongs to this tradition. Its original context may have been comparable to that of a pair of emblemata from the House of the Dionysiac Procession at Thysdrus, which were set at either end of a frieze at the entrance to the triclinium; the room itself was decorated with an elaborate mosaic floor composed of intricate vegetal designs.5 Emblemata were also displayed together in groups, as in the Calendar Mosaic with the Seasons and the Months in the House of the Months at Thysdrus, which was composed of sixteen individual panels set into a floral-style frame.6 The Getty mosaic may have been arranged similarly as one of a series of related panels, perhaps also illustrating scenes of hunting or the arena.

Over the course of the third and fourth centuries AD, pictorial mosaics in North Africa increasingly displayed a preference for large-scale figural compositions.7 Themes of the amphitheater and the hunt were especially widespread. In no other regions of the Roman Empire are they found in such variety and abundance. Some of the earliest examples include early third-century AD hunting mosaics from Carthage and from Oudna, as well as a mosaic of similar date depicting amphitheater combats from Thysdrus and a hunting pavement from El Kef in western Tunisia that may date to the late second century AD.8 Both the composition and the imagery of North African mosaics during this period influenced those of other regions of the Roman Empire, particularly Sicily and Italy. One such example is the Getty’s fourth-century AD Mosaic Floor with Bear Hunt (cat. 2) from a Roman villa near Baiae.9 The influence of North Africa’s large-scale narrative mosaics on the eastern part of the empire is also evident. It is clearly demonstrated by the mid-fifth-century AD Mosaic of Megalopsychia from Antioch, in which a personification of Megalopsychia (Generosity) is surrounded by a series of venationes and animal combats, and by the early sixth-century AD Mosaic of the Worcester Hunt, also from Antioch, which depicts various hunting scenes surrounding a central figure.10

  1. For a comprehensive examination of Roman mosaics in North Africa, see Dunbabin 1978. Very different geographic and historical conditions affected the development of mosaic production in the mountainous provinces of Numidia and Mauretania, which retained separate regional and local traditions. 

  2. Examples include House B of the Terrain Jilani Guirat (Foucher 1960a, 44–46, plate 8) and the House of the Peacock (Maison du Paon) (Foucher 1961, 3–14, plates 1–5) at Thysdrus, both dating to the early second century AD. 

  3. Thysdrus (a villa): Foucher 1963, 97, fig. 13b. Dar Zmela (a bath complex): Foucher 1960b, 121–22, no. 57.247; and Foucher 1963, 97, fig. 13a. 

  4. For the baths at Thysdrus, see Gauckler 1910, 61; and Foucher 1960a, 103. 

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

  6. Foucher 1961, 30–50, plates 32–34; and Parrish 1984, 156–60, no. 29, plates 42–44. 

  7. Lavin 1963, 229–42. 

  8. Oudna: Gauckler 1910, 122–23, no. 362; and Lavin 1963, 230–31, fig. 75. Carthage: Poinssot and Lantier 1923, 154–58; and Lavin 1963, 233, fig. 79. Thysdrus: Merlin 1915, no. 71f, 4; and Lavin 1963, 231–32, fig. 77. El Kef (or Le Kef): Lavin 1963, 231–32, fig. 76. For another hunting mosaic from Thysdrus: Gauckler 1910, 26, no. 64; and Lavin 1963, fig. 80. 

  9. For examples with references, see the introduction to Italy in the present catalogue. For additional connections reflected in the mosaics of Sicily and North Africa, see Wilson 1982, 413–28. 

  10. Mosaic of Megalopsychia (Hatay Archaeology Museum, 1016): Lassus 1934, 114–56, figs. 1–27; Levi 1947, 326–45, fig. 136, and plates 76b–80; and Lavin 1963, 189–90, figs. 6–7. Mosaic of the Worcester Hunt (Worcester Art Museum, 1936.30–31): Levi 1947, 363–65, plate 90a; Lavin 1963, 187–90, fig. 2; and Becker and Kondoleon 2005, 228–37, no. 8, dated to AD 480–520.