Daily Archives: November 16, 2012

The Menander Mosaics and the Ancient Sitcom

Scene from Menander’s Synaristosai (Women at Breakfast), Dioskourides of Samos, 2nd century BC.

We’d like to conclude Mosaics Week here at the Abbeville Blog by taking a close look at the famous Menander mosaics from the Villa of Cicero. As Abbeville’s Greek and Roman Mosaics notes, the villa was among the first buildings to be excavated at Pompeii and may or may not actually have belonged to the great philosopher-statesman. But “while the true owner of ‘Cicero’s’ villa remains unknown to us, the author of the two emblemata there does not: both…bear the Greek inscription Dioskourides Samios epoiese (Dioskourides of Samos made me), attesting to the mosaicist’s awareness of his own skill.

What sort of mosaics did this mosaicist mosaicize? The emblemata at the Villa of Cicero depict scenes from the comedies of Menander, a popular ancient Greek dramatist whose work survives today mainly in fragments. These lively, racy works were not unlike ancient sitcoms, thriving on timeless comedic staples: love, sex, money, class conflict, and so on. The specific works featured in the villa mosaics are Synaristosai (Women at Breakfast) and Theophoroumene (The Possessed Girl); the first has been lost and only a partial text of the second has come down to us. To get a flavor of Menander’s style, however, we can peruse his only play to survive in (basically) complete form: Dyskolos (Grouch), available online in a translation by Fairfield University’s Vincent J. Rosivach. The following excerpt features Sostratos, the hero, a young gentleman of leisure in love with a peasant girl; Khaireas, Sostratos’s valet and buddy; and Pyrrhias, a slave in Sostratos’s house, whom Sostratos has earlier sent to approach the father of the girl he loves. The angry father has thrown dirt and stones at Pyrrhias, as angry fathers do.

Py. Let’s get out of here, I’m begging you.
So. Where?
Py. From the door here, as far as possible. A son of distress, either he’s been driven mad by some god or he’s naturally crazy, the man who lives in that house, the one you send me to. Damn! My toes, I’ve shattered nearly all of them banging into things.
So. [aside to Khaireas] He’s come here and gotten drunk.
Kh. Clearly.

Take a moment to savor this vintage stumbling-drunk joke, 2300 years old now but still kind of funny. Compare a more recent incarnation:

And so the human comedy continues. The works depicted in the villa mosaics are hardly less fun, especially once you know the stories behind them. The scene from Synaristosai, for example, features one courtesan complaining to another, and to the second courtesan’s mother (their procuress), about her romantic troubles. What is this if not ancient Rome’s answer to Sex and the City?

That’s not to suggest that these artworks are anything but classy. Bawdy and populist though their subject matter may be, Greek and Roman Mosaics reminds us that these “two emblemata…are still among the most beautiful mosaics recovered from the ancient world.” Far from serving as the Roman equivalent of a SATC dorm poster, they “attest to the refined culture of the villa’s owner.” And to the refinement of ancient Roman culture itself, which in slightly Warholesque fashion could turn even its pop indulgences into priceless art.