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Asarotos Oikos mosaic: The unswept floor of the Roman elite

The "asarotos oikos", a peculiar and captivating form of art that intrigued the elite and showcased the heights of artistic innovation.

Asarotos Oikos mosaic: The unswept floor of the Roman elite
Asarotos Oikos mosaic. Credits: Egisto Sani, CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED

In the opulent villas of ancient Rome, amidst the splendor of frescoed walls and marble statues, lay a peculiar and captivating form of art that intrigued the elite and showcased the heights of artistic innovation: The "asarotos oikos" or "unswept floor" mosaic. This remarkable mosaic genre, which reached its zenith during the Hellenistic period and continued into Roman times, offers a fascinating glimpse into the cultural and social dynamics of the ancient world.

Heraklitos and the "asarotos oikos" mosaic, stand as a compelling reason to explore the Gregoriano Profano Museum within the Vatican, showcasing an exquisite masterpiece of artistry.

Origins and Artistic Innovation

Pliny the Elder informs us that the artist responsible for introducing two influential themes into Greek and subsequently Roman mosaic art was Sosos of Pergamon,  (εκ Περγάμου ψηφιδογράφος Σώσος), a celebrated artist of the Hellenistic period, who lived in the second century B.C. Tasked with designing a decorative piece for the triclinium (the Roman dining room), in the Pergamon palace, Sosos selected two motifs that would become iconic in the ancient art world: the image of doves drinking and, more notably, the depiction of  "asarotos oikos".

These two motifs exemplify the transition that occurred in Hellenistic art during the second century BC, when depictions of everyday life and the ever-changing reality began to be incorporated into artistic themes.

A possible representation of Sosos of Pergamon at work. Illustration: DALL-E

This is how Pliny, describes the wonders of Soso’s work (Naturalis Historia, 36, 184):

“Celeberrimus fuit in hoc genere Sosos qui Pergami stravit quem vocant asaroton oecon,quoniam purgamenta cenae in pavimentis quaeque everri solent velut relicta fecerat parvis e tessellis tinctisque in varios colores. Mirabilis ibi columba bibens et aqua mumbra capitis infuscans. Apricantur aliae scabentes sese in canthari labro.”
“Sosos was most famous in this genre, who at Pergamum laid what they call the "unswept house," because he had made, as if left behind, the remnants of a meal on the floors, which are usually swept away, from small and variously colored tesserae. There, a dove drinking and darkening the reflection of its head in the water is marvelous. Others bask, preening themselves on the rim of a cup.”

The mosaic that Pliny describes, was never recovered. However copies of this theme, appear in Italy and the Roman colonies in Africa, from the end of the first century until the middle of the third century CE.

It is well-documented that King Attalus III, in the Pergamon Palace dining room, entertained Scipio Aemilianus, providing him the chance to admire Sosos's craftsmanship. Upon his death in 133 BC, Attalus bequeathed his entire estate and the treasures of Pergamon to Rome, effectively placing his city under Roman guardianship. This event led to the migration of artists and craftsmen to Rome, who introduced various iconographic styles from their workshops, including the "unswept room" theme.

Pliny the Elder recounts the evolution of Hellenistic mosaic art and Sosus’s notable achievements, stating, in Pliny, Natural History, 36.60.25.

“Pavimenta originem apud Graecos habent elaborata arte2 picturae ratione, donec lithostrota expulere eam. celeberrimus fuit in hoc genere Sosus, qui Pergami stravit quem vocant asaroton oecon, quoniam purgamenta cenae in pavimentis quaeque everri solent velut relicta fecerat parvis e tessellis tinctisque in varios colores. mirabilis ibi columba bibens et aquam umbra capitis infuscans; apricantur aliae scabentes sese in canthari labro.”
"Paved floors originated among the Greeks and were skilfully embellished with a kind of paintwork until this was superseded by mosaics. In this latter field the most famous exponent was Sosus, who at Pergamum laid the floor of what is known in Greek as ‘the Unswept Room’ because, by means of small cubes tinted in various shades, he represented on the floor refuse from the dinner table and other sweepings, malting them appear as if they had been left there. A remarkable detail in the picture is a dove, which is drinking and casts the shadow of its head on the water, while others are sunning and preening themselves on the brim of a large drinking vessel.”

Technique and Symbolism

Crafted with meticulous attention to detail, "asarotos oikos" mosaics utilized small tesserae (individual tiles) of various colors to achieve a high level of realism.

This innovative art form captivated viewers with its trompe-l'œil (deceive the eye) technique, creating a startlingly realistic portrayal of discarded food, utensils, and other detritus across the mosaic surface.

Creating a mosaic. Illustration: DALL-E

The artists' skill in rendering textures and shadows transformed stone into lifelike representations of fish bones, fruit peels, nutshells, and other refuse. Beyond its visual appeal, the "unswept floor" carried rich symbolic meaning. It served as a testament to the wealth and abundance of the household, a playful nod to the lavish banquets hosted by the elite, and a reflection on the transitory nature of luxury and excess.

This magnificent mosaic, crafted from minuscule fragments of glass and colored marble, once adorned the dining room floor of a villa located on Rome's Aventine Hill during Emperor Hadrian's reign. It features depictions of fruit, lobster claws, chicken bones, shellfish, and even a small mouse nibbling on a walnut shell. The depicted objects' realism is achieved through skillful color application to produce shadows against the floor's white backdrop.

The most famous instance of the "asarotos oikos" motif was unearthed in 1833 near the Aurelian Wall, on the southern side of the Aventinus mons—one of ancient Rome's seven hills. Dating back to the early second century CE and bearing the signature of the artist Heraklitos in Greek, this mosaic spans 4.05 x 4.05 meters and is currently preserved as mentioned above, in the The Gregoriano Profano Museum in the Vatican

Heraklitos crafted an intricate mosaic for the floor of the triclinium, welcoming visitors with a design featuring theatrical masks, ceremonial items, and the artist's own signature at the entrance. The primary decorative element of the mosaic showcased a detailed Nilotic scene, which has largely been lost over time.

Surrounding the room's perimeter, the "assarotos oikos"-themed mosaic depicted the leftovers of a feast against a white backdrop, portraying what would typically be discarded. It's fascinating to attempt to discern what Heraklitos included in this remarkable floor design... various fruits, leafy greens, claws of lobsters and crabs, shells of clams and oysters, sea urchins, chicken bones, and nutshells, including a small mouse nibbling on a walnut shell. The artist's ability to convey depth through the use of contrasting colors and creating shadows on the white floor is equally impressive.

Array of theatrical masks inserted in the mosaic of the uswept floor and Heraklitos' signature. Credits: Egisto Sani, CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED

Cultural Context and Reception

In the Roman Empire where social status and display of wealth were paramount, the "asarotos oikos" mosaic was more than decorative art; it was a status symbol. It showcased the owner's sophisticated taste and wealth, capable of commissioning such intricate and whimsical pieces. The mosaic also reflected the Romans' appreciation for Greek culture, as they adopted and adapted Hellenistic art forms to suit their tastes and sensibilities.

The "asaratos oikos" motif, often featured in tricliniums, symbolized a custom where guests would discard leftover food on the floor, with the variety and quantity of these remnants serving as indicators of the host's wealth. Some researchers suggest that these mosaic patterns served a practical purpose, concealing actual dirt during feasts, while others believe they held symbolic significance, such as warding off malevolent spirits.

Detail of the unswept floor mosaic. Credits: Egisto Sani, CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED

"Asarotos oikos" mosaics have been found solely within the residences of Rome's upper class. Creating such intricate mosaics would have required a significant financial outlay, and though these artworks' illusionistic effects surely entertained guests, it's unlikely that amusement was their only intended purpose.

The "asarotos oikos" mosaics were a symbol of elite intellectualism within Roman society. A mosaic that reflected symbolic meanings, understood exclusively by the established aristocracy equipped with the requisite education and training. This use of hidden symbolism likely emerged in response to the rapid political and economic changes of the late Imperial period, by an elite anxious about their diminishing dominance and eager to assert cultural superiority over those who had recently ascended to positions of power.

In Rome, the banquet held a central role, not just as a social gathering but also, particularly after the Republic's fall, as a display of wealth and generosity. The triclinium, adorned with bronze couches, saw feasts with numerous courses, resulting in substantial leftovers that were simply tossed onto the floor.

The "asaratos oikos" iconography enjoyed significant popularity in Rome, where, similar to Greece, it served not only as a decorative element for floors but also cleverly blended painted "leftovers" with actual ones during feasts. Even in the 1st century AD, Horace criticized the wealthy in his "Sermones" for their lavish spending on triclinium decorations while neglecting basic cleaning supplies like brooms, cloths, and sawdust.

A Window into Ancient Rome

The "asarotos oikos" mosaics stand as a testament to the creativity, skill, and wit of ancient artists, capturing the essence of Roman dining culture and the society's penchant for luxury and display. Beyond their aesthetic appeal, these mosaics serve as a window into the lives of the ancient Romans, reflecting their values, aspirations, and the complexities of their world. As we explore the remnants of these artistic marvels, we are reminded of the enduring power of art to intrigue, delight, and inform across the ages.