Greek myth in Roman Rutland: unearthing scenes from the Trojan War

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An intricate Roman mosaic depicting the triumph of the Greek warrior Achilles over Hector of Troy, recently unearthed in Rutland, has been hailed as the region’s most stunning archaeological discovery to-date. Hazel Blair spoke to John Thomas, Anthony Beeson, David Neal, and Peter Kruschwitz to find out more about the meaning behind its motifs.

According to Greek legend, the city of Troy (in modern Turkey) was besieged for ten years by the Achaeans, a coalition of Mycenaean Greeks fighting to recover Helen of Sparta, who had been led away from her husband by the Trojan prince Paris. This war has inspired countless retellings, including Homer’s 8th-century BC Iliad, an epic poem focusing on a period of a few weeks in the final year of the conflict. How far did Homer’s version influence later representations of the Trojan War and its protagonists? A mosaic recently excavated in Rutland offers tantalising clues about the myth’s reception in Roman Britain.

opposite The first or bottom panel of the mosaic, showing Achilles (on the left) and Hector duelling on chariots. Achilles, the victor, appears larger than his opponent, whose horses are also smaller. Lines can be seen under the horses’ front feet, added to indicate movement, ULAS’ John Thomas said.
The first or bottom panel of the mosaic, showing Achilles (on the left) and Hector duelling on chariots. Achilles, the victor, appears larger than his opponent, whose horses are also smaller. Lines can be seen under the horses’ front feet, added to indicate movement, ULAS’ John Thomas said.Image:© University of Leicester Archaeological Service.

The first hints of the mosaic’s presence emerged last year, when Jim Irvine spotted pottery fragments and intriguing cropmarks on farmland owned by his father Brian Naylor. Jim contacted Leicestershire County Council’s archaeology team, and Historic England secured funding for the site to be investigated by the University of Leicester Archaeology Services (ULAS), after which geophysical surveys combining magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar revealed a sprawling late Roman villa complex complete with barns and potential bathhouses. Some of these structures were explored further through excavation – and within one apsidal structure, buried beneath 30-40cm of rubble, was the impressive 11m by 7m mosaic depicting the Greek hero Achilles and Hector, leader of the Trojan forces.

Epic imagery

The excavated scenes will be broadly recognisable to any readers familiar with the Iliad, representing a dramatic section of the poem immediately after Hector has killed Patroclus, a beloved companion of Achilles. The grief-stricken Achilles kills Hector in turn, but his revenge is not complete: he degrades the Trojan’s corpse by dragging it behind his chariot, until King Priam of Troy pays a ransom for his son’s body.

In the Rutland version of the narrative, three oblong panels dynamically depict Achilles’ triumph over Hector, the dragging of his body, and his return to Priam – but with an element of dramatic licence, as John Thomas, Deputy Director of ULAS and project manager on the excavations, told CA. ‘There’s nothing like it from the UK, but consultation with my Leicester colleague Jane Masséglia suggests this isn’t a precise retelling of the scenes in the Iliad,’ he said. ‘In the first panel you have Hector and Achilles facing off on chariots, but if you read the Iliad, you’ll find that they actually fought on foot, so that’s a distinct change from Homer’s version.’ While the second panel, which shows the dragging of Hector’s corpse, does fit with the Homeric narrative, John added, in the Iliad the gods protected Hector’s body from harm, while the mosaicist created a grislier image with blood flowing from the Trojan’s wounds.

The middle panel of the mosaic, showing Hector being dragged behind Achilles’ chariot. Hector’s father Priam can be seen to the right, wearing a striped robe. Blood appears to be flowing from Hector’s wounds.Image:© University of Leicester Archaeological Service.

The most significant diversion, however, comes in the final panel, which depicts King Priam’s ransom of Hector. In the mosaic, a figure holding a giant set of scales weighs Hector’s body against gold vessels that his father heaps on to the other side. In Book 22 of the Iliad, Homer has Achilles initially refusing to return Hector’s body, even if his father should offer him the prince’s weight in gold. His defiance is not taken literally, though – Hector’s corpse is exchanged for gold and other items delivered by Priam. The weighing scene does feature in a later Greek dramatisation of the Trojan War, however: Phrygians, part of a lost trilogy by Aeschylus (c.525-c.455 BC). ‘Aeschylus added that scene for dramatic effect because it would have been shown on stage,’ John explained, ‘so it seems that what we’re seeing here is a mishmash of different interpretations of that story that made their way into this Roman retelling.’

The third or top panel of the mosaic, showing Hector’s wounded body being returned to King Priam in exchange for Hector’s weight in gold. The panel is heavily burnt, discolouring its images, but Achilles can still be faintly seen to the left. Image:© University of Leicester Archaeological Service.

The inclusion of the weighing scene is unusual, but one broadly contemporary parallel does exist, John noted: a late 4th-century mosaic from a villa at Caddeddi in Sicily, which once had 12 panels illustrating the Trojan War, includes the motif (see https://the-past.com/feature/living-in-luxury-in-rural-sicily-the-late-roman-villa-of-caddeddi).

Searching for a source

ULAS’ finds indicate that the Rutland villa was occupied between the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, though details of the mosaic might hint at the site enduring longer. Anthony Beeson, who specialises in Romano-British mosaics and Classical iconography has drawn comparisons with the late 4th-century mosaic excavated at Boxford in Berkshire (CA 333 and 371), which depicts Greek mythological figures including the heroes Pelops and Bellerophon, the latter’s winged steed Pegasus, and the monster Chimaera. Anthony said the Rutland floor looks similarly late, probably having been laid in the late 4th or even the early 5th century AD. This is based on similarities of style in the figure-work with mosaics at Boxford and Croughton, and from the outfits worn by Priam’s royal retainers, which resemble costumes from the 5th-century Vergilius Romanus manuscript, an illustrated collection of works by the Roman poet Virgil (c.70-19 BC; his Aeneid chronicles the aftermath of the Trojan War from the Trojans’ perspective, and the episode of Dido and Aeneas appears on another 4th-century mosaic, at Low Ham in Somerset). Might this apparent flourishing of enthusiasm for Classical stories in later Roman Britain, displayed in such an ostentatious way, suggest that changes were afoot, prompting the elites to visibly reassert their cultural interests?

left David Neal on site, making notes on his illustration of the mosaic. below An aerial drone shot of the mosaic room, showing use of plainer tesserae towards the apse.
David Neal on site, making notes on his illustration of the mosaic. Image: © Historic England Archive.

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 383. Read on in the magazine (click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters.

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