open menu

Photo Gallery (click to enlarge)

Architecture, design and mythology: the mosaics of Apulum.

In Roman art, the mosaic had a double role, both practical and aesthetic. A few such works have survived from the Roman province of Dacia and most of them were found in Apulum. Since the eighteenth century seven mosaics have come to light varying from simple, bicolour designs to complex, polychrome ones with numerous figurative elements such as the Winds Mosaic found in 1782. This art is suggestive of the taste for beauty among the Roman inhabitants of Apulum, the skill of the workers and the financial means of the patrons.

Although the mosaic appeared initially as a solution for moisture problems on floors, at the height of the Roman Empire’s prosperity, mosaics were a highly appreciated art-form with strong connections to sculpture, architecture and painting. The masters skilfully inserted small pieces of marble, porphyry or other rocks or pottery into the soft paste of the pavement. Making a mosaic required the combined efforts of a team of workers. Famously, the 42 mosaics commissioned by the tyrant of Syracuse, Hieron II, utilized a team of 300 workers working for a year.

On the territory of Roman Dacia a few mosaics are known, most of them discovered in Apulum. Sadly, as the majority were found in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, today we only have some drawings and even these are mostly just sketches.

With few exceptions, the great and beautiful mosaics from Apulum were concentrated in Partoș, the area of the city located on the right bank of Mureș River. In 1767, a mosaic was discovered displaying the figure of a bull with a geometric decoration made of multiple squares. The mosaic was built with black and white tesserae. Today we only have a drawing of this mosaic.

In 1782, the first illustrative mosaic in the tradition of provincial art came to light. It was made of white, black and red stones which decorated a building of approximately eight to ten meters long and about the same in width. The mosaic had decorative frames, small emblems, geometric and vegetal decoration and the figure of a bull, as well as the face of a woman and the image of a horse rider. It perhaps decorated the interior of a private house (fig. 1). Although some historians located this mosaic in the area between Alba Iulia and Partoș, a letter sent by Bishop Ignatius Batthyany to Cardinal Stephen Borgia suggests that the mosaic came to light during repairs made to the Episcopal Palace, therefore from within the limits of the Roman fortress. Batthyany supposed that the mosaic displayed a Christian theme.

One century later, in 1863, Adalbert Cserni, long before starting archaeological excavations, drew a mosaic he discovered near the road to Partoș. It consisted of small blue-blackish, yellow and white tesserae. Another important discovery was made in 1864, near the recently built railway, where a building with several rooms paved with polychrome mosaics was discovered. The building belonged to a well-off householder of Apulum. In the largest room was a mosaic with geometric decoration consisting of octagons, hexagons, rectangles and braids. In the centre it had a clover with four leaves. The mosaic was made with white, red and blue tesserae. In an adjacent room were remnants of a mosaic displaying a vase made of red tesserae with a trapezoid motif and small rosettes. Treasure hunters destroyed the remnants of this and other mosaics along with remnants of frescoes of figures and vegetal motifs (fig. 3).

The Palace of the Governor of Apulum was decorated with mosaics but these were simpler in design than those found in Colonia Aurelia Apulensis (today Partoș). Cserni gave several examples of such mosaics and preserved for the museum-going-public a simple mosaic made of octagonal and square red and black tesserae (fig.4). Other fragments of a mosaic with a frame decorated with a chessboard pattern were recently rescued from the Governor’s Palace (fig. 6).

In 1950, archaeologist Ion Berciu discovered in a room of a Roman building located in Partoș the best preserved mosaic (although partly damaged) from Apulum. It had an almost square form with sides measuring 4.40 by 4.20 m. It consisted of green, red, blue and white pieces of marble and pottery. The mosaic had a geometric and floral frame surrounding a great emblem of several medallions. In the medallions one can recognize the four winds of ancient mythology figured as human faces. Only two of them are preserved today, Zephyr and Euros (fig. 5).

In comparison with the capital of the Roman province of Dacia, Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa, Apulum stands out due to the high number of polychrome mosaics. The themes varied according to the tastes of the patrons, the skill of the makers and the location of the buildings. At Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa beautiful illustrations of the Homeric myths are found; in Apulum other mythological themes or simple geometric and vegetal patterns predominate. The mosaics from Apulum date from the second and third centuries AD. None of them seems to have been made after the withdrawal of the Roman army or during the later administration of the province. The hypothesis regarding an early Christian theme of the aforementioned mosaic, dating to the fifth century, is not tenable. Compared to the art of mosaics in the empire, what we find in Dacia appears modest. One of the most valuable mosaics from the area of the Lower Danube was found in Tomis, in the province of Moesia on the banks of Black Sea (modern Constanța).

Today, destruction seems to be the leitmotif that accompanies and darkens this art from ancient Apulum. Without a mosaic properly preserved and without the hope of ever recovering the rest of the Winds Mosaic from Partoș, both the specialist and the casual admirer of art and beauty should accept that they will only be able to see them at second-hand through the drawings of their discoverers. It is sad to imagine that the urbanization of Alba Iulia over recent centuries led to gestures like the one recorded in 1773, when, after the destruction of a mosaic found in Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa, Emperor Joseph II was offered a beautiful plaque from that mosaic as a souvenir. (C.I.P.)