The Villa Romana Del Casale, in Piazza Armerina, is one of Sicily’s UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The villa was huge and would have been built and decorated at staggering expense. It was the manor house of a colossal agricultural estate, owned and run by an Italian aristocrat. Sicily was regarded as a terribly primitive province by the Romans (it still is) but farms here were prized, as the land was so fertile.
It is world famous for this mosaic of women working out in bikinis:
They are being given “crowns” of flowers because they have just won sporting events. They were the equivalent of cups or medals in the ancient world.
The highest level of honour – the gold medal – would be a wreath of laurel leaves; the emperor always got these without particularly doing anything. In Italy today, a degree is called a “laurea” and graduates wear laurel leaf wreaths on their heads to pose for their graduation photos, rather than mortar boards.
One corner of this mosaic is broken, so you can see the previous one underneath it, which seems somewhat less exciting than scantily clad ladies but was still top quality.
Given that this bikini mosaic is a real masterpiece, and was laid over a perfectly good one underneath (which was also terribly expensive), I think this was made to commemorate a very important sporting festival held at or near the villa. We all know about the Olympic games because they have been revived in modern times, but there were other major sporting festivals in ancient times too.
You’ll notice that some of the ladies have blonde hair. The ancient Romans were very keen on bleaching their hair, though the richest ones would also keep German slave girls specifically for the purpose of shaving their hair off and turning it into wigs.
These are some important people. You can tell they were not from mainland Italy because of their outlandish clothing. You can also tell this dates from the period long after the classical Roman period (when Constantinople or Byzantium was starting to dominate over Rome as the centre of the empire and we begin calling the art “Byzantine”) because of that very square looking jewellery the central figure is wearing.
The villa was built in the 4th century AD and was used continuously until it was buried by a landslide in the 12th century. I think this may have been one of the last mosaics made in it before it got buried in mud for 800 years.
The house has huge scenes of people fishing in boats beside marvellous buildings; a staggering hunting scene; and many pictures of the wild animals from the area, which the men would have enjoyed hunting, including deer, mountain lions, wild boar and hares.
These men in the scene below are burning a sacrifice before an altar with a little statue of the goddess Artemis on it, to bring them luck in the hunt. I can tell she is Artemis, the huntress, because she is wearing a quiver of arrows slung across her body and holding a bow and, if you look very carefully, you can see that she has a gold crescent moon on her head which looks like a pair of tiny horns.
Artemis the huntress was also the goddess of the mystery of female fertility and menstruation, which was of course controlled by her planet, the moon. You may think all these things seem unrelated until you realise that hunting was sometimes done at night, when nocturnal animals are out but you can only see them under a strong full moon. When you know that periods are, of course, controlled by the phases of the moon as well, it becomes obvious that she was, in fact, the goddess of leaking blood.
Artemis was regarded haveing a hidden and somewhat sinister side, and having a few rather scary powers obtained from the underworld, becuase she was able to make women bleed for days without dying. The women worshipped her in secret ways, and with secret rituals, that the men were not allowed to know about. Since all the written documents we have from ancient times were written by the men, to this day we do not know what the ladies did to keep on Artemis’ good side.
Notice that all the men in this mosaic are wearing their sturdy horse-riding boots, but with bare thighs because it was summer, and very hot.
In the lower scene, the hunters are cooking dinner and have pitched camp for the night by slinging a red cloth from the trees; again, the lack of any sides to their tent tells me it was too hot to need any! They have their comfortable sleeping bags laid out to recline on, their horses are tied up securely for the night and one of the trees has a hunting net slung safely over a branch.
In the bottom scene, you can see the net being used by the men on horseback, driving three stags into it.
This image below doesn’t look like a real hunting scene to me, and I think it was a scene from a very elaborate circus performance with professional hunters (rather like gladiators) and exotic animals. Leopards, tigers and gazelles were never indigenous to Sicily, but they were sometimes imported from Africa at great expense to show off and entertain; often, they were gifts from visiting ambassadors hoping to establish good trading relations.
One of the popular forms of circus entertainment was to recreate the thrill of an exotic hunting scene, cleverly choreographed, in which man hunted beast and beast hunted man. African aminals were ideal for keeping up the suspense, as they would fight back rather than running away.
One of the most exciting things for me at the Villa Romana is the very well preserved hypocaustic heating system. It is well known that the Romans had central heating, but perhaps less well known that it was slave-powered. Essentially there was a network of tunnels and large chambers under the floors, about four feet high or less, into which slaves fanned the smoke of fires which they kept burning at all times.
Most of these hypocaustic systems have collapsed, or are not explained or labelled at the archaeological sites where you can see them, so people miss them. But in this villa the whole system is intact and you can get right inside it, and imagine just how horrific life was for a slave working there.
Slaves were usually condemned to work the heating system as a punishment close to the death sentence. Once in that smoky, suffocating location all day, with no access to sunlight or fresh air, their life expectancy was short indeed.
There’s one more thing I want to tell you about.
Did you notice these two men in the staged hunting scene earlier on?
It is a surprise to some people that an ancient Roman would wear a swastika embroidered on his tunic.
The polytheistic religion of hinduism is the one still living branch of the polytheistic religion of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Despite the separation of vast distances, the similarities which all three branches of the Indo European culture retained can be traced back to a single origin, probably somewhere in the region of western Turkey or the Caucasus. This can be found in the common families of languages, derived from the sister languages of Greek, Roman and Sanskrit; in the DNA of the people; and in the religion.
So why the swastika? People who know about Indian culture are aware that this sacred symbol is still used to ward off evil of all types, and in particular envy. Indians paint it in pigment on their childrens’ heads at an annual religious festival. They paint it on the threshold of their houses. They use it all over the place, to fend off the harm that can be done by the envious glance of someone who wants their beautiful children, their good health, their riches or their exam grades. This kind of evil, wishing ill upon someone because of envy, is called the evil eye.
The ancient Romans and Greeks were terified of the evil eye and used this symbol too, embroidered on their clothes; in mosaics all over their floors; outside their houses; and in some cities, stamped into their coins.
If a man is successful at hunting and brings home not only plenty of nutritious food, but also gains glory and admiration for his physical prowess, he is likely to be envied by everyone. They might wish, just for once, he would be the one to slip off his horse and get bitten by a lion so that they could come home looking like the champion. He is dreadfully vulnerable, and needs plenty of protection against such curses.
Notice that this man’s companion has a shield which is red all over? Red was a colour that could powerfully ward off the evil eye throughout the countries bordering the Mediterranean, from the Lebanon (where they made the best red dye for clothing to protect pharaohs, senotors, emperors, generals and high priests); to Egypt where they fished blazing red coral from the sea; to Italy where they painted entire walls red with oche or iron ore paints.
It is no coincidence that cardinals and kings have worn red throughout history. Until at least medieval times, all Christian priests had swastikas embroidered on their robes.
To this day there are old ladies in Sicily who wear a little red bag hidden inside their clothing, usually containing tiny pendants with images of saints inside, to ward off the evil eye.
Finally, here’s a very sweet picture of a young couple canoodling. The Romans were keen on these images of “first love” and made statues of them, too. They often represent Cupid and Psyche, a couple of starstruck young supernatural lovers whose story held the same place in Roman culture that Romeo and Juliet hold in ours.
I hope you enjoyed this tour of the Villa Romana del Casale. It is in south-eastern Sicily, and well worth a visit.
More about the evil eye
If you are interested in learning more about the evil eye in ancient and modern cultures, I have written a brief book about it.