Roman horse race mosaic revealed in Cyprus

A large Roman-era mosaic floor depicting chariot racing has been revealed in full after a year of excavations in the village of Akaki outside Nicosia, Cyprus. Excavations on the site began in 2014 when the remains of a large cistern 10 x 14 meters (33 x 46 feet) in dimension were discovered. In the summer of 2015, a section of a mosaic was unearthed on the south side of the cistern. Its large size, exceptional quality and very rare depiction of a chariot race distinguished it as one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Cyprus.

This year’s dig has exposed almost all of the mosaic. It is 11 meters long and four meters wide (36 by 13 feet) and was likely part of the floor of a large villa. It dates to the first half of the 4th century. Much of it is in a good state of preservation. The ornately decorated scene shows four quadrigae (chariots drawn by a team of four horses as in Ben Hur), possibly representing the four factions of professional racers in the Roman world — the Reds, Whites, Greens, and Blues — competing in a race at a circus or hippodrome. The chariots race around the spina, the median running down the center of the track. The charioteers are all standing and each quadriga is labeled with two inscriptions that are probably the names of the charioteer and the lead horse.

At the eastern end of the spina is the meta, the turning point where the greatest concentration of accidents, often fatal to rider and horses, occurred as the driver attempted to maneuver four galloping horses and one two-wheeled vehicle tightly around the curve. The meta is shown as a circular platform with three cones, each topped with an egg. The spina is decorated with an aedicule (a small temple) on one end and three columns, each topped with a dolphin with water pouring out of its mouth, in the middle. Standing between the chariots on the track are two men, one holding a whip, the other a vessel of water. There is also a figure on horseback.

The scene is encased in borders of intricate geometric designs. At the western end of the floor is another mosaic, nine medallions arranged in a circle, each holding the bust of a female figure. While this section has yet to be fully cleaned, already it’s clear that the nine figures are the muses, each identifiable from the symbols they hold.

Racing scenes like this one are extremely rare in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire, and even in the west they can be counted in single digits. Only two have been discovered in Greece and a total of seven have been found elsewhere in the empire (North Africa, France and Spain). The find is particularly exciting because it is the only such mosaic ever found in Cyprus, and it was discovered inland, about 20 miles west of Nicosia. The vast majority of Roman archaeological material has been found along the coast of the island.

Speaking to journalists, Director of the Department of Antiquities Marina Ieronymidou said: “It is an extremely important finding, because of the technique and because of the theme. It is unique in Cyprus since the presence of this mosaic floor in a remote inland area provides important new information on that period in Cyprus and adds to our knowledge of the use of mosaic floors on the island.”

Excavations will continue next May when archaeologists hope to unearth more of the mosaic floor and the villa. Until then, the floor will be covered with protective temporary structures.

12 thoughts on “Roman horse race mosaic revealed in Cyprus

  1. The villa seems to have been owned by either a true chariot racing aficionado or maybe a race horse breeder.

    For me, the names here seem to be the ones of his own horses competing against unnamed foreign ones: ‘Amphidromos’, ‘Protogenes’ (2x), ‘Bache’ and ‘Polyphemos’ seem like horse names, ‘Digono, ‘Pegaso’ likewise ..and ‘Kosmion’ or ‘Ecclestonos’ ?

    PS: I wonder, therefore, where the hippodrome might have been and if there was something like a ‘formula racing series’, maybe all along what is now southern Turkey or on other islands.

  2. So glad to see new mosaics rise from the ground. Thank you.

    I missed you yesterday, Livius Drusus. Are you doing alright?

    Please take care and thank you again for all of your hard work!

  3. I wonder whether it would be best just to cover it up and forget about it for a few thousand years. Otherwise when Cyprus is invaded and conquered the conquerors might take it into their heads to destroy it. There’s plenty of recent precedent.

  4. The wheels appear smaller and the axles longer than the Hollywood version we’ve grown up on. More agile turning perhaps. Great find, great blog entry, as always.

  5. Oh dear God, save us from idiots who have no regard for history, art, beauty, and the things that make life wonderful!

  6. I have to say this..Wonderful ceramics..paint fades, most other art disappears through time, but fired ceramics retain their wonderful colors, and in this case, the floor mosaic was covered so it was not disordered..and it is really very splendid!
    Thank you for sharing!

  7. Interesting that the mosaic artists had the same difficulty in portraying galloping horses that afflicted many artists until photography revealed the true motion of a horses legs at the gallop.

  8. I believe the tesserae (pieces) used in all Roman floor mosaics were solid stone of different colors, not ceramic. Zoom in on the third photo and you’ll see that the squares are solid in color although some have eroded surfaces. I made one from tile pieces and the color difference between the glaze and the clay is easily seen 😉

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