Classics experts examining four recently discovered mosaics in the ancient city of Antioch have discovered that all of the pieces depict lost scenes from plays by fourth century B.C. Greek playwright Menander.
Menander is known to have written over a hundred comedies. His work was extremely popular in the ancient world, but by the 19th century, all that was left of his plays were fragments quoted in other books. It wasn’t until the 20th century that large parts of six of his plays were found in papyri, mummy linings, palimpsests and manuscripts. Only one of them is complete.
The mosaics were found by Ömer Çelik, a staff archaeologist at the Hatay Archaeological Museum in Antakya during a recent excavation. He contacted a friend at the University of Cincinnati and she contacted Classics Professor Kathryn Gutzwiller to enlist her expertise in ancient literature in trying to decipher the images depicted in the mosaics. It was Gutzwiller who identified them as Menander scenes.
Three scenes depicted in the mosaics are from plays that have been entirely lost, and the last scene is from a play that has survived in part, but is missing the scene in the mosaic.
The mosaics, which were found in ancient Antioch and date to the third century AD, represent scenes in “Women at Lunch,” “Girl Whose Hair is Shorn,” “Sisters Who Love Brothers” and “Possessed Girl.”
“The importance of these mosaics is two-fold. One, they help us to reconstruct each of the four plays. Two, they illuminate significantly the tradition of illustrating Menander and reveal variations in the illustrations of the plays.”
They’re also important additions to the rich history of mosaic art uncovered in Antioch and environs. Over the centuries, earthquakes and Persians have ensured that very little of the ancient Hellenistic and Roman city survives. Between 1932 and 1939 an excavation team from a group of prestigious institutions like the Louvre and Princeton sought to uncover the remains of large structures like Constantine’s Great Octagonal Church. They failed utterly.
What they did find, however, was an enormous number of large, intricate mosaics in the floors of ancient villas and baths. Most of those mosaics are now on permanent display in the Hatay Archaeological Museum. There’s a fantastic collection of pictures of the museum’s astonishing mosaic collection on this page.