Cyprus: Paphos mosaics

The satyr Marsyas.

The satyr Marsyas.

Paphos in the southwest of Cyprus is known for quite a few historical treasures. It became the capital of Cyprus during the Ptolemaic period (ca. 323-58 BCE), when the island was ruled by the descendants of Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemaios. Previously, the capital had been at Salamis, but the Ptolemies preferred Paphos, probably because it was closer to their own capital at Alexandria in Egypt.

Cyprus became a Roman province in 58 BCE when Marcus Porcius Cato was sent to the island in order to arrange its incorporation into the Roman Empire. Under Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE), the province was turned over to the Senate. Senatorial provinces were usually the most stable provinces that did not need the presence of Roman legions. Cyprus was no exception. During the Roman period, the island was generally peaceful and prosperous for hundreds of years. The senatorial governor – a proconsul – also settled at Paphos and presumably chose the so-called House of Theseus as his residence.

Paphos and Paulus

Paphos’ Archaeological Park is located on a plain near the sea. It is famed for its wonderful mosaics from the second to fifth century. These can be admired in several ‘houses’ on the terrain: the House of Theseus, the House of Aion, the House of Dionysos, the House of Orpheus and House of Four Seasons. The terrain itself is mainly filled with rubble and a few scattered columns. A notable exception is the Odeon, the theatre from the second century. But it cannot be denied that visitors primarily come here for the mosaics. So let us take a closer look.

Remains of the House of Theseus.

The House of Theseus was the residence of the Roman proconsul, the governor of Cyprus. It may have been at this location that Saint Paulus – the Apostle Paul – persuaded the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus to convert to Christianity. Paul had travelled to Cyprus with his companion Barnabas, who was himself a Cypriot (Acts 4:36) and who in all honesty was probably the senior apostle of the two at that time. Barnabas and Paul had set out to sea from Seleucia, the port of Antiochia in Syria, and had first preached at Salamis. Salamis was a former capital of Cyprus and the two apostles “preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews” there (Acts 13:5).

Barnabas and Paul subsequently visited other cities on the island and ultimately ended up in Paphos, the seat of the Roman governor. Sergius was interested in hearing what the two strangers had to say and invited them to his residence. In the governor’s entourage was also “a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Barjesus” (Acts 13:6). He was probably a soothsayer or an astrologer and it was quite normal and acceptable for Roman governors to have such attendants about them. Barjesus did not like what Barnabas and Paul had to say and tried to persuade his master not to listen to them. Paul then struck him with blindness and Sergius Paulus was so impressed that he became a Christian himself, the first Roman magistrate to convert to Christianity (Acts 13:7-12). Paul, who was previously called Saul, may have taken his Roman name Paulus from him (cf. Acts 13:9, ” Saul, who also is called Paul”).

The House of Theseus

If the stories about Paul and Sergius are true, these events seem to have taken place in 44 or 45. It is possible that Sergius invited Paul and Barnabas to come to the reception room of the building that is now known as the House of Theseus. It was actually a Hellenistic-style palace with four wings and a central court. Paul would not have been able to see the mosaics though, as these are from a (much) later date, either the second or third century. The House of Theseus takes its name from the mosaic depicting the Athenian hero Theseus fighting the minotaur. Although the mosaic is damaged in places, it is not difficult to interpret. In the centre is Theseus, wielding a club. To the right, the minotaur is shown as a large bull’s head. Above the bull is the personification of Crete, the island where Theseus fought the minotaur in the labyrinth beneath King Minos’ palace. Minos’ daughter Ariadne, who helped Theseus defeat the monster, can be seen in the top left corner. Below her is a personification of the labyrinth. In fact, the geometric mosaic surrounding the main scene is a skilful representation of the labyrinth itself.

Theseus fighting the minotaur.

Theseus fighting the minotaur.

The Theseus mosaic is older than the other important mosaic from the House of Theseus. This early 5th century mosaic depicts the first bath of Achilles, the famed Greek hero from the Trojan War. In the centre of the mosaic, Achilles’ mother Thetis is reclining on a couch. His father Peleus is sitting in a chair, dressed as a Roman magistrate with a staff signifying authority in his left hand. Standing next to him are Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, the three Fates or Moirai. Clotho is the one spinning the thread of life (she is actually holding a spindle on the mosaic), while Lachesis measures its length and Atropos ultimately cuts it with her shears. The measuring device and shears are not depicted. Lachesis and Atropos are holding a diptych and scroll respectively. Baby Achilles is shown on the left, in the arms of a blond nurse called “Anatrophe”, which is the Greek word for “upbringing”. A housemaid to her left is carrying a jug of water for the bath. Her name is Ambrosia, although the text actually reads Anbrosia. In Greek mythology, baby Achilles is dipped in the river Styx by his mother to make him invulnerable. She holds him by the heel, thus leaving one spot where the hero can be harmed, his Achilles’ heel. In a different version of the story, Thetis anoints her son with ambrosia, the food and drink of the gods, to make him invulnerable. The name “Ambrosia” could be referring to this version of the myth.

The Bath of Achilles.

The Bath of Achilles.

The House of Aion

The huge mosaic in the House of Aion.

The huge mosaic in the House of Aion.

The mosaics in the House of Aion are from the mid fourth century. In fact, there is one huge mosaic in the reception hall composed of five mythological scenes. The mosaic in the bottom left corner is regretfully badly damaged in places, but it represents the “Triumphant procession of Dionysus”. To the right of it we see the satyr Marsyas being taken away for punishment after he has lost a musical contest to Apollo. This punishment is not depicted for obvious reasons: it was brutal. Apollo flayed his defeated opponent alive and nailed his skin to a tree. The tree can be seen in the picture and Marsyas is led there by Scythians. Also in the scene is Planē, the personification or error. She could refer to Marsyas’ error of challenging an Olympian god to a duel, a good example of what the Greeks used to call “hubris”. At Apollo’s feet, a student of Marsyas, one Olympos, is begging for his master’s life.

The large rectangular mosaic in the centre is “The beauty contest between Cassiopeia and the Nereids”, of which parts are gone. The Nereids were the 50 daughters of Nereus and Doris. Doris is in fact on the mosaic, the first woman on the right part of the centre mosaic. However, here she is actually a Nereid herself, taking part in the contest with her daughters or sisters Thetis (Achilles’ mother, see above) and Galatea. Zeus and Pallas Athena are watching the contest from the sky. Also in the scene are angle-like figures called erotes and the red figures are sea creatures. If I read correctly, the mosaic also has the text “bythos” and “pontos”, which can be translated as “depth of the sea” and “sea”.

The beauty contest between Cassiopeia and the Nereids.

The beauty contest between Cassiopeia and the Nereids.

Aion.

Aion.

The left part of the mosaic is damaged and more difficult to interpret. In the top right corner is Aion, the god of eternity and the judge of the beauty contest. Since he is in the centre of the entire mosaic, the house is named after him. Surrounding his head is a halo. He is wearing a crown and has a sceptre in his left hand. His partially preserved right hand points at Cassiopeia as the winner of the contest. Most of his body is gone, but it is possible to make out his Greek name ΑΙΩΝ just below the damaged part. The goddess Krisis (“judgement”) presents Cassiopeia with a crown, while the sun god Helios seems to extend his hand from the sky to congratulate her. A nude boy (“Kairos”, i.e. “good fortune”) presents Cassiopeia with a coin. Behind Cassiopeia is a mostly destroyed maid.

The mosaic in the top left corner represents the story of Leda and the swan. Leda was the wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta. The supreme god Zeus turned himself into a beautiful swan to seduce her. In the Greek myth, the swan jumps into Leda’s arms and rapes her. Unfortunately, the mosaic is damaged. The best preserved mosaic is the one in the top right corner. It represents the Bath of Dionysos. Nymphs from Nysa are preparing a bath for the newborn baby Dionysos. He is sitting on Hermes’ lap. The satyr Tropheus is extending his arms to take the child from Hermes, who is wearing a winged crown. Also in the scene are Anatrophe (“upbringing”, see above), as well as Ambrosia and Nektar (food and drink of the gods). Behind Hermes is Theogonia, presumably the personification of the “birth of the gods” (for that is what her name means).

The Bath of Dionysos.

The Bath of Dionysos.

Other Houses

The House of Four Seasons.

There are other houses in Paphos’ Archeological Park, but regretfully I have no photos of the mosaics in the Houses of Dionysos and Orpheus. They should be available elsewhere on the Internet. I did manage to visit the House of Four Seasons, named after the second century floor mosaic found there. In the four corners of the mosaic, the personifications of summer, spring, autumn and winter can be seen.

Far above the images of the seasons is a Greek text. It reads: ΧΑΙΡΕΙ, or “Welcome”. I certainly felt welcome at this wonderful location.

Update 27 August 2016: I was not satisfied with the quality of the pictures in this post. Especially the contrast and colours of the images were not acceptable, so I have edited and replaced most of them. They look much better now, if I say so myself.

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