Palestrina: The Nile Mosaic

Detail of the mosaic showing three soldiers and a priestess.

I will readily admit that the famous Nile Mosaic was the reason I took the bus to Palestrina in the first place. This gorgeous piece of art, presumably from the late second century BCE, is the most prized possession of Palestrina’s National Archaeological Museum. The mosaic has a room of its own on the top floor of the museum. I was amazed that I happened to be the only other visitor in the museum on that nice and cool Monday morning in July of 2018. The friendly custodian invited me to take as many pictures of the mosaic as I wanted, which I duly did. Below I will discuss several aspects of the Nile Mosaic, its history, its style and the theme it depicts. In writing this post, I have made extensive use of Dutch archaeologist Paul Meyboom’s 1995 dissertation The Nile Mosaic of Palestrina. Early Evidence of Egyptian Religion in Italy.[1] The mosaic was featured in Italy Unpacked, Series 2, Episode 3 (“A Home away From Rome”; the Palestrina part starts around 25:20).

Early history

Even though we can find a model of the famous sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia on the same floor as the Nile Mosaic, the mosaic was never part of this huge structure which dominated Ancient Praeneste. The mosaic covered the floor of a nymphaeum, in this case a semi-circular and partly artificial grotto situated in the back wall of a large hall which stood on the forum of Praeneste. This hall was 22 metres long, 14 metres wide and at least 14 metres high. The grotto, basically the apse of the hall, was 6,87 metres wide, 4,35 metres deep and about 10 metres high. Its floor, i.e. the mosaic, was slightly lower than that of the hall. Water trickled down the walls of the nymphaeum, which were partly decorated with artificial rock. The mosaic was covered by a thin layer of water and was not meant to be walked on (the visitor would get his feet wet and damage the mosaic). Nowadays, it is up against a wall of the Archaeological Museum, so people see it vertically. But that is not how people would have seen it in Antiquity, when it was part of the floor.[2]

The Nile Mosaic in its entirety.

To the west of the hall stood a large basilica, some 50 metres wide. This basilica was itself connected to another hall in which a second mosaic was part of the floor. This mosaic, which is still in situ, is often called the Fish Mosaic. The hall it used to be in is still erroneously named the Antro delle Sorti, or Cave of the Fates, for the simple reason that it was mistaken for the location where lots were drawn from a well to prophesise the future (Ancient Praeneste had a famous Oracle). We now know that this well and the sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia that it was part of were located higher up the hill, above the forum of Praeneste. The forum complex did not have a religious nature. It comprised a set of mostly secular buildings, although the nymphaeum with the Nile Mosaic may have had a connection with Fortuna: the Egyptian goddess Isis was seen as responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile and she was equated with the Greek goddess Tyche, who was in turn equated with Fortuna, protector of Praeneste.

The Piazza Regina Margherita, previously the forum of Praeneste. Note the columns in the facade of the building behind the statue of composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

There has been much discussion about the age of the Nile Mosaic and of the building that it was a part of. In his comprehensive study, Meyboom has argued that the forum complex of Praeneste was built between 125 and 120 BCE.[3] After the complex was completed, it was time to provide it with decorations. Meyboom assumes the Nile Mosaic and its companion piece, the Fish Mosaic, were made between 120 and 110 BCE.[4] There is now a general consensus that the mosaic was indeed made towards the end of the second century BCE, although even in modern publications, we sometimes find a later date. In their Arms and Armour of the Imperial Roman Soldier, published in 2009, Summer and D’Amato argue that the Nile Mosaic was made in ca. 30 BCE and identify the soldiers in the lower part of the mosaic as praetorians in the Roman army.[5] This makes no sense, as the men carry arms and armour that are clearly Hellenistic (see below). To conclude, we should accept a dating of ca. 120-110 BCE and discard any theory that argues that the mosaic depicts a visit of Romans such as Caesar, Augustus, Agrippa or even the emperor Hadrianus to Egypt.

Later history

During the Middle Ages, Praeneste became known as Palestrina. New purposes were found for the buildings from Antiquity. For instance, the cathedral of the town was built over the (presumed) temple of Jupiter on the ancient forum. The basilica of Praeneste and the eastern hall were converted into a bishop’s palace. The Nile Mosaic was located in the basement of that palace. It was presumably still visible, but probably not in a good condition and no one had any interest in it for centuries. In the eleventh century, Palestrina became a personal fief of the powerful Colonna family from Rome. The mosaic reappears in the historical records towards the end of the sixteenth century. A few decades later, Andrea Baroni Peretti Montalto (1572-1629), cardinal-bishop of Palestrina between 1624 and 1626, ordered the mosaic to be removed and sawn into about twenty pieces. These were sent to Rome for restoration, where they were ultimately acquired by cardinal Francesco Barberini, a great art collector. Now several important things happened.

The Palazzo Colonna Barberini, seat of the National Archaeological Museum of Palestrina.

First of all, watercolour copies of the pieces were made for the scholar Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657). These were only rediscovered in the 1970s in England. The copies are very important for historians, as they allow us to see what changes have been made to the mosaic. Secondly, the Nile Mosaic was restored by Giovanni Battista Calandra, who was in charge of the mosaic workshop of the Vatican. And thirdly, around 1630 Palestrina was purchased by the Barberini family from the Colonnas. Hence the building in which the National Archaeological Museum is housed is now known as the Palazzo Colonna Barberini.[6] The Nile Mosaic was returned to Palestrina in 1640, but the cart carrying the boxes with the sections seems to have been involved in an accident and the mosaic pieces were badly damaged. After another restoration by Calandra, the pieces were reassembled and placed inside the Palazzo Colonna Barberini. A third restoration was executed in 1853-1855 and during the Second World War the mosaic was kept in the Museo Nazionale Romano in Rome to protect it against Allied bombing raids.[7]

The mosaic that we can admire today measures 5,85 by 4,31 metres. As stated above, the grotto in which it served as the floor was 6,87 metres wide and 4,35 metres deep. It follows that some sections of the mosaic have been lost, although many of these would have involved pieces of water or rock. Some of the captions indicating the names of certain animals have also not been preserved or have been damaged. The Dal Pozzo copies allow us to conclude that some sections have changed places. The large portico in the bottom right was for instance originally closer to the centre of the mosaic. Nevertheless, what we see today is more or less what people in Antiquity would have seen.[8]


Nilometer and temple (top) and hippopotamus hunt (bottom).

Over half a million tesserae were used to make the mosaic. Some of these tesserae are very small indeed, with a diameter of just a few millimetres. The Nile Mosaic was made in opus vermiculatum, a style of mosaic making that employed these tiny tesserae to make extremely detailed images. Indeed, the level of detail of the Nile Mosaic is incredible. It is almost as if one is looking at a painting. An important point to make is that this style of mosaic making was definitely Hellenistic and not Roman. In fact, in 120-110 BCE the style was completely unknown in Rome. We have already seen that merchants from Praeneste were very active in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially around the island of Delos, which the Romans had turned into a free trade zone in about 166 BCE. These merchants must have had extensive contacts with the Hellenistic world, especially the Seleucid Empire (Syria) and Ptolemaic Egypt.

Already in 273 BCE, Ptolemaic Egypt and Rome had signed a treaty of friendship. At the height of the Second Punic War, the Ptolemies supported the Romans by sending grain to Italy. The Nile Mosaic depicts buildings, ships and people from Ptolemaic Egypt as they must have looked in 120-110 BCE. At the time, the kingdom was still ruled by Greco-Macedonian pharaohs descended from Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemaios. In reality, however, the kingdom was no more than a Roman client state. In 168 BCE, a Roman diplomatic intervention had basically saved the Ptolemaic Kingdom from destruction when it was threatened by the Seleucids. In order to ensure their continued existence, the Ptolemies became highly depended on Roman support.

The Nile Mosaic of Palestrina was likely made by artists who were originally from Alexandria in Egypt. These may have founded a workshop in Puteoli in Campania (modern Pozzuoli), which served as Ancient Praeneste’s gateway to the East (the town of Praeneste itself is located in the hills of Lazio and therefore naturally lacks a port). This is how Hellenistic Egyptian culture and religion found their way to the Italian peninsula. The Nile Mosaic of Palestrina is likely one of the first of several mosaics in Italy with a Nile theme.


The Nile Mosaic is clearly divided into two separate parts. The upper part represents the wild and exotic territories that were known to the Greeks as Nubia or Aethiopia, the ‘land of the burnt faces’. These territories, below the first cataract of the Nile at Aswan, comprise much of modern-day Sudan and parts of Ethiopia. The upper part of the mosaic represents Egypt, more specifically the more densely populated and urbanised parts of the country from the first cataract all the way up to Alexandria and the Mediterranean Sea. Both sections are rich in detail. In his comprehensive study, the aforementioned Paul Meyboom has for example identified over 40 different animals and some 14 kinds of plants and trees.[9]

Upper part of the mosaic, featuring Nubia or Aethiopia.

Let us now take a closer look at the mosaic, starting with the upper part. It features several Nubian hunters, black men in white tunics. They are armed with bows and – presumably – javelins and some of them carry shields. Yet in this part of the mosaic, the humans are clearly outnumbered by the animals. Most of these are real animals. In the large image included in this post, we for instance see two animals labelled ΘΩΑΝΤΕC (thoantes), which are Sudanese spotted hyenas.[10] In the centre of the image is a camel (VABOYC = nabous). To the left of the camel we can spot a KPOKOTTAC (krokottas), another species of hyena. These animals were later used by the Romans in their circus games (see this post for an example of a show organised by the emperor Septimius Severus). Below the camel is a baboon, and below the baboon a lioness. To the left of the lioness are two giraffes and to the left of these giraffes is another large monkey and two crabs with gigantic claws. We see warthogs, a rhinoceros standing rather isolated on a rock, a large lizard, a bear (ΔΡΚΟC = arkos), two cheetahs, a lynx, dozens of birds, snakes and a huge centipede. There seems to be an endless variety of animals.

What is interesting is that the upper part also features a fantasy animal. The creature standing on the plateau to the right of the hill in the centre is for instance labelled HONOKENTAYRA, the female version of onokentauros or ass-centaur. The creature has the head of a woman and the body of an ass.

Unlike the upper part, the lower part of the Nile Mosaic depicts buildings made by man. Here we see a Nilometer, i.e. a well used to measure the water level in the river. To the right of the Nilometer is a Hellenistic temple with five women and a fisherman with a trident slung over his shoulder. Below the temple we see a hippopotamus hunt: a common oared Nile ship with two rudders and a cabin on deck is used to chase these magnificent animals. Men on the ship are hurling javelins at the hippos and have already hit two of them. Meyboom argues that the hunters must be cleruchs (klerouchoi), i.e. Greco-Macedonian settlers.[11] The level of detail is once again very impressive. Note for instance the shadow of the ship’s prow in the water. The prow looks like it has been decorated with the head of a jackal, possibly representing the god Anubis. Also in the scene are many birds, ducks, species of fish and even crocodiles.

The Nile in Egypt.

The right side of the image included in this post features an island with another temple and two towers, then a reed hut and perhaps the granary of a farm. Below that is another reed hut, much larger, where we see two men in the doorway and one man on the left tending to the cattle, in this case just a single cow. Many ibises, symbol of the god Thoth, can be seen in this part of the mosaic. In the lowest part, the mosaicists depicted a drinking party. We see four men and three woman seated on benches inside a pergola. They are clearly celebrating the inundation of the Nile, with some of them holding horns or drinking cups and others playing musical instruments (a flute and some kind of harp apparently[12]). A man in a simple canoe is punting his way through the pergola. Above the pergola are two more canoes.

If we move to the right side of the lower part of the mosaic, we immediately spot a huge temple complex. The complex is evidently Egyptian in style, with four large statues of the god Osiris flanking the entrance. But there is also a distinctly Greek element, i.e. the Ptolemaic eagle above the doorway. To the left of the complex is a ship with a large sail and in front of it we see a traveller arriving on a mule.

Temple complex.

And then there is the scene below the temple and to the right of the pergola featuring a large portico, pavilion or temple and some ten soldiers. On the far right is a woman holding a palm-branch in her left hand and a ladle in her right hand. She has been identified as a priestess. The ladle is used to pour wine into drinking horns or cups. It is clear that another drinking party is about to start in this scene. On the far left we see a large krater and three large drinking horns. The soldier to the left of the priestess is probably the commander of the unit. He is also holding a drinking horn. The arms and armour of the soldiers are clearly Hellenistic in style. Many of the helmets are of the Thracian type, while some may be Boeotian helmets. The two soldiers to the left of the man with the drinking horn wear diagonal sword belts while the soldiers further to the left have spears. The shields of the men are either round, oval or rectangular. The shields have different emblems, with the rectangular ones showing scorpions and the round one in the centre a solar symbol which is perhaps a simplified version of the Vergina Sun, which is typically connected to Macedonian royalty.

Scene with soldiers and a priestess.

The commander of the units and the priestess appear to be the protagonists in the Nile Mosaic in its current form. But we have already seen that the composition was altered during the restorations in the seventeenth century and that the portico was originally closer to the centre of the mosaic. Meyboom has advanced the intriguing theory that the original protagonists of the scene were the Ptolemaic pharaoh and his sister-wife.[13] Their presence during the ceremonies pertaining to the inundation of the Nile would have been apt indeed, given the importance of this annual event. Unfortunately the only evidence for this theory is a part of a parasol which does not appear in the mosaic anymore, but which is depicted in one of the Dal Pozzo copies (a picture can be found here). The evidence is therefore quite thin at the moment and I doubt it will grow thicker in the future. Nevertheless, we should credit Meyboom for his highly original theory.

Religious procession and different ships.

The final scene to be discussed here is the one in the bottom right corner. Here we see some kind of religious procession of Egyptian priests. Some of the people in the procession are playing the tambourine. On a pedestal sits another statue of the jackal-headed god Anubis. Also in the scene are four different types of ship. We see a typical Nile ship with a curved prow and stern, a sail and a deck cabin. Below that ship is a canoe with an angler. The most intriguing ship is the oared warship below the canoe. The galley has a ram and we see several men armed with spears and shields. Near the prow is a larger figure wearing what has been identified as a kausia, a Macedonian flat hat.[14] The Dal Pozzo copies show that he was originally blowing a long trumpet. To the right of the galley is an agricultural estate where we see a man standing in front of the entrance and a woman seated inside an enclosure. The man is wearing the pilos, a simple felt cap. Below him we see the fourth type of ship, a simple rowing boat.

All in all, I can conclude that the Nile Mosaic alone was fully worth the long trip to Palestrina. It is simply gorgeous. A ticket to the Achaeological Museum is just five euros and the museum has much more to offer. I will definitely return to Palestrina one day to see if I can get a glimpse of the Nile Mosaic’s companion piece, the Fish Mosaic already mentioned above.


[1] Published by Brill and therefore hideously expensive. One should be able to read parts of the book for free on Google Books.

[2] Meyboom, p. 8.

[3] Meyboom, p. 15.

[4] Meyboom, p. 19.

[5] Arms and Armour of the Imperial Roman Soldier, p. 205.

[6] Not to be confused with the Palazzo Barberini in Rome, which was built for Pope Urbanus VIII (1623-1644), a scion of the Barberini family.

[7] Meyboom, p. 3.

[8] Charles Coster, De Nijl als legpuzzel, NRC Handelsblad 10 februari 1996.

[9] Meyboom, p. 41.

[10] Meyboom, p. 22.

[11] Meyboom, p. 32.

[12] Meyboom, p. 32-33.

[13] Meyboom, p. 65-68.

[14] Meyboom, p. 40.

One Comment:

  1. Pingback: Palestrina: Ancient Praeneste (part 2) – – Corvinus –

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