The Department of Antiquities in Cyprus uncovered a fourth-century Roman floor mosaic in the village of Akaki, approximately 30 km west of Nicosia. The mosaic is part of a complex of buildings that are believed to have been a private villa. One large section, measuring 11 x 4 meters, depicts a chariot race around the spina of a hippodrome (fig. 1). Greek inscriptions are placed next to the charioteers and horses. Additional images, and a video, are available here.
Chariot racing was a popular form of entertainment in the metropolitan centers of the Roman Empire. There are several Late Antique depictions of chariot racing in a variety of media, including marble and glass. Perhaps the closest comparandum for the mosaics at Akaki, in terms of medium, style, and architectural setting, are those at the Villa Romana del Casale, a fourth-century site near Piazza Armerina, Sicily. In the bath complex, a floor mosaic features charioteers racing around the spina that stretches the length of the room (fig. 2).
In another room, we find a more playful version of a hippodrome scene: pairs of birds pulling chariots driven by boys (fig. 3).
One major difference between the Akaki mosaic and those in Sicily is the presence of the Greek inscriptions, which are likely the names of the drivers and/or horses. One group of horses at the lower left corner of the mosaic have the following names inscribed above them: ΔΑΜΑΣΟΣ (Damasos), ΒΕΛΟΝΙΚΗ (Belonike), ΠΟΛΥΦΗΜΟΣ (Polyphemos), ΛΗΝΕΩ (Leneo) (fig. 4).
Given the fact that there are eight horses and two drivers depicted, we cannot be certain which figures are those identified by the inscriptions. The inclusion of these names is not entirely unusual. In the Late Antique period, charioteers and their horses could gain celebrity status, and have monuments erected in their honor. One such hero was Porphyrius, a charioteer of the late fifth and early sixth century. The Greek Anthology preserves a series of epigrams celebrating this Porphyrius and his many victories (XV.44, 46, 47; XVI.335–362, 380–381).
The epigrams were originally inscribed on a group of sculptures displayed on the spina in the Hippodrome of Constantinople. The bronze sculptures do not survive to us, but two of the bases are preserved at the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul. The four-sided bases feature sculpted relief portraits of Porphyrius and his horses (fig. 5). In one such image, Porphyrius is presented with victory wreaths as he stands atop his chariot pulled by his four horses, each identified by an inscription placed below their feet: ΑΡΙΣΤΙΔΗΣ (Aristides), ΠΑΛΑΙΣΤΙΝΙΑΡΧΗΣ (Palaistiniarches), ΠΥΡΡΟΣ (Pyrros), ΕΥΘΥΝΙΚΟΣ (Euthynikos).
The Porphyrius sculpture bases provide some context for the Akaki mosaic, but any further investigation will have to wait. For now, the Department of Antiquities has decided to cover the site until it can perform a full excavation in a couple of years.
For further reading:
Alan Cameron, Porphyrius the Charioteer (Oxford, 1973).
Katherine Dunabin, “The Victorious Charioteer on Mosaics and Related Monuments,” American Journal of Archaeology 8 (1982): 65–89.
Brigitte Pitarakis, ed., Hippodrome: A Stage for Istanbul’s History, 2 vols. (Istanbul, 2010).