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Volume 60, Number 2March/April 2009

In This Issue

I Witness History: I, The Sea Tramp I, Mosaic
Written By Frank L. Holt, Illustrated by Norman MacDonald
When the dust finally cleared from my 39 eyes, I could scarcely believe what they saw. Strangely dressed people shoveled around me, pointing and prodding amid the wreckage of one of the Roman world’s finest houses.


I struggled to comprehend the disaster, wondering where the great roof had gone, why all the housewares lay smashed and smothered under mounds of debris, and how long I had been sprawled unconscious beneath it all. I knew I was injured, but not how badly: I could not feel many of my arms and legs. Dazed and confused, I slowly realized that my rescuers were talking about me, but not to me. Did they know that I was alive? I strained to hear what they were saying, but nothing made any sense. Not a word sounded remotely like Latin or Greek. I tried to move, first a finger and then a hoof, but I remained hopelessly paralyzed. I pleaded silently for their help as I watched concern contort their faces. What on—or under—earth had happened to me? If only I could clear my heads and remember….

Even now, 178 years later, there are as many holes in my memory as there are in my ravaged body. They tell me that I was discovered in that mangled mansion on October 24, 1831. I was in such fragile condition that it took a dozen years to rush me to this ward of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. I am the prized patient here, where millions of well-wishers visit me annually. Some gaze in wonder; others wince. The massive wounds that disfigure my otherwise muscular frame will never heal, and there seems little hope that I will ever be walked on again. I am not the mosaic I used to be—but I am nonetheless the most celebrated survivor of the volcanic eruption that buried the city of Pompeii more than 1900 years ago.

I am the orphan son of mixed artistic marriages—a mosaic pavement laid down from sketches drawn of a painted scene. No one really knows where I was born. My features suggest an eastern heritage, probably Greek and perhaps even royal. My earliest ancestor may have been a famous painting by Philoxenus of Eretria, made in the fourth century BC. King Cassander, one of Alexander the Great’s successors, commissioned this picture (hailed as “second to none”) showing a battle between Alexander and Darius, the ruler of Persia. Although it is long lost, like nearly all ancient paintings, I am nevertheless connected to it, according to some experts in DNA—which means, in this case, the “derivative nature of art.” Those experts see in me possible traces of Philoxenus’s trademark style. He allegedly economized by art-fully abbreviating crowded scenes, just as I hint at vast numbers of unseen troops by showing their upraised spears in the background. Other experts hint that I might descend from a different lineage going back to a painting of Alexander’s victory at Issus reportedly done by Helen, the daughter of an Egyptian resident named Timon. But whether Helen’s painting was truly my grandmother or Philoxenus’s my grandfather, I cannot say; I never met either of them. (Though I did get close: Helen’s canvas, four centuries old, was displayed in the Roman forum within weeks of my misfortunes in Pompeii.) Needless to say, the next generation—my sketchbook parents—did not live long beyond my birth, but I suspect they were very proud of their ephemeral place in my family tree. I preserve the essence of all these ancestors not in tinctures but in stone. That is why I am (mostly) still here and they are not.

Take a good look at me. Can you imagine the skill and dedication necessary to bring me into this world? I can offer a hint: In 2003 a team of master mosaicists spent 16,000 hours making a copy of me, a task considerably easier than my own birth since they left out those huge areas now missing from my body. Full grown, I cover an area of 18.2 square meters (196 sq ft), the size (not coincidentally) of a large room. Within that space, meticulously selected and positioned one by one, are millions of tesserae—tiny cubes of limestone shaded red, yellow, black or white by natural mineralization. True to my inheritance, I retain the illusion of undulating brushstrokes in a mosaic technique called opus vermiculatum, meaning “wormy work.”

This painstaking process produced in me a haunting vision of a pivotal moment in history. I bear witness to a furious battle at its bloody climax. From the left (where, unfortunately, I am most mutilated) rides King Alexander at the head of his Macedonian army. The young conqueror has lost his fancy helmet (just visible among the fallen weapons that litter the foreground), but this accident only renders his grim expression more evident. Grimmer still, emblazoned on Alexander’s breastplate is a snake-haired Gorgoneion, one of the mythical monsters like Medusa whose stare turned everything to stone. Her image was meant to petrify, in every sense of the word, a warrior’s enemies. Here I like to think that she has done her work too well, and that I am the rock-hard result of her sweep across the battlefield.

If you moderns invite movies about war into your homes, why wouldn’t Greeks and Romans be entertained by me?

Fossilized by my scary godmother’s gaze, a skewered officer convulses at the lethal impact of Alexander’s lance. The victim’s horse fares no better, its last breath caught foaming in a pool of blood. A broken spear protrudes from the animal’s breast and a gruesomely severed hoof lies on the ground. Too late to save his comrade, a Persian horseman raises his sword against Alexander, who is momentarily vulnerable without a helmet or defensive weapon in hand. Meanwhile, to the right of this crucial drama, the rest of the Persian army reacts. Already the driver of Darius’s great chariot has turned the vehicle and whipped its terrified horses into flight. The Great King of Kings leans back toward the fray, loathe to leave his men at the mercy of the Macedonians. He reaches desperately for his friends, with eyes wide and mouth agape. At this critical moment, he has no more arrows for his bow. All is lost. Around him, others share his agony. The young fellow on foot, perhaps managing the stallion on which Darius would eventually make his escape, flinches away from Alexander’s assault. Farther back, one Persian rider clasps his head in utter disbelief while two others signal the retreat.

Several poor souls face an ironic death at the hands—or rather, the feet—of their own forces; they writhe helplessly on the ground, brutally trampled in the rout. In a bizarre tableau, one struggling Persian tries in vain to ward off the wheel of his sovereign’s chariot as it crashes by. The man’s melancholy expression, as reflected on a burnished shield, mirrors his doom: We are watching him watch himself die. Similarly eerie vignettes have been embedded elsewhere in the bedlam: Men walking among the cavalry with gaping head wounds gushing blood; the rear of a horse hovering legless at the center of the scene; snippets of a white steed stampeding ghostlike through the team that is pulling the chariot. And then there looms that curious tree, conspicuous though quite dead against the bleak skyline, its human-like arms almost flailing beyond a freakishly long spear. It seems aghast at the carnage around it.If you moderns invite movies about war into your homes, why wouldn’t Greeks and Romans be entertained by me?

Even I do not know what to make of myself. Did any—or all—of this really happen, or do I exhibit the telltale signs of some horrible, inherited psychosis? Over the years I have endured endless therapy sessions conducted by well-meaning analysts who insist that my troubling images manifest the deep-seated psychodramas of ancient battle art. Some diagnose an unhealthy infatuation with Alexander, whose martial prowess I am said to accentuate above all else. Others counter that I dote too much on Darius, who rises literally and likably above the battle. Amid all the suffering, the Persian king shows endearing compassion whereas his Macedonian opposite merely sneers contemptuously. Am I conflicted about who should win? Or is my secret hero the impaled rider who has sacrificed himself to divert Alexander’s lance from Darius? A few experts have even tried to explain everything in sexual terms: phallic spears, and so on. But I suppose most of my doctors have focused their analyses on that enigmatic tree as if (for those of you who know movies better than mosaics) it had “Rosebud” painted across it. They ask if the lean of my tree betrays whose side I subconsciously favor. Does the lance across its barren trunk deliberately prefigure the death of Alexander below? Do the branches orchestrate the actions around them, so that you recognize in the tree the shapes of Darius’s arm and hand, the forelock of Alexander’s warhorse Bucephalus, the charioteer’s busy lash, and the horseman’s upraised sword between the rival kings? Maybe. Then again, sometimes a tree is just a tree.

I cannot remember what those who knew me in ancient Pompeii had to say about any of this. Back then I spent all my time on the floor, not on the figurative couch of some future Dr. Freud. Perhaps the ancients were less concerned about such things. I grew up, after all, in a militaristic world where war was more normal than peace. The Greeks often put time limits on treaties and truces, knowing that hostilities would erupt again anyway; the Romans officially acknowledged an end to hostilities only twice in 500 years. If I appear more gruesome than most classical art, it may only reflect the survival of less detailed portrayals in sculptural relief or on small coins and vases rather than the large, vivid paintings that bred the likes of me. If moderns invite into their homes movies such as Saving Private Ryan, why wouldn’t Greeks and Romans be entertained by me?

My room in the House of the Faun was used for fine conversation and special events.

Whether plundered from some eastern palace or crafted on the spot, from about 100 BC onward I paved a special room within a remarkable private home. This stunning mansion covered an entire city block of nearly 3000 square meters (about 32,000 sq ft, or roughly two-thirds the size of a football field). It was the ancestral residence of a distinguished old Oscan family, and no house in Pompeii rivaled its refined architecture or rich decoration. Appearances mattered in ancient Italy, where competitive aristocrats upheld their status by letting others see them living well. Every morning I could hear the din at the front door caused by the crowd of my owner’s clients gathering to ogle the house and to pay their respects in an obligatory ritual called the salutatio. As these free dependents filed over a mosaic welcome mat that read HAVE (“Greetings”) in tall letters, they entered a museum-like world of old masterpieces displayed tastefully on the walls and floors. There were statues, frescoes and, best of all, many mosaic “carpets” depicting 3-D geometric patterns or such subjects as marine life, lions, doves raiding a jewelry box, a pouncing cat, an Egyptian landscape teeming with exotic creatures (cobra, hippo, crocodile, ibises) and then me—the pièce de résistance.

Visitors lucky enough to get near me were most often even-ing guests of higher standing, peers of the master invited to an expensive dinner party (cena), rather than his humbler morning well-wishers. The latter normally got only as far as the main atrium (a skylit expanse with a rainwater pool) and the tablinium (an elaborate reception hall where my owner accepted the salutations of his clients and dispensed favors in return). From the tablinium, longing eyes might look north across a sunny interior garden to catch a glimpse of me on the floor of my open chamber, its wide rear window facing out to a second peristyle, or columned, garden beyond. Situated deep in the house, but with a direct sightline to the main entrance 50 meters (165') away, my room was reserved for fine conversation and special events, not to mention art appreciation; ordinary banquets could be hosted in any of the five other dining rooms located elsewhere on the premises.

In my honor, this dwelling has sometimes been called the House of the Large Mosaic or the House of the Battle of Alexander; other modern names include the House of Goethe (whose family took a special interest in the site) and the House of Arbaces the Egyptian (popularized by the melodramatic novel The Last Days of Pompeii by Edward Bulwer-Lytton). Most people now refer to the place as the House of the Faun because excavators found in the main atrium a statue of this mythic deity of wild animals (whence your word fauna). I’m not jealous, of course: Let the little goat-tailed fellow have his taste of fame. He knows the truth: Privileged visitors hustled past him to gawk at me, just as patrons of the Louvre ignore whole galleries every day on their way to see the “Mona Lisa.”

My room in the House of the Faun was used for fine conversation and special events.

Life was good in that house for about 160 years. Then suddenly, on February 5 in the year 62, a ferocious earthquake shook the place apart. The peristyle columns collapsed, walls buckled, and—to their great peril—mosaics moved. Some of my scars resulted from that upheaval, including the enormous void that nearly swallowed Alexander with the rest of his men. Healers skilled enough to treat my wounds could not be found, so plasterers merely filled the gaps. I fumed at my deformity, but secretly I felt the suffering of others. Visitors spoke of the widespread devastation throughout the region. Whole buildings disappeared, people wandered scared and witless in all directions, and nearby a flock of hundreds of sheep perished. This turned out to be a sad rehearsal for the greater calamity to come on August 24, 79. Unfortunately, I remember that day all too vividly.

For several days a series of tremors had put everyone on edge about the possibility of another massive earthquake. No one realized that these shocks were really the awakening of Mt. Vesuvius, whose sleepy summit gave no hint of the historic disaster building beneath its cone. A rising column of explosive magma set off the eruption at about 1:00 in the afternoon, catching us all by surprise. My master’s morning salutatio was long over and he had gone to the town forum to tend to his affairs. He may already have departed for the public baths, as was a nobleman’s custom, but he would enjoy no solace that day. Nor would we at home. Cassia, our mistress, bustled through the corridors, courtyards and rooms in a frantic effort to manage the panic among her servants. Ghostly ash powdered the once-green gardens on either side of me, and then the fallout thickened into a darker hail of dense and dangerous debris. Through my window northward I caught glimpses of the towering column of tephra belching from Vesuvius a few miles away.

There I lay, portraying the horrors of human suffering while all around me life—and death—imitated art.

The house continued to shake while a steady rain of pumice and ash poured through the atrium skylights and crept into every corner. As the pumice accumulated hour by hour, the household cowered under groaning roof beams and begged for the gods’ mercy in the choking darkness. No one seemed to know what should be done—whether to flee into the madness of the streets for a chance of reaching safety somewhere beyond Pompeii, or to trust the stately old mansion to endure the catastrophe. I wasn’t going anywhere, but that was the wrong choice for everyone else in the house. I could hear the two cows bellowing in the service wing along the east side of the residence, until their creepy silence signaled that their suffering had finally ended. On a laurel bush out in the peristyle gar-den, a nesting dove refused to abandon her eggs; the bones and unborn brood of that poor bird would not be disturbed for the next 18 centuries.

I heard more than saw the last agonies of desperate Cassia, whose remains would be identified in modern times by the signet ring still on her finger.

Too late, she grabbed her valuables and stumbled toward the front door. Perhaps she could not find her way out in the dark, or the pandemonium on the other side of the portal turned her back to her doom—her muffled sounds were not easy to follow, so I cannot be sure. In 1831, diggers followed a trail of her spilled jewels and coins leading back to the tablinium, where her skeleton seemed to be holding back chunks of the falling ceiling.

Sometime during the night, the entire roof collapsed under the weight of the deepening pumice. The concussion knocked me unconscious for a very long time, as you well know. Thankfully, I lay oblivious to the worst phase of the disaster: On August 25, avalanches of superheated gases and debris surged down the side of Vesuvius and cauterized the dying city. These so-called pyroclastic flows, some of them racing across the ground at 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph), gradually vented the volcano’s fury and left it exhausted in the midst of a desolate landscape. Pompeii had vanished.

There I lay, portraying the horrors of human suffering while all around me life—and death—imitated art.

Exactly 1752 years and two months after the eruption, rescuers pulled the rubble off me and I awakened in a world unimaginably transformed. In quieter moments here at the Museo, I ponder the meaning of it all. I try in vain to remember myself whole, with every man and horse still intact, before time rendered me more artifact than art. I cringe at the irony of my life—an image of disaster saved by disaster. There I lay in that house, openly portraying the horrors of human suffering while all around me life—and death—imitated art: People falling, crushed in the panic; men grabbing their heads in utter disbelief; poor Cassia struggling to hold back the ceiling as if it were the chariot of Darius bearing down on her. And all of this misery frozen in time as though the fiery mountain made a mosaic of all Pompeii to mock my self-importance. Maybe I suffer a bit from survivor’s guilt.

I know that one of the object lessons of history is that every object thinks it shaped events in some powerful way, but I hope that is not true. I want no part in making history. When I look back, I’d rather see a thousand rolls of the dice rather than one whiff of inevitability. What if Cassia had made a different choice when she hesitated at the front door, or if that dove had not clung to such high hopes for eggs that would never hatch? What if I had still been home in Cassia’s house when, in 1943, Allied planes bombed the place? Rewind history and chance would make something else of us all: a humbler obelisk that never got off the ground, a forgotten pot-crumb that languished in the trash, a ship that sank where no one could find it, or the survival of a different mosaic—one perhaps showing an alternative history in which Darius still had one more arrow left to shoot down Alexander and save the Persian Empire. That’s all it would take to tilt the dead tree in the other direction.

Frank L. Holt Frank L. Holt ([email protected]) is a professor of history at the University of Houston and most recently author of Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan. He is writing another book on ancient Afghanistan. This is his sixth article in the "I Witness History" series.
Norman MacDonald Norman MacDonald (www.macdonaldart.net) is a Canadian freelance artist who specializes inhistory and portraiture. “It is very humbling copyinga masterpiece,” he writes. “I’ve done it many times in sketchbooks, for myself. This time I felt like a pianist playing Bach in public.”


This article appeared on pages 10-15 of the March/April 2009 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 2009 images.