Every year around the start of July, the Nile river would flood. The flood covered much of the land of the Nile Valley. It brought nutritious silt and water which meant Egypt could grow enough wheat to develop an advanced civilisation from a very early period. Egypt was known as the bread basket of the empire because of it’s great fertility.
The Nile River was the largest known to ancient Greeks and Romans. Although they knew of the Rhine, the Danube and even the Indus, the Nile was mysterious. Its source was a mystery throughout the entire period, as was the nature of its plentifulness.
The Nile was thought to be a source of fertility which extended beyond agriculture. The Nile waters were sweet to the taste and fattened up humans and animals and made them experience multiple births.
The Nile was revered in ancient times as a god and in Greco-Roman times it was associated with Serapis, Osiris and Isis. The annual cycle of the flood may have been symbolised in the myth of Osiris’ death and rebirth. Egypt’s prodigious fertility was recognised in the Isiac artetalogies (praise hymns) found across the Mediterranean.
Nilotic scenes were very popular across much of the Roman Empire. Nilotic scenes are landscapes depicting Egypt often in the flood period. The depict the common fauna and flora of Egypt to various degrees of accuracy. They have been found in a variety of media, most notably mosaics.
The greatest Nilotic scene is probably the Palestrina Mosaic. Discovered in the renaissance, the reconstruction may have placed some scenes in the wrong position, but it is a densely packed image of the flooded land. Measuring 5.85 m by 4.31 m and originally placed underneath shallow water in a grotto, the original ‘purpose’ of the mosaic remains obscure.
Scholars have sought meaning for the Nilotic scenes. Meyboom argued that they may have been intended as an illustration of the land of Isis, although not all scholars agree with this. Certainly religious imagery can be found in the Palestrina mosaic.
Figures in the landscape
Versluys analysed the 131 surviving landscapes. He produced some interesting statistics for provenance and contextual distribution. Several have been found at Pompeii (which skews the statistics), but the high number reveals their popularity.
Of the surviving landscapes 64.1% were found in Italy, the two next highest regions were the European provinces (15.3%) and North Africa (10.7%). Only 3 of these landscapes have been found in Egypt (2.3%).
With a date range from 1st century BCE up to the 5thor 6thcentury CE, the vast majority of landscapes were form 1stcentury CE. Although once the Pompeian landscapes are removed from the data set we see a gradual increase peaking in the 3rdand 4thcentury CE.
The majority of landscapes were likely to have been found in private buildings possibly in or near gardens.
The Nilotic scenes cover the spectrum from rural, almost bucolic, pieces to more crude and stereotypical depictions. Many Nilotic scenes depict violent animals or fighting. For example, 57 out of Versluy’s 131 scenes (or 43.5%) contain crocodiles. Of these 57 images, 30 images depict the crocodile fighting or attacking other characters in the landscapes. 16 images show crocodiles attacking humans and nine images show humans attacking crocodiles. The remaining five scenes show crocodiles fighting with other Nilotic fauna.
Such imagery may follow what was known about the crocodile by classical authors. The crocodile could stand in for the Nile. Pliny writes how the painter Neacles painted a pack donkey being grabbed by a crocodile, in a sea battle, to place the action clearly in Egypt.
Another interesting thing to note is that several of the human figures are dwarfs: 75 out of the 110 landscapes with human figures, depict Egyptians as dwarfs. It is common to see images of dwarfs hunting or fighting with Nilotic fauna.
The dwarfs have widely been interpreted as symbolic readings of Roman Egypt. Mielsch writes that they were a “kind of parody” of Egyptians whereas for Clarke the dwarfs’ could protect from evil. Swetnam-Burland even argues that in the world of the landscapes, the fact that pygmies hunted crocodiles whom the Egyptian worshipped, emphasised the power of Rome.
Alongside fighting, the dwarfs are often portrayed engaging in acts of symplegama (ask your parents what this means). But could this also be linked back to religion? Meyboom read such images as a depiction of religious ritual. He compared them to the Boubastis festival described by Herodotus and also to Osiris in his ithyphallic fertility guise.
The Nilotic scenes were not the only things Egyptian in the Roman Empire. The Egyptian cult of Isis and Osiris or Serapis were hugely popular. Temples and objects have been found all over the empire.
Water was revered in these temples. According to Wild, 60% (27) contain water facilities. These water facilities could have acted as places for ritual ablution (washing). Some of these places resembled Egyptian Nilometers and so may have symbolised the beneficent waters of the Nile.
An intriguing artefact that has been found depicted across central Italy and ‘Hellenised’ parts of Egypt is a pitcher. It is likely that the pitcher contained Nile water (real or symbolic is unclear). The Nile was the symbol of the beneficent relationship between god and man. Apuleius describes such a pitcher carried in procession.
These pitchers may be linked with Osiris Canopus. The pharaonic Canopic jars formerly contained the innards of the dead but they soon became revered as protective gods of the dead.
Osiris Canopus combines iconography of Osiris and the Canonic jars and likely symbolised Osiris’ power over the dead. The jars would also contain (Nile) water. Did they have a ritual meaning? Wild argues that they did. The combination of the life giving and beneficent Nile waters and the dead suggest, for him, that the jars promised protection and blessing beyond this world. The followers of Osiris would drink the sweet, cool waters and neverdie.
I never noticed that. V interesting. My main focus was Isis-Thermouthis, often portrayed with Serapis-Agathos-Daimon. Hornbostel, ’73, F 310 pic.twitter.com/7KAErfbf5A
— Simon Bralee (@Braleebatch) October 4, 2017
An interesting conclusion, but more needs to be done to investigate this link with Isis Thermouthis.
Clarke, J. R., 2007. Three uses of the Pygmy and the aethiops at Pompeii: Decorating, “Othering”, and warding off demons. In: L. Bricault, M. J. Versluys & P. G. Meyboom, eds. Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman world ; proceedings of the IIIrd International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005. Leiden: Brill, pp. 155-169.
Meyboom, P., 1995. The Nile mosaic of Palestrina : early evidence of Egyptian religion in Italy. Leiden: Brill.
Meyboom, P., 2007. The meaning of dwarfs in Nilotic scenes. In: L. Bricault, M. J. Versluys & P. Meyboom, eds. Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman world ; proceedings of the IIIrd International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005.. Leiden: Brill, pp. 170-205.
Mielsch, H., 2005. Griechische Tiergeschichten in der antiken Kunst /. Mainz: Von Zabern.
Swetnam-Burland, M., 2015. Egypt in Italy : visions of Egypt in Roman imperial culture.. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Versluys, M., 2002. Aegyptiaca Romana : Nilotic scenes and the Roman views of Egypt. Leiden: Brill.
Wild, Robert A., 1981. Water in the cultic worship of Isis and Sarapis. Leiden: Brill.