Images of Egypt
Egypt was a land of fascination for Greeks and Romans for centuries. Trade between the Aegean and Egypt had taken place as early as the second century CE. Luxury goods and cultural objects have been found in Minoan Crete and a Minoan style wall painting has been found in Egypt. Images of Egyptian gods were part of this.
Yet images of Egypt really took off after the battle of Actium and the occupation by Roman troops. Called Nilotic Landscapes, these images of Roman portrayed Egypt at the time of the annual flood. They are full of animals fighting, reeds and Egyptians frolicking.
Over 100 such scenes have been found from the Roman World with a large proportion coming from Pompeii. It is unclear whether this is a sign of the popularity in the first centuries CE, or just the chances of survival favouring Pompeii. Examples have been found as last as the sixth century CE. They have been found in various media ranging from paintings and mosaics, to ceramics and glassware.
At Pompeii they were often placed in or near gardens, which were dominated by water features.
It is unclear whether they played a religious role or not however, as popular conceptions of Egypt they must have had some role in the same mental landscape as Isis worship.
The greatest of all the Nilotic landscapes is the Palestrina Mosaic. A large mosaic (5.85 m – 4.31 m), densely packed with detailing and fine variants of colouring, it was placed in a grotto with water flowing over it near the town of Praeneste (modern day Palestrina) in Campania.
Dated to the first century BCE, it is believe to show a scene of Upper Egypt and beyond. The river flows downwards and as we follow the course, the landscape changes from one of abundant nature to civilisation with both Egyptian style temples, and Hellenistic buildings and temples towards the bottom.
Although heavily stylised, the mosaic accurately portrays much of the landscape, flora and fauna of the region. It has been interpreted variously as a scene of the hunting of war Elephants by the Ptolemies, or a religious festival linked to the Isis cults. Indeed in the bottom right hand corner, a procession can be seen carrying a sarcophagus. Many see this as an idealised (i.e. Classical) images of the Osiris procession at Abydos (which is in this region of Egypt). Meyboom argues that the landscape showed the abundant landscape of Isis, and was thus a promise of the benefacts that she could offer her adherents.
The Nilotic landscapes are full of flora and fauna associated with Egypt, and in particular the Nile flood. These animals include crocodiles, hippopotamus, ibises, frogs. Interestingly no dogs or jackals are portrayed and very few snakes. These animals were associated with the Egyptian gods in the Roman world. Yet there is at least one of portrayal of the feeding of sacred crocodiles.
Images of Egyptians in Rome
Another intriguing aspect of Nilotic landscapes is that the inhabitants of this land are regularly portrayed as dwarfs and often shown during the act of carnal relations (symplegamata to give it, its scientific term). It is not clear why this was so- whether it was a consciously racist portrayal of an inferior other, or whether there were magical reasons, but it is notable.
Pliny the Elder describes how gymnasts from Dendyra in Egypt were brought to Rome and exhibited in Egypt, jumping over crocodiles.
Related to this, are images of Egyptians or Ethiopians with animals such as crocodiles.
To modern sensibilities, it is hard to square such images with religious veneration and respect but perhaps part of the appeal in the Isiac cults was the sensory and immediate nature of life as portrayed in these images, or perhaps it was just a recognition of the fragility of life.
Palestrina Mosaic, By Unknown – from Le Musée absolu, Phaidon, 10-2012, Public Domain,
All others by Rhakotis Magazine CC BY-NC-SA