Category: Archaeological sites

Depictions of philosophers in mosaics and mural paintings

The depictions of philosophers in mosaics of antiquity reproduce a very popular motif of the time, the seven male figures corresponding to the scheme of the seven sages of antiquity. The central figure in these scenes, depending the occasion, was either Socrates, or Plato.

Two mosaics depicting a symposium of seven philosophers had come to light in Italy during the 19th century. The first one was discovered in 1896 and it was constructed between the 1st century. B.C. and 1st century. A.D. in the villa of T. Siminius Stephanus in Pompeii. The second one, which was first published by Winckelmann in 1821, was discovered in Sarsina in the Northern Umbria region. Comparison of these two mosaics shows that they are derived from a common original which was probably painting rather than mosaic. It is also clear that the Pompeian copy is much closer to the original than that of Sarsina, because in the latter there are omissions and simplifications of certain iconographic themes.

The mosaic of Pompeii is approximately square and surrounded by a frame with elaborate floral ornaments together with theatrical masks which are set at corners and at the middle of each strip. The scene represents seven male figures of mature age in the foreground while in the background behind them it is depicted a landscape that is consisted of an epistyle to the left, a sun dial and a tree in the center, and a citadel wall in the upper right corner. The subject of the scene is probably the discussion of some astronomical theory, since in the middle of the scene a celestial sphere is depicted with engraved circles and set in a chest.

The mosaic of Sarsina differs from that of Pompei in the following areas: The ornate frame with branches of leaves and fruits and theatrical masks has been replaced by a simple leaf-shaped pattern. The figures in the mosaic of Sarsinas have all turned their attention to the celestial sphere, unlike the mosaic of Pompeii where figures appear to have greater autonomy and the composition to have more than one centres of interest. The same sphere in the mosaic of Sarsina is without inscribed circles, smaller in size and set on top of a chest. Furthermore the tree depicted in the work of Pompeii, which was a reference to the Philosophical Garden, here was ommited.

Differences are also observed in the architectural elements depicted in the background. In mosaic of Sarsina the epistyle is much more narrow, while the sun dial set on the pole, had an elliptical shape, which is characteristic of the iconography of the 3rd century. B.C., unlike the hemispherical one of the Pompeii mosaic, characteristic of the 4th century. B.C. The Athenian Acropolis of the Pompeian mosaic has been misunderstood by the artist of Sarsina, who has ommited the rocky slopes of the acropolis and reduced the citadel to its walls and towers, while placing below them a strange complex of buildings.

Despite the differences between these two works, the interpretation of the scene is obviously common for both of them. The most widely accepted interpretation of the scene is that it depicts the Academy of Plato. From the seven figures of the mosaic, six of them are students, and one is Plato himself. Although there is no absolute certainty which of these figures is Plato, most scholars agree that he can be identified with the third man from the left. Many believe that in the same scene Aristotle is depicted too, that he can be identified either with the first figure from the left, or the last figure from the right. There have been also suggestions that these seven figures are illustrations of the seven sages of antiquity: Thales, Pittacus, Bias, Solon, Cleobulus, Myson, and Cheilon. Other lists include different names, such as the tyrants of Athens Pisistratus and Periander of Corinth and also Demetrius Faliraeus. It has also been suggested that the depicted figures are great astronomers of antiquity, such as Thales, Anaxagoras, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, Democritus, Eudoxus, Euctemon, Callipus, Meto, Philippus, Hipparchus, or Aratus.

There are three other examples of mosaics depicting philosophers in groups of seven, dating to the Late Roman period. The mosaic which was discovered in a Roman villa near the city of Baalbek in Lebanon dates to the 2nd century A.D. and is currently exposed at the National Museum of Beirut. The mosaic probably adorned the dining room (triclinium) and illustrates the seven sages along with Socrates and Calliope, muse of epic poetry. The seven sages are displayed along with inscriptions of their names, city of origin and maxims ascribed to them by the creator of the mosaic. We read in Greek the following:

ΠΕΡΙΑΝΔΡΟΣ ΚΟΡΙΝΘΙΟΣ ΜΕΛΕΤΗ ΕΡΓΟΝ ΑΥΞΙ – Periander of Corinthus Practice makes perfect.

ΣΟΛΩΝ ΑΘΗΝΑΙΟΣ ΜΗΔΕΝ ΑΓΑΝ - Solon the Athenian Nothing in excess.

ΚΛΕΟΒΟΥΛΟΣ ΛΙΝΔΙΟΣ ΜΕΤΡΟΝ ΑΡΙΣΤΟΝ - Cleobulus of Lindos Moderation is best.

ΧΕΙΛΩΝ ΛΑΚΕΔΑΙΜΟΝΙΟΣ ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΕ ΑΥΤΟΝ - Cheilon of Sparta Know Thyself.

ΒΙΑΣ ΠΡΙΗΝΕΥΣ ΟΙ ΠΛΕΙΣΤΟΙ ΑΝΘΡΩΠΟΙ ΚΑΚΟΙ - Bias of Priene Most men are bad.

ΠΙΤΤΑΚΟΣ ΛΕΣΒΙΟΣ ΚΑΙΡΟΝ ΓΝΩΘΙ - Pittacus of Lesvos Know thine opportunity

ΘΑΛΗΣ ΜΙΛΗΣΙΟΣ ΕΓΓΥΑ ΠΑΡΑ Δ’ ΑΤΑ – Thales of Miletus Give a pledge and suffer for it.

The mosaic of philosophers was framed by scenes of the four seasons of the year, of which only a fragment is saved, illustrating Ge (Mother Earth), who is offered several ears of wheat from a winged boy inscribed Theros, the personification of Summer.

Another mosaic in Apamea, Syria c. 350 A.D. illustrates six of the ancient sages sitting on either side of Socrates and listening to his teachings. Although they are still characterized by physiognomic differences, it is only Socrates, elevated like Christ by his central position, who is named by a large inscription.

The mosaic of philosophers in Cologne was discovered in 1844 during construction works for a city hospital. It depicted seven philosophers in all, but two were missing. Renderings of Plato and Aristotle were then added by the painter J. Ramboux. The other five are Diogenes, Cleobulus, Socrates, Cheilon and Sophocles.The mosaic was badly damaged during World War II and was restored in 1967.

Of the few paintings that have survived to our days, special place holds the fresco of the 1st century. A.D. in the Museum of the Thermes in Rome, from the villa Farnesina, which according to some scolars, represents the pupil and successor of Diogenes, Crates from Thebes along with also Cynical philosopher and wife of Crates, Hipparchia.

Finally special interest has the depiction of Socrates in a fresco from a private residence in Ephesus, dated the the 1st century A.D. In the fragment that has survived Socrates is depicted sitting on a bench, wearing a white garment covering half of his body, while the depth of the fresco is coloured reddish. (Burgundy red)

Author: Konstantinos Lazaridis
  • Elderkin, G. W. "Two Mosaics Representing the Seven Wise Men." American Journal of Archaeology. 39.1 (1935)
  • Zanker, P, The Mask of Socrates. The Image of the Intellectual in Antiquity. Μπέρκλεϋ Οξφόρδη, 1996.
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