Mosaic Panels with Achilles and Penthesilea before the Walls of Troy

Colored stones.
Roman, 3rd – 4th centuries AD.
Loan from an anonymous collector
These panels once decorated the floor of a sumptuous Roman villa, probably a length of cloistered walk in a walled garden (peristyle). By cutting small, dice-like cubes from colored stones (tesserae), mosaicists were able to achieve a variety of palettes, including the representation, as seen here, of shadows that was surpassed only by painting, and perhaps occasionally textiles (including carpets).
The subject is taken from the most significant cycle of ancient myths, the Trojan War, and specifically the Amazons who came to assist the Trojans. The siege of Troy lasted for ten years. Fate had decreed that a number of leading heroes on both sides must meet their deaths in a fixed sequence before the city would fall. The death of one of these, Hector (another son of Priam) is described towards the end of Homer’s Iliad. It was after his death that fresh allies, the Amazons, would come to assist in the fight against the Greeks.
The Amazons were fierce warrior women, who shunned the company of men. Here they fight in civilian dress pinned on one shoulder only, leaving a breast exposed. For weapons, they wield double axes and protect themselves with shields whose outlines are lunate. Some are mounted on horseback.

Reading from left to right, we first see the city wall of Troy, and an open gate through which two Trojans emerge in support of three comrades who advance towards the battlefield. Three episodes on the battlefield then unfold. The first and most complex group shows the death of a mounted Amazon whose horse has collapsed. One of her companions raises her hand to her mouth in dismay, as a Greek advances from the left to deliver the death blow, and a second Greek at right, mounted on a rearing horse, looks back triumphantly. The central fight shows a duel between an Amazon wielding a double axe high above her head as she dispatches an unarmed Greek who has fallen headlong. At right, a Greek in magnificent armor grasps an Amazon who collapses. Her horse, from which she has fallen or been pulled, is led away by a second Greek foot soldier.

While some of these groups appear generic, many of the figures can be recognized as individuals. The group at far right, with the Greek supporting the dying Amazon, is based on a celebrated Hellenistic sculptural composition that depicted Achilles holding the Amazon queen, Penthesilea. According to the story, the moment before Achilles killed her, their eyes met and they fell in love. Two other elements in the composition are derived from sources outside of and independent from the Trojan Cycle: the Greek mounted on a rearing horse stems from images of Alexander the Great, and the roundel high up on the city wall, depicting a youthful head with a radiate crown, introduces the deity Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun. The worship of this divinity was popular in the eastern Roman empire, particularly among legionary soldiers, and his cult was officially sanctioned by the emperor Aurelian in the third century. (Many scholars believe that his feast day, December 25, would later be appropriated by the emerging Christian community to mark the official birthday of Jesus.) The typical integration of such heterogeneous strands is a reflection of the complex, integrated society of the later Roman empire.