You may wish to see an introductory page to this section first.
Between 1705 and 1881 the Beylik of Tunis was ruled de facto by the Husaynid Dynasty which was founded by an Ottoman officer. From a formal point of view the Bey (civil governor) of Tunis acted on behalf of the Sultan of Constantinople, but when in 1881 the French imposed their protectorate over the country the Ottoman Empire did not react and it just strengthened its garrisons in neighbouring Tripolitania.
A hall of "Petit Palais"
The Beys lived at Bardo, a separate quarter of Tunis on a hill to the south of the city where in the XIXth century they built a series of palaces in a mixture of European and Moorish styles. The treaty by which Mohammed el-Sadik Bey accepted the French Protectorate in 1881 was signed there.
Close to these public apartments is the Old Harem which is now repaired and utilised as a museum, under the direction of M. de la Blanchere. It was opened on the 17th May 1888 under the name of Musée Alaoui (after the name of Ali Bey, the powerless ruler of Tunisia at the time). The halls are of great size, very handsomely painted and gilt, and the walls covered entirely with tiles of native manufacture, but of European design.
Murray Handbook for Travellers in Algeria and Tunis - 1895
Ceiling of the Grand Salle des Fêtes (Ballroom) aka Room of Sousse because its floor housed a large mosaic from Sousse
The Grande Salle is an immense rectangle, 19 metres by 16, surmounted by
a dome, gilt and painted in the best style of Arab art. Murray
The palace was built in the 1850s and it reflects the eclecticism of its time; it shows Italian influences as well as those of the European Revival of the Moorish architecture of Granada and in general of Spain.
A former patio of the palace was turned into the largest hall of the Museum to house the Roman statues which had been found at Carthage. At that time statues were regarded as the highest form of classic art, especially those which were copies of lost Greek originals of the Age of Pericles (Vth century BC). Floor mosaics were regarded as a minor art. The first curators of the Museum, René Marie du Coudray de La Blanchère and Paul Gauckler, two young French archaeologists, were aware however that while Tunisia did not have ancient statues of a particular interest, its Roman floor mosaics were of a superior quality and deserved a place of honour in the Museum collections.
Room of the Treasures with the Mosaic of the Zodiac and of the Days of the Week from near Ziqua
After WWI France was given a Mandate over Syria and Lebanon; the archaeological campaigns which were carried out there paid a special attention to Roman floor mosaics. In 1938 a museum was inaugurated at Antioch to properly display the many floor mosaics of Roman villas which were found at Daphne (some were sent to Paris). Other interesting floor mosaics can be seen in the museums of Beirut and Suweida.
Fine floor mosaics have been found in all parts of the Roman Empire, but overall it is fair to say that the most excellent workshops were in the provinces of Africa (Tunisia) and Syria.
A new wing was recently added to the Museum of Bardo for the vertical displaying of the mosaics; some of them were left where they were first placed for historical reasons.
Many mosaics and statues at the Museum are shown in the pages covering the locations where they were found; see a list with links at the end of the page.
Neptune and the Four Seasons (IInd century AD from Chebba (Caput Vada or Justinianopolis) near Aphrodisium (Mahdia): (left) the whole mosaic; (right) detail showing Summer
The making of a mosaic was a result of teamwork; in general mosaics had a large decorative, often geometric, frame surrounding a small section with figures (emblema) which was executed by pictor musivarius, a more skilled artisan who received a higher remuneration. Only very wealthy owners could afford to have the whole mosaic executed by pictor musivarius.
The wealth of Roman Africa was based on farming and the Four Seasons were a perfect subject for showing the various phases of agricultural activities. In this respect Neptune was a symbol of fertility. For the Romans he was more the god of fresh water, including rain, than of sea.
Triumph of Dionysus/Bacchus with Spring and Winter (in medallions) from the "frigidarium" (cold room) of baths at Acholla, north of Sfax (early IInd century AD); the billowing mantles over the head of the god and of the sea nymphs are a sign of their divine nature ("velificatio")
In this mosaic the theme of the Four Seasons is associated with Dionysus/Bacchus, a god who very often shows up in Roman art. The depiction of Dionysus/Bacchus on many sarcophagi (e.g. at Lyon) was due to the god having been born twice. In the halls of bath establishments it was his being the god of wine and of enjoyment the aspect which prevailed. The almost only military triumphs that were depicted in mosaics were his, not those of the Roman emperors.
This mosaic has a particularly elaborate decoration which includes grotesques, bands of small fantastic images resembling a chandelier, which are typical of Roman wall paintings.
Many of the finest mosaics have been found in the "frigidarium" of bath establishments. The hall had usually a natatio, a low swimming pool, which per sè suggested a decoration having a reference to the sea and its fantastic creatures. That occurred everywhere in the Empire including Ostia, the harbour of Rome, a town which was well known in Tunisia. Unlike what occurred at Ostia and at Rome where black and white mosaics prevailed even in the most luxury places, brightly coloured mosaics were preferred in the provinces.
Sea creatures in a large IIIrd century AD mosaic from Maxula Prates near Tunis
In general the largest mosaics have a uniform white background and the figures are depicted in isolation (see a major example at Constantinople). That can be due to the division of tasks among the craftsmen and / or to avoid darkening too much the room. Roman entire rooms/halls very rarely survived to the present day, so that we cannot often see the combined effect of the decoration of floors and walls. At Pompeii the walls were usually painted with figures and the mosaics were rather plain (with the remarkable exception of the House of the Faun), similar to what can be noticed at Livia's House on the Palatine.
The image used as background for this page shows a fragment of a mosaic portraying the head of Oceanus.
The triclinium, the formal dining room, or the oecus, a hall for receiving guests, of a luxury house were often decorated with mosaics depicting xenia, fruit and food which were offered to guests (xenos being the Greek word for foreigner/guest). The basket of figs can be noticed also in the triclinum of Villa di Poppea near Pompeii and other xenia can be seen in paintings at Lyon and mosaics at Sepphoris. In this mosaic this theme is combined with the depiction of fishermen, another very popular subject.
Birds: (left) a peacock; (right) game, an early example of still life from Thysdrus (IIIrd century)
A Roman house at Carthage is called Villa of the Aviary because of a large mosaic depicting birds. Peacocks were a very decorative subject and in some cases their feathers were depicted on their own to form an ornamental pattern as at Thysdrus.
The mosaic portraying game is another example of xenia.
Roman portraits of emperors are known for their likeness to reality. The same approach is evident in the accuracy by which sea creatures are depicted in Roman mosaics. The sea of the mosaic above is not populated by elegant dolphins, but by a catalogue of creatures which resembles an illustration of an old encyclopaedia. The mosaic shows fishing as an "industrial" as well as a recreational activity. See another mosaic showing an angler at the Museum of Tripoli and a relief on a silver bowl found in Algeria (anglers always wear a hat).
Venus and three Cupids from Utica (late IInd century AD)
Venus, the goddess of beauty, was among the most popular subjects. She was often portrayed at her toilet (Bulla Regia) or being crowned (Carthage). In these cases the mosaics were very complex, whereas in the example shown above the scene is very simple. It is a mosaic which is eye-catching because of the colouring effect obtained with a limited number of tesserae, the stones used in the mosaic. The execution of a mosaic was preceded by an accurate classification of the stones by their tints; pictor musivarius did not have much time to do his work and he needed to find the tesserae with the appropriate shade of colour quickly. The figures are portrayed on the usual white background, but the three Cupids project symbolic shadows (see other examples of these shadows).
The Twelve Labours of Hercules were an excellent subject for the decoration of sarcophagi and of large buildings, e.g. Basilica Severiana at Leptis Magna, but they are less frequently seen in mosaics.
In his Tenth Labour Hercules fetched the cattle of Geryon, a giant with three heads, six arms and six legs who lived in Spain. Hercules killed him by shooting three arrows. According to the Romans, Hercules stopped at the site where Rome was eventually founded on his way back to Greece, but the Numidian kings claimed he returned there across their country and he became their protecting deity.
"O Leo you have planned, prepared and dedicated" (IIIrd century AD mosaic from Uzita near Monastir)
The Province of Africa was home to the Barbary Lion, a subspecies of lion which became extinct in the wild in the early XXth century. A symbol of strength and power, the lion (Latin leo) became a given name during the Late Empire (it has been the name of six Byzantine emperors and thirteen popes) and this explains the inscription on the above mosaic which celebrated the construction of baths. Other fine mosaics depicting the Barbary Lion were found at the Roman Villa of Sidi Ghrib and at Sullectum.
Venationes (fights with wild animals) were a popular amphitheatre show. The fact that the beasts shown in this mosaic were identified by a name maybe indicates that these shows, especially during the Late Empire, were similar to circus performances and did not entail the killing of the beasts. The capturing alive of wild beasts for venationes on the Atlas Mountains was an economic activity, not just an exciting sport. They were captured by using hounds, torches and nets and some of them were shipped to Italy.
Decorative mosaics: (left) two "kantharos" (a jar with a grapevine growing from it which was a symbol of Dionysus, see a more lively mosaic at Thysdrus); (right) birds and flowers
After the declaration of the Tunisian Protectorate, French authorities began a systematic survey of the some 200 henchir, (sites with ancient ruins) listed by Victor Guérin in Voyage archéologique dans la Régence de Tunis - 1862. The number of mosaics which were discovered was so high that as a general rule those regarded as merely decorative ended on the floors of the Museum and only a few of them on its walls.
Mosaics from the "tepidarium" of Gightis, in Southern Tunisia, portraying wrestlers
(left) Mater Ecclesia (IV-Vth century from Tabarka); (right) Mosaic of the Memorial of Golgotha showing the Holy Sepulchre in the background and Betlehem to the left (early VIth century from Mahres south of Sfax)
Most of the mosaics in the Christian section of the Museum decorated small funerary monuments; that on the left shows "Mother Church", but most likely the actual church where the dead was buried. The mosaic on the right is rather small and it was placed at the entrance of a martyrium, a funerary chapel. It depicts a round church built on the site of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ; from the rock underneath the four rivers of the Garden of Eden flow, a symbol of the new faith from which believers (represented by does) drink (a detail which is often seen in mosaics of the same period in Rome).
Mosaic from a small mausoleum at Furno Minus, not far from Sidi Ghrib, portraying Daniel in the lions' den, a subject which was often depicted on Christian sarcophagi with Daniel in the same praying posture
This floor mosaic was found in 1898 and immediately moved to the Bardo Museum because of the interest raised by its subject and its inscription (MEMORIA BLOSSI HONO RATVS INGENVS ACTOR PERFECIT), the meaning of which was highly debated. Today it is generally interpreted as Honoratus, a freedman, erected this tomb or mausoleum in memory of Blossius, his master, but other opinions suggested that Honoratus was the mosaic maker. There are also different views about the period the mosaic was made, but the prevailing one says it was made before the Vandal invasion of the country in 439.
The early churches were usually decorated with rather simple geometric floor mosaics with some Christian symbols (e.g. at Sufetula). Greater care was taken for baptismal fonts (e.g. at Kelibia and Thapsus) and tombstones (e.g. at Uppenna). In general the inscriptions on the latter were limited to the name of the dead, the age and the formula vixit in pace (he/she spent a peaceful life). The grieved parents of Natalica made an exception for their daughter who lived ten years, eight months and twenty-one days and called her dulcissima (sweetest). The inscription has another interesting aspect: the use of b instead of v in bixit in pace, an effect of Byzantine influence because in Greek b sounds as v.
Around 400 St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Regius (today's Annaba in Algeria), stopped at Bulla Regia on his way to Carthage. In a sermon he exhorted the citizens of the town to close their theatre and amphitheatre and to ban prostitution. The Christian disapproval of entertainments however did not include chariot races in the circus which at Constantinople acquired extraordinary importance even from a political viewpoint. The mosaic above shows that the same occurred in Africa and that chariot races continued to attract crowds even at Capsa (today's Gafsa), a town in southern Tunisia, the inhabitants of which resisted the process of Arabization for centuries and continued to speak Latin. Learn more about chariot races by visiting Circus Maximus in Rome and see a mosaic at Lyon which depicts a race with eight chariots.
A complex mosaic depicting Achilles and the Centaur Chiron (left), Chimera, a monster (right) and a pair of clogs which the Romans used at the baths (top) (end VIth/early VII century from Belalis Maior)
Efforts have been made to give a Christian meaning to this mosaic. Chiron, the centaur in charge of the education of Achilles, would represent a bishop instructing a young Vandal king. The subject however was also depicted in much finer Pagan mosaics in nearby Algeria at Cherchell and Tipasa.
Roman stelae to Jupiter (left) and Saturn (centre/right); the central one is dated 323; see similar stelae at Thamugadi in Algeria
The mosaics have the lion's share at the Museum and the new wing was especially designed to place them on the walls. The curators of the Museum however took advantage of the new available spaces to display a selected group of other exhibits. The collection of stelae confirms that the worship of local gods or of those of Phoenician origin (Baal) continued during the Roman period by associating them with Saturn, a Roman god having many aspects, including that of patron of agriculture, hence he was often portrayed holding a sickle (see the Temple to Saturn at Thugga).
Fragments of Christian sarcophagi: (left) The Good Shepherd; (right) a woman in the act of praying
In the list of the 101 Masterpieces which is published in the Museum website only one is a sarcophagus, contrary to what one sees in the Roman collections of most archaeological museums. The use of marble sarcophagi was very limited in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Spain and in general they were not made locally, although the Carthaginians had marble sarcophagi which followed a Phoenician pattern.
These small tiles have been found in more than eighty sites in Tunisia. In many cases they were found in the workshops where they were made and very rarely on the building which they decorated. Another fine collection is on display at the Archaeological Museum of Sousse. They are not part of the traditional decorative elements of a Carthaginian or Roman building, but they bring to mind the pinakes, votive terracotta tablets which were found in ancient Greek cities in Southern Italy, e.g. Syracuse and Locri.
|Aphrodisium (Mahdia)||Bronze/marble||Various objects from a shipwreck||-|
|Bizerte||Mosaic||Fishermen and sea creatures||-|
|Bulla Regia||Mosaic||Perseus and Andromeda||-|
|Carthage||Terracotta||Statue and masks||-|
|Carthage||Marble||Altar of Gens Augusta||-|
|Carthage||Marble||Statues of Apollo and Annia Faustina||-|
|Carthage||Stucco||Mausoleum of the Officers||-|
|Carthage||Marble||Sarcophagus of the Four Seasons||-|
|Carthage||Mosaic||Coronation of Venus||-|
|Carthage||Mosaic||Angler and Sea Creatures||-|
|Carthage||Mosaic||Dominus Julius' Estate||-|
|Carthage||Mosaic||Boar hunting scene||-|
|Carthage||Mosaic||Four Greek charioteers||-|
|Carthage||Mosaic||Diana and Apollo||-|
|Clypea (Kelibia)||Mosaic||Baptismal font||-|
|Hadrumetum (Sousse)||Mosaic||Triumph of Neptune||-|
|Hadrumetum (Sousse)||Mosaic||Unloading of a ship||-|
|Mactaris||Mosaic||Coronation of Venus||-|
|Sidi Ghrib||Mosaic||Toilet of Venus||-|
|Simitthus||Marble||Relief of eight gods||-|
|Thuburbo Majus||Mosaic||Wild beasts for venationes||-|
|Thuburbo Majus||Mosaic||Oceanus and sea creatures||-|
|Thuburbo Majus||Mosaic||Theseus and the Minotaur||-|
|Thuburbo Majus||Mosaic||The Tragic Poet||-|
|Thuburbo Majus||Mosaic||Diana riding a stag||-|
|Thuburbo Majus||Mosaic||A pankration match||-|
|Thugga||Marble||Head of Emperor Lucius Verus||-|
|Thugga||Mosaic||Slaves poring wine||-|
|Thugga||Mosaic||Chariot driver Eros||-|
|Thugga||Mosaic||Cyclopes at work||-|
|Thugga||Mosaic||Dionysus and the Pirates||-|
|Thugga||Mosaic||Ulysses and the Sirens||-|
|Thugga||Mosaic||Fishermen at work||-|
|Thysdrus||Mosaic||Bulls in the arena||-|
|Thysdrus||Mosaic||Apollo and Marsyas||-|
|Uthina||Mosaic||Dionysus and Ikarios||-|
|Uthina||Mosaic||Rural life and hunting scenes||-|
|Uthina||Mosaic||Fox and Hare Hunting||-|
|Utica||Mosaic||Neptune and Amphitrite||-|
|Utica||Mosaic||Diana hunting a deer||-|
|Ziqua||Mosaic||The Zodiac and the Days||-|
Aphrodisium and Sullectum
Sidi Ghrib Roman Villa
Thapsus and Leptis Minor
Mosaics in the Museum of Bardo
Mosaics in the Museum of Sousse