Roman Life and Culture in Roman York

If anything characterises Roman culture and interior design, it is the wall painting and the quintessentially Roman mosaic. In York, the big houses, villas and mansiones, continued to be built into the late third to early fourth century, evidenced by the remains of town houses decorated with mosaic pavements. Where there are mosaics there is, or was, money. We have evidence of town houses with mosaic floors at St Mary, Castlegate and in Aldwark, Bar Lane, Toft Green and Clementhorpe. Particularly impressive is the extensive, high-end town house in Bishophill built in the late third century; it can boast at least two ranges of rooms around a central courtyard.

The Mosaic With a Woman’s Head

This impressive section of flooring, probably the floor of a corridor, boasts complex patterns and a woman’s face staring straight back at you. The pupils of her eyes are made from single pieces of rounded black jet and her right cheekbone and the side of her nose are highlighted in white. It was found beneath a medieval church floor in Aldwark; her gaze into the future is probably one of the most memorable vestiges of Roman York.

The Ophiotaurus

A fabulous creation: a fantastic sea creature from a mosaic found in Toft Green. According to its sole classical reference in Ovid’s Fasti (3.793 ff), the Ophiotaurus (Οφιόταυρος Serpent Bull) was powerful enough to enable whoever slew it and then burnt its entrails to bring down the gods no less. The monster was killed by an ally of the Titans during the Titanomachy, but the entrails were retrieved by an eagle sent by Zeus before they could be burned. The creature had emerged from Chaos with Gaia and Ouranos. If anything was going to impress your visitors and dinner guests then this piece of fabulous decoration was it – a guaranteed conversation starter and certain to provoke dining room envy.

The Four Seasons Mosaic

Another conversation piece. The magnificent ‘Four Seasons Mosaic’ was uncovered in 1853 in the course of drainage work at Tanner Row. Three other mosaics were also found in the same house, obviously suggesting someone very wealthy lived there. A coin of the emperor Claudius Gothicus was discovered underneath it, thereby telling us that the mosaic must have been laid down during or after his reign (268–270).

The mosaic depicts the head and shoulders of Medusa who is surrounded by the four seasons. Medusa was a popular image in Roman homes: her petrifying ability to turn people to stone was thought to ward off evil. The four seasons are each shown with emblems associated with their particular season. Spring is depicted with a bird, summer with a bunch of grapes, autumn with a rake and winter with a bare branch. The grapes, though, have caused some controversy. It is now believed that the original summer depiction was of ‘fruit and foliage’ – the grapes being the work of nineteenth-century conservationists rather than Roman mosaic makers. Unfortunately, the well-intentioned conservationists sacrificed summer fruits with something more closely associated with the characteristic ‘mellow fruitfulness’ of autumn.

A section of wall painting can be seen in the crypt under York Minster.

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