Monday, June 16

Batter'd Brains and Mingled Gore

Some of you more loyal readers of this blog may recall a while back a post called, “Cyclops Takes a Stake to the Eye,” in which I mentioned the Villa’s monthly “Spotlight” object. That is, each month a different object is featured in a daily 15-20 minute “Spotlight talk.” At the time I had meant to put up a post each month of the new featured Spotlight, but as with many things, time gets away from you. (Or, also very likely, I found something else to write about.) But this month’s Spotlight object is a special one for me. It is a mosaic floor section referred to as, “Mosaic Floor with a Boxing Scene.” This mosaic is the object I was asked to present on in my teaching demo during my day-long interview for this job. Naturally, if you’re going to hire someone to teach and interact with the public, you want to see what they can do before you hire them. So this was the object that I had to think about, consider from a visitor’s perspective, and present in an original and interesting way to members of the Education department (who were pretending to be “average” visitors). A bit nerve-wracking, but then most interviews are. Some of the teachers here aren’t all that fond of my boxers mosaic, but I think it’s very easy to talk about with people.

The mosaic is a section of a larger floor from a Roman villa (i.e. the summer home of the very wealthy). These floors, composed from small squared stones arranged with time and skill to compose the overall scene, have always impressed me. Time and skill equal money, so they must have been pretty expensive to have made! It depicts a rather obscure scene from Book V of the Aeneid, an epic poem written by the author Virgil for the entertainment of Caesar Augustus. The two men are Entellus (at the left) and Dares (at the right). As the story goes:

Aeneas, the main character of Virgil’s epic, is holding gladiatorial games in honor of the memory of his father. One of the competitions is a boxing match, and as a prize Aeneas is offering “a bull with guilded horns, and fillets tied.” At this announcement, “haughty Dares in the lists appears.” Dares is young and arrogant and already famous for his athletic deeds.

His brawny back and ample breast he shows,

His lifted arms around his head he throws,

And deals in whistling air his empty blows.

To Dares’ delight, no one in the huge crowd dares to stand up and fight him. Presuming a lack of a challenger means his victory by default, “with sparkling eyes” Dares boldly rushes up, grabs the bull’s horns, and shouts,

If none my matchless valor dares oppose…

Permit me, chief, permit without delay,

To lead this uncontended gift away.

The crowd is all for just handing the prize over to the famous Dares, but Entellus, “once…a champion of renown” but now old and well past his glory days (think Rocky Balboa—in the last movie), is in the crowd and his friends demand he take up the challenge and teach this arrogant young kid a lesson. Finally Entellus, although decrepit with age, defies Dares and casts his boxing gloves down before the crowd, signaling his challenge. Virgil describes Entellus’s gloves as

…gloves of death, with sev’n distinguish’d folds

Of tough bull hides; the space within is spread

With iron, or with loads of heavy lead…

Still mark’d with batter’d brains and mingled gore.

It is true that the Romans sometimes embedded metal in their leather boxing gloves in order to better bloody their opponent. The battered brains and mingled gore was just a bonus—and even Dares feels afraid when he sees these gloves Entellus has worn in so many matches, crushing opponents. And so the fight begins.

During much of the fight the two are well-matched, although Entellus is the bulkier of the two and doesn’t move as agilely as Dares. Still, Entellus eventually begins to feel his age and at one point Dares is able to get in a mighty sucker punch, spinning Entellus around and knocking him to the ground. Virgil describes Entellus’s fall as being like the fall of “a hollow pine, that long had stood.” Of course, being a former champion, Entellus doesn’t lack a competitive spirit. When he gets up shame and fury fuel him and “with redoubled force his foe he press’d.” That is, Entellus gets up and pummels the crap out of Dares and Aeneas is forced to call the fight in favor of Entellus because he fears Dares will be beaten to death. As he drags himself from the ring, Dares asks Entellus from where the sudden strength that seized him came. “The gods,” Entellus replies. “’Tis madness to contend with strength divine.” By his victory Entellus believes the gods have favored him, and it’s useless for Dares to think he could overcome divine will.

So Dares’ friends carry him away, bleeding and broken, and Entellus steps up to claim the bull for his prize.

And, on his ample forehead aiming full,

The deadly stroke, descending, pierc’d the skull.

Down drops the beast, nor needs a second wound,

But sprawls in pangs of death, and spurns the ground.

By crushing in the skull of the bull with his fist, Entellus kills it and thus sacrifices it to the gods in thanks for their favor and his victory. And believe me, this would have been quite a sacrifice—that bull was a very valuable prize. You know how Eli Manning got a Cadillac Escalade for winning the Super Bowl? Well, this bull was an ancient equivalent of Eli’s Cadillac Escalade, so it means something that Entellus didn’t hesitate to sacrifice it to the gods. This final scene of the story is what is depicted on the mosaic floor at the Villa. It’s a rather obscure part of Virgil’s epic poem, but a good one nonetheless: Age and experience versus youth and arrogance. And who can resist the idea of the insolent Dares getting what was coming to him?

Another interesting fact about this mosaic is that it comes from southern France, which during the Roman period was an outpost of the Roman empire. Archaeologically speaking, we don’t see representations of the Entellus/Dares storyline in any mosaics outside of this area of southern France. This leads to all sorts of theories—was there a local workshop that specialized in this scene? Did a local patron favor the story because he liked boxing or was a former boxer? It’s anyone’s guess as to why this scene was popular in such a localized area. But it definitely demonstrates that wherever the Romans went they spread their culture and literature even to the ends of the empire.

When I talk to people about this mosaic, I try to get them to think what it was about the story of Dares and Entellus that might have appealed to the owner of the villa where it was found. Maybe the owner was simply trying to demonstrate his appreciation and knowledge of a work of high literature in Roman culture. Most people in the ancient world couldn’t read, so those who could were invariably of a high social status. Or, maybe the owner liked the “moral” of the story, which warns against out of control pride and hubris. Maybe he liked the reminder that victors win with the favor of the gods and that honorable victors honor the gods for their favor, as Entellus did by sacrificing the bull. Who knows? Any idea is as good as another since we’re unlikely to ever hear from the owner himself as to why he chose this subject.

As I tell museum visitors, hopefully now you can see this mosaic as less of a decorative floor and more as a meeting place of two art forms—the literary, in the story of the Aeneid, and the physical, through the mosaic composition itself.

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