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Ulpia Oescus: mosaic of "The Achaeans of Menander"


Near the Temple of Fortuna at Roman Oescus is a building which contains a colorful floor mosaic, dated to the time of the emperor Septimus Severus (AD 193-211). In the center is a theatrical scene showing three masked participants and one man without a mask. On the white background, over the figures, is the inscription "Achaeans of Menander" ([M]ENANDROU AXAIOI; figs.1), referring to a lost work by Menander (342-291 BC), the famous Athenian comic playwright. His comedy "The Achaeans" was unknown prior to the 1948 discovery of this inscription. The existence of this play was then confirmed in 1961 by a papyrus from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt (see AR 2,2), containing an alphabetical list of Menander's works.

[Fig.1: The mosaic of the "Achaeans" by Menander (after T. Ivanov 1954).]

Interpretation of the personages in this intriguing masked scene is still unresolved. The name "Achaeans" naturally suggests that they were prominent persons from the Achaean world. As interpreted by T. Ivanov, Menander drew his subject from Book I of the Iliad of Homer, on the quarrel between Agamemnon (the actor on the left) and Achilles (at right) over the damsel Briseis. The old man is Nestor - king of the island of Pylos, who tries to reconcile the men. The young man without a mask is Patroclus - Achilles' true friend who, after the quarrel, accompanied him to the ships of the Myrmidons.


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