Street musicians in Pompeii

A beautiful mosaic from the Roman city of Pompeii depicts a group of musicians playing in the street.

Josho Brouwers

Though they must have originally been fixed to the floor, the National Archaeological Museum of Naples has most mosaics framed like paintings and suspended from the wall. Here’s a photo that I took of one of the mosaics taken from Pompeii:

Mosaics are made out of hundreds if not thousands of tiny stones called tesserae. Using different colours, the original artists were able to create images of different figures and scenes, rendered three-dimensional through their careful use of shading.

A closer look

The sentence in the top left corner reads in ancient Greek: “Dioscourides of Samos made this”. The Romans admired the Greeks for their art and this style of fine mosaic was much loved by art collectors of the later Hellenistic period in particular, especially after the mid-second century BC.

This work of art was found in the so-called “House of Cicero”, which includes another mosaic signed by Dioscourides. Since it’s mentioned specifically that Dioscourides came from Samos, it seems likely that he worked elsewhere, but whether this was in Pompeii or not cannot be said for certain. It’s also possible that Dioscourides was the creator of the wall-painting that served as the model for this mosaic.

This mosaic depicts a group of what are generally thought to have been street musicians or buskers. The men play a tamourine and cymbals, while the woman at the left plays the aulos or double-flute. The fact that they wear masks suggests that they are also actors, performing a scene from a play. Which play has long been the subject of discussion, but some believe it to be a scene from Theophoroumene (“The Possessed Girl”) by the Greek playwright Menander (342/1–ca. 290 BC), of which only fragments remain.

Pictures like these give an idea of what life might have been like in the ancient world that texts alone cannot reveal. Pay particular attention to the colourful clothes worn by these musicians. Executed in exquisite detail, we can almost hear the music that they’re making.