Yesterday (14th February) was St Valentine’s Day. St Valentine was a 3rd-century Roman saint, now associated with romantic love. On St Valentine’s Day, the Trust Tweeted and Facebooked the image of a Roman mosaic from Colchester with our very own Valentine’s Day message…
In 1979, the Trust excavated a large Roman mosaic on our site at Middleborough in Colchester – this is now known as the ‘Middleborough mosaic’. It is a beautiful mosaic and it is considered to be one of the finest from Colchester. It is dated to about AD 150-175. It formed the floor of a room in a large house outside the town wall. The Trust lifted the mosaic in 1979 and it is now on display at Colchester Castle Museum. The mosaic is made of hundreds of coloured tesserae. It shows a central design of two winged cupids which are wrestling and being observed by a bird. Around the central design, there are four fantastic sea creatures (hippocamps), and an acanthus scroll border with large flowers and heart-shaped fruits featuring four more birds. There are also four opposed corner elements, two of which are flowers and two of which are a pair of heart-shaped fruits.*
The acanthus was a symbol of immortality. The wrestling cupids may represent Eros and Anteros, and the observing bird may be a dove which symbolises Venus, the Roman goddess of love and the mother of Cupid (see The Roman mosaics of Britain, vol. III: south-east Britain, by D Neal & S Cosh, 2009). The scene may be a version of the popular Roman motif of Cupid and Psyche. In Metamorphoses, the poem by Ovid, Cupid and Psyche fell in love and eventually married. Cupid was the god of love and desire, and Psyche represented the soul or the breath of life: together they symbolised everlasting love. (In Greek mythology, Eros and Anteros were brothers, and Eros was the god of love while Anteros was the god of requited love or of protection against love.) Cupid was the son of Venus and Mars and he could be depicted as riding a dolphin. Venus was the goddess of love, beauty and motherhood, and she was associated with doves and pigeons. The four featured birds in the mosaic look like doves. (Interestingly, St Valentine’s Day was once thought to mark the day of marriage of birds.)
Lupercalia was a Roman festival which was held on the 15th February in Rome and at other cities within the Roman empire. It was part of the Roman festival of Parentalia, which was celebrated from the 13th February to the 21st. Lupercalia was a celebration of the beginning of spring and it was dedicated to the goddess Februata Juno, including fertility rites and the pairing of men and women (see the Encyclopaedia Britannica). St Valentine’s Day apparently originated in the Lupercalia, which itself had developed from the festival of Februa, which gave the month of February its name.
The image shows the ‘Middleborough mosaic’ and one of the heart-shaped fruits (image © Colchester Archaeological Trust: painting by Robert Moyes, published in the Trust’s popular book City of Victory – the story of Colchester, Britain’s first Roman town).
* The symbolic heart shape may have been first used in the ancient city of Cyrene, on coins dated to about 530-480 BC, as a representation of the seed or seed-pod of the silphium plant on which was based a major industry in Cyrene (see image at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silphium#/media/File:Cyrenecoin.jpg ). Silphium seeds were a popular flavouring and also used for medicinal purposes but, apparently, they could also be associated with sexuality and love. Cyrene was an important ancient Greek and then Roman city in what is now Libya. The ruined site of Cyrene is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – see http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/190 and a video at http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/190/video . The acanthus seed could also suggest a heart shape when it splits.