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Unknown, Roman

Mosaic Floor Panel with Head of Tethys, 3rd century
Roman Mosaic; Made in Antioch
Marble, stone, glass
50 1/4 x 82 1/16 x 2 7/16 in. (127.7 x 208.5 x 6.2 cm), overall

University of Rochester Appropriation for the C. Herbert Ocumpaugh Collection,  42.2

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About the Object

This mosaic depicting the head of Tethys, a Greek goddess of the sea, was discovered in 1939 in the ruins of Daphne, a wealthy suburb of Antioch.  Tethys may have been a special patron of Antioch, a wealthy and diverse seaside city located in Syria but founded by settlers from a variety of nations. Antioch's central location on the coast of the Mediterranean, easily reached from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, made it a crossroads of cultures, religions, and languages.

Seleucus I, one of Alexander the Great's former generals, founded Antioch on the Orontes River around 300 BCE.  Settled by Macedonians, Athenians, and Jews, it maintained its reputation as a sophisticated and multi-ethnic city for centuries. At its peak, Antioch was the third largest city in the world, behind only Rome and Alexandria.  Rome annexed Antioch in 64 BCE and made it the Syrian provincial capital. Despite a sequence of political upheavals and repeated catastrophic earthquakes, Antioch and its suburbs remained luxuriant and lively, drawing from the best of the eastern and western worlds.

The goddess Tethys, a figure from Greek legend, was also revered by the Roman citizens of Antioch. Born of Gaea, the earth deity, and Uranus, the god of the sky, Tethys was the wife of the sea god Oceanus, whose mythical river encircled the earth. She controlled the distribution of water throughout the streams of the world. She is often depicted with wings on her brow, possibly representing the winds that drove rainclouds.

In 1939, an archaeological excavation in the area of Antioch uncovered the Tethys mosaic. It had been part of a floor in an opulent Roman-era villa in the luxurious resort town of Daphne. This mosaic was one of more than three hundred pavements discovered in the vicinity. They featured scenes of the gods, animals including fish and birds, and repeating decorative ornament.  The Memorial Art Gallery purchased the Tethys mosaic from Princeton University, one of seven institutions participating in the project. The excavations ended soon thereafter, as World War II destabilized the region. The province of Hatay, which includes Antioch and Daphne, is now part of northern Turkey.

Mosaics are designs made from tesserae, small pieces of colored stone or glass, embedded into a flat, prepared surface of damp concrete-like material. Although mosaics were first made before 1500 BCE, the Romans elevated the Greek art of mosaic, creating intricate patterns to cover floors of private homes as well as public buildings throughout the Empire.

[Gallery label text, 2009]