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The Nilotic mosaic of Palestrina (Italy) is considered one of the most intriguing representations of Ancient Egypt during the age of the Ptolemies . The country is told through the winding course of the Nile from the port of Alexandria until the mysterious Central African springs. Despite the uncertain date, some details (eg the absence of the lighthouse building in the port of Alexandria) would suggest an age between 250 and 200 BC. According to the theory of F. Coarelli ( "La pompè trionfale di Tolomeo Filadelfio" - Ktema15 - Paris, 1990), the mosaic may be a copy of a fresco in the Royal Palace in Alexandria, representation of the journey along the Nile made by Ptolemy II Philadelphus in the aftermath of the "Syriac Wars".
In the lower part of the Nilotic Mosaic a group of victorious soldiers could tell us about the appearance and composition of the Ptolemaic Army:

From right to left:

STRATEGOS/1 : The "Strategos" holds on his head a crown of laurel, wearing a white tunic and a breastplate with "pteruges", both of greenish color. At his red belt is fastened the scabbard of a dagger, the hilt of which can be seen in golden bronze. He wearing a red "chlamys" (cloak) and a pair of gold-plated "embades" boots, typical of Thessalian cavalry. The "Strategos" drinking from a "rython", the ritual cup for celebrations.

AGEMA?-HYPASPISTS OF THE "ROYAL GUARD"?/2 : This soldier could belong to the elite troops of the "Agema", the army regiment inspired by the great Macedonian tradition. He wears a white robe, a muscular armor (iron?) without "pteruges" and wears a gold collar, maybe a symbol of rank. The baldric on his chest seems to indicate that the sword was worn on the right side. A round shield bordered with gold and a gilt bronze helmet with plume ("Sidon" type) complete the defensive armament. This soldier is the only barefoot.

SARISSOPHOROS-PHALANX/3 : The picture of this soldier might be the only in the world of "Sarissophoros", the soldiers who made ​​up the Hellenistic phalanx . Above the white robe, the soldier wearing a muscle iron armor, a "Melos" iron helmet (Louvre, Paris) and a round shield. He wear a saffron-yellow "chlamys", light-colored boots and a sword on the right side suspended from a baldric. This soldier, with his right hand, holding the long "Sarissa" spear (5-7 meter), which could be shown here (...for the first time!) disassembled into two pieces.

PELTASTS/4 : This soldiers protected the flanks of the phalanx with their mobility. He dress a "chiton" (tunic) of reddish color and carries a "Boeotian" helmet (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).

GALATIANS? THRACIAN? FOREIGN TROOPS?/5 : Galatians (Celts) and Thracians were regularly enlisted in the Ptolemaic Army. Unfortunately, the mistakes made in the restoration of the "Nilotic Mosaic", from 1600 onwards, have made it confused the details of this group of three soldiers, all of whom bring a spear, a helmet with plume and the oblong shield, "thyreos", typical of Thracians and Galatians. One of the soldiers wearing an "alusidotòs thorax" (chain mail), a Celtic invention that spread rapidly both in the Hellenistic World (stele of Sidon, Istanbul Museum) and in the Roman World ("lorica hamata "). Many depictions of Galatians in the Ptolemaic age (Necropolis of Alexandria, MET Museum, NY) show the warriors armed with spear, helmet and "thyreos".

SPARTAN MERCENARY/6 : Warriors from Laconian country fought in all the "Wars of the Diadochi" remaining faithful to the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. This soldier wear a white robe and the "chrepydes", the typical Hellenistic sandals made ​​of woven leather strips. Also bring a small square shield, usually carried by infantry and light Hellenistic cavalry, as witnessed by numerous terracotta figurines. The "episèma" (emblem) depicted on the shield is the scorpion typical of the city of Geronthrae (Laconia) and allows you to identify this as a Spartan soldier. Carries two spears and an attic helmet ("Ascalon" type).

LIBYANS? LEUKASPIDES?/7 : Polybius reports that 3,000 Libyans were equipped "in Macedonian style" during the Rafhia battle. This soldier is armed with a spear and also brings an "aspis" (Greek round shield) painted white ("Leukaspides"?).

"TARANTINE" - SPARTAN LIGHT CAVALRY/8 : In all the Hellenistic armies there was a specialty of light cavalry called "Tarantine", armed only with a small shield (square or round) and javelins. The emblem of the shield, carried on the shoulders, we deduce that this soldier is from Geronthrae (Sparta). The knight wears a white tunic, a plumed "Phrygian" helmet and "embades" booties (cavalry). This soldier is armed with a javelin.

TROPHY OF ENEMY WEAPONS ( SELEUCIDS ? )/9 : A trophy of weapons (in the lower center of the picture) captured from the enemy could confirm that the soldiers of the "Nilotic Mosaic" have just defeated the Seleucid army . From left to right we recognize a round shield with the emblem of the "Argead Star", the famous eight rays symbol of the royal house of Macedonia, traditionally allied with the Seleucids. Following a round shield in silver, belonging to the regiment of " Argyraspides " ( elite troops of the Seleucids ), so called from the silver plate that covered their shields. Finally, a "thyreos" (oblong shield) with Celtic decorations, a sign of the presence of foreign mercenaries . Among the helmets are recognizable a "Boeotian" helmet and two "segmented" helmets, the latter belonging to the armored knights from the Central Asian steppes (eg Parthians or Iranians ) who were regularly enlisted in the Seleucid Army. This would be the first iconographic representation of "spangenhelm" in Western art, 300 years before the ones shown on the "Trajan's Column". An axe and a quiver with recurve bow and arrows confirm the presence of the Eastern troops.

MACHIMOI - NATIVE TROOPS/10 : In other parts of the Nilotic Mosaic are depicted also the "Machimoi", the native troops (Nubians and Ethiopians) that were involved in the Ptolemaic Army. These soldiers wear a simple white linen "exomis" and are armed with shields, bows and javelins. The clothing and weaponry reflect the traditions of Central African tribal warriors, depicted in numerous pottery of the Ptolemaic age.

Read more:
P. Meyboom - The Nile Mosaic of Palestrina - Leiden, 1995 /
N. Sekunda - The Ptolemaic Army - Montvert pub., 1995 /
G. Cascarino - Tecnica della Falange - Il Cerchio, 2011 /
S. Thion - Le Soldat Lagide - LRT ed., 2012 /

Hi Emilio!

About the rectangular shield... I've always known that its presence was actually produced by a bad restore of damaged area of the mosaic... you wrote about numerous terracotta figurines that show hellenistic square shields... could you give me some reference?

Thank you in advance!

It should also be pointed out that this source is often seen as evidence for the Praetorian Guard in Egypt with Octavian / Augustus one of the central characters alongside his Admiral Agrippa. It has been dated to after the battle of Actium commemorating the Roman conquest of Egypt, although even later dates have been proposed. The identification of the scorpion symbol with the Praetorians has also been suggested.

The mosaic is also seen as a prime source for Roman military clothing colours, in particular the white tunics worn by the majority of the soldiers was one of the cornerstones for the argument that the Roman soldier wore white tunics proposed by Nick Fuentes.

However as mentioned the mosaic was heavily restored in modern times and some details, in particular of the figures are different now than in earlier sketches from about the 17th century.

Thanks, Emilio. For quite a while now I find Coarelli´s Hypothesis (La pompè trionfale di Tolomeo Filadelfio) very convincing. For all I learned about Classical Art, he seems to be right on point. No Romanness here, like in so many other depictions that are/were used for a discussion of Roman military clothing colors. :-)
To Emilio:
The "Strategos" figure is in my opinion rather blowing a horn than drinking from a rhyton cup. All the rhytons I've seen have their mouth in the wide end, and the mosaic also shows a hole in the upper part of the horn, and the figure is holding the narrow bottom end of the piece on his mouth. So it's most probably a horn, not a drinking cup.

To Graham:
I noticed that you have taken the emblem of the rightmost shield in the pile of arms for the shield of Marcus Agrippa in your illustration in the book Imperial Roman Naval Forces.

The Ptolemaic soldiers hypothesis seems more convincing to me than Roman praetorians. If the Nilotic Mosaic is from between 250 and 200 BCE, those scorpion emblems cannot suggest praetorians, since the Scorpio became their symbol only much later, at the time (14-27 CE) of emperor Tiberius (the "second founder" of the guard), when the guard honored him as adopting his astrological sign as theri symbol.
Hi Caturix, hi Graham


Despite the wrong restoration in some areas of the Mosaic, archaeologists are convinced that the figures of two soldiers with rectangular shields are part of the original mosaic.


"Harpocrates", terracotta statuette, Ptolemaic age - Musèe des beaux-arts, Lyon:

Reconstruction drawing (N.Sekunda, "Ptolemaic Army", 1995) from the "stele of Eunostides" - Arckeoloji Muzesi, Istanbul:

Soldiers from the Nilotic mosaic of Palestrina (S.Thion, "Le soldat Lagide", 2012):

Hi Antonius Insulae

In the picture below, on the right, you can see the goddess "Victory" ("Nike") pouring wine into "rython" using a ladle.
On the left, you can see a table where there are three other "rython".

Antonius wrote:
To Graham:
I noticed that you have taken the emblem of the rightmost shield in the pile of arms for the shield of Marcus Agrippa in your illustration in the book Imperial Roman Naval Forces.

Not just the emblem, both the figures of Augustus and Agrippa in the illustration were based on the famous scene from the Mosaic. The references for the artwork however were supplied by the author.

The figures in the Nile mosaic were used by Nick Fuentes for his theory regarding Roman Uniform colours. The soldiers, or in this case Praetorians, wore white tunics. He identified the figure in the red tunic as a Centurion. However during my own research I read Meyboom and Sekunda and noted their respective comments in my own publication and therefore raised doubts about the identification by Fuentes.

Nevertheless one point baffles me. It seems a trend for people to accept Roman period artworks depicting Hellenistic / Macedonian soldiers as good sources of reference for clothing, clothing colours and military equipment. However Roman period artworks depicting Roman soldiers are regarded with suspicion. Yet Roman art, while sometimes regarded as inferior to Greek, nevertheless maintains a high reputation for realism.

to Graham:
... baffles me, too!

to Emilio:
Can you plz supply a larger image of the "Lagide-picture"?
Quote: Emilio:
Can you plz supply a larger image of the "Lagide-picture"?

Sorry, I only found this:

To Emilio:
Yes, when I see the larger picture, which features the goddess Victoria, it seems that it is indeed a RHYTON cup rather than a horn. Thank you for posting the bigger picture, I haven't seen this scene in such detail before.
But isn't it called RHYTON and not RYTHON?

To Graham:
Thank you for the explanation, now I can see that the figures are wholly based on those mosaic men, but that raises a question in my mind: how vaguely are supported some illustrations of Roman soldiers which we see on serious history books, how much of the details are from imagination of the author/researcher/illustrator?
Ancient art is much more difficult to understand than one may think. Every piece of ancient art was subject to several "filters" while it was made. The most important ones are:

1. cognitive abilities of the maker
2. haptic abilities of the maker
3. tradition and convention
4. current style / taste
5. materials available

You can see that very good in Pompeii. For example, the famous Alexander mosaic, which was most probably made after a famous painting, was transported from somewhere in Greece, where it may well have been in use for a while, to Pompeii, where it was implemented in the floor of the "House of the Faun". This was so as to satisfy the taste of the owner, who was apparently quite a philhellene. This phenomenon can be seen all over Italy, especially during the late republic, where the local elites copied modes of representation from Hellenistic rulers. A excellent read here is Paul Zanker´s "Augustus und die Macht der Bilder " / "Augustus and the Power of Images". Ancient art was very strongly influenced by convention, so you may find depictions of the "Three Graces" from the 3rd c. BC which are basically identical to ones from the 3rd c. AD, and differ only in the techniques used to make them. Certain images were liked more than others. You may find identical scenes in different quality from different houses in Pompeii. One example is Theseus killing the Minotaur:




You will see that the basic setup is quite identical. Theseus and the Minotaur, people in the back, bones lying around in the front. Even the clothing colors etc. are usually identical. See this scene with musicians, painting and mosaic:



The paintings mostly show mythological scenes. These are often set together from different myths on one wall as to convey a certain theme which they share, e.g. mortality, or tragical suffering etc. This is very often done with a lot of cross-referencing which would only have been noticeable by educated people, which knew all the myths etc. You can actually also read an account of this behavior in Petronius cena trimalchionis. Normally the lower classes adapt such behaviour, which is also visible in Pompeii, and normally without actually understanding it completely. So many of the wall-paintings are / were interpreted by modern historians and archaeologists without regarding all this context. Some scenes which show mythological scenes in a wider context of a wall / room dealing with a certain topic were taken out of their context and interpreted as showing e.g. Roman soldiers. Famous here is the man in the white tunic with yellow cloak and a staff, which is actually a copy of a painting from a mythological cycle of "Oedipus and the Sphinx" and almost certainly goes back to a Hellenistic original.


But this is the case with most other of these depictions as well.
There are a lot of "every-day drawings" however, depicting a certain event which took place right in the tavern where it was found etc. These are on a different level, and may show actual people from that place and time. They are more on a "dipinto"- or "graffito"- level, as far as their interpretation goes. It should be absolutely clear to everyone who tries to interpret these paintings as sources, that they never are "photos" and that their interpretation is very difficult, and that such interpretation requires a minute application of source-criticism: Where was the paining found? What other paintings were there on the same wall, and what "program" had the room? Are there hints that such a painting exists elsewhere, and if, in which context is it there? etc... An other good example for this is the "Apulo-Corinthian helmet", as I have explained several times on this forum. You may find certain objects in art long after the were actually used. This explains e.g. statues of Mars from the 2nd C. AD still wearing a "regular" corinthian helmet from the 5th century BC
. ;-)
And just like Victorian antiquarians who cut off the orbiculi and clavi from Coptic tunics destroying the rest of the garment, modern picture editors often show only the interesting figure from a painting or mosaic rather than the whole scene! Sad

The Coptic tunics are of course supported by many surviving archaeological examples as well as their appearance in contemporary Roman art. However as Christian states you also find earlier fashion styles depicted alongside the later ones. This can be taken as evidence for earlier garments still surviving into later periods or that the ancient artist thought it acceptable to copy an earlier fashion into a later scene for whatever reason unknown to us.

As I often say whenever reconstructing anything, it is like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle when you don't have all the pieces, no straight edges and no picture on the front of the box!

Quote:... An other good example for this is the "Apulo-Corinthian helmet", as I have explained several times on this forum. You may find certain objects in art long after the were actually used. This explains e.g. statues of Mars from the 2nd C. AD still wearing a "regular" corinthian helmet from the 5th century BC
. ;-)

Unless the officer class of the Roman military also exhibited such a preference for Hellenistic tradition, little changed by the passing of centuries? It's possible, considering our relatively small materialistic view into a much larger world, is it not?

Great thoughts here. Really enjoyed the read, gentleman.
Well, it is good that Christian not only raises the issue of how the evidence for clothing in particular clothing colour can be problematic but also that of military equipment too, especially officers equipment.

The Nilotic mosaic is often quoted as a major source for Roman military clothing colour, sometimes in publications it is the only source for Roman military clothing colour!

However there is a constant demand for answers to questions which may in truth never be answered. This does lead occasionally to some perhaps using more imagination than fact.

We can all be guilty of that but I always try to keep my artistic imagination operating within normal parameters. GKSAFDB!
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