Scenes from Paradise: Jewish Roman Mosaics from Tunisia

01
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The Personification of Roma

Mosaic of Personification of Roma in a Medallion
Mosaic of Personification of Roma in a Medallion, 1st century-2nd century AD, Tunis, Tunisia. Brooklyn Museum

From October 28, 2005 through June 4, 2006, the Brooklyn Museum presented an exhibition of Roman mosaics recovered from the 3rd century AD Jewish synagogue at Naro, Tunisia. The mosaics, showing natural, religious and personal images, exemplify a little-known way of life, that of wealthy Jewish citizens of the late Roman empire in Africa.

This photo essay is from the 2006 exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, which included a collection of Roman mosaics recovered from the 3rd century AD Jewish synagogue at Naro, Tunisia. The mosaics, showing natural, religious and personal images, exemplify a little-known way of life, that of wealthy Jewish citizens of the late Roman empire in Africa.

  • Image 05.29. Mosaic of Personification of Roma in a Medallion. 1st century-2nd century AD. Roman mosaic by an unknown Roman artist, from Tunis, Tunisia. 21 1/4 x 21 1/4in. (53.9 x 53.9cm). Museum Collection Fund, Brooklyn Museum.

02
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Menorah with Lulav and Ethrog

Roman Mosaic of Menorah with Lulav and Ethrog
Roman Mosaic of Menorah with Lulav and Ethrog, 3rd century-5th century A.D., Tunis, Tunisia. Brooklyn Museum

At the end of the Third Punic War (149-146 BC), the Phoenician city of Carthage in what is now the modern country of Tunisia was utterly destroyed by the Romans. Carthage was located on a narrow peninsula in Tunisia that extends into the Gulf of Tunis of the Mediterranean Sea, 150 kilometers southwest of Sicily; it’s near where Tunis is now. A three day sail from Rome, Carthage was considered by members of the Roman Senate an enormous threat to the Roman state.

  • Image 05.26. Mosaic of Menorah with Lulav and Ethrog. 3rd century-5th century A.D. Roman mosaice by an unknown Roman artist, found in Tunis, Tunisia. 22 5/8 x 34 15/16 in. (57.4 x 88.8cm). Museum Collection Fund, Brooklyn Museum.

03
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Date Palm Tree, Synagogue of Hammam Lif

Roman Mosaic of Date Palm Tree, Synagogue of Hammam Lif
Roman Mosaic of Date Palm Tree, Right end of lower center, pavement of main sanctuary, Synagogue of Hammam Lif, Tunisia. At Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn Museum

After two punishing wars in the 3rd century BC, Rome decided it was time to lay waste to Carthage once and for all. By 146 BC, Carthage’s population was decimated, its port destroyed, its buildings razed, its fields in flames. Some legends report that the ground was salted to prevent Carthage from ever rising again.

  • Image 05.14. Mosaic of Date Palm Tree, from the Right end of lower center, pavement of main sanctuary, Synagogue of Hammam Lif. 3rd century-5th century A.D. Unknown Roman artist; found in Tunis, Tunisia. Upright oblong panel, date palm. Terracotta, glazed. 31 x 70 9/16 in. (78.8 x 179.3 cm). Museum Collection Fund, Brooklyn Museum

04
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Left-Facing Dolphin

Roman Mosaic of Dolphin
Roman Mosaic of Dolphin Facing Left, 3rd century-5th century A.D., Tunis, Tunisia. Brooklyn Museum

But 50 years later during the reign of Augustus, Carthage became the capital of the Roman African Proconsularis. Important as a port and an invaluable source of grain and trade goods, in its day Carthage was the home for very wealthy Roman citizens, including a large population of wealthy Roman Jews.

  • Image 05.17. Mosaic of Dolphin Facing Left. 3rd century-5th century A.D. Unknown Roman artist, found in Tunis Tunisia. 26 1/4 x 13 9/16in. (66.6 x 34.5cm). Museum Collection Fund, Brooklyn Museum.

05
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Gazelle in a Medallion

Roman Mosaic of a Gazelle in a Medallion, 1st century-2nd century AD, Tunis, Tunisia
Roman Mosaic of a Gazelle in a Medallion, 1st century-2nd century AD, Tunis, Tunisia. Brooklyn Museum

Fast forward 1800 years. After the Romans, brief occupations by the Vandals and then the Byzantines at Constantinople, Tunisia became part of the Islamic empire in AD 647; in 1574, it became part of the Ottoman Empire. 

  • Image 05.30. Mosaic of a Gazelle in a Medallion. 1st century-2nd century AD. Unknown Roman artist, found in Tunis Tunisia. 21 1/4 x 21 1/4in. (54 x 54cm). Museum Collection Fund, Brooklyn Museum

06
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Bird in a Vine

Mosaic of a Bird in a Vine by an unknown Roman artist, 3rd century-5th century A.D. Tunis, Tunisia.
Mosaic of a Bird in a Vine by an unknown Roman artist, 3rd century-5th century A.D. Tunis, Tunisia. Brooklyn Museum

By the late nineteenth century, the French had become interested in Tunisia, and in 1881 they invaded. During the French occupation, a French captain Ernest de Prudhomme built a villa in the town of Hammam-Lif, a small town on the peninsula about 50 kilometers from Tunis.

  • Image 05.34. Roman Mosaic of a Bird in a Vine. 3rd century-5th century A.D. Unknown Roman Artist, found in Tunis Tunisia. 27 7/8 x 21 5/8in. (70.8 x 55cm). Museum Collection Fund, Brooklyn Museum

07
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Duck Facing Left in Vines

Roman Mosaic of Duck Facing Left in Vines, Hammam-Lif Synagogue, Tunisia
Roman Mosaic of Duck Facing Left in Vines, Hammam-Lif Synagogue, Tunisia. Brooklyn Museum

Wishing to add a new garden to his villa, French Captain Ernest de Prudhomme instead discovered the remains of a Jewish synagogue of the Roman period, with beautiful mosaics of natural, personal, and religious themes inlaid in the floors, perfectly preserved beneath the villa’s yard.

  • Image 05.21, Mosaic of Duck Facing Left in Vines. 3rd century-5th century A.D. Unknown Roman Artist, from Tunis Tunisia. 34 1/2 x 33 1/16in. (87.7 x 84cm). Museum Collection Fund, Brooklyn Museum

08
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Fish's Head

Roman Mosaic of Fish's Head
Roman Mosaic of Fish's Head, made in the 3rd century-5th century A.D. Unknown Roman artist, recovered from the Hammam-Lif Synagogue, Tunisia. Brooklyn Museum

Twenty-one of the mosaics were acquired by the Brooklyn Museum in New York in 1905,. The glazed terracotta mosaics illustrate animals such as gazelles, tigers, dolphins and roosters, as well as menorahs and human figures. An inscription on one in Latin indicates they were donated to the synagogue by Julia of Naro.

  • Image 05.15. Mosaic of Fish's Head Facing Left, 3rd century-5th century A.D. Unknown Roman Artist, found in Tunis Tunisia. 28 1/16 x 31 15/16in. (71.2 x 81.2cm). Museum Collection Fund, Brooklyn Museum

 

09
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Left-Facing Lion

Roman Mosaic of Lion, 3rd century-5th century A.D., from Tunis, Tunisia.
Roman Mosaic of Lion, 3rd century-5th century A.D., from an unknown Roman artist, Hammam-Lif Synagogue, Tunis, Tunisia. Brooklyn Museum

These mosaics are evidence that, although the Roman empire continued a policy of non-tolerance towards Jews throughout this period, in some places around the Mediterranean, Jewish people prospered.

  • Image 05.18. Mosaic of Lion, 3rd century-5th century A.D. Unknown Roman artist, found in Tunis, Tunisia. 28 7/16 x 6 13/16 in. (72.2 x 17.3 cm). Museum Collection Fund, Brooklyn Museum

10
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Partridge

Roman mosaic of a partridge, 1st-2nd century AD, Tunis, Tunisia
Roman mosaic of a partridge, 1st-2nd century AD, Tunis, Tunisia, from a Jewish synagogue in the town of Hammam-Lif and owned by the Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn Museum

This photo essay was made possible by the folks at the Brooklyn Museum, who included a collection of Roman mosaics recovered from the 3rd century AD Jewish synagogue at Naro, Tunisia in an exhibit in 2006. The mosaics, showing natural, religious and personal images, exemplify a little-known way of life, that of wealthy Jewish citizens of the late Roman empire in Africa.

  • Image 05.22. Roman Mosaic of Partridge, 1st century-2nd century A.D. Unknown Roman Artist, found at Tunis Tunisia. 12 1/2 x 17 11/16in. (31.7 x 44.9cm). Museum Collection Fund, Brooklyn Museum.

If you enjoyed this Walking Tour of Roman Mosaics at the Brooklyn Museum, you should try the other Walking Tours and Photo Essays at About Archaeology.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Scenes from Paradise: Jewish Roman Mosaics from Tunisia." ThoughtCo, Aug. 9, 2016, thoughtco.com/jewish-roman-mosaics-from-tunisia-172518. Hirst, K. Kris. (2016, August 9). Scenes from Paradise: Jewish Roman Mosaics from Tunisia. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/jewish-roman-mosaics-from-tunisia-172518 Hirst, K. Kris. "Scenes from Paradise: Jewish Roman Mosaics from Tunisia." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/jewish-roman-mosaics-from-tunisia-172518 (accessed September 25, 2017).