Ancient Art and the Hare Mosaic

A picture can paint a thousand word however when the artist, or even the whole society that made it has disappeared, it can become rather difficult to decipher those words.

Iconography, motifs and patterns in art can sometimes look rather random to the modern eye however it is rare for art to feature a completely meaningless selection of elements. Indeed producing art or even embellishing an everyday object with a calculated design requires time, expertise and motivation so the agent behind the work will undoubtedly imbue meaning onto the artefact.

Of course the meaning imparted on it either through design or the act of embellishment doesn’t necessarily mean that the meaning attached to it is of monumental scale or of a profound nature, but it does mean something.

The Hare Mosaic, displayed at the Corinium Museum in Cirencester, is a great example of the potential potency of iconography. The central roundel encircles a brilliantly illustrated hare sitting amongst grass, clueless to its observation. To create such an incredible likeness of an animal requires considerable expertise in making mosaics, so why do it, and why choose a hare as the focus?

Image

A little context and background can help.

Centuries earlier, during Britain’s first official engagement with Rome, Caesar wrote of his invasion of Britain and he indulged in a few passages of ethnography in which he states:

They do not regard it lawful to eat the hare, and the cock, and the goose; they, however, breed them for amusement and pleasure.
(Caesar, De Bello Gallica 5.12)

What stands out from this is that amongst those animals listed as morally wrong to eat and potentially kept as pets of a kind, is the hare. So could this be related to the hare mosaic?
It is greatly demonstrable that elements of British cultural tradition survive and even thrived during the Roman occupation, so although a good 300 years apart there is no reason to believe they are unconnected.
Therefore a symbolic British animal has been made the centre of a masterful mosaic, logically this demonstrates the owners British heritage or cultural awareness, and shows British cultural longevity at wealthy level in Romano-British society.

Nevertheless ones identity or cultural sense of belonging depends on more than just on the artistic rationale behind one mosaic, indeed making a mosaic is a very Roman endeavour. However such aspects of iconography demonstrate how art has meaning and that the native tradition would add distinct dimensions to Roman culture.

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