Cupid on a dolphin

1. The Modern Reading (Craftsmen and their Errors)
2. The Alternative Reading (Continuation of Life and Emotions)


Room 7

Southern Male

The Modern Reading

Northern Female

The sea horses of Neptune are said to have been constructed by a master mosaicist and an apprentice.  We are told that the smaller sea horse could have been laid by the apprentice which may account for it looking undernourished and sickly. 

Alternatively, we are told that the sea horses were constructed by two individual mosaicists not paying attention to each others work.  The larger sea horse is to the south side of the mosaic and the smaller one is on the north side.  We are also told that the central motif, the cupid riding the dolphin, is laid off centre and to offset this mistake two pieces of foliage, beneath the cupid’s left foot, are there to visually hide that error. 

Two other mistakes are pointed out to us. The outer repeating triangles have a diamond on the north west, south west and south east corners, but on the north east corner one is missing.  Also the border of continuing triangles changes direction in the north east corner – where the diamond is missing.  One other  error, not pointed out to us, is the width of two of the worm-like patterns surrounding the scallops in the south west corner.  (This piece of work is useful for the interpretation of the second reading).  The guilloche patterning, we are told, acts as a framing device for the individual pictures within the mosaic.

This reading offers up the question as to why did the proprietor, who had the floor laid, not have these mistakes rectified?  Well – perhaps he knew they were there for a reason.  (This will be discussed in the Alternative Reading below.)

If we view some modern art, as well as appreciating the skill of the artist, we are sometimes offered a reading of what we are observing.  Unfortunately, the craftsmen who laid this mosaic, left little information about their work.  It is possible that the ancient people  who  walked this mosaic knew how to interpret what was beneath their feet.  Consequently, we are left with mythology, deities and superstitions as aids to reading this floor.  They believed in good luck and bad luck.  We know this, for at times, boys were employed to make sure that guests entered certain rooms with their right foot first, for to enter by the left foot was deemed unlucky.  Also they had a God called Janus who was the God of thresholds.

The Alternative Reading

In mythology, sea horses are linked to the God Neptune.  Neptune was the God given to freshwater springs providing drinking water - by societies who lived a distance from the sea.  The larger sea horse could be read as being male and the smaller one as being female.  Two things we could read from this is - the continuation of the species through procreation, and for life to continue there is a need for fresh water.  

Panther Western Male

The sea God Poseidon is represented here by the two sea panthers.  One is male, as it has fangs, the other is female.  Again, we have the theme of procreation of the species and, for life to continue, the availability of food from the sea.  Water could have been in the four vases (cantharus), elaborately decorated which would be showing respect to the water God, Neptune.  The scallops motifs, set in the four corners of the mosaic, represent food from the sea.  For food, as well as water, is needed for life to survive.
Panther Eastern Female

 Please note how the vases are set just above the scallops, possibly providing a link between the importance of food and water needed to sustain life. 
At this point of the reading, please note that the guilloche surrounding the motif of the 'cupid on a dolphin' is larger and bolder than the guilloche around the sea horses panthers and the scallops.


The motif of the cupid on a dolphin, set in the centre of this mosaic, is visually the most prominent  piece of the floor, and in antiquity cupids were often used symbolically to represent humans and the story goes as follows:-
The boy was carried across the Bay of Naples, on the back of the dolphin,  twice a day so the boy could get to and from school.  One day the boy fell ill and died.  The dolphin, finding the boy dead on the beach, lay down next to him and also died.   
 Cupid on the Dolphin

Therefore, the central motif could be read as showing the emotions of friendship, devotion and love.

The final reading could be that the mosaic as a whole depicts the evolution of life, from the simple origins to the complications of emotions and relationships.

The ancient people believed in good and evil spirits (demons).  We could perhaps interpret the guilloche surrounding the individual pictures, not just as a framing device, but intriguing traps for the inquisitive demons, in order to waylay the demon from contaminating the room.  The ‘mistakes’  with the missing diamond (north east corner) and the changing direction of the triangle pattern on the outer design, would, have been easy for the evil-one to notice.

South East Corner

South West Corner ( flawed)


North East Corner

North West Corner


  The demon now intrigued, now looks for more ‘mistakes’.  As he proceeds across the floor, the demon-traps become more subtle and harder to spot.  He notices the two fatter worm-like pieces of the guilloche on the outer pattern of the south west scallop design, and now, eagerly intrigued, looks at all the nine half-circle guilloche patterns which surrounds the scallops, sea horses and sea panthers for more errors.  Now he approaches the central motif, the ‘boy-cupid on a dolphin’, but he is faced with a continuing circle of interlocking  guilloche.  Now his frustration is worked up to a frenzy as he cannot find the beginning or end of the guilloche.  Suddenly he hears the approach of human footsteps and notices that dawn is breaking and flees the scene.

The two readings , though both different, still have one thing in common, neither can be proved right and neither can be proved wrong.

What I am suggesting in this article, is that the proprietor of the palace, around 150AD, by using the known images of mythology, decided to use these to tell his own story.

Room 7