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The Cyparissus Mosaic – C.Haider (2013)

The Cyparissus Mosaic 

Catarina Haider

BA MA University of Bonn

Historical context

The Cyparissus-Mosaic (Fig. 1) in Leicester was found in the mid-1670s. It is the first recorded discovery of a Roman mosaic in Britain[1]. It was found at High Cross Street near All Saints´ Church during construction work[2]. The mosaic was lifted after 1849 and is now preserved in the Jewry Wall Museum in Leicester[3].

Fig. 1. The Cyparissus Mosaic (Patricia Witts, Mosaics in Roman Britain. Stories in Stone, 2005, colour plate 5)

Fig. 1. The Cyparissus Mosaic (Patricia Witts, Mosaics in Roman Britain. Stories in Stone, 2005, colour plate 5)

The town of Leicester had been a tribal centre before the Romans conquered Britain, as indicated by archaeological evidence. Its Roman name, Ratae Corieltavorum, had Celtic origins[4].  There is evidence for an early Roman fort at the site, which was probably established after AD 50, when Roman legions invaded the Midlands. It is supposed that there had already been a civilian settlement at the site, which then developed into a vicus. It was made civitas capital of the Coritani. In the late Hadrianic period and afterwards Leicester developed into a true Roman town – a forum and a basilica were constructed, better quality houses were built and in the middle of the second century the Jewry Wall public baths were completed[5]. A second forum and basilica were established in the third century and the town was surrounded by a defensive wall. A great fire was probably the reason why the town was abandoned by the Romans at the end of the fourth century[6].

The Cyparissus-Mosaic is most likely to be dated to the last phase of the town, the fourth century.

Description and Interpretation

The Cyparissus-Mosaic measures 1.25m by 1.17m and its tesserae are approximately 14mm squared[7]. There were several colors used for the tesserae such as dark grey, white, buff, red and yellow ochre[8]. It is likely to be a fourth century mosaic since all other examples of similar decoration can be dated into this period[9]. As with the majority of Roman artwork, the manufacturer is unknown.

The mosaic has an octagonal shape and the central picture is framed by a panel, which is decorated by a colored band of guilloche (red, white and brown) on a dark grey surface. The central image of the mosaic shows two human figures and a stag in the middle. The figure on the left is much smaller than the one on the right. It is a male, child-sized figure. He wears a red cloak around his left shoulder and has attached wings. He holds a bow with a white arrow targeting the animal in the middle. His body is rimmed with red tesserae, while the rest of the body was made with orange tesserae and his hair was made with brown ones. The figure on the right is also male. He is much taller than the one on the left. He wears a dark grey cloak around his shoulders. His right leg is crossed over his left one and he is touching his head with his left arm, while he strokes the animal´s head with his right hand. His body is rimmed with red tesserae like that of the smaller figureThe rest of his body was made with orange and small amounts of white tesserae. The white tesserae may have been used to create a sense of movement. In the middle of the scene, between both human figures, stands a stag looking at the right figure. Its front legs stand tight together, whereas its hind legs seem to be much further apart from one another. It appears as though the back of the stag was not rendered to the same level of sophistication and craftsmanship as its front. The stag was made of brown and dark grey tesserae. Between the stag and the right figure is an object of the same color as the stag. At first sight this might be part of the stag, but looking at it closely it could also perhaps be a tree trunk. There is another small image (made of brown tesserae) between the stag´s hind legs that could represent a tuft of grass.

Some parts of the mosaic were restored in modern times using Samian tesserae, like parts of the white background of the picture, a part of the right figure´s cloak and parts of the guilloche[10].

The picture shows a scene from the myth of Cyparissus. The myth tells that there was a stag, which trusted most human beings. Among these human beings was Cyparissus, a handsome man. They developed a mutual affection, spending a lot of time together. One day the stag was accidentally hit by Cyparissus´ spear and died from the injury. Cyparissus, overwhelmed by the grief, begged the gods that he might mourn forever. Apollo, who had adored Cyparissus and had sent him the stag as a companion, transformed him into a cypress tree, so he would be able to grieve forever and the tree could stand as a sign of grief for everyone else[11].

Thus the right figure is Cyparissus, stroking his beloved stag, while the left figure, Cupid, god of love and Aphrodite´s son, shoots an arrow at the stag. The image shows Cyparissus´ admiration for his pet stag through their physical contact, while Cupid shooting his arrow seems also to indicate the devotion between the stag and his master. In my opinion the tree trunk might be an indication of Cyparissus´ transformation into a cypress tree. Toynbee on the other hand suggests that this transformation is shown by the plot of grass between the stag´s hind legs[12], whereas Neal and Cosh disagree with this interpretation[13].

The Discovery of Mosaics in Roman Britain: from the Cyparissus Mosaic to Recent Discoveries

The first recorded discovery of a mosaic in Roman Britain was the Cyparissus Mosaic, which was found in 1675 during the construction of a cellar near the local jail. After having been lifted in the second half of the nineteenth century, it is now kept in the Jewry Wall Museum in Leicester[14]. To date there have been around 2000 Roman mosaics found in Britain, 200 of which are figured mosaics[15]. An organized study of Romano-British mosaics was started by John Aubrey in the seventeenth century. Most things known about the first discoveries of mosaics in Britain came from an eighteenth century publication on the subject edited by Bishop Gibson and private correspondence.[16] The most major discoveries of mosaics in Britain were made in the nineteenth century however. These were specially recorded by publications of the Society of Antiquaries, which contained illustrations and excavation reports from the late seventeenth century up to the twentieth century. Sometimes paintings were the only available images of mosaics until photography was invented and even though some of these paintings were not very good, others were well-illustrated and still help to understand these mosaics today, especially mosaics which got lost or damaged after their discovery.[17] In early photographs some mosaics were just shown in part and the color contrasts were not always clear. Photographs do, however, accurately capture the state of the mosaic and this can help with identifying what they looked like before they were lifted or damaged.[18] Many mosaics were lifted and re-laid in museums, but often they were re-laid incorrectly or damaged during the process.[19]

Until the twentieth century the main problem was that most excavations were treasure hunts and were poorly executed.[20]  In connection with this it is important to understand that mosaics were the reason for excavating villas in the past centuries.[21] The focus of the excavations was the mosaic not its surroundings. As a result of this most Roman villas were not excavated and examined properly before the twentieth century. However, nowadays mosaics are identified within their context, e.g. related to the plan of the villa they were found in and to other mosaics.[22]


The Cyparissus-Mosaic from Leicester is especially famous for its early discovery in 1675. It introduced the first century of mosaic studies in Britain. However this is not the only reason for its fame. There is no other example of this scene in Britain and the scene was also very rarely seen in the rest of the Roman Empire. In other known representations depicting the Cyparissus myth, unlike the Leicester mosaic, Cyparissus and the stag are seated and Apollo appears as well. In addition the mosaic is one of the only examples for a completely figured panel in the Midlands.[23] This fact makes it quite difficult to assign it to a particular mosaic school or workshop, because the only known school in this area was not known for figured mosaics, but for geometric ones.

Different aspects of the mosaic have been focused on in academic discussions. The most important of these discussions is about whether Cyparissus´ transformation into a Cypress tree is shown in the scene or not and if it is, which feature in the scene shows the transformation, the tuft of grass or the tree trunk.


F.J. Haverfield, 1918, ‘Roman Leicester’, Archaeological Journal, Vol. 75, No. 29, pp 1-46

D.S. Neal and S.R. Cosh, 2002, Roman Mosaics of Britain Vol. I: Northern Britain, London

Rainey, 1973, Mosaics in Roman Britain, Newton Abbot

Scott, 1993, ‘A Theoretical Framework for the Study of Romano-British Villa Mosaics’, in Scott, E. (ed.), Theoretical Roman Archaeology: First Conference Proceedings, Aldershot, pp 103-114

D.J. Smith, 1969, ‘The Mosaic Pavements’, in A.L.F. Rivet (ed), The Roman Villa in Britain, London, pp 71-125

M. C. Toynbee, 1964, Art in Britain under the Romans, Oxford

Wacher, 1995, The Towns of Roman Britain, London

Witts, 2005, Mosaics in Roman Britain: Stories in Stone, Stroud

Online Sources, last accessed 09/03/2013



[1] Witts 2005, 22

[2] Neal and Cosh 2002, 86

[3] Haverfield 1918, 42.

[4] Wacher 1995, 343

[5] Neal and Cosh 2002, 85

[6] Wacher 1995, 392

[7] Neal and Cosh 2002, 86

[8] Neal and Cosh 2002, 86

[9] Neal and Cosh 2002, 89

[10] Neal and Cosh 2002, 89

[11] Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.106-142.

[12] Toynbee 1964, 279

[13] Neal and Cosh 2002, 89

[14] Haverfield 1918, 42

[15] Witts 2005, 17

[16] Witts 2005, 22

[17] Witts 2005, 24

[18] Witts 2005, 24

[19] Neal and Cosh 2002, 7

[20] Rainey 1973, 14

[21] Neal and Cosh 2002, 7

[22] Scott 1993, 105

[23], last accessed 09/03/2013


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