Scenes of 4th century chariot racing revealed in Cyprus mosaic

Scenes of 4th century chariot racing revealed in Cyprus mosaic

Scenes of 4th century chariot racing revealed in Cyprus mosaic

A 36-foot mosaic floor displaying scenes of ancient chariot races in the Roman hippodrome has been discovered by archaeologists.

This magnificent artefact was found in the Akaki village outside the capital, Nicosia, dating back to the 4th century, making it the only one of its kind in Cyprus and one of seven in the world.

This mosaic is not only extremely detailed, but it illustrates complete race scenes for four charioteers, each drawn by a four-horse team. Experts claim this is a representation of the numerous factions in ancient Rome that competed.

‘The hippodrome was very important in ancient Roman times, it was the place where the emperor appeared to his people and projected his power,’ said Fryni Hadjichristofi, a Cyprus Antiquities Department archaeologist.

Derived from the Greek words hippos (‘horse’) and dromos (‘course’), the hippodrome was an open-air stadium, used for chariot and horse racing, which was a common Grecian activity during the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras.

The excavation crew is still working to uncover the entire floor, but the area that is visible measures 36 feet long and 13 feet wide.

The team believes this stunning piece was once part of a villa owned by a wealthy individual or nobleman while Cyprus was under Roman rule.

Since it was found just 19 miles west of the capital Nicosia, researchers also believe this finding will shed light on the ancient past of the island’s interior.

The mosaic displays scenes from a chariot race, with one charioteer standing as he is being pulled by four horses – in total it shows four different races. Near each of the four charioteers are inscriptions, which is believed to be their names and the name of one of the horses.

Archaeologists believe this representation is the four factions that would compete in chariot races while ancient Rome reigned. 

Three cones can be seen along the circular arena, each topped with egg-shaped objects, and three columns seen in the distance hold up dolphin figures with what appears like water flowing from them.

On another part of the mosaic is one man on horseback and two others that are standing – one is holding a whip and the other a jug of water.

‘It is an extremely important finding, because of the technique and because of the theme,’ the director of the Department of Antiquities Marina Ieronymidou said during a press conference in front of the mosaic this week. 

‘It is unique in Cyprus since the presence of this mosaic floor in a remote inland area provides important new information on that period in Cyprus and adds to our knowledge of the use of mosaic floors on the island.’

The typical hippodrome was carved into a hillside and the material pulled from the ground was packed along the edges to construct an embankment for seats. Its shape was oblong, with one end semicircular and the other squared – similar to a ‘U’, but with a closed top.

A low wall, called a spina, was constructed through the middle and ran almost from one end of the stadium to the other in order to divide the course.

This wall was decorated with monuments and sculptures that were shifted around to inform spectators of the laps completed during the race. Since it could hold as many 10 chariot races at once, the course was sometimes as wide as 400 feet wide and 600 to 700 feet long.

This scene was depicted in the 1959 American film Ben Hur, which is famous for its nine-minute chariot race in a hippodrome. Ben Hur, played by Charlton Heston, races around the course with a team of four horses as thousands of spectators cheer him on from the embankment.

Researchers found that most of the important ancient finds on the island, like this well-preserved mosaic, are usually found along the coast, because this is where cities and town flourished in antiquity.

A small piece of decorated floor was first discovered by a farmer back in 1939, but full-fledged digging wasn’t started until decades due to work on other sites, explained Hadjichristofi.

Cyprus was once a a wealthy island in antiquity, as it was known for producing copper, timber from its then-ample forests, as well as pottery, many examples of which have been found in neighboring countries, said Hadjichristofi. ‘We know that Cyprus was once wealthy, the latest discoveries confirm this,’ she said. 

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