Nile mosaic of Palestrina

Nile mosaic of Palestrina

The Nile mosaic of Palestrina is a late Hellenistic mosaic depicting the Nile from Ethiopia to the Mediterranean. It has a width of 5,85 meters and a height of 4,31 meters and provides the only glimpse into the Roman fascination with Egyptian exoticism in the 1st century BC.

The Nile Mosaic and its companion piece, the Fish Mosaic, were discovered in the Italian city of Palestrina, ancient Praeneste, in the early 17th century. They were thought to have been the vestiges of Sulla's sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia. The town was owned by the Barberini family, who unceremoniously removed the mosaic from its setting and put it on exhibit in Palazzo Barberini, Rome. The mosaic was repaired on numerous occasions before being returned to Palestrina in 1953.

The mosaic features detailed depictions of Ptolemaic Greeks, black Ethiopians in hunting scenes, and various animals of the Nile river (including what some have described as a dinosaur). It is the earliest Roman depiction of Nilotic scenes, of which several more were uncovered at Pompeii. A consensus on the dating of the work is slowly emerging. Paul G. P. Meyboom suggests a date shortly before the reign of Sulla (ca. 100 BC) and treats the mosaic as an early evidence for the spread of Egyptian cults in Italy. He believes Nilotic scenes were introduced in Rome by Demetrius the Topographer, a Greek artist from Ptolemaic Egypt active ca. 165 BC.


  • Finley, The Light of the Past, 1965, p93.
  • C. Roemer, R. Matthews, Ancient Perspectives on Egypt, Routledge Cavendish 2003, pp.194ff.
  • Paul G. P. Meyboom, The Nile Mosaic of Palestrina: Early Evidence of Egyptian Religion in Italy, Brill 1995, pp.80ff

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