Rivers of art: Hellenistic Art


Detail of a Nilotic scene from internal decoration of a podium that surrounded the garden of the Casa del Medico in Pompeii. Two pygmies try to rescue their compatriot from being eaten by a hippopotamus. By Carole Raddato [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Classical Ancient Greek art largely featured humans or deities performing feats of courage (wrestling lions, stabbing minotaurs – that sort of thing), fighting battles or involved in calmer domestic situations. Indeed, Ancient Greek mythology provided a rich source of material for Greek artists. But Classical Ancient Greek landscape painting was virtually non-existent. Instead of actually portraying landscapes – and riverscapes for that matter – gods and goddesses were illustrated as embodiments of the environment (see Classical Ancient Greek Art). Ancient Greek art took a surprising and bold turn, however, following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. And it was art of the subsequent Hellenistic Age, which greatly influenced those young upstarts, the Romans – as it did many other societies around the world – for centuries to come.

The end of an extraordinary era…and the beginning of another

The Classical Age of Ancient Greece came to an end with the death of one of the world’s most charismatic, intelligent and successful leaders, Alexander the Great. The Classical Age was one of momentous democratic and philosophical change, when arguably the Ancient Greek culture reached its height of sophistication and accomplishment. The Hellenistic Age that followed, brought with it war and turmoil, as Alexander’s generals divided the empire amongst themselves. Nation states were formed, dynasties began, and new lands in Asia and Africa were colonized and influenced by an all-pervading Greek culture.

Nile image from Pompeii

Nile scene with crocodile and hippopotamus, Pompeii.

But despite the upheavals, the Hellenistic Age also heralded developments in science (courtesy of luminaries like Euclid, Archimedes and Aristarchus), philosophy (like Epicurus and Zeno), literature (in the early days of this new age, the Ancient Library of Alexandria was founded), comedy (no, Homer pre-dated this period!) and, of course, art. The era was one of profound change: people, now no longer content with divine explanations for things, instead wanted rational and logical reasoning for natural phenomena; they brought the gods down to earth, so to speak, to be more human in their frailties; and they strove for perfection and beauty in art as in life.

woman picking flowers

Wall painting from Pompeii, ‘Flora’ Woman Picking Flowers. Imago: romansociety.org

Landscape art emerges from chaos

So, it is not surprising that, amongst other subjects, Hellenistic art involved depictions of nature. Indeed, Gombrich says that: “[Landscape painting] was perhaps the greatest innovation of the Hellenistic period” (p. 77). Unfortunately, we have few examples of such art remaining, and much of what we do have is Roman-era copies of older artworks. Fortunately for us (although not for the Pompeians) Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79 and buried the provincial, relatively insignificant, town of Pompeii, just outside modern-day Naples. This meant that a large number of wall paintings and mosaics, amongst other artworks, were preserved for historians of art, and those of us interested in how ancient societies perceived and depicted rivers, to research and enjoy.

Hellenistic artists painted soothing, contrived pictures of the countryside, with sheep, shepherds, bridges, temples, mountains and rivers (see image below). These were not ‘true’ landscapes, in the sense that they were intended to accurately capture a particular place and time. These were fantasies; but fantasy landscapes nevertheless. There is not a lot of realism in these paintings. Distant objects were smaller than closer objects, it is true, but true perspective did not become commonplace for centuries. The river in the image below shows only a small section of stream or pond, spanned by small bridge. The focus seems very much on the people, goats and buildings; the water, seemingly just a relatively small part of the peaceful image.

Enzo Carli, in his wonderful The Landscape in Art describes these idyllic landscapes:

The natural surroundings – or the assembly of small valleys and wide meadows, of gardens, orchards, trees and hills and water here presented as natural surroundings – are enhanced, if the location is sacred, with temples, shrines, and statues, or, if rural, with miniature people and animals. Such landscapes are idylls, flights of fancy, and the heightening and embellishment of reality can charge them with a subtle lyric quality. p. 25.

Idyllic scene

Detail of a Nilotic scene from internal decoration of a podium that surrounded the garden of the Casa del Medico in Pompeii. By Carole Raddato [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Landscape paintings that showed exotic settings were also popular. These often featured pygmies, crocodiles and hippopotamuses cavorting in the River Nile (see heading image to this post). Still-life paintings and mosaics of animals and plants also decorated the interior of many of the houses in Pompeii.

Nile landscape

Mosaic: Nile scene showing crocodile and hippopotamus (image 1828). Imago: romansociety.org

The Nile Scene Mosaic

One of the most famous of all Hellenistic images relevant to our little discussion is that of the Nile Scene Mosaic (approx. 4 x 7 m!) at the Sanctuary of Fortuna Primagenia at Palestrina (also called the Barberini Mosaic). Although still the subject of academic discussion, the mosaic was apparently re-discovered around 1600 in the cellar of the Bishop’s Palace at Palestrina, not far from Rome. The building, within which the mosaic was constructed, is the result of the support and influence of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a noted Roman general and statesman, who lived from 138-78 B.C. Supposedly, Pliny (A.D. 23-79) mentioned the mosaic in his writings, although there is some uncertainty there as well. Not long after it was re-discovered, its significance artistically, culturally and natural historically was realised. As a result, it was partly disassembled and some of it taken to Rome. But after protests, it was returned to Palestrina, destroyed by accident, but reconstructed from drawings.


The Nile Scene Mosaic, Sanctuary of Fortuna Primagenia at Palestrina. Wikimedia Commons.

The Nile Scene Mosaic depicts the Nile in flood from a bird’s-eye perspective, showing the river as it arises in the mountains of Ethiopia and winds its way down the through the lowland marshes of Egypt to the Nile delta. It shows plants and animals of the region: lotus, papyrus, lion, giraffe, hippopotamus, crocodile, snake, fish and other animal types that are less certain (even to the experts: see Keller, 1913). While hunters and animals dominate the upper half, civilization, boats and buildings dominate the lower half.

The breadth and depth of information in the scene is remarkable and unsurpassed, in my humble opinion, up to that time. And for a long time after, for that matter. The marsh scenes of the Egyptians are impressive for their natural history, but certainly not for their coverage of a river system. The Nile Scene Mosaic is not to scale. Its ‘naturalness’ leaves much to be desired. But this is not unusual and quite in keeping with the styles of the time. On the other hand, it shows a river actually flowing – with water currents and eddies clearly visible – from its source in the mountains to where it enters the sea. The river is flooding, inundating the land, causing damage and havoc as it goes, but it is demonstrably playing a pivotal role not just as a disturbance, but in Egyptian society generally: in trade, transport, agriculture, fishing and in ceremony and culture.

This not to say that the Nile Scene Mosaic is an accurate representation of a whole river or of its use by humans. How could it be? But some, like the artist Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) did see it as a true, historical and natural historical representation of the Nile, and used it as a model for the background in several of his paintings, including Moses Rescued from the Nile (1647), Holy Family in Egypt (1655-1657) and Landscape with Two Nymphs and a Snake (1659) (Joyce, 1992). Others saw it as mere fantasy and allegory.

Whatever one thinks of the Nile Scene Mosaic, Noel Hynes (The Ecology of Running Waters), Robin Vannote (River Continuum Concept) and Wolfgang Junk (Flood Pulse Concept) would not be dismayed, I think, by such a riverine portrayal, rendered more than two thousand years before their ground-breaking ideas saw the light of day. I’m certainly impressed!

References: Carli, E. and M. Cinotti (1980). The landscape in art, William Morrow. Gombrich, E. H. (1968). The Story of Art. New York, Phaidon. Joyce, H. (1992). Grasping at shadows: ancient paintings in Renaissance and Baroque Rome. The Art Bulletin 74(2): 219-246. Keller, O. (1913). “Die antike Tierwelt.”


This entry was posted in Historical ecology, River and History, River ecosystems, Rivers, Rivers art, Water and culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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