Littlecote Villa: An Orphic Mystery

An apse of the Littlecote Park mosaic.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

In the south of England, in a field beside the river Kennet, a man holds a lyre. A dog sits by his side, while around him pace four women in a circle, each with a larger animal – a goat, a deer, a panther, and a bull.

This strange scene forms a mosaic a floor in what was once a Roman villa complex, now part of the grounds of Littlecote House. It’s a grand Elizabethan manor lying just outside of Hungerford in Wiltshire, and has plenty of its own history – it’s widely claimed to be the third most haunted house in Britain.

When I recently drove to Littlecote, it was a bitterly cold January morning. A flock of sheep grazed nearby as I stood shivering, looking down at a mosaic floor first laid over 1600 years ago. Having been restored to its former glory from the ravages of time, it’s now protected from the elements by a wooden roof structure.

Littlecote Park.

And here he was: Orpheus. First described by the ancient Greeks, and adopted by the Romans – one of the most enduring poets and musicians in western culture. From the earliest days of opera, composers and librettists have been drawn to him, particularly the story of his descent into the underworld in a doomed attempt to rescue his love, Eurydice. From Monteverdi to Birtwistle, Orpheus has sung for us again and again.

In Christian iconography, we’re accustomed to musicians playing a supporting role – choirs of angels, silver trumpets. But for Orpheus, music and poetry are his fundamental godly powers. I wanted to know what it meant that he was here, in this English field, clearly the focal point of this design?

The western section of the Littlecote mosaic.

At first glance, you might think that this mosaic tells us something about the esteem in which music was held in Roman society. But after my visit, I took a trip to the British Library, which allowed me to dig into the scholarship of Littlecote Park. It turns out that this mosaic, and its symbolism, is much more contested than I imagined. It demonstrates the fascinating ambiguity of ancient images, and our ability to read them in multiple different ways – even at the same time.

‘The finest pavement that the sun ever shone upon in England’ were the words of antiquarian Roger Gale after the mosaic was unearthed in 1727 by the steward of the park estate, William George. We know that George made a coloured drawing of the design, which was later engraved, and his wife embroidered a large needlework copy as a memorial after his death, which now hangs in Littlecote House.

Littlecote House.

These detailed records, as it turns out, would be invaluable. Because as crazy as it seems today, the site of the villa was somehow lost. Poor Orpheus descended into the underworld once more, where he lay reburied for over two centuries.

Some presumed the mosaic destroyed. Then, in the summer of 1977, the site was unexpectedly found for a second time. Bryn Walters, who led the new excavation, explains that Littlecote tradition assumed the villa to be somewhere on the nearby hillside. But it turned up on the banks of the Kennet instead, in ‘a small oak copse choked with weeds where moles and rabbits had brought fine mosaic tesserae to the surface’.

Sadly, the animals and roots had badly damaged the floor – only forty percent of it was preserved in situ. But since the full layout was already recorded, ‘it was decided to take an unprecedented step and fully restore one of the most significant mosaics yet found in Britain’.

After the floor was fully excavated, the surviving panels were cleaned and re-set, while the most damaged parts were relaid with modern tiles. Luckily, Orpheus himself was pretty much intact. But if the story of its discovery is surprisingly complex, the debate around the mosaic’s purpose and meaning is even more so.

Littlecote Roman villa ruins.

Orpheus was the son of the muse Calliope. Some cite his father as Apollo, who gave him his lyre, others a Thracian king. He was said to be able to charm animals with his music, and mosaics from across the Roman empire show him surrounded by beasts of various kinds. But there is a cluster of Orphic mosaics in the villas of the south and west of England, many with the distinctive feature of animals parading in a circle. The most spectacular of these is at Woodchester in Gloucestershire, a square floor of nearly 15 metres across, made up of 1.6 million pieces.

Today, the idea of music as a means to control nature might seem a strange one. But in a conference paper, Sarah Scott offers a rationale for the appeal of Orpheus to wealthy British Romans of the fourth century – a time of an increasing concentration of land ownership, in which rural residences were becoming ‘the primary centres for status display’:

Orpheus was able to control nature in its strongest and wildest forms without the use of physical force, and would therefore have been an appropriate choice for a room in which the owner would have conducted business, and entertained friends and/or strangers, and generally aimed to impress. The villa owner was associating himself with godly powers. […] The animals traditionally found on the Orpheus scene are those which exhibit types of behaviour which make them difficult to handle or capture.

The number of such mosaics in Britain, she suggests, may be down to a copycat behaviour – a kind of keeping-up-with-the-Jones’s among the large landowners, perhaps with Woodchester’s magnificent floor as the original inspiration.

The Littlecote ‘Orpheus’.

But even within this Roman mosaic tradition, Littlecote offers some puzzling features. It’s in a separate building from the main domestic house, without the hypocaust to provide underfloor heating. And Orpheus himself looks unusual too, to the extent that scholars such as Jocelyn Toynbee have even questioned his precise identity:

The central figure has, indeed, Orpheus’s characteristic lyre and Phrygian cap; and the animal beside him could be (as it has now been restored) the fox or dog that so often accompanies him […] But he has not got the short cloak, short tunic, and trousers and boots in which Orpheus generally appears in works of art in every medium; nor is he seated or crouching and charming with his music a spell-bound audience of often numerous animals and birds […]

An Orpheus mosaic from Palermo, Italy. Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto, Wikimedia Commons.

The lyre and long robe of the Littlecote figure are, however, appropriate for Apollo, who Toynbee suggests this could be, albeit displaying two ‘Orphic traits’ of cap and dog. Apollo is associated with the sun, which would make sense of what appear to be radiating sunbeams in the three apses attached to the room.

But there are yet stranger details to consider. The ‘sun’ in these apses seems to have the face of a cat. Meanwhile, two panels in the eastern section depict large cats (or perhaps dogs) either side of a cantharus – a wine cup. In one of these panels, the cats have fish tails instead of hind legs, while either side of them are two marine animals, possibly dolphins.

Littlecote mosaic, eastern end.

Walters’ excavation report provides a reading of the design which pulls these cryptic elements together. He thinks the common theme of Orpheus controlling nature through music doesn’t apply, but rather, ‘on this floor Orpheus acts as a catalyst, by which all the powers and identities of the classical pantheon are absorbed into a single god-head’.

He sees the ‘unorthodox’ rendering of Orpheus as representing ‘the prophet-priest of Apollo-Helios’, while the feline elements and wine cups draw on Bacchus – also known as Dionysus – the God of wine for whom large cats were a common symbol.

The double meanings don’t end there. The four circling women he interprets as the seasons, but characterised as Goddesses – which, running from spring to winter, are Aphrodite (rebirth), Nemesis (youth, holding a swan to represent Zeus), Demeter (maturity), and Persephone (death). This means that as you entered the room from the eastern end, you would be faced by Demeter and Persephone – ‘the chief deities of Elysium’. In front of them, a rectangle of zig-zag lines is comparable to stylised illustrations of water seen elsewhere in the Roman world. Walters suggests this might be the legendary ‘Pool Of Memory’, of whose waters pure souls could drink from to escape the ‘Wheel Of Birth’ and enter Elysium.

Littlecote mosaic, central section.

The circling animals with the seasons he sees as representing the myth of ‘the flight of Zagreus-Dionysus from the Titans’, in which a series of animal transformations aided his escape. And of the curious ‘sea-cats’ and their wine cup, he cites the ‘Tyrrhenian pirate myth’:

In revenge for his sacrilegious abduction, Dionysus transformed himself into a fearsome lion-like monster, cast his wine cup into the sea and changed the sea into wine; the pirates in terror leaped from their vessel and were changed by Dionysus into dolphins as they attempted to swim away.

This scheme comes together in the apses, the feline faces of Bacchus/Dionysus ‘now unified, through the intercession of Orpheus, with Apollo-Helios’. But as Martin Henig has noted, these sunbeams also have a potential double meaning as pecten shells, a resonance with the other marine imagery, which perhaps recalls ‘the voyage of the soul over sea to the Blessed Isles’.

Taking all this into consideration, Walters sees this hall as a temple of some kind, and ‘probable evidence for a neoplatonic religious guild among the elite in late Roman Britain’. Some scholars agree – Henig calls Littlecote ‘the best contender for a pagan cult-room attached to a Roman villa in Britain’.

Orpheus and Eurydice, by Edward Poynter. Wikimedia Commons.

There is certainly evidence for Orphic cults in the Classical world, and Walters’ excavation report lends some historical context to this claim. In over 350 years of Roman activity at Littlecote, the mosaic room was constructed as part of a late redesign of the building it was attached to, which included a large courtyard and a bath suite. Coinage found in the building, minted at Trier in Germany, suggests a date for the hall’s construction as c. 360 AD. This, as Walters tells us, is ‘most intriguing’:

Julian, kinsman of Constantine I, became emperor of Gaul in A.D. 360. As Julian II he is best known as ‘The Apostate’ owing to his attempt to supplant Christianity with a revival of Classical paganism. Julian bestowed great favours on those who readily observed his directives for the restoration of pagan worship. […] It may perhaps be reasonable to suggest that this remarkable building was constructed to celebrate the accession of the new emperor […]

The ‘Great Plate Of Bacchus’ from the Mildenhall Treasure, discovered in Suffolk and thought to date from the fourth century. Photo by JMiall, Wikimedia Commons.

This rather grand hypothesis of an Orphic temple is both plausible and thoroughly fascinating – perhaps, suspiciously so. A scheme so rich in esoteric meaning is surely the most interesting answer we would want to believe. Is Walters guilty of reading too much into these images? Could a more banal explanation for this room be just as likely?

Other scholars seem to think so. Scott suggests that the room may have been an elaborate reception hall, in a way that reinforced the ‘rigidly ordered’ society of the time:

It may have been here that the owner met his clients, perhaps appearing in the apse at the far end. The villa owner kept his public and private life separate, and perhaps only a privileged few would have been admitted to the main building. The mosaic itself, with its complex religious images, would have emphasised the formality of the architecture and the superiority of the villa owner. Those visitors who lacked the necessary education would have been excluded from the significance of the design, and their social distance from the villa owner would have been further emphasised.

Toynbee, meanwhile, suggests that the ‘Orphic’ Apollo could be entertaining diners in ‘a summer triclinium [dining room] separate from the villa and built for coolness’ sake near the river’, perhaps with ritual banquets held in his honour. She is unconvinced by the Bacchic significance of the panels, and merely sees ‘a common decorative motif for filling horizontal spaces’, which ‘need not have any special religious connotation here other than as symbols of prosperity, fruitfulness, and teaming life in general’.

Of course this is only a floor, in a room that may have had numerous other objects and forms of decoration. The absence of further evidence makes any certain explanation of its function impossible. But a few finds from the vicinity of the site nonetheless offer tantalising glimpses of Roman life here.

A beautiful red Carnelian intaglio was found in the villa’s surrounding fields. It seems to show Victory crowning Fortuna, and likely fell out of someone’s ring as they were walking. Then in 1985, two hollow-cast bronze busts were discovered nearby. These were buried back-to-back, concreted together by corrosion, and Walters determines that they were deliberately concealed in antiquity, though ‘whether they formed part of booty taken from the villa, or loot from a sepulchral deposit cannot, for the time being, be answered’.

Henig interprets one of the busts as a likely Bacchus/Dionysus, while the other, sporting a remarkably full head of hair, resembles Antinous, the real-life ‘beautiful favourite’ of the emperor Hadrian (some say also his homosexual lover) who was later venerated as a God. Strikingly, he emerges chest-deep from a calyx – the budding petals of a flower.

Henig writes that ‘Dionysus and specifically Dionysus-Zagreus seems to have an important place in these mysteries which may generally be described as Orphic. The new bronzes must surely be associated with this cult’. With their date possibly a century earlier than the mosaic hall, he suggests they may have been fittings for a piece of furniture which was already an antique in the villa’s later stages.

Whether the mosaic was part of a cult room, reception area, or dining hall, it cannot tell us what role music might have played in the villa. But in its hierarchical ordering, with the lyre-player surrounded by women and animals, we have a compelling view of music as a metaphor for power.

Of course, with modern eyes, there are other ways to read this particular arrangement. With its man at the centre, we could see a picture of patriarchy. We could see a mentality of entitlement to control and exploit nature – the legacy of which, over 1600 years later, is rapidly propelling us to an ecological crisis.

Topiary yew trees at Littlecote House.

The debate around the mosaic raises a duality which is common to both religion and classical music: both can be the subject of a genuine deep engagement, but both can also be appropriated, in a shallow way, as a signifier of class and respectability. So yes, this room might well have been a site for pagan revivalists to engage in solemn mystery rites beside the river Kennet. But equally, it might just have been a fancy floor decoration for a wealthy landlord, who was drawing on ideas of music, nature, and religion in order to bolster his status in a highly unequal society.

But whatever the reason for this beautiful mosaic, its place in the villa’s life was surprisingly short. Walters’ excavation determined that the Orphic phase lasted ‘no more than twenty years’, after which the villa house was demolished, and the mosaic building became ‘a lowly dwelling’.

The chapel at Littlecote House.

Littlecote Park is free to visit, though it’s fairly inaccessible without a car. If you make the trip, I certainly recommend looking around the manor too. Aside from its haunted rooms and large gardens, its dourly Puritanical chapel from the Civil War era provides a wonderful aesthetic counterpoint to the opulence of the Roman floor, and is claimed to be the only one of its kind. 

The only complaint I could make of the current state of the mosaic is an ironic one: that Orpheus might be better protected from nature. The beams of the roof structure have attracted roosting birds to leave their particular unmistakable marks all over the walkways, and even some parts of the mosaic itself.

When I visited, I found Orpheus garlanded by a couple of stray twigs too, presumably from the same source. Perhaps a bird of Wiltshire was honouring him, much like Victory honours Fortuna in the ring stone found nearby. Even in his terracotta silence, it seems that nature cannot resist this musician’s charms.

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