A World in a Grain of Sand: Asaroton

The Unswept Floor (Herakleitos, 2nd C. BCE)

The Unswept Floor is a mosaic panel of a subject popular with the wealthy classes in ancient Rome. The mosaic depicts bits of food scraps from a dinner party, discarded and strewn across the floor. It's a pretty direct form of bragging, as it clearly exhibits the delicacies that the family could afford to waste.

These floor mosaics were so popular in ancient Rome that there was a term for them- asarotos. Here is Pliny's (c.77-79 AD) description of an asarotos from the 2nd century BC:
The most famous in that genre was Sosos who laid at Pergamon what is called the asarotos oikos or unswept room, because on the pavement were represented the débris of a meal, and those things which are normally swept away, as if they had been left there, made of small tesserae of many colours.- Pliny
To be wealthy enough to commission an asarotos mural as a commemoration of decadent feasting only furthered the extravagance, yet there is a saving sense of beauty here. The objects are carefully, even tenderly described, and their placement shows a pleasing awareness of the relationship between positive and negative space.

These depictions of simple and small subjects like walnut halves, fish heads and nibbling mice are quite straightforward and utterly charming.

The Unswept Floor (Herakleitos, 2nd C. BCE)
Mouse and Walnut (detail)

Discarded fish and fruit: fragment of an asaraton from Aquileia.

I wonder about these ancient and anonymous muralists. Were they middle class? Did they wish they could afford the sorts of dinner parties they celebrated in their murals?

There are some contemporary muralists working in this ancient theme. I love these two examples by muralist Helen Bodycomb:


  1. Fascinating - this is totally new to me - wonder if this is the first example of trompe l'oeil aside from architectural subjects? What strikes me are the shadows - used so well to communicate that these objects, at a glance really are strewn about the floor. Not surprised that this was all the rage in the time and place - I want a kitchen floor just like it.

    1. This was new to me too, Karen, until a few days ago, when a friend suggested the subject for a post. Fascinating, isn't it? I should have mentioned the shadows!


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