7/24/2009

Cave canem!


Beware of the dog
(From a Pompeian Mosaic)

The ruins of Pompeii bear -for its wealth of information- unique testimony to the richness and variety of daily life in an ancient Roman city. Visitors of the modern archaeological park near Naples are doubly surprised, because Pompeii offers an unexpected mix of known and strange things. The first impression the city gives is one of “modernity”, the urban design and the buildings seem remarkably familiar to us. This familiarity is, however, only superficial, and visitors soon marvel at the many exotic elements in every corner of the city.

Among the many surprisingly familiar things, there is a beautiful little mosaic depicting a chained dog together with the brief text Cave Canem, beware the dog. The mosaic is on the floor of the entrance hall to the House of the Tragic Poet, (a house famous for its particularly exquisite decoration with mosaic floors and frescoes depicting well known scenes from Greek mythology). A similar picture is described by Petronius (Satyricon 29) and it is sure that mosaics like this one were a popular motif for the thresholds of Roman villas and rich houses.

This short phrase (quite different from the deep and philosophical reflections normally discussed in this blog) has for me a special charm. In my opinion, it illustrates how Latin can give a powerful force even to the more banal thoughts and expressions.

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