Located just three kilometres from the Sicilian town of Piazza Armerina are the extensive remains of a large Roman villa, called the Villa Romana del Casale. Dating to the early fourth century AD, it contains one of the single largest collections of ancient Roman mosaics anywhere. It has been designed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The mosaics in this villa were almost certainly made by African artists and designers (Nancy H. Ramage and Andrew Ramage, Roman Art (1995), p. 277), judging by the style and tesserae used. Of the many mosaics that decorate the floors of the various rooms and hallways in this building, one in particular has often drawn modern visitors’ attention.
Located on the floor of a small room (either a private bedroom or a service room of some kind), this mosaic features a number of girls dressed in what look like ancient analogues to the modern bikinis introduced by French designers in 1946. The scene in the mosaic certainly strikes the visitor as very modern.
The room is named after the mosaic and referred to as the Sala delle Dieci Ragazze (“Room of the Ten Girls”). Of the ten women depicted in the mosaic, nine wear what look like two-piece bathing suits. The bottom consists of a loincloth made of cloth or leather. It was called a subligaculum and is usually considered as a more scanty version of the male perizoma or loincloth, worn by way of underwear and sometimes also by athletes and slaves. In 1998, archaeologists in Britain retrieved a leather “thong” from a well dated to the first century AD that corresponds exactly to a modern bikini bottom; it’s currently on display at the Museum of London.
The top part of the “bikini” worn by these girls consists of a breastband. Breastbands like this were already known in ancient Greece. The Greeks referred to the breastband as a mastodeton or apodesmos; the Romans called it a strophium. A breastband was often made of linen. Such articles of clothing were worn by women who engaged in sports or otherwise had an active lifestyle: the heroine Atalanta is sometimes depicted wearing a breastband.
The girls in the mosaic are engaged in sports; the “bikinis” are clearly intended as sportswear, not swimwear. In the top register, we can’t quite tell what the girl at the extreme left was doing, but the one right next to her carries weights in her hands. These aren’t dumbbells used to increase musculature; they are instead used to lengthen the long jump: by swinging the arms backwards, one’s momentum can be increased, making it possible to jump farther. The girl in the middle is about to throw a discus, while the two in the right half of this register are depicted running.
In the bottom register, two girls at the right are engaged in a ball game. Ball games are ancient: they are already mentioned in book 6 of Homer’s Odyssey (ll. 115-116). In Classical times, ball games were especially enjoyed by adolescent boys and girls; one variant was a team sport in which the losers had to carry the winners on their backs at the end of the match. Here, it looks like the girls are playing some early form of volleyball. Note how the ball consists of multiple colours.
At the extreme left of the bottom register, a young woman dressed in a transparent yellow dress holds a rose crown and a palmfrond: these were prizes handed out to the victor in athletic competitions. Mature women were generally in charge of female athletic competitions; she may represent an older woman, perhaps married (in contrast to the other, potentially unmarried women in the mosaic). The girl in the centre of the register has been given a palmfrond and is about to put the victor’s crown on her head. The girl in between the victor and the woman in yellow holds what appears to be a stylized flower: it has also been interpreted as a kind of parasol or perhaps a stylized chariot’s wheel.
Contrary to popular opinion, women in the Roman Empire did engage in sports (see also: Betty Spears, “A perspective on the history of women’s sport in ancient Greece”, Journal of Sport History 11.2, pp. 32-47). But there were some restrictions. Women, for example, were not allowed compete with men. And while men were generally expected to exercise naked in the Greek fashion; female public nudity was frowned upon. The ancient “bikini” allowed women to exercise in comfort without causing offence to ancient (male) sensibilities.