Roman Mosaic Representing a Dwarf Wrestling a Crane, Roman Imperial, 2nd Century AD
This rectangular panel probably decorated the floor of a banqueting room in a wealthy Roman villa. The name inscribed to the upper right may be that of the dwarf, while the long phrase at the bottom reproduces in large part the cries of the bird during the struggle. The dwarf, who is designated as such by short, yet muscular legs and by the disproportionate size of his genitals, grasps the crane by its long neck, which is twisted and bent back. The bird is still standing and seems to beat its wings in an attempt to free himself: his posture and coloration with light gray plumage resembles that of a heron.
During the Hellenistic and Roman Periods, images of dwarves often presented features typical of “grotesque” figures: on this mosaic, one notes the curvature of the back of the dwarf is too accentuated, his head is too large and his nose is too long and pointed. The position of this figure is very similar to that of a “good luck” dwarf on a contemporary mosaic found at Antioch. The battle between the Pygmies and the cranes is a very popular legend in Greco-Roman literature and art: in the Archaic Period, the Pygmies, represented as strong and fierce men of small size, fought against the cranes, which would regularly eat their crops, as seen on the foot of the famous François Krater in Florence. But at the end of the 5th century BC, an important change occurred in the iconography of this myth: the small men who had been Pygmies were more and more often replaced by dysplasic dwarves with short legs. On the Roman mosaics and paintings that represent this scene (cf. especially the grand scenes that take place in Egypt in luxurious waterfront settings, known as nilotic scenes) the “Pygmies” are not differentiated at all from contemporary images of achondroplasic dwarves, although they sometimes have darker skin.