Kažnjavanje Dirke (The Punishment of Dirce) in Pula, Croatia

The story of Dirce’s punishment goes something like this: Dirce was a powerful demigoddess, who married Lycus, king of Thebes. Her niece Antiope was impregnated by Zeus, and she gave birth to twin sons Zethus and Amphion. Dirce was not fond of Antiope, so despite fleeing due to her shame at her pregnancy, Dirce had Lycus force her back to Thebes. Her sons did not return with her and were instead raised by a shepherd.

When Antiope escaped again years later, she ran into Zethus and Amphion, now young adults. Dirce finds the three of them and, by bewitching the sons, convinces them to tie Antiope to a bull so she will be dragged to her death. The spell is broken by their shepherd guardian and they recognize their mother. The punishment becomes Dirce’s fate instead. Tied to the bull, Dirce dies and, in the spot were her body comes to rest, the god Dyonisus brings forth a spring. This legendary spring came to become a symbol of Thebes.

When the Roman Empire co-opted much of Greek culture, the myth of Dirce (or Dirke) was depicted in several of their works that survive to date. The best-known is probably the marble sculpture called “The Farnese Bull”, now found in a museum in Naples. This mosaic in Croatia is another example. Dated to the 2nd or 3rd century CE, the mosaic is more recent than Pula’s Arena, showing how long Roman presence lasted in this part of Istria.

Having been part of a Roman residence, this floor was eventually covered and lost, until the WW2 bombing of a church revealed it 2 meters below ground. After the debris was cleared, it was decided to leave the work in-situ as it had remained exceptionally well-preserved. The Punishment panel depicts Dirce, the sons and bull, and is surrounded by other panels depicting geometric motifs. A hexagonal “hive” with floral patterns completes the floor.

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