About the Project

Victorious Secret – Noticing Elite Sports for Women

Three framed mosaic triptychs by visual artist Angela Lorenz 2012-2013

This project consists of three triptychs, nine framed images in all, based on Roman mosaics in Italy from 300AD. The images are details from a thematic sequence on the floor of an ancient Roman villa in Piazza Armerina, Sicily. I originally became familiar with these mosaics from coffee mugs and merchandise in American mail-order catalogs. They are among the most famous Roman mosaics in the world, merely for what the women are wearing. The books I purchased at the site in 1998 suggested that these women likely hold rattles and a tambourine in their hands, instead of weights for long jump, and a discus.


Image of the original 300 AD mosaics in their entirety, Piazza Armerina, Sicily (Italy).

In a conversation with archaeologist Isabella Baldini Lippolis, a professor at the University of Bologna, it became clear that these are not dancing bikini girls at all, despite their reputation. After several years of my nudging, Isabella published her findings in an Italian academic journal in 2007.¹ I am now circulating these findings through a work of art.

No parallel has yet come to light in archaeological contexts, making this cycle of images unique. Baldini Lippolis’ research points out many clues indicating the mosaic represents specific women’s athletic competitions, with five events. A ball game typically substituted the men’s wrestling event. Other iconographic cycles in the villa show young girls imitating the women athletes. Athletic competitions were only open to the elite ranks of society, and to partake in them was a status symbol. Women’s athletic games, sacred and international, were present in Naples, Puteoli, Cartagena, Cherchel, Nicopolis, Laodicea and Ossirinco through the first few centuries of the Common Era. In the 6th century, writers still made references to the Olympic games celebrated at Antioch, where noble young men and women, virgins, competed in wrestling, running events, declamation and recitation of Greek anthems. The chaste athlete-philosophers that won these competitions were ordained as priests and priestesses. Noble Romans were promoting athletic competition as an ideal for young women 2,000 years ago. That this imagery has attracted so much attention for the superficial aspect of the women’s novel garments completely subverts the original intentions of these mosaics.

To highlight the misguided reading of these images, I have reconstructed them with materials associated with women and ornamental dress: hairpins and buttons attached to a faux-cement ground with a metal frame, creating the semblance of a mosaic fragment. The buttons are attached with bobby-pins to acid-free foam core, in an industrial-looking frame, commonly used to display mosaic fragments in archaeological settings and museums. I have isolated the women’s torsos, and eliminated their faces, emphasizing what has turned our heads: their subligar, or bikinis. I have also demarcated what should be the focus of our attention: their athletic instruments, and the palm of victory awarded.

The text around the mosaics is graffiti from Pompeii and Herculaneum, some in English, some in Latin.  It evokes the misinterpretations of these women, referring to obnoxious boyfriends, pregnancy, shopping and washing lists. There have been seven venues for the traveling bikini athletes so far, who started out at Dartmouth in 2013, and will continue to make their way around the U.S., spreading the word about ancient ideals for women, and celebrating 40+ years of Title IX.    

 – Angela Lorenz, 2015


¹ I. Baldini Lippolis, Atletismo femminile e ideologia aristocratica nel programma decorativo della Villa di Piazza Armerina, in: Atti del XIII Colloquio AISCOM, TIVOLI, scripta manent, 2007, pp. 269 – 276 (atti di: Atti del XIII Colloquio AISCOM (Associazione Italiana Studio e Conservazione Mosaico), Canosa, 2006) [atti di convegno-relazione]

Victorious Secret Graffiti Text from Pompeii and Herculaneum  

Triptych I

Pentathlon – Weights for Long Jump and Discus

Lorenz right

Panel A – Figulus loves Idaia  /  Virgula Tertio suo indecens es  [Virgula to her darling Tertius: you’re disgusting.]  W 35” x H 33.5”  Torso with weights for long jump.

Panel B – (no text)  W 20” x H 23”  Discus.

Panel C – Restitutus multas decepit sepe puellas  [Restitutus deceived many girls] /  Atimetus got me pregnant  /  XK Febraruis Ursa Peperit Diem iovis [On January 23, Ursa has given birth, a Thursday] W 32” x H 41.5”  Legs and feet.

Triptych II 

Receiving Prizes for Pentathlon – Trochus (Hoop Race)

Lorenz center

Panel D – III Idus Apriles tunica I [I bought a tunic]  W 20.5” x H36” Palm leaf, crown prizes.

Panel E – ligna, procu IV, panem H VI, coliclo II, be I, sinapi I, menta I, sale I [firewood, barley, breadloaf, small cabbage, beetroot, mustard, mint, salt] /  April 20 I gave a cloak to be washed, on May 7 a headband, on May 8 two tunics  W 28” x H 37.5” Torso receiving prizes.

Panel F – Sabina may you stay young and beautiful forever.  W 22” x H 27.5” Trochus (hoop event)

Triptych II

Pentathlon – Ball Event

Lorenz left

Panel G – Aprodite issa [as beautiful as Aphrodite] /  Pompa venatio athletae vela erunt [There will be a procession, a hunt, athletes, awnings]   W 30.5” x H 38” Torso for ballplaying event, left.

Panel H – Admiror te paries non cecidisse ovi tot scriptorum taedia sustineas [I admire you, wall, for bearing the weight of all the boring things written by many authors] W 32” x H 31” Ball with hands.

Panel I – Secunda xxxxx is not good at ballgames [Epaphra is crossed out, with Secunda replacing the other athlete] W 28” x H 38.5” Torso for ballplaying event, right.


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