Roman Mosaic
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Roman Mosaic

A Roman mosaic on a wall in the House of Neptune and Amphitrite, Herculaneum, Italy, 1st century AD

A Roman mosaic is a mosaic made during the Roman period, throughout the Roman Republic and later Empire. Mosaics were used in a variety of private and public buildings, [1] on both floors and walls, though they competed with cheaper frescos for the latter. They were highly influenced by earlier and contemporary Hellenistic Greek mosaics, and often included famous figures from history and mythology, such as Alexander the Great in the Alexander Mosaic.

A large proportion of the surviving examples of wall mosaics come from Italian sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum. Otherwise, floor mosaics are far more likely to have survived, with many coming from the fringes of the Roman Empire. The Bardo National Museum in Tunis has an especially large collection from large villas in modern Tunisia.


A Roman mosaic inscribed with the Latin phrase cave canem ("beware of the dog"), from the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii, Italy, 2nd century BC
Mosaic with Xenia, 4th century AD, Pius Clementine museum, Vatican Museums

Perhaps the earliest examples of Greco-Roman mosaic floors date to the late Republican period (2nd century BC) and are from Delos, Greece. Witts claims that tessellated pavements, using tesserae, were used in Europe from the late fifth to early fourth centuries BC.[2] This is contradicted by Ruth Westgate, who contends that the earliest tessellated mosaics of the Hellenistic period date to the 3rd century BC, with the 2nd to early 1st-century BC mosaics of Delos constituting roughly half of the known examples.[3] Hetty Joyce and Katherine M. D. Dunbabin concur with this assessment, asserting that the transition from pebble mosaics to more complex tessellated mosaics originated in Hellenistic-Greek Sicily during the 3rd century BC, developed at sites such as Morgantina and Syracuse.[4][5] The earliest known pebble mosaics and use of chip pavement are found at Olynthus in Greece's Chalcidice, dated to the 5th to 4th centuries BC, while other examples can be found at Pella, capital of Macedon, dated to the 4th century BC.[6][5]

The earliest mosaics of Roman Pompeii, dated to the Pompeian First Style of wall painting in the late 2nd and early 1st centuries BC, were clearly derived from the Hellenistic Greek model.[7] However, they contained far more figured scenes on average, less abstract design, the absence of lead strips, as well as an almost complete lack of complex, three-dimensional scenes utilizing polychromy until the Pompeian Second Style of wall painting (80-20 BC).[8][7]

The mosaics in the Villa Romana del Casale (c. 300 AD) from Roman Sicily perhaps represent the hallmark of mosaic art in the Late Imperial period. The mosaic decoration of the local palace complex culminates in the gallery, which contains a scene of animal hunting and fighting covering an area of 3,200 square feet (300 m2).[9]

The Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii, ca. 100 BC


Mosaic of Eastern Roman emperor Justinian I, 6th century

Roman mosaics are constructed from geometrical blocks called tesserae,[10] placed together to create the shapes of figures, motifs and patterns.[2] Materials for tesserae were obtained from local sources of natural stone, with the additions of cut brick, tile and pottery creating coloured shades of, predominantly, blue, black, red, white and yellow.[2] Polychrome patterns were most common, but monochrome examples are known.[11] Marble and glass were occasionally used as tesserae,[12] as were small pebbles,[13] and precious metals like gold.[14]

Mosaic decoration was not just confined to floors but featured on walls and vaults as well. Traces of guidelines have been found beneath some mosaics, either scored into or painted onto the mortar bedding. The design might also be pegged out in string,[2] or mounted in a wooden frame.[15]

The collapse of buildings in antiquity can, paradoxically, both irrevocably destroy mosaics or protect and preserve them.[2]


Achilles being adored by princesses of Skyros, a scene from the Iliad where Odysseus (Ulysses) discovers him dressed as a woman and hiding among the princesses at the royal court of Skyros. A late Roman mosaic from La Olmeda, Spain, 4th-5th centuries AD

As well as geometric patterns and designs, Roman mosaics frequently depicted divine characters or mythological scenes.[16][17]


Imagery of famous individuals or entertaining scenes are common on Roman mosaics. The Alexander Mosaic from the House of the Faun, Pompeii depicts the Battle of Issus between Alexander the Great and Darius III.[18] In addition to famous people from antiquity, mosaics can depict aspects of daily life. The Gladiator Mosaic from Rome depicts a fighting scene, naming each gladiator involved. A gladiatorial scene is also known from Leptis Magna.[19]


One of the earliest examples of Early Christian art in mosaic is the early 4th-century floor mosaic from a villa at Hinton St Mary, Dorset, England which shows Christ with a Chi-Rho behind his head. The mosaic is now in the British Museum.[9] Orpheus mosaics, which often include many animals drawn by the god's playing, are very common; he was also used in Early Christian art as a symbol for Christ. Scenes of Dionysus are another common subject.

As the Roman period merged into Late Antiquity, wall mosaics became the dominant form of art in grand churches, and the gold-ground style became usual. Italy has a high proportion of the survivals.


Progression within the mosaic technique developed the emblem, the "heart" of all mosaics. The word emblem is used to describe a small mosaic featuring a little genre scene or still life, characterised by particularly thin tesserae made separately and mounted in a central or important position in the main panel.

Find in 2020

In May 2020, the discovery of a well-preserved Roman mosaic floor dating to the 3rd century AD buried underneath a vineyard at Negrar is reported after about a century of searching the site of a long-lost villa.[20][21][22]

Notable examples


See also


  1. ^ Bertoldi 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d e Witts 2005.
  3. ^ Westgate (2000), pp. 255-256.
  4. ^ Joyce (1979), p. 260.
  5. ^ a b Dunbabin (1979), p. 265.
  6. ^ Joyce (1979), pp. 259-260.
  7. ^ a b Westgate (2000), pp. 255-275.
  8. ^ Joyce (1979), pp. 253-254, 257-258.
  9. ^ a b "The Hinton St Mary Mosaic". British Museum. 2015. Retrieved 2015.
  10. ^ Dunbabin 2006, p. 280.
  11. ^ Packard 1980.
  12. ^ Ricciardi et al. 2009.
  13. ^ Donaldson 1965.
  14. ^ Neri & Verità 2013.
  15. ^ Oliver 2001.
  16. ^ "Physical Aspects of the Polytheistic Roman Style". Tufts University. 2005. Retrieved 2015.
  17. ^ C., Rawan (11 March 2015). "Roman Mosaic Discoveries Made Through Time". Mozaico. Retrieved 2015.
  18. ^ Knox, E.L. Skip. "Alexander the Great - The Battle of Issus (334)". History of Western Civilization, Boise State University. Archived from the original on 25 March 2015. Retrieved 2015.
  19. ^ "Roman mosaic found in Libya". News24. 14 June 2005. Retrieved 2015.
  20. ^ "Ancient Roman mosaic floor discovered under vines in Italy". the Guardian. 27 May 2020. Retrieved 2020.
  21. ^ "Roman mosaic floor found under Italian vineyard". BBC News. 27 May 2020. Retrieved 2020.
  22. ^ "Perfectly preserved ancient Roman mosaic floor unearthed beneath Italian vineyard". Retrieved 2020.


  • Bertoldi, Susanna (2011). The Vatican Museums: discover the history, the works of art, the collections [I Musei Vaticani: conoscere la storia, le opere, le collezioni]. Sillabe. ISBN 978-8882712105.
  • Donaldson, M. Katherine (1965). "A Pebble Mosaic in Peiraeus" (PDF). Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. 34 (2): 77-88. JSTOR 147018.
  • Dunbabin, Katherine, M. D. (1979), "Technique and Materials of Hellenistic Mosaics", American Journal of Archaeology, Archaeological Institute of America, 83 (3): 265-277, doi:10.2307/505057, JSTOR 507451.
  • Dunbabin, Katherine M. D. (1999). Mosaics of the Greek and Roman world. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521461436.
  • Joyce, Hetty (1979), "Form, Function and Technique in the Pavements of Delos and Pompeii", American Journal of Archaeology, Archaeological Institute of America, 83 (3): 253-263, doi:10.2307/505056, JSTOR 505056.
  • Neri, Elisabetta; Verità, Marco (2013). "Glass and metal analyses of gold leaf tesserae from 1st to 9th century mosaics. A contribution to technological and chronological knowledge". Journal of Archaeological Science. 40 (12): 4596-4606. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2013.07.017.
  • Oliver, Andrew (2001). "A Glass Opus Sectile Panel from Corinth" (PDF). Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. 70 (3): 349-363. JSTOR 3182066.
  • Packard, Pamela M. (1980). "A Monochrome Mosaic at Isthmia" (PDF). Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. 49 (4): 326-346. JSTOR 147913.
  • Ricciardi, Paola; Colomban, Philippe; Tournié, Aurélie; Macchiarola, Michele; Ayed, Naceur (2009). "A non-invasive study of Roman Age mosaic glass tesserae by means of Raman spectroscopy". Journal of Archaeological Science. 36 (11): 2551-2559. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2009.07.008.
  • Westgate, Ruth (2000), "Pavimenta atque emblemata vermiculata: Regional Styles in Hellenistic Mosaic and the First Mosaics at Pompeii", American Journal of Archaeology, Archaeological Institute of America, 104 (2): 255-275, doi:10.2307/507451, JSTOR 507451.
  • Witts, Patricia (2005). Mosaics in Roman Britain: Stories in Stone. Stroud: History Press. ISBN 978-0752434216.

External links

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