Roman mosaic

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Mosaic with Xenia, 4th century AD, Pius Clementine museum, Vatican Museums

A Roman mosaic is a mosaic made during the Roman period, throughout the Roman Empire. Mosaics were used in a variety of private and public buildings.[1]


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

The earliest examples of Roman mosaic flooring date to the late Republican period (2nd century BC) and are housed in 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, the 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


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 depictions of Roman Christianity is a mosaic from Hinton St Mary (in Dorset, England) which shows Christ with a Chi-Rho behind his head. The mosaic is now in the British Museum.[9]


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.

Notable examples[edit]


See also[edit]


  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 19 February 2015. 
  10. ^ Dunbabin 2006, p. 280.
  11. ^ Packard 1980.
  12. ^ Ricciardi et al.
  13. ^ Donaldson 1965.
  14. ^ Neri & Verità 2013.
  15. ^ Oliver 2001.
  16. ^ "Physical Aspects of the Polytheistic Roman Style". Tufts University. 2005. Retrieved 13 March 2015. 
  17. ^ C., Rawan (11 March 2015). "Roman Mosaic Discoveries Made Through Time". Mozaico. Retrieved 13 March 2015. 
  18. ^ Knox, E.L. Skip. "Alexander the Great - The Battle of Issus (334)". History of Western Civilization, Boise State University. Retrieved 13 March 2015. 
  19. ^ "Roman mosaic found in Libya". News24. 14 June 2005. Retrieved 21 February 2015. 


External links[edit]