What Roman Mosaics Reveal About Ancient Art

Mosaic of Bacchic Dancers, Hatay, Turkey. Mosaic of Bacchic Dancers, Hatay, Turkey.

Roman mosaics are comprised of geometric and figural images created by arrangements of tiny pieces of stone and glass. The earliest forms of Greco-Roman mosaics were conceived in Greece in the late 5th century B.C. Though the Greeks refined the art of figural mosaics by embedding pebbles in mortar, the Romans expanded on this established technique, using tesserae—cubes of stone, ceramic, or glass—to form intricate, colorful designs.

Today, these works offer a vivid picture of ancient Roman life; a glimpse into the everyday activities of an ancient civilization which included gladiator contests, sports, and agriculture, while also serving as documentation of everyday items such as food, clothes, tools, and weapons. These works of art adorned the walls of private homes and public buildings, spreading to new geographic locations as the Roman Empire expanded. Mosaics have been uncovered by archaeologists in a range of modern-day locales—including France and Tunisia—and reveal a combination of local traditions and Roman influence.

As examples of Roman mosaics continue to be uncovered in archaeological dig sites, they offer reliable insight into the interests and daily lives of ancient civilizations through their detailed narratives. Discover the history of and techniques used in Roman mosaic art, and the impact they’ve made on the history of art.

A Brief History of Roman Mosaics

roman mosaic displaying a fish

Roman mosaic emblema panel. Sold for $50,000 via Sotheby’s (June 2012).

The earliest forms of mosaics to appear in Greco-Roman art date back to the 5th century B.C., with examples found at the ancient cities of Corinth and Olynthus. Those created by the Greeks were primarily constructed from black and white pebbles. Not until the 3rd century B.C. did mosaics made using tesserae become standard, and the technique spread as distinct styles emerged in different regions.

By the 2nd century B.C., smaller and more precisely cut tesserae were used, sometimes as small as four millimeters or even less. Many of these designs used a wide spectrum of colors with grouting that matched the tesserae. This particular type of mosaic, known as opus vermiculatum, used sophisticated coloring and shading to emphasize an outline around a subject, which created an effect similar to painting. A Greek mosaic artist known as Sosus of Pergamon is considered one of the most talented craftsman and the only mosaic artist whose name was recorded in literature. His mosaics were emulated by other artists in the centuries that followed.

Why Did the Romans Use Mosaics?

At the beginning of the 1st century B.C., mosaics were being used to decorate walls and vaults. The earliest forms combined colored glass, shells, pumice, and other materials. By the mid-1st century B.C., however, glass tesserae was the standard material. Floor mosaics were more common as they proved to be a durable — yet lavish — means to adorn a room.

Though the majority of mosaics were decorated with geometric patterns, those of historical significance featured mythological scenes or depictions of everyday life. Modern analysis of mosaics sheds light on the social and political implications of these decorative works, exploring how they were used to represent the patron or family structure.

In 2017, a rare Roman mosaic was found in Boxford, England, estimated to be 1,600 years old. It depicts the Greek mythological hero Bellerophon, and is thought to be extremely rare in that it features figures and inscriptions instead of the geometric designs that were more common.

Roman Mosaic Techniques

roman mosaic displaying a deer and fauna

Large Roman mosaic of deer. Sold for £27,500 via Lyon & Turnbull (June 2015).

There were a variety of different techniques and methods used for creating mosaics, as well as individual specialists devoted to each technique. The Latin term opus tessellatum describes those that relied primarily on uniform cubical tesserae. Floor mosaics were referred to as tessellarii and wall mosaicists, who worked primarily with glass, were called musivarii.

How Were Roman Mosaics Created?

Roman mosaics were created using small pieces of glass, stone, and other materials. Large panels of stone were cut into tesserae to ensure the same shape and size of each piece. The two most commonly used stones were marble and limestone, both of which proved soft, easily workable, and appeared in a variety of natural colors. Mosaicists used these small stones to achieve an effect much like that of a brushstrokes, similar to that of Pointillist daubs of pigment.

What Colors Were Used in Roman Mosaics?

Though craftsmen relied on a variety of local stones, they often imported exotic materials for special highlights and brighter pigments. They became near-alchemists, combining chemical additives from plants and other natural pigments to create a range of desired hues. Today, many ancient mosaics are still brightly colored due to the minimal fading properties of glass and stone.

Uses of Roman Mosaics

Mosaic in Saint Mark's Basilica.

Mosaic in Saint Mark’s Basilica.

Mosaics were created for a variety of uses. While commonly created for flooring, they were also found on vaults, columns, fountains, and baths. One of the earliest examples of a mosaic bath dates back to the 1st century B.C. where chips of marble, pumice, and shells were used at the ancient Villa of Cicero. These Roman baths were constructed so that when sunlight would hit the glass, it resulted in the illusion of an ethereal, shimmering pool.

Eventually, more detailed mosaic panels were introduced, particularly for the embellishment of Nymphaea and fountains. Mosaics were later found on walls and pediments, often in the form of murals which depicted original paintings. Such was the case later during the creation of Italian Renaissance church, St. Peter’s Basilica, where the decorative mosaics often featured lively Baroque compositions based on canvases from the likes of Ciro Ferri, Guido Reni, Carlo Maratta, and others.

Mosaic Floor with Medusa in Rome, Italy.

Mosaic Floor with Head of Medusa, Rome, A.D. 115–150. Currently on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

By the 4th century, mosaics adorned the interiors of Christian churches. Often, artists would refresh existing mosaics but adding new compositions on top of older ones. Such is the case with the mosaic of Medusa, found on top of another that once depicted a marine scene.

Motifs found in mosaic compositions ranged from simple to complex geometric designs with repeating patterns or guilloche—ornamentation resembling braided or interlaced ribbons. More important commissions typically depicted figural scenes derived from history, mythology, or representations of daily life.

Examples of Roman Mosaics

Alexander Mosaic

Alexander Mosaic (depicting the Battle of Issus or the Battle of Gaugamela), from the House of the Faun, Pompeii (VI, 12, 2), Roman era, National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy.

Alexander Mosaic (depicting the Battle of Issus or the Battle of Gaugamela), from the House of the Faun, Pompeii (VI, 12, 2), Roman era, National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy.

Referred to as “The Alexander Mosaic,” this artwork was discovered during an excavation in Pompeii in 1831. There are a couple interpretations as to what it really depicts, though many believe it showcases the Battle of Issus between Alexander the Great and the Persian king, Darius III, in 333 B.C. Currently, the mosaic is being preserved at the National Museum of Archeology in Naples, Italy.

Gypsy Girl

Gypsy Girl Mosaic of Zeugma.

Gypsy Girl Mosaic of Zeugma.

The so-called “Gypsy Girl” mosaic was discovered during an excavation of the remains of the city of Zeugma (present-day Gaziantep in Turkey), founded by Alexander the Great. In the 1960s, pieces of the mosaic had been smuggled out of Turkey and brought to the United States until they were returned to their country of origin in December of 2018. Today, the complete mosaic is on display at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum.

Roman Mosaics from Lod, Israel

a 1,700 Year Old mosaic that was the courtyard pavement of the magnificent villa that had the famous Lod Mosaic in its living room

Lod Mosaic.

In 1966, during highway construction in the modern Israeli town of Lod, a series of mosaic floors were uncovered. Lod used to be the anciety city of Lydda, which was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 66. The mosaic floors measure 50 by 27 feet, and are believed to have been part of a private residence. Of exceptional quality, the sophisticated composition depicts hunting and marine scenes, mountain landscapes, and mythological creatures.

Bath Hall Mosaics

"Tree of Life" Mosaic.

“Tree of Life” Mosaic.

It was common for mosaics to be used in bath halls. One notable example is a mosaic that was constructed in the palace complex of Khirbat Al Mafjar. The palace was built in 734 B.C. near Jericho in the Jordan Valley, and is renowned for a variety of early Islamic art including mosaics, stucco carvings, and sculpture. The bath mosaic depicts a lion attacking gazelles, which was a popular hunting scene in Roman mosaics.

Sosus of Pergamon Mosaics

Sosus of Pergamon Mosaic.

Sosus of Pergamon Mosaic.

One of the few ancient mosaic artists known by name was Sosus of Pergamon, though his works were often replicated by later craftsmen. Two of his famous mosaics include The Unswept Floor and Doves Drinking From a Bowl. The latter was discovered in 1737 during an excavation of Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy.

Throughout the heyday of the Roman empire, mosaicists created stunningly intricate works of art that have since been discovered. These works characterized much of the livelihood of the ancient civilization. Depictions of everyday activities, mythological creatures, and life events have been found in a swath of excavations and architectural relics, including those in private residences, public buildings, and churches. As archaeologists continue to uncover new works of ancient Roman art, each new discovery provides valuable information about the tastes and interests of the patrons who commissioned the work, and offers a view into what the civilization held culturally significant in its time.

Sources: Ancient History Encyclopedia | The Getty | Smithsonian | The Met | Study | Oxford Bibliographies