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Exploring Ancient Artistry: The Origins and Techniques of Roman Mosaics

Still found throughout Italy and much of Europe, ancient Roman mosaics are a testament to the extraordinary craftsmanship and artistic genius of the era, immersing viewers in a captivating tapestry of beauty and history that has withstood the test of time. Its origins and history within the Roman Empire are linked to the cultural influences it absorbed from the Greek and ancient Near East, and were a common stylistic feature of private homes and public buildings throughout the Roman world. Ancient Roman mosaics were decorative art forms that consisted of creating intricate designs using small, colored pieces of glass, stone, marble, and various other materials of natural resources. These mosaics were used pervasively in ancient Rome to beautify public spaces, such as public buildings, villas, temples, baths, and even streets. The mosaic technique reached Greece from Persia and the east in the late fourth century BC, following Alexander the Great’s conquests (Nardo, 2002). However, with the spread of the Greek and Roman civilizations, various cultural and artistic exchanges took place, leading to the introduction of new techniques and ideas. Mosaics were often positioned on floors, sometimes covering vast areas, and were meant to be admired and walked upon. Though, when Roman patricians—the ruling aristocratic class— adopted the art form that proliferated in the ancient Greek world, they employed mosaics as a colorful art form to decorate floors, walls, and vaults of buildings throughout the Empire.

The earliest mosaics were made of pebbles. Pebble mosaics were created by using natural and uncut small rounded rocks of various colors and sizes. This mosaic technique involved carefully selecting and arranging differently colored and shaped pebbles, which were sourced from local riverbeds and seashores. They were cleaned, sorted, meticulously arranged and wedged tightly into a bed of mortar or clay to create intricate designs, patterns, and even pictorial scenes. Strips of lead or pieces of terracotta were then added to define and reinforce the design of the natural rocks (“Mosaics”, 1998). The origins of pebble mosaics can be traced back to the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete, dating as far back as the 2nd millennium BCE (“Art, Greek”, 1998). However, it was during the Hellenistic period in ancient Greece that this technique flourished and gained popularity. Early pebble mosaics were used as flooring, but beginning in the 400s B.C., artists began creating elaborate designs and illustrations using the technique. Greek mosaics often displayed simple geometric patterns and floral designs. They had a preference for naturalistic representations, typically depicting scenes from nature or mythology. Early Greek mosaics had a more abstract style, with an emphasis on geometric patterns or two-dimensional figures placed against a dark background (“Mosaics”, 1998). Most often these mosaics were employed on the floors of private homes, depicting a central rectangular or circular panel that portrayed scenes from Greek mythology, encompassed by an ornamental border (“Art, Greek”, 1998). Pebble mosaics were relatively simple and limited in design possibilities, as the irregular shapes of the pebbles restricted intricate patterns and details. Later artists began experimenting with smaller pebbles and a greater variety of colors in an attempt to imitate the effects of shading and perspective in paintings.

Figure 1: Pélla: Pebble Mosaic: lion hunt (2nd C. B.C.).

Over time, mosaics evolved to depict more complex scenes as ancient craftsmen, renowned for their innovation and skill, advanced techniques and designs. By the 200 century B.C., artists developed tessellation; a technique in which small pieces of marble, stone, terracotta and colored glass are cut into small cubes called tesserae, and fit closely together in a bed of mortar (“Mosaics”, 2005). When the bed had set, the tesserae were grouted and filled with liquid mortar. Once that had set, the mosaic was cleaned and polished. Mosaics made from tesserae were given the Latin name opus tessellatum. Unlike pebbles, tesserae could be precisely cut into various shapes and sizes, allowing for greater artistic expression and detail. The technique was so refined that as many as thirty tesserae could fit into a square centimeter (“Art, Greek”, 1998). Their use also provided new possibilities for color and texture. With variety and abundance of materials available, the range of colors that could be achieved in mosaics expanded significantly. This element of versatility allowed artists to create vibrant and visually captivating compositions, and gave rise to more intricate and realistic designs, allowing artists to create scenes, patterns, and portraits with incredible precision. By the 100 century B.C., artists had mastered tessellation in pictures so complex that they closely resembled the effects of a painting, and ultimately changed the way in which mosaics were produced (“Mosaics”, 1998). As hellenistic mosaicists saw their art form as a means of copying or imitating paintings, they continued to experiment with new techniques. They eventually were able to reduce the size of the tesserae to four millimeters cubed or less, which gave artists the ability to employ the widest range of colors and materials (Smith, 1994). Mosaics created from such fine, irregularly disposed pieces were known as opus vermiculatum. Tones were gradually graduated to create the impression of lights and shadows, such as in a painting, and grout was sometimes either colored or painted to blend with neighboring tesserae (“Mosaics”, 2005). It was customary to use opus vermiculatum to create what were called emblemata. Artists assembled the mosaic in workshops, either on a slab of marble or in a terracotta tray with raised edges, which could then be transported and the mosaic inserted into otherwise plain or simply decorated floors or pavements.

In its formative years this technique was largely practiced for nobility and aristocrats to decorate their lavish villas, but by the second century B.C., they were commonly used as a means to decorate the floors of middle-class homes. Between the years of 166 and 69 B.C.E., there was an economic boom on the island of Delos, in the southern Aegean sea (“Mosaics”, 2005). Rome had made Delos a free port, which rapidly led to the development of the island as a trading center (Polzer, 2003). Merchants and traders, some of which were from the Italian peninsula, had settled on the island during this time, and mosaics were found ubiquitously throughout their homes. Romans were in intimate contact with the Hellenistic world in the 2nd century B.C., and developed great appreciation of the art form during their journeys (“Mosaics”, 2005). Soon after, Roman patricians adopted the practice of decorating homes with mosaics, and encompassed a vast range of themes. Mythological narratives were particularly favored, though scenes of landscapes, animals, nature, heroic action, games, and images that represented everyday life were also quite common (“Paintings and Mosaics”, 2001). As many surviving mosaics were copies of paintings, they have preserved the images of paintings that have since been lost. The most famous example of this was found in the House of Faun in Pompeii, and preserved by its burial in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. (“Mosaics”, 2005). The floor of a room off the atrium—the central reception hall and center of social and political life—was home to a mosaic that depicted Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia at the battle of Issus (Polzer, 2003). Considered a masterpiece of tessellation, it is a known reproduction of a painting that is made up of some 1.5 million tesserae, and illustrated young Alexander’s first victory over the Persian king in battle at Issus in 333 B.C. (Nardo, 2002). Although early Roman mosaics were closely linked to Hellenistic painting, the Romans further developed and refined the technique of using tesserae in mosaic to create intricate and detailed artwork. They popularized the use of marble, and advanced the production of gold tesserae, which were made by coating a glass cube in gold, which was in turn covered with glass to ensure durability (“Art, Roman”, 1998). Mosaic was used principally for floors, but some time about half way into the first century C.E., the Romans began to ornament walls and vaults (an arched ceiling or roof) as a form of decorative art in buildings throughout the Empire.

Figure 2: Mosaic depicting the battle of Issus between Alexander the Great and Darius III (2nd or 3rd C. B.C.).

Occasionally, in towns buried by Vesuvius, mosaics were used on the surfaces of walls and columns. In a small court in a house in Herculaneum, the so called House of the Neptune and Amphitrite, there was a wall that contained a fountain and niches elaborately decorated in this colorful art form (“Mosaics”, 2005). Effervescent glass tesserae depicted hound dogs chasing deer with vine branches and chains of garlands and flowers set against a dark ground. Illustrated on the adjacent wall is a panel that depicts Neptune and Amphitrite (Polzer, 2003). Mosaics were preferred for areas that would frequently encounter water, such as ornamental fountains and public baths, where plaster and painted surfaces would quickly mildew. The resistance to humidity also gave way to the application of mosaics to the walls, vaults, and baths of nymphaea (Polzer, 2003). Roman mosaic art reached its peak in the second century A.D., when mosaics were used for the first time on a grand scale in the decoration of floors, walls, and ceilings in lavish public buildings, villas, and bathhouses. Artists employed various techniques such as shading, perspective, and foreshortening to create realistic and illusionistic effects. Demand for the use of mosaic as decorative features of internal walls and vaults of buildings, particularly bath houses, increased significantly during the second and third centuries.

For the Romans, bathing was an elaborate ritual, which was reflected in the luxuriously bath houses constructed during the empire. Bathing was a social activity, and public bath houses were therefore central structures in the community. Men and women would visit the baths frequently, where they would gossip, meet friends, or discuss political affairs whilst bathing (Sherwood et al., 2020). Remains of decorative mosaic depicting hunting scenes still survive in the Baths of the Seven Sages in Ostia, a city, and the port of Rome, located at the mouth of the Tiber river. The Baths of Neptune in Ostia also have a well preserved black and white mosaic showing Neptune driving his sea-horses across the floor filled with marine creatures (“Mosaics”, 2005). The figures that have been freely distributed over the floor, and veers from the traditional Hellenistic practice of placing the framed mosaic, or emblema, in the center of the floor. Emperors Caracalla and Diocletian, respectfully of 217 A.D. and 305 A.D., ordered the constructions of bath houses that bore their names (“Baths, Roman”, 1998). By the time of their completion, bath houses had become enormous halls with walls of marbles and high ceilings that were decorated with statues, murals, and colorful mosaics. This colorful art form was also extensively used in ancient Roman temples for both decorative and symbolic purposes, adding color, vibrancy, and intricacy to the interior and sometimes even exterior walls of the religious space.

Figure 3: Mosaic from the House of Neptune depicting an image of Neptune and Amphitrite (20 A.D.).

Mosaics often depicted mythological scenes featuring gods, goddesses, heroes, and mythical creatures. These scenes were not only visually appealing but reinforced the religious beliefs of the Romans and allowed worshippers to connect with and pay homage to their gods (Dunbabin, 1999). The choice of particular mythological depictions varied based on the god or goddess to whom a temple was dedicated. The beautifully crafted mosaics also reflected the divine status and power of the deities as they were eye-catching and visually stunning, making the temple appear grand and opulent, eclipsed only by the gods themselves. By creating a transcendental atmosphere, the mosaics contributed to a sacred and spiritually uplifting environment within the temple. The use of mosaics was not limited to the indoors; they were also widespread in the communal outdoor areas and were widely used in ancient Rome to embellish public space. Mosaics continued to depict a multitude of themes, including portraits of emperors, religious scenes, mythological stories, historical events, and symbols of power and authority. On the streets, tessellated sidewalks and pavements were decorated with mosaics of simple geometric patterns or images, providing an aesthetically pleasing walking surface (Dunbabin, 1999). Public buildings in ancient Rome, such as basilicas, forums, and amphitheaters, were adorned with mosaics to display wealth, power, and artistic skills. Government offices often showcased religious or mythological motifs to emphasize the connection between rulers and gods, symbolizing divine authority (Pappalardo, 2019). They also acted as a visual representation of the significant events and stories that were of cultural or religious importance to the Romans. They served as a form of visual storytelling, educating and reminding Romans about their historical heritage.

While both the Greeks and Romans developed and utilized tesserae in mosaic art, the Romans took it to new heights with their advanced craftsmanship, refined techniques, and intricate designs. The evolution from pebble mosaics to tesserae in the ancient Greek and Roman world was not sudden, but rather a gradual process that spanned several centuries. It can be attributed to a combination of cultural influences, artistic aspirations, aesthetic and technological advancements. The use of tesserae provided new possibilities for color and texture. With the variety of materials available, tesserae expanded the palette of colors that could be achieved in mosaic works.This element of versatility allowed artists to create vibrant and visually captivating compositions. Moreover, tesserae offered better durability and longevity than pebble mosaics. Their regular and flat shape allowed for a more solid and stable surface that could withstand wear and tear caused by foot traffic or environmental factors. This made mosaics more suitable for public spaces, villas, and grand architectural projects. Wealthy individuals, public officials, and emperors commissioned grand mosaic artworks to showcase their power, taste, and cultural refinement. The popularity of tesserae mosaics grew, and they became a symbol of status and luxury.

Ancient Roman mosaics are captivating works of art that epitomize the remarkable skills and creative brilliance of the Romans. These intricate designs, composed of thousands of miniscule tesserae, adorned the floors, walls, and ceilings of public buildings, private villas, and grandiose imperial structures throughout the Roman Empire. Roman mosaics were more than decorative masterpieces; they also served as a medium to depict mythological scenes, daily life, and triumphs, effectively capturing the essence of Roman culture, history, and aesthetics. The artistry and technical precision showcased in these mosaics, combined with their enduring beauty, have made them enduring testaments to the ancient Roman civilization and its artistic achievements.

Bibliographical References

Art, Greek. (1998). In C. Moulton (Ed.), Ancient Greece and Rome: An Encyclopedia for Students (Vol. 1, pp. 67-71). Charles Scribner's Sons. [Accessed October 10th, 2023]

Baths, Roman. (1998). In C. Moulton (Ed.), Ancient Greece and Rome: An Encyclopedia for Students (Vol. 1, pp. 96-97). Charles Scribner's Sons. [Accessed October 12th, 2023]

Dunbabin, K. M. D. (1999). Mosaics of the Greek and Roman world. Cambridge University Press.

Mosaics. (2005). In E. I. Bleiberg, J. A. Evans, K. M. Figg, P. M. Soergel, & J. B. Friedman (Eds.), Arts and Humanities Through the Eras (Vol. 2, pp. 444-449). Gale. [Accessed October 10th, 2023]

Mosaics. (1998). In C. Moulton (Ed.), Ancient Greece and Rome: An Encyclopedia for Students (Vol. 3, pp. 57-59). Charles Scribner's Sons. [Accessed October 10th, 2023]

Nardo, D. (2002). Mosaics. In The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Ancient Rome (pp. 224-225). Greenhaven Press. [Accessed October 10th, 2023]

Paintings and Mosaics. (2001). In J. T. Kirby (Ed.), World Eras (Vol. 3, pp. 107-110). Gale. [Accessed October 11th, 2023]

Pappalardo, U. (2019). Greek and Roman mosaics. National Geographic Books.

Polzer, J. (2003). Mosaics. In New Catholic Encyclopedia (2nd ed., Vol. 10, pp. 1-5). Gale.

Polzer, J. (2003). Mosaics. In New Catholic Encyclopedia (2nd ed., Vol. 10, pp. 1-5). Gale. [Accessed October 11th, 2023]

Sherwood, A. N., Nikolic, M., Oleson, J. P., & Humphrey, J. W. (2020). Greek and Roman technology: A Sourcebook of Translated Greek and Roman Texts. Routledge.

Smith, D. J. (1994). Mosaics. In M. Henig (Ed.), A Handbook of Roman Art: A Survey of Visual Arts of the Roman World. Phaidon Press.

Visual Sources

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Kyra Nelson

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