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Roman mosaic from Antioch 2nd century

Mosaic in Ancient Rome

The themes of Roman mosaics spanned as wide as the imagination: Geometric patterns could range from simple to extremely complex three dimensional effects and optical illusions which give a false sense of movement. Mosaics could also depict figures, animals and any other type of form one might care for. For example, shops in the Roman port city of Ostia frequently depicted the type of commerce undertaken on the premises, for example fish of varying types would be an obvious choice for a fish-mongers. Sea monsters and divinities would also be a common theme in the bottom of bathing pools. But decoration wasn't the only objective of Roman mosaics: One particular mosaic at Ostia is of interest because it tells us much about the stages of initiation into the Mithraic religion: information which is otherwise not available to us through other sources; other mosaics tell us about Gladiatorial fights, famous horses at the races or simply ward off unwelcome guests from the home, be they unwanted persons (beware of the dog!) or evil spritis (evil eye and luck charms).

Floor mosaics were more common than those on walls or indeed on ceilings but in all cases the technical craftsmanship was essential in rendering the right visual effect as well as physical durability. This necessitaded a variety of skills to work together as outlined in the section about how roman mosaics were made.


A mosaic of Ancient RomeThe finest examples were those mosaics which were produced for purely ornamental purposes known as "emblemata". These might be made on the spot but were more likely produced by highly skilled artists and specialists to be sold and later inserted into a wall or floor. My favourite example is an impressively rendered bowl of fruit. A perfect still life found in Hadrian's villa though also encountered in other locations, suggesting it was inspired by some Greek original. The vibrancy and vitality of this piece is unseen well into the Renaissance when still life as an ends to itself finally made a come-back through artists such as Caravaggio. These highly intricate works were generally smaller in size and would often be mounted in a workshop, on a support of their own which could then be inserted into a larger setting, for example a wall, on site. Other wonderful examples come from Pompeii where the house of the Faun in particular has proved to be a veritable collection of fine mosaics such as the one shown on the left though perhaps the most famous from this villa is the "Battle of Issus", a masterful copy, possibly of Egyptian manufacture of an Greek original painting.

Wall mosaics were not very common in ancient Rome and were generally restricted to the decoration of fountains where the mosaic would be mixed with other decoration such as encrusted shells or rocks. The themes would often be related to water and the arts, for example inspired by the mythical fountain around which the Muses (the Roman goddesses of the arts) were known to meet for their song and dance. It is probable that the very name mosaic comes from the Roman name for this type of work "Opus Musivum" which was itself inspired by the Muses.

Some good examples of wall mosaic can be found at Hadrian's villa and at Ostia, near Rome. Large wall surfaces covered in mosaic came to be used more extensively in Christian churches at the very end of the Empire, when art and decoration had a more direct Bizantine influence (Bizantium being Constantinople - the New Rome built by Emperor Constantine). A number of these may still be seen in Rome today in churches such as Santi Cosma e Damiano and others.

Types of Roman Mosaic

Roman glass paste mosaic pieceRoman mosaics can be subdivided into a number of types which are partly linked with epoch but mostly to do with production technique. The image to the left shows us a piece of glass paste about 2 centimetres long - this is interesting in that it is large with respect to opus vermiculatum and hence closer to opus sectilis although the latter would normally have used marble pieces rather than glass. This was likely a tessera from imperial Rome, during the age of Emperor Nero or later.

Pebble mosaics



Roman republican mosaic

This was a mosaic technique prevalent in Republican Rome ie 5th to 1st Century BC although there are examples of revival or conservation in later buildings.

This mosaic technique involved a cement floor with pieces of pottery, mosaic cubes and coloured marbles inserted into it. Greater uniformity might be achieved by actually painting the surface, often in red which was a colour which the Romans associated with light.

The image is approximately to scale: the tesserae = approx 1.5cm


Opus tesselatum

The mosaics we well know made out of stone, marble or glass cubes called "tesserae" were the elements of what was called "Opus Tesselatum".

Opus sectilis

Rather like large jigsaw puzzles with pieces of marble of various sizes, colours and shapes to make the overall image. Rather like a stained glass window concept, often used on floors to make a repetitive pattern but also on walls to create wonderful images.

Opus vermiculatum

Actually more like "emblema vermiculatum" since the technique involved minute pieces of a great range of colours and was therefore only really adapted to making one-off panels which would be inserted into a floor or wall as centre-piece. A famous example of this are the doves on the rim of a bowl from Hadrian's villa, possibly by the famous Greek artist Sosos mentioned by Pliny or a copy thereof.


Read on about the origins of ancient Roman mosaics.

 Art in ancient Rome: | Art in Ancient Rome - Introduction | The decadence of classical art | Foreign influence | The Greek revolution | Painting and Frescos | Painting Styles | Drawing | Mosaics | Glass, Pottery and other wares | Sculpture | Architecture | Literature and Theatre |

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This page about Rome history was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for - Rome apartments