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pavements, Roman

Techniques and Materials

Pavements in the Roman world were made with a wide range of techniques and materials: virtually every material capable of creating a resistant, hard surface could be used. We have examples of pebbles, stones, layers of clay, beaten earth, concrete (with potsherds, stone chips, or tesserae scattered or arranged to compose various designs), bricks, mosaic (black-and-white or polychrome), and opus sectile pavements (limestone or marble slabs arranged to compose designs exploiting the different colours).

pavements, Roman

Figure 1. Paestum, Insula In-N2 House AB, impluvium: decorated concrete floor found underneath a marble impluvium (early 1st century ce).

Photo by author.

Simpler pavements could be covered by perishable material such as mats (in daily use), or textiles (used on special occasions), which have mostly disappeared.

pavements, Roman

Figure 2. Necropolis of Portus Romae: imprints of a woven mat on a concrete floor in front of tomb 77.

Photo by author.

Given its thermal properties and its ready availability, timber was also used, probably not only for functional use. Pliny (HN XIII 29) states that the bizarre plays of colour of rare woods were highly appreciated for use in furniture and wall facings; we might therefore hypothesize that a similar taste led elite patrons to have floors made of rare or inlaid woods.1


Assessing the chronology of simpler pavements remains challenging if the archaeological context is not known.

pavements, Roman

Figure 3. Hierapolis/Pamukkale, House of the Ionic Capitals, room A 194, pavement of tiles (late 5th–early 6th century ce).

Photo, A. Zaccaria Ruggiu.

Dating can be difficult even in the most favourable instances, as pavements could remain in use long after laying, especially if their function was mainly utilitarian. Pavements featuring characteristic techniques or materials are more easily dated, thanks to typological studies mainly performed during the 20th century, when the rich evidence from Pompeii was exploited in order to propose a chronological framework.

pavements, Roman

Figure 4. Pompeii, House of the Centaur, VI 9, 3, tablinum: pavement in concrete with scattered chips, threshold with dots and central carpet in white mosaic with terracotta board, found underneath the tufa impluvium of the early 2nd century ce.

Photo, F. Pesando.

Thanks to a contextual approach, combining careful observation of materials (limestone, tufa, bricks), building techniques (in large stone blocks or concrete made with different materials and with different facings, from more irregular to more regular),2 and techniques of wall facings (from stucco to fresco), a chronological framework has been proposed as follows: limestone period, late 4th century bce–late 3rd century bce; tufa period, late 3rd century bce to early 1st century bce; and facing of bricks after the earthquake of 62/63 ce. Altough criticised as being too rigid and old-fashioned in its strict typological framework, and as not considering a wide range of variables affecting buildings (such as their function, public or private, or their different parts), this approach is still useful in its broad lines, allowing reconstruction of building and decorative phases within houses.

pavements, Roman

Figure 5. Pompeii, House of the Centaur, VI 9, 3, tablinum: detail of the central carpet.

Photo, F. Pesando.

Concrete pavements, plain or decorated with white tesserae disposed in rows or arranged to compose geometic patterns or more complex motifs, were assigned to the late 2nd century–early 1st century bce. In the same period, rare instances of carpets or of emblemata of polychrome mosaics or limestone opus sectile can be found in the most elite houses. Pavements of white, plain mosaic, often framed by rows of black tesserae, are more widespread in the course of early 1st century bce, alongside rarer three-dimensional colored mosaics, carpeting an entire room or sections of it. In the following century, geometric or vegetal patterns executed in black tesserae take the stage.

New data, as well as a reconsideration and refinement of this well-established chronological and typological framework, are now available, thanks to excavations conducted in Pompeii below the levels sealed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 ce. Here, plain white mosaics are now backdated to the mid-3rd century bce, and concrete pavements with white tesserae are well attested from the same date. Concrete pavements with patterns in white tesserae elsewhere in Italy date to the late 4th century– early 3rd century bce,3 but more precise dating remains a challenge. This is true even in the case of pavements recovered in stratigraphic excavations, as the chronology and interpretation of the contexts and associated findings are still debated.4

Ancient authors (particularly Vitr., De Arch. 7.1) describe how pavements should be built to perform their primary purpose, the lasting finishing of a structure. Researchers have exploited this “privilège périlleux”5 to try to find in material evidence traces of Vitruvius’s precepts or to assign ancient names to existing remains; this process—as is only to be expected—is riddled with difficulties, given the distance between precepts and craftsmanship or building practices, which seldom go hand in hand.

Choice of Materials and Techniques

Beside practical feasibility, ideological reasons could motivate the choice of specific techniques and materials. A primary distinction should be made between pavements that have only a functional purpose, and those that also bear a decorative function. Ancient structures, mostly made of mixed materials, needed to be covered and refined with layers for easier maintenance; moreover, structures with particular functions, such as production and work areas, needed hard-surfaced pavements, especially if water was present. The role such fixtures play in Roman society can be inferred from legal sources, which tell us that adding decorative value to the functional aspect was a way of increasing the dignitas of a building, and hence its economic value.6

pavements, Roman

Figure 6. Castro dei Volsci, Roman villa, room 7, opus sectile floor (first half of the 2nd century ce).

Photo, M. C. Laurenti.


Chronology, function of the space to be paved, and patronage are all echoed in the archaeological remains. If we try to put in context the different techniques and materials applied in Roman pavements, some broad trends can be observed, pointing to an increasing private luxus during the last three centuries bce. This process is best followed in the sites buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 ce; from the late Hellenistic period, buildings belonging to patrons of higher social status display the entire range of techniques described above. Reception areas feature pavements in opus sectile, concrete with insertions of coloured limestone, or polychrome mosaics, sometimes laid out in a tray of terracotta or limestone.

pavements, Roman

Figure 7. Paestum, Insula In-N2 House AB: limestone tray once supporting an emblema, with remains of small black tesserae.

Photo by author.

In better-preserved contexts, a hierarchy in the use of techniques and materials can be observed, suggesting the creation of a visual path that mirrored the different social rituals carried out within the building.7 Ironically, floors of beaten earth have been found in Pompeii in the reception areas of houses that were probably owned by patrons of a certain social status (based on location, size, plans, and decoration); a possible explanation of this apparent contradiction might lie in the advantageous thermal qualities of this type of floor.

pavements, Roman

Figure 8. Pompeii, House of Gran Duke Michele VI 5, 5, room 5: pavement of beaten earth mixed with ashes (3rd century bce).

Photo A. D’Auria.

Locally quarried materials (lava in the Vesuvian sites) were also largely exploited to constitute the aggregate of concrete pavements, which were often used in utilitarian structures. During the early 1st century ce, a broadening demand for decoration can be observed; this process rapidly sent simpler pavements out of fashion, as patrons began to favour other techniques, mainly mosaic. This social change also had the effect of lowering the artistic quality of decorated pavements, compared to those of previous centuries.

Pavements in Imperial Buildings

Historical trends can also be observed in the use of decorative stones, progressing from the coloured limestone of the Republican period to the coloured marbles quarried in different parts of the empire (e.g., Tunisia, Greece, Asia Minor). No firm consensus can be found among researchers for a more precise dating of this process, which must have occurred over the course of the first century bce. The issue is made more difficult by the effort to combine interpretations from two different sources, archaeological and textual. The House of Augustus on the Palatine might play a pivotal role in this discussion, but unfortunately, opus sectile slabs were removed when the structure was buried under later Augustan buildings, and scholars disagree regarding the materials employed (limestone or marble).8 The slabs should at any rate have differed in colour, so as to achieve the decorative effect of the patterns attested by imprints in the mortar.

Imperial buildings in Rome, such as the temple of Mars Ultor in the forum Augustum or the forum Traiani, display opus sectile floors, where coloured marbles visualize and embody the expanse of the empire that provided Rome with rich natural resources from the provinces.

The huge dimensions of the buildings that emperors and local benefactors dedicated to the well-being of the people posed new challenges to their craftsmen and are at the root of a deep change in our evidence. A new function of pavements can now be observed, inviting movement across the large spaces of public buildings, with an increasing use of large compositions in black-and-white mosaic, well suited to the new dimensions and stateliness of imperial architecture. Good examples of this new trend can be observed from the late 1st century ce, such as in the baths in Herculaneum, but many more examples can be found in Ostia in the following century. Often these pavements feature large compositions with central maritime themes (Neptune and sea creatures), while the multiple orientation of secondary decorations suggests different paths within the rooms.

Decorated pavements experienced marked changes in repertoire and local styles, in Italy as well as in the provinces. All the paving techniques and materials remained in use, albeit with variations, up to the late imperial period

pavements, Roman

Figure 9. Hierapolis/Pamukkale, House of the Doric Courtyard, room A 1201: pavement of bricks (late 5th–early 6th century ce).

Photo, A. Zaccaria Ruggiu


Mosaic pavements are the subject of more intense study than other paving techniques:

Bulletin de l’AIEMA (Association internationale pour l’étude de la mosaïque antique), 1, 1968–. Bibliography and book reviews, with main focus on mosaics.

The same association organizes international congresses (1, 1965: Gilbert Charles-Picard and Henri Stern, eds., La mosaïque gréco-romaine. Paris : CNRS, 1965.11, 2011: Mustafa Şahin, 11th International Colloquium on Ancient Mosaics. Istanbul: Ege Yayinlari, 2011).

National corpora with main emphasis on mosaics:

Corpus de Mosaicos Romanos de España. 1978–. Ongoing series in book format.

Corpus des mosaïques de Tunisie. Tunis: Institut Nationale d’archéologie et des arts, 1973–. Ongoing series in book format.Find this resource:

    Corpus dos mosaicos romanos de Portugal. Faro: Universidade de Algarve, and Conimbriga: Istituto Portuguese de Museus, 1992–. Ongoing series in book format.Find this resource:

      Corpus of the Mosaics of Turkey. Bursa: Uludag University Press, 2008–. Ongoing series in book and journal formats.Find this resource:

        Mosaici antichi in Italia. Rome: Istituto Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato, 1967–. Ongoing series in book format.Find this resource:

          Recueil général des mosaïques de la Gaule. Paris: CNRS, 1957–. Ongoing series in book format.Find this resource:

            Roman Mosaics of Britain. 4 vols. London: Illuminata Press for Society of Antiquaries of London, 2002–2010.Find this resource:

              Becatti, Giovanni. Scavi di Ostia, 2: Mosaici e pavimenti marmorei. Roma: Libreria dello Stato, 1953.Find this resource:

                Blake, Marion. “The Pavements of the Roman Buildings of the Republic and the Early Empire.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 8 (1930): 7–159.Find this resource:

                  Clarke, John R. Roman Black-and-White Figural Mosaics. New York: New York University Press, 1979. Retrieved from;cc=acls;q1=Roman%20Black-and-White%20Figural%20Mosaics;q2=ACLS%20Humanities%20E-Book;op2=and;rgn=full%20text;rgn1=full%20text;rgn2=series;view=toc;idno=heb90029.0001.001.Find this resource:

                    Clarke, John R. “Domestic Decoration: Mosaic and Stucco.” In The World of Pompeii. Edited by John J. Dobbins and Pedar W. Foss, 323–335. New York: Routledge, 2007.Find this resource:

                      Coarelli, Filippo, and Fabrizio Pesando. “The Urban Development of NW Pompeii: The Archaic Period to 3d c. B.C.” In The Making of Pompeii: Studies in the History and Urban Development of an Ancient Town. Edited by Steven J. R. Ellis, 37–58. Journal of Roman Archaeology (suppl. 85). Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2011.Find this resource:

                        de Vos, Mariette. “Paving techniques at Pompeii.” Archaeological News 16 (1991): 36–60.Find this resource:

                          Dunbabin, Katherine M. D. Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

                            Guidobaldi, Federico, Monica Grandi, Maria Stella Pisapia, Roberta Balzanetti, and Annalisa Bigliati. Mosaici antichi in Italia: Ercolano. Pisa and Rome: Fabrizio Serra, 2014.Find this resource:

                              Musiva et Sectilia: An International Journal for the Study of Ancient Pavements and Wall Revetments in their Decorative and Architectural Context. Pisa and Rome: Fabrizio Serra, 2004.Find this resource:

                                Morricone Matini, Maria Luisa. Mosaici antichi in Italia: Pavimenti di signino repubblicani di Roma e dintorni. Studi Monografici. Roma: Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, 1971.Find this resource:

                                  Pernice, Eric. Die hellenistische Kunst in Pompeji, VI: Pavimente und figürliche Mosaiken. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1938.Find this resource:

                                    Roby, Thomas, and Martha Demas, eds. Mosaics in Situ: An Overview of Literature on Conservation of Mosaics in Situ. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2013.Find this resource:

                                      Vassal, Véronique. Les pavements d’opus signinum: Technique, décor, function architecturale. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2006.Find this resource:


                                        (1.) This might be the case of the structure recently excavated on the Palatine; see Françoise Villedieu, “Une construction néronienne mise au jour sur le site de la Vigna Barberini: La cenatio rotunda de la Domus Aurea?” Neronia Electronica 1 (2011): 47–52, fig. 16.

                                        (2.) Jean-Pierre Adam, “Building Materials, Construction Techniques and Chronologies” (Appendix: John J. Dobbins, “A Note on Roman Concrete (opus caementicium) and Other Wall Construction”), in The World of Pompeii, ed. John J. Dobbins and Pedar W. Foss (New York: Routledge, 2007), 98–116.

                                        (3.) Giovanna Battaglini and Francesca Diosono, “Le domus di Fregellae: Case aristocratiche di ambito coloniale,” in Etruskisch-italische und römisch-republikanische Häuser, ed. Martin Bentz and Christoph Reusser (Studien zur antiken Stadt 9; Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2010), 217–231. See also Maria Luisa Nava, “L’attività archeologica a Napoli e Caserta nel 2005, in Velia: Atti del 45simo convegno di studi sulla Magna Grecia, Taranto-Marina di Ascea, 21–25 settembre 2005 (Taranto: Istituto per la storia e l’archeologia della Magna Grecia, 2006), 628–629.

                                        (4.) Heavily discussed are two sites in Sicily: the chronology proposed by the excavators dating them to the late 4th century bce (Monte Iato) and mid-3rd century (Morgantina) has not been accepted by scholars who date after the Roman conquest of the island in 211 bce concrete and mosaic pavements from the two sites. Both views are represented in L’architettura ellenistica in Italia e in Sicilia: Linguaggi e tradizioni: Atti del Convegno di Studi Messina, 24–25 settembre 2009, ed. Mario Torelli and Giacchino Francesco La Torre (Rome: Giorgio Bretschneider editore, 2011), viz. Malcolm Bell, “Osservazioni sui mosaici greci della Casa di Ganimede a Morgantina,” 105–123; and Giacchino Francesco La Torre, “Origine e sviluppo dei sistemi di decorazione parietale nella Sicilia ellenistica,” 255–277. For Morgantina, cf. Katherine M. D Dunbabin, Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 21–23.

                                        (5.) Pierre Gros, Vitruve et la tradition des traités d’architecture: Fabrica et ratiocinatio: Recueil d’études (Rome: École française de Rome, 2006), 473.

                                        (6.) Julien Dubouloz, Julien, La propriété immobilière à Rome et en Italie Ier-Ve siècles (Rome: École française de Rome, 2011), 83–87.

                                        (7.) Volker Michael Strocka, Casa del Labirinto (VI 11, 8–10) (Munich: Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, 1991), fig. 45.

                                        (8.) Irene Iacopi and Giovanna Tedone, “Bibliotheca e Porticus ad Apollinis,” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archaeologischen Instituts, Römische Abteilung 114 (2005–2006): 351–378, suggest that marble was used in the opus sectile pavements; contra Federico Guidobaldi, ed., Sectilia pavimenta di Villa Adriana, Mosaici Antichi in Italia, Studi Monografici 2 (Rome: Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, 1994), 247–251.

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