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date: 01 October 2022



  • Katherine M.D. Dunbabin


  • Greek Material Culture
  • Roman Material Culture

Floors paved with natural pebbles arranged in simple geometric designs were used in the near east in the 8th cent. bce. In the Greek world, unpatterned pebble floors were known in the Minoan and Mycenaean periods (see Minoan and Mycenaean civilization); decorated pebble mosaics are first attested at the end of the 5th cent., at Corinth and Olynthus. The earliest examples had simple two-dimensional designs, both geometric and figured, usually light on a dark ground. Their use, mainly in private houses, spread throughout Greece during the 4th cent.; by its end a wider range of colours and shades was used, and attempts were made to achieve more three-dimensional effects. Outstanding examples of this phase come from the palatial houses at Pella in Macedonia, dated to the late 4th cent.; some artificial materials such as strips of lead or terracotta for outlines were used here to reinforce the natural pebbles. See houses, Greek.

The technique of tessellated mosaic (opus tessellatum), in which pieces of stone or marble were cut to approximately cubic shape and fitted closely together in a bed of mortar, was invented in the course of the 3rd cent. bce; the exact date is controversial. There were probably experiments in various places; mosaics at Morgantina in Sicily are often cited as early examples. Tesserae were cut irregularly at first, then with greater precision; by the 2nd cent. the technique sometimes known as opus vermiculatum had appeared, in which tiny pieces, some less than 1 mm. square, in a wide range of colours, were fitted so closely together as to imitate the effects of painting. Mosaics in this last technique often took the form of emblemata: panels produced in the artists' studio, and then inserted into the floor at the centre of a coarser surround of tessellated mosaic. Outstanding examples have been found in the royal palaces at Alexandria and Pergamon; Pliny(1) (HN 36. 184) records the mosaicist Sosus of Pergamum, famous for his representation of an ‘unswept floor’ (asarōtos oikos) littered with the debris of a meal, and for a scene of Drinking Doves, reflected in several Roman copies. The largest number of mosaics of the Hellenistic period is found in Delos, dating from the late 2nd and beginning of the 1st cent. bce, and mostly in private houses; they range from pavements of unshaped chips to very fine emblemata.

In Italy mosaics of Hellenistic style are found in Rome, Pompeii, and elsewhere from the late 2nd cent. bce onwards; outstanding examples are the Alexander mosaic (see Alexander (3) III, the great) from the House of the Faun in Pompeii and the Nile mosaic from Praeneste (mod. Palestrina). Tessellated mosaics with geometric patterns, coloured or black-and-white, became increasingly common in the 1st cent. bce. Alongside them appeared more utilitarian types of floor, especially those of signinum, coloured (usually red) mortar-and-aggregate, their surface often decorated with tesserae or other pieces of stone strewn at random or arranged in simple patterns. The antecedents for these may have come from Punic Carthage, where pavements of related type are dated as early as the 4th and 3rd cent. Another technique developed in Italy in the late republic is that of opus sectile (‘cut work’), where larger pieces of stone or marble were cut to the shape of specific parts of a design; this was later used on walls as well as floors, for both ornamental and figured designs.

Under the empire mosaics became mass-produced; they were widespread in private houses and better-quality apartments, and in large public buildings such as baths. Geometric designs were much more common than figured work, and fine emblemata, always objects of luxury, became rare. In Italy throughout the first three centuries ce, the great majority of mosaics were black-and-white, with all-over geometric or floral designs, or with figures in black silhouette. The figures might be set in panels, or as abstract all-over designs covering the greater part of the floor; examples are found above all in Ostia.

Much of the western empire adopted the use of mosaic under Italian influence during the 1st and 2nd cents. ce; a taste for polychromy generally prevailed over the black-and-white style. Each province tended to develop its own regional character, with a repertory of favourite designs and methods of composition. Among the most distinctive are those of North Africa; elaborate polychrome geometric and floral designs were favoured, and figure scenes often formed all-over compositions covering large areas of floor with minimal indication of depth or recession. Subject-matter here was often directly related to the interests and activities of the patrons, with scenes from the amphitheatre, the hunting-field, or the country estate. Closely related are the pavements of the great 4th-cent. villa at Piazza Armerina in Sicily, very probably laid by a workshop from Carthage. In Spain the most striking mosaics come from villas of the late empire: they have much in common with the African floors, but include a higher proportion of mythological or literary subjects. In Britain a number of individual workshops have been distinguished, especially from the 4th cent.

In the eastern Empire the Hellenistic tradition of the pictorial figure scene persisted much longer, especially in Roman Syria. Many have been found at Antioch, where a continuous series of mosaics runs from c.ce 100 to the 6th cent., and very fine pictorial mosaics, mostly with mythological subject matter, were discovered in the excavations at Zeugma on the Euphrates, all dating before the town's destruction c.253 ce. The tradition continued into the 4th cent., with examples from Shahba-Philippopolis and Apamea. At the end of the 4th cent. these gave way to all-over two-dimensional carpet-like designs, both geometric or floral and figured, best exemplified by the 5th-cent. ‘hunting carpets’ of Antioch. These should be seen as a local development, not primarily the product of outside influences; the style was widely adopted in Christian churches and Jewish synagogues in the Near East.

The use of mosaic on walls and vaults (opus musivum) was a Roman invention. In the late republic grottoes and fountains were decorated with shells, pumice-stone, and pieces of glass, later with regular glass tesserae. Numerous small fountains in Pompeii were decorated in this way, and more extensive mosaic decoration on walls is found there and in Rome in the 1st cent. ce; patterns and designs were more closely related to wall-painting than to floor mosaic. The technique was used on a large scale for vaults and walls in buildings such as baths and tombs in the 2nd and 3rd cents. The use of wall and vault mosaic in Christian churches from the 4th cent. onwards is an extension of this development.


  • D. Levi, Antioch Mosaic Pavements (1947).
  • D. Salzmann, Untersuchungen zu den antiken Kieselmosaiken (1982).
  • P. Bruneau, Exploration Archéologique de Délos 29: Les Mosaïques (1972).
  • F. Sear, Roman Wall and Vault Mosaics (1977).
  • K. Dunbabin, Mosaics of Roman North Africa (1978).
  • J. Clarke, Roman Black-and-White Figural Mosaics (1979).
  • J. Balty, Mosaïques antiques du Proche-Orient (1995).
  • K. Dunbabin, Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World (1999).