The Glory of Roman Mosaics

The Romans were not the first to use tiles and small stone blocks to create designs and patterns to adorn the floors and walls of ancient buildings, such as temples and palaces. It had been done before, in both Greece and in the Ancient Near East – but the Romans can be said to have truly perfected the technique of mosaic making and developed it from a decorative craft into a magnificent art form. Roman mosaics were both attractive and long lasting and were eminently practical for a variety of architectural applications.

Around two thousand years ago the Romans developed a skill in making high quality cement mortar and concrete that was both structurally very strong and also waterproof. This technological innovation allowed for considerable scope and flexibility in developing architectural forms and led to the widespread use of mosaic panels for enhancing the looks and utility of their buildings. To make their mosaics, they used tiny, squared off blocks of natural stone, marble or tiles, called tesserae, embedded in mortar and with the joints between them grouted up with cement, to provide extremely durable concrete floors, walls and arched roofs. Besides being attractive, correctly laid mosaic tiles rendered floors waterproof, hygienic, easy to clean and equally importantly, also reflected light – essential properties for public buildings such as the bathhouses of a people obsessed with bathing. But hand in hand with advances in technique and innovative applications of practical utility, so also went the development of a tradition of artistic excellence. We have many splendid examples of both abstract and representative Roman mosaic art that is truly outstanding by any standard.

Roman mosaic designs are very distinctive and display worthy examples of both abstract and representative art. Although always immediately recognizable as Roman, many different style and themes are used. Black and white (dichromatic) highly stylized mosaic representations of dolphins and sea monsters adorned the floors of public baths, whilst in the seclusion of their villas, the rich favored more colorful realistic mosaic representations of gods, gladiators and gracious ladies at leisure. However a great deal of purely geometric mosaic decoration and bordering was used in repetitive patterns. There were also many mosaics of pastoral and culinary themes in somewhat random, but pleasing depictions, especially in dining rooms and reception areas.

It is wonderful that numbers of fine mosaic panels, many still in excellent condition, can be found all over the numerous lands that Rome once ruled – vivid reminders of a time when her mighty empire stretched from Britain in the West to Israel and Iraq in the East and from Germany in the North to Morocco and Egypt in the South. The extensive mosaic record of Rome that has been unearthed from all over Europe, North Africa and the Middle East is a wonderful legacy. We are fortunate that so many fine examples of this unique art form can be viewed in numerous museum exhibitions and also insitu in a multitude of heritage sites. Many of these distinctively Roman works look as though they were laid out only yesterday – their magnificence undiminished after the passage of twenty or so centuries. This is indeed a lasting tribute, both to the durability of the medium and also to the fine craftmanship of the original Roman mosaic artists.

You can find other aspects of the history of mosaics at the web page “Roman Mosaics”