BMCR 1999.04.23

Ancient Mosaics

, Ancient mosaics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. 144 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780691004044 $19.95 (pb).

“Mosaic is a bizarre art-form.” So begins Roger Ling’s excellent short survey. Packed with information, clearly organized, well illustrated, and affordably priced, this volume, originally published by the British Museum Press, will serve classicists, art historians, hobbyists, and general readers as a convenient introduction to an important medium. It should be read by anyone interested in ancient mosaics, or anyone who employs them in his or her work. In eight brief chapters ranging from 12-23 pages, Ling traces chronologically and geographically the materials and techniques employed to decorate floors, and later walls and vaults, by means of thousands, if not millions, of tiny bits of stone, terracotta, and glass, and also addresses the functions and placement of mosaics, their diverse motifs, relation to works in other media, the aims of their patrons, and status of their creators.

Durability, of course, was the original reason for imitating in mosaic what could more cheaply, quickly, and effectively be achieved in painting, but mosaic offered something more as it evolved from the pebbled pavements of fifth- and fourth-century BC Greece, spread throughout the Hellenistic and Roman world, from Egypt to Britain, the Black Sea to Mauritania, and culminated in the gold- and blue-backed walls and vaults of early Christian and Byzantine churches. Although many mosaics are derivative workshop products, others aspired to be works of art, and elaborate floor and wall coverings, whether they consisted of abstract patterns, vegetal motifs, or figural scenes, all served to set the spaces they adorned apart from others, conferring status and prestige on their owners. At its best, mosaic was a luxury art, and it is one of the few from antiquity that frequently survives intact and in context.

The most common components of mosaics came to be tesserae (aka tessellae), small cubes of colored stone, terracotta, or glass, but natural pebbles and stone chippings, the by-products of the mason’s craft, were employed for pavements prior to the middle of the third century BC. Indeed, colored stones were mortared in abstract patterns to form floors at Gordion in Phrygia some 500 years earlier, and in Classical Greece, river pebbles, carefully selected for size and color, were arranged in extraordinary vegetal and figural compositions as well as abstract patterns, to adorn the floors of temples, palaces, and the homes of the wealthy. The third century BC saw the invention of not only tessellated mosaics, but also a third, less expensive technique, opus signinum (so-called after the Italian city of Segnia where it was said to have been invented, although it appears to have actually originated in the Phoenician cities of North Africa). This consisted of aggregate terracotta (or, in Italy, lava) mortar inset intermittently with stone chippings or tesserae arranged in random or geometric patterns. Most expensive, and therefore least common, was opus sectile, which employed larger pieces of highly polished colored stone or glass specially cut to shape. Originally employed in geometric patterns for pavements and wall panels, it came to be used for figural work as well, the best known examples being the stunning late antique animal combat panels from the Basilica of Junius Bassus on the Esquiline now in the Palazzo dei Conservatori (Ling’s fig. 1). The technique, also employed in medieval cosmati floors, was revived in sixteenth-century Italy, especially Florence, where mind-boggling examples are to be seen in the Medici Tombs and Opificio delle Pietre Dure.1

Best known, of course, are the tessellated mosaics, which were formed of regularly shaped pieces of stone (usually limestone rather than marble) and terracotta. Pots and tiles were frequently broken to provide material, and colors that could not thus be obtained were created in glass, which, due to the risk of shattering, was used sparingly in pavements. Ling rehearses Vitruvius’ prescription for the ideal bedding for floor mosaics, noting that it was rarely followed, and adduces archaeological evidence for shortages of tesserae, their preparation on site, and even the cannibalization of earlier works.

The finest mosaics, of course, were the set pieces known as emblemata, which were not laid in-situ, but rather in advance, on tiles or in stone or terracotta trays subsequently set into floors. While some were probably produced close at hand, literary and archaeological evidence indicates that others might be transported across the Mediterranean. Ling points out that these high quality works, often reproducing “Old Master” Greek paintings and thus frequently featured in modern handbooks, were relatively rare, and, though he himself illustrates a good number of them, he also provides an ample selection of the more common geometric patterns and floral motifs, many in splendid color.2

Although Ling does not say so explicitly, the account of ancient mosaics he presents is, on one level, one of constant tension between the imitation of painting, with all of its illusionistic tricks, and what might be considered more appropriate decoration of solid surface pavements. For although the naturalistic rendition of floral and figural motifs and illusionistic geometrical patterns had been mastered by Greek artists of the late Classical period, such trompe l’oeil effects could be disconcerting to walk on. Detailed renditions of landscape complete with spatial recession, so engaging in wall and panel painting, were not necessarily desirable in floors. Thus, interestingly enough, the history of mosaics does not correspond neatly to the evolutionary paradigm familiar in much of ancient art. Indeed, although Ling begins chronologically with Greece (Chapter 2), his four central chapters are organized geographically, treating different regions of the Roman empire. Chapter 7 addresses wall and vault mosaics, while Chapter 8, “Context and Meaning” offers a summary of many observations made throughout the book.

Exactly when and where pebble mosaics were introduced to Greece remains uncertain. The earliest dated finds are the fine pavements of dining rooms of private houses constructed in a suburb of Olynthos, sacked by Philip II in 348 BC. Some of these bi-chrome compositions, which resemble those of contemporary red-figure ceramics, depict mythological subjects, and, though discussed by Ling in some detail, not one is illustrated. This is the principal frustration I had throughout the book: although photographs are plentiful, well chosen, and of high quality, on virtually every page the author mentions mosaics of which he does not provide images, and while these are often adduced as parallels to works he does present, in many cases the unillustrated pieces or motifs are said to be “particularly noteworthy,” “notable,” “characteristic,” or “popular.”

Ling does provide images of slightly later Greek pebble mosaics from Eretria and Pella, the former consisting of red and yellow as well as black and white stones, the latter employing lead and terracotta strips to clarify interior details, a technique often considered to recall the “relief” and “wash” lines of red-figure ceramics. The Pella mosaics, however, are far closer to Classical Greek wall and panel paintings, works of art extolled by ancient sources. The “Stag Hunt” mosaic signed by Gnosis not only contains a greater range of colors than earlier works, but also achieves remarkable effects of modeling through highlights and shadow, as well as perspective, recession, and foreshortening. Ling’s illustration (fig. 12), though a detail, has the virtue of including a portion of the elaborate florals that frame the figural composition: similar twisting tendrils appear on south Italian pots, and ancient writers attribute such innovations to the fourth-century Sikyonian painter Pausias.

The precise origin of the tessellated technique also remains unknown, but mosaics combining tesserae with pebbles appear in Sicily as well as Alexandria in third-century contexts. Ling illustrates one such example from the latter site, a fine composition of Erotes hunting a Stag surrounded by a border of animals, but the detail (half title page), lovely as it is, does not illustrate the combination of techniques.3 Another remarkable Alexandrian image, of a dog seated beside an overturned bronze vessel (fig. 14), rendered in minuscule tesserae, the wormy opus vermiculatum, is the unfortunate victim of one of the very few typographical errors I encountered in the entire volume: the caption ascribes it to the “late third or early second century AD” rather than BC.

Ling briefly addresses the role of the Pergamon as a center for the arts in the Hellenistic period and its patronage of Sosos, the only mosaicist named in ancient literature. The Elder Pliny ( NH 36.184) praised his “Unswept Room” ( asarotos oikos), and Ling illustrates the most famous example of the motif (from Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli), often adduced as a copy of a portion of Sosos’ composition. But his suggestion that this emblema might be the “original centrepiece, imported from Pergamum” (26) is unconvincing, however. More useful to his readers, perhaps, might have been some reference to the illusionistic mosaic pavement from the triclinium of a house on the Aventine depicting a floor strewn with refuse. It is apparently a copy of Sosos’ work, but is signed in Greek by one Herakleitos.4

The fact that Pliny recorded Sosos’ name is, for Ling, “a hint of the status of mosaic pictures in the Hellenistic period,” and he believes it “significant that several panels … carry the signatures of artists.” (it is therefore a pity that the signature of Dioskourides of Samos has been cropped out of the detail (fig. 6) he provides of one of two famous emblemata from the “Villa of Cicero” at Pompeii that depict scenes from plays by Menander). This notion, however, is perhaps belied by the presence of artist’s signatures on Greek objects of all kinds, including the most wretched pots. The artist’s pride in his work, justifiable or not, does not necessarily translate into prestige, although the virtuosity, cost, and prominent display of many of these mosaics in their original settings does seem to indicate high value.

From Pergamon Ling moves to Hellenistic Delos, where the larger distribution of mosaics suggests that such luxurious floor decorations became more accessible to ordinary householders, for not only are mosaics more numerous, but they are found in a greater variety of rooms. While Ling describes and analyzes the Delian mosaics at some length, he illustrates only a detail of one. This is perhaps justifiable, as these mosaics are well published, but the very select bibliography Ling provides makes reference neither to Philippe Bruneau’s very useful booklet on Delian mosaics, nor the same author’s authoritative volume in the Exploration archéologique de Délos series.5 Also lacking here is any reference to the copious literature on the next work he treats, the famous “Alexander Mosaic” from the “House of the Faun” at Pompeii. The reader is not even directed to the “attractive argument, recently advanced by a German commentator” (29) that the pavement, originally laid somewhere in the East, was lifted and shipped in pieces to Italy, hence some of its less intelligible passages. This work, too, is illustrated only by a detail (fig. 16), and its caption identifies it as depicting the battle of Gaugamela, though Issos is far more likely.6

The great Nilotic Mosaic from Palestrina is also presented only in a detail (fig. 18) that provides no inkling of its grand scope. Ling’s text, however, does make clear how far these and other mosaics could go towards reproducing illusionistic paintings through varied coloring, modeling by light and shade, perspective, and foreshortening. His concern with the spatial circumstances of viewing, here and throughout the book, moreover, refreshingly takes these compositions out of the rarefied realm of art history and places them back in the rooms in which they would have been viewed (see esp. pp. 113-14). Although the furniture and most of the walls are lost, the orientation of these massive representational mosaics, the distortions caused by seeing them from above or at an angle while entering a room or reclining on a couch, as well as the illusionistic elements of landscape and recession present on a pavement that thus becomes a window opening onto another spatial dimension, is “curiously out of keeping with the function of the floor as the architectural element which should above all seem solid and impenetrable.” (33) Thus, subsequent chapters trace how the illusionistic Hellenistic pictorial tradition, while remaining popular for floor mosaics in the Roman East, was largely rejected in the West.

The central four chapters of Ling’s book treat the mosaics of Roman Italy, the Roman East, the Roman North-West, and Roman Africa. This emphasis on the provinces is one of the great strengths of this volume, and Ling presents a wide range of material. The expansion of Roman power through Italy and Sicily brought her into contact with Punic as well as Greek paving traditions. As mentioned above, opus signinum appears to have originated at Carthage, and Cato condemned “Punic pavements” as one of the luxuries imported to Rome in the second century BC. The technique was certainly more popular at Pompeii than spectacular tessellated mosaics, and Ling suggests that as wall paintings became increasingly elaborate and illusionistic, simple, abstract, space-denying floor decorations eclipsed Greek style pictorial pavements. Although these chapters, like the rest of the book, suffer from constant discussion of unillustrated material, the trends Ling traces here are clear enough.

Most decorated floors in Roman Italy (Chapter 3) were given over to pattern work, though emblemata or less fine figural panels — such as Theseus and the Minotaur in the center of a bi-chrome labyrinth or a dog guarding a threshold ( cave canem) — were occasionally employed. Rendering figures in black silhouette on a uniform white background reinforced the surface of the floor while allowing free reign to the figurative impulse. The pavement thus became not a wall with a picture hanging on it, or a window passing through it, but rather, an entirely white expanse devoid of landscape elements, a surface on which figures could be distributed in a conventional way without inducing any disconcerting sense of recession. This (and perhaps the lesser expense of production) seems to explain the popularity of the black and white style of Roman mosaic decoration evident in hundreds of examples at Ostia, Rome, and elsewhere. It might help explain, for example, why aquatic subjects appear frequently, and not just in baths. With the open white background serving as the sea, figures could be oriented in a variety of directions, addressing the beholder at various points in the room, rather than enforcing a single preferred viewpoint. For Ling, the black and white pavements of the first and second centuries AD constitute the major Italian contribution to the history of ancient mosaics, showing an “originality and boldness of conception which was lacking from contemporary wall-painting, whose practitioners continued to rework old formulae in an increasingly tired fashion.” (47-8)

The black and white style never took hold in the Roman East (Chapter 4), which remained part of the Greek world, and this is reflected in the continued use there of emblemata, polychromy, trompe l’oeil recession, and mythological and figured scenes set in naturalistic landscapes, usually surrounded by elaborate floral and/or geometric borders. Such features are perhaps best seen in the mosaics from Antioch, which, as Ling rightly laments, were reburied or dispersed to museums around the world earlier this century.7 In Chapter 5 Ling treats the mosaics of the Roman North-West, which he sees, by and large, as an index of Romanization. Italian, rather than Eastern decorative schemata are prevalent, and Ling is particularly occupied with the traditional art historical concerns of tracing the transmission of patterns and motifs and identifying workshops in Spain, Gaul, Britain, and Germany by means of idiosyncratic details. He also addresses iconographic issues, such as the penchant for literary subjects (Muses, poets, and philosophers) in third-century Trier, a phenomenon he associates with intellectual interests — I would say “pretensions” — of their patrons in the imperial court.

Chapter 6 treats the mosaics of Roman Africa. Here Western geometric frameworks and non-spatial figure scenes were most popular, but these were often polychromatic, perhaps on account of the wealth of local geological resources. While the early mosaics are largely derivative, Ling notes a pavement from the “Baths of Trajan” at Acholla in eastern Tunisia that has diagonally disposed floral ribbing and “grotesques” which appear to reflect stucco ceiling decoration unexpectedly transferred to a floor. The inventiveness of African mosaicists is perhaps best seen in the “floral style,” which builds on the black and white vegetal motifs of Italy, adding rich polychromy and complex patterns, increasingly submerging the white background. Such designs appeared in isolation, but might also serve as a framework for figural decoration: both mythological and “daily life” scenes were popular, though the latter must be recognized as highly charged normative scenes of hunting, the maintenance of country estates which formed the basis of the patrons’ wealth, or the presentation of games in the amphitheater, presumably underwritten by the house owners.

Ling describes the development of Wall and Vault Mosaics in Chapter 7. The use of marble chips along with shells and marine encrustations seems to have begun on the walls of Roman nymphaea in the first centuries BC and AD. As shrines to the nymphs, the divine spirits of springs, these (often artificial) grottoes frequently contained water sources, so more durable mosaics were preferable to paintings. Stone and glass tesserae came to supplement the above-mentioned materials, and because these sites were also the haunts of muses such work came to be known as opus museum or musivum. While some nymphaea are preserved at Pompeii and Herculaneum, the upper levels of ancient buildings elsewhere are naturally less likely to be preserved. Seneca, Pliny, and others, however, describe luxurious glass wall decorations of their day. Ling adds to them the rich corpus of early Christian mosaics, adorning the churches and mausolea of Rome, Ravenna, and elsewhere, that have been well maintained over the centuries. Here, too, he describes many mosaics without illustrating them, but the reader is provided with some idea of the appearance, if not the iconography, of lost Roman wall and vault mosaics.

The final chapter, Context and Meaning, ties together many of the threads that run through the book. Ling explicitly addresses how the modern exhibition of ancient floor mosaics on the walls of museums or in the pages of picture books are misleading, necessarily misrepresenting ancient conditions of viewing. Even when displayed on the ground, ancient mosaics are usually roped off, to be looked at rather than walked upon. Indeed, with a telling example from a Roman villa on the Isle of Wight (fig. 83), Ling demonstrates how the disposition of figural and ornamental decoration might serve to guide visitor’s movements through the different rooms of ancient buildings, effectively shaping his or her experience through space. The status of mosaicists is also reviewed: there is ample evidence that they were often itinerant, and distinctions between craftsmen are also recorded. Diocletian’s Price Edict stipulates that the musearius who worked on walls and vaults be paid 20% more than the tessellarius who decorated floors. This is probably due to the quality of decoration intended for those spaces, but there was also the risk of falling from heights, one such death being reported. Painters received more still, and the use of pattern books is evident from both literary sources and the frequent repetition of motifs and figural compositions, although some of these might have been derived from media other than painting. Indeed, throughout the book Ling occasionally notes mosaics’ affinities to textiles as well as wood and stucco ceiling decorations. There is also some discussion of the types of buildings in which mosaics appeared, the expense and prestige of different techniques, and subjects, mythological and otherwise, might be appropriate to their settings: dining rooms, baths, bedrooms, and funerary spaces.8

The book concludes with a map of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East on which the sites mentioned in the text are plotted; a serviceable Glossary of elementary terms, from “Bacchante” to “Wave-crest”; and a thorough index. The Select Bibliography, as noted above, might have been fuller, but all in all the author is to be commended for this fine introduction, treating so many aspects of this significant and attractive body of material from throughout the ancient Greek and Roman world.


1. Also from the Basilica of Junius Bassus are two spectacular panels now in the Museo Nazionale Romano depicting the “Death of Hylas” and a “Charioteer with Horsemen” (inv. 375830, 375831), which were recently restored and republished in Archeologia a Roma. La materia e la tecnica nell’arte antica, M.R. Di Mino and M. Bertinetti eds. (Rome 1990) 147-150 (Cat. 122-123), colorplates x. For other ancient figural compositions in opus sectile see, e.g., R.L. Scranton et al., Kenchreai, Eastern Port of Corinth I (Leiden 1976); and G. Becatti, Edificio con opus sectile fuori Porta Marina. Scavi di Ostia VI (Rome 1969). For the Florentine material see, e.g., A. Giusti ed., Splendori di pietre dure: l’arte di corte nella Firenze dei granduchi (Florence 1988); and U. Baldini et al., La Capella dei Principi e le pietre dure a Firenze (Milan 1979).

2. In two cases, however, Ling provides only black and white images where color is necessary: figure 40 illustrates the so called “rainbow style” of the third century AD in which tesserae were laid point to point, rather than edge to edge, with colors changing in the diagonal sequence, producing a kaleidoscopic effect, “a dazzling display of colour more truly akin to the effects of pointillism than any other style in ancient mosaic” (58); the mosaic reproduced in figure 57 imitates the veins of colored marbles employed in opus sectile — only the caption informs us that it is grey, green, yellow, white, and black.

3. For a general view of this mosaic, albeit in black and white, see, e.g., J.J. Pollitt, Art in the Hellenistic Age (Cambridge 1986) fig. 136. (Chapter 10 of Pollitt’s book, not mentioned in Ling’s bibliography, provides an excellent account of Hellenistic mosaics.)

4. Museo Gregoriano Profano, inv. 10132. For a detail see Pollitt (note 3 above) fig. 233. The ideological implications of the “Unswept Room,” at least in a Greek context, are addressed by J. Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes. The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (New York 1998). It is not entirely clear from Pliny’s description whether the doves “there” ( ibi) formed part of the “Unswept Room” or whether he is referring to another mosaic by Sosos also in Pergamon.

5. P. Bruneau, Mosaics on Delos (Paris 1974); idem, Exploration archéologique de Délos, XXIX. Les mosaïques (Paris 1972).

6. The German commentator is M. Donderer, see “Das pompejanische Alexandermosaik — Ein östliches Importstück?” in C. Börker and M. Donderer eds., Das antike Rom und der Osten. Festschrift für Klaus Parlasca zum 65. Geburtstag (Erlingen 1990) 19-31; and “Das Alexandermosaik: Ein antikes Importstück,” in Akten des 13. Internationalen Kongresses für klassischen Archäologie, Berlin 1988 (Mainz 1990). On the mosaic in general and the battle in particular see, e.g., A. Stewart, Faces of Power. Alexander’s Image and Hellenistic Politics (Berkeley 1993) 130-49, esp. 134 ff. with n. 40. Cf. A. Cohen, The Alexander Mosaic. Stories of Victory and Defeat (Cambridge 1997), esp. 130-38, where (138) it is suggested that the mosaic “combines an absence of specific referents on the one hand and, on the other, an intense entanglement with general historicity, if history be understood as a discourse on events and facts rather than a transcription of absolute ontological truth.”

7. The exhibition, organized by Christine Kondoleon, is scheduled to open at the Worcester Art Museum in October 2000 and travel to Baltimore and Cleveland in 2001. Many of these, however, will soon be brought back together along with other material from the site in a contextual exhibition, Antioch: The Lost Roman City, that will open in the United States next year. One of its highlights will be the reunion of four mosaics, including “The Drinking Contest between Herakles and Dionysos” (Ling’s fig. 33), from the triclinium of the “Atrium House,” now in four different museums.

8. Ling surprisingly finds it “difficult to understand how [the nine Muses] could be regarded as especially pertinent to a sepulchral context” (122). Yet the Muses appear frequently on Roman mythological sarcophagi where they connote not only the cultural aspirations (or pretensions) of the deceased and/or their successors, but also, apparently, a path to immortality through culture and the arts, for it was the Muses who bestowed kleos. Although their cultivation has sometimes been associated with the rejection of worldly temptations, they were also linked to public intellectual virtues, such as oratory. Women, too, might employ this iconography to denote their musical talents or the inspiration they provided. See, e.g., P. Zanker, The Mask of Socrates (Berkeley 1995); G. Koch and H. Sichtermann, Römische Sarkophage (Munich 1982) 197-203 with copious bibliography; M. Wegner, Die Musensarkophage ( Die antiken Sarkophagreliefs V.3, Berlin 1966); and H.I. Marrou, Mousikos Aner. Étude sur les scènes de la vie intellectuelle figurant sur les monuments funéraires romains (Grenoble 1938).