Mosaics are a type of decoration found in ancient Greek and Roman buildings, both public and private. Artisans* called mosaicists arranged small pebbles or colored stones into intricate geometric designs, or they used a more sophisticated technique called tessellation to create scenes of flowers, animals, gods, and mythological heroes. Art historians are uncertain as to the origin of mosaic art. Some think it originated with the patterned pebble floors that were used in the Near East as far back as the 700s B.C., although the remains of unpatterned pebble floors have been found in the Bronze Age ruins of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations (1500-1200 B.C.). Mosaics developed into a highly skilled art form during Greece’s Hellenistic* period.

The earliest Greek mosaics were made from rounded pebbles set in a layer of fine cement. Strips of lead or terra-cotta* were used to outline and reinforce the design of the natural pebbles. At first, mosaics were utilitarian. They were used in private homes to cover floors with a smooth, water-resistant surface. Designs were either geometric shapes or twodimensional figures placed against a dark background. By the late 400s B.C., the use of floor mosaics had spread throughout Greece. Artisans began to use a wider range of colors and shades in an attempt to make figures more realistic.

* artisan skilled craftsperson

* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.

* terra-cotta hard-baked clay, either glazed or unglazed

The Romans adopted Greek mosaic techniques and used this colorful art form to decorate their palaces and other important buildings. In this mosaic from Pompeii, actors are shown preparing for a performance.


The Roman tradition of vault and wall mosaics reached its peak during the early Christian era of the Roman Empire. Mosaics with backgrounds of dark blue and gold covered church interiors in Ravenna and Milan, Italy, and in Thessalonika, Greece. The most glorious mosaics were the work of Byzantine artisans. They used tesserae (small cubes of gold, colored glass, and stone) as covering for church domes, vaults, and walls in the most important churches of the empire. One of the largest and most magnificent of these buildings was Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Built by the emperor Justinian in the A.D. 500s, it originally contained more than four acres of golden tesserae.

The finest Greek mosaics date from the 300s B.C. and come from the Macedonian city of Olynthus. The rectangular floor mosaics from this region of Greece depict scenes from Greek mythology surrounded by a border of flowers, vines, or stylized waves.

Around the 200s B.C., artisans developed tessellation. This is the technique of cutting glass, stone, or terra-cotta into small cubes (called tesserae) and closely fitting them into a bed of mortar. The technique resulted in designs of astounding beauty. Artists used tesserae to create pictures of birds, animals, mythological scenes, theatrical scenes, and historic events. By the 100s B.C., artists had mastered the arrangement of many tiny pieces of colored stone in patterns so complex that they closely resembled the effects of painting. The technique of tessellation changed the way in which mosaics were produced. Artists assembled the largest pieces of the scene in panels, called emblemata, in their workshops. Once assembled, the panels were laid into a floor. Outstanding examples of tessellated mosaics have been found in the great Hellenistic cities of Alexandria (in Egypt) and Pergamum (in Asia Minor). Considered the masterpiece of tessellation, the Alexander Mosaic from the southern Italian city of Pompeii shows Alexander the Great and the Persian king, Darius III, during the battle of the Issus River.

There is little distinction between Greek and Roman mosaics. The Romans adopted Greek techniques and applied them to mosaics on walls and the vaults* of buildings. During the Roman Empire, mosaics were mass-produced for use in private houses, apartments, and tombs and in large public baths. Each province* of the Roman Empire developed its own favorite designs and color preferences. In the A.D. 300s, Christians adopted the use of mosaics for the decoration of their churches. (See also Architecture, Greek; Architecture, Roman; Bronze Age, Greek; Construction Materials and Techniques; Household Furnishings.)

* vault arched ceiling or roof

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

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