Ancient Roman Mosaics

By: Dr. Eleanor E. Rambo

Originally Published in 1920

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Greeks as well as Egyptians knew the art of decorating walls and especially pavements with bits of stone, terra cotta and colored glass paste, embedded in patterns in cement. The art of mosaic work probably originated in the East, and from there passed to Egypt, which in the time of the Ptolemies taught the art to the Romans. A brief description of the Roman process of setting a mosaic pavement is printed in the Museum Journal, VII, 1916, p. 26. The first mosaic pavement in Rome seems to have been laid about 150 B.C. in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol. The art became popular all over Italy in the first century B.C. Beautiful specimens dating from this time have been found at Pompeii, and from Rome comes a small piece of mosaic work of the same age, a very life-like duck, now in the University Museum (No. 44).

From Italy the art spread to the provinces, where fine examples have been found, especially in North Africa. After the Third Punic War, the Romans, in 146 B.C., razed the city of Carthage and cursed the site, so that for long the place was uninhabited. But Julius Cæsar a century later founded at the site of Phoenician Carthage a Roman colony which flourished through the Empire until it fell before the Vandals in 439 B.C. In the ruins of this wealthy Roman colony of Carthage many choice mosaics have been found. Many of them are of what the Romans called opus vermiculatum, i.e., mosaics laid in cubes more or less regular in shape, set to give a pictorial effect. Fragments of two such mosaics, preserved sufficiently to be considered units, are fastened to the walls in the vestibule to the Charles Custis Harrison Hall. One of them (No. 51) shows two men sailing in an open boat. Along the left side is twice inscribed VINCLVSVS—perhaps VINC(IMUS)LUSUS, “we win our games,” or VINC(TOR for VICTOR)LUSUS, “the winner of a game.” This pavement is dated in the first century A.D. The second mosaic (No. 52) is somewhat later in date and less pictorial than decorative. It represents perhaps one-fourth of an ancient pavement, whose stones are laid in a pattern of rectangles filled with conventionalized floral motives—a sort of rug pattern.

The remainder of the mosaics (Nos. 43 and 46) are later in date and are more conventional in design. The first is a checkerboard design, interesting as being in opus alexandrinum, the fashion of marquetrie in red and green porphyry, invented and developed at Alexandria, perhaps in the time of the Roman Emperor Alexander Severus. The second is part of an heraldic design of griffins.

Cite This Article

Rambo, Dr. Eleanor E.. "Ancient Roman Mosaics." The Museum Journal XI, no. 2 (June, 1920): 50-50. Accessed June 20, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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