Roman Mosaics: History, Facts & Examples

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  • 0:02 Roman Mosaics
  • 0:51 Techniques
  • 1:32 Types
  • 2:22 Topics
  • 3:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, we will explore the history, styles, subjects, and techniques of Roman mosaics to help us better understand Ancient Roman culture, art, and interior decorating.

Roman Mosaics

A mosaic is a piece of art created by assembling small pieces of colored glass, ceramic, stone, or other materials into an image. Mosaics became a very popular art form during the time of the Roman Empire, although they were used in Italy both before and after this period. Roman mosaics appeared on floors in houses as early as the 2nd century BCE. Romans used mosaics to decorate floors and walls in homes and temples. They were a complex and beautiful art that often indicated the importance of a place or the wealth of a homeowner. Roman mosaics, especially floor mosaics, are found all across what was once the Roman Empire, which indicates how popular the art form was back then.


Mosaics are created with small pieces of material, usually glass or stone. An individual tile of mosaic materials is called a tessera or tesserae if pluralized. Originally, naturally small, colorful stones were used for tesserae, but the ancient Romans began the practice of cutting large panels of stones into tesserae to ensure the same shape and size of each piece. Marble and limestone were two of the most commonly used stones because they are soft, break easily into predictable shapes, and naturally appear in a variety of colors. Later, more tesserae were made from painted or colored glass as well.


Roman mosaics, which probably evolved from Greek art, can be categorized into two types: opus vermiculatum and opus tessellatum. Opus vermiculatum used only tesserae of 4 millimeters or less, allowing the artists to create lots of detail and make a mosaic that looks almost like a painting. Since this was expensive and time consuming, sometimes only small panels of opus vermiculatum, called emblemata, would be inserted into a mosaic for greater detail of specific portions. The more common technique, opus tessellatum, used larger tesserae of varying sizes, which limited the amount of detail that was possible, but they were cheaper to make.

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