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The Alexander Mosaic: History, Composition & Style

Instructor: Jennifer Swoboda
The Alexander Mosaic is one of the most impressive and best known pieces of ancient mosaic art. This lesson will explore the history, composition and style of this important work of art.

What is a Mosaic?

Mosaic art works are traditionally created by embedding pieces of glass, tile, stone, or other materials on a surface in cement. Nowadays, you can easily create mosaic projects from kits sold at your local craft store. During ancient times, however, mosaic decorations could only be afforded by the wealthiest citizens. Members of ancient Greek and Roman aristocracy decorated their palaces, bath houses, temples, and other large scale public buildings with mosaics that were often inlaid with semi-precious stones, marble, colored glass, gold, and silver. Wealthy citizens decorated the walls and floors of their homes with intricate, high-quality mosaics as well. These mosaics often portrayed religious scenes, images from nature, portraits of royal officials and battle scenes. Perhaps the most famous mosaic battle scene from ancient history is the Alexander Mosaic.

What is the Subject Matter of the Alexander Mosaic?

The Alexander Mosaic is a Roman floor mosaic that dates from c. 100 B.C. (c. means circa, Latin for ''about'') and is thought to be based on a Greek painting from c. 315 B.C. The mosaic depicts the battle that took place in 333 B.C. between Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia at Issus in the south of what is now the country of Turkey. Alexander the Great led his Greek and Macedonian forces to victory over the Persian army.

The mosaic, which is approximately 8 feet 11 inches high and 16 feet and 9 inches long, was discovered in 1831 in the House of Faun in the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, Italy. It is currently housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy.

The fact that the Greek-themed mosaic was found in the home of a Roman citizen reflects the high regard that Romans had for Greek art and culture. The Romans admired the realistic way the Greeks depicted the world around them. The mosaic was originally in the entry way of the home where the owner received visitors and so was an indication of the wealth and status of the home's owner. It was comprised of over 1,000,000 tesserae, or small pieces of colored stone and glass. (From the Greek word tesseres which means ''square'.) Many of the colors seen in the mosaic are the natural color of the marble pieces. Imagine the hours it took to scour the quarries for all those shades of color.

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