In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Greek and Roman Mosaics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Conferences
  • Journals
  • Typology and Terminology
  • Wall and Vault Mosaics
  • Mosaic Production
  • Materials
  • Design, Motifs, and Subjects
  • Sociological Approaches
  • Early Mosaics: The Classical and Hellenistic Periods
  • Egypt and Cyrenaica
  • Spain and Portugal
  • Southeastern Europe
  • Britain

Classics Greek and Roman Mosaics
Ruth Westgate
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0104


The earliest decorated mosaics in the Greco-Roman world were made in Greece in the late 5th century BCE, using black and white pebbles. Mosaics made with cut cubes (tesserae) of stone, ceramic, or glass were probably developed in the 3rd century BCE, and soon became standard. Relatively few mosaics are known from the classical and Hellenistic periods, but under Roman rule the technique spread far beyond the Mediterranean, and distinctive styles evolved in different regions. Mosaic was first used to decorate walls and vaults in Italy in the 1st century BCE. Early wall mosaics combined colored glass, shells, pumice, and other materials, but by the mid-1st century CE glass tesserae were the standard material. In all periods, floor mosaics are much more common than wall and vault mosaics, because they are less vulnerable when buildings collapse. Mosaics were most often used to decorate houses, but they were also used in baths, on both floors and walls, and sometimes in other public buildings. In Late Antiquity, floor and wall mosaics also became a common form of decoration in churches. The majority of ancient mosaics were decorated with geometric or vegetal patterns, but in the most important rooms they often depicted scenes from mythology or everyday life. The study of mosaics has traditionally been dominated by art-historical concerns, such as style, motifs, iconography, attribution, and chronology, but in recent years more interest has been devoted to the social and economic implications of mosaics, such as how they were used to present the patron and his family in a flattering light, or to structure space, especially in houses. Scientific analysis of materials is also beginning to play an important role in mosaic studies, providing a new source of evidence for art-historical questions such as attribution and the development of techniques and styles.

General Overviews

Dunbabin 1999 is the most comprehensive overview of ancient mosaics, and the obvious starting point both for students and for research. Ling 1998 is a more concise but no less authoritative introduction for students or general readers, covering similar ground to Dunbabin 1999. Smith 1983 is a reliable single-chapter overview of Roman mosaics, in a widely available textbook, although the author’s remarks about the role of prefabrication have been overtaken by more recent research (see Mosaic Production). Sear and Dunbabin 1996 is a more recent but less well illustrated survey.

  • Dunbabin, Katherine M. D. 1999. Mosaics of the Greek and Roman world. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    An authoritative, detailed, and accessible synthesis, ranging from classical Greece to the 8th century CE, with chapters on classical and Hellenistic mosaics, the development of mosaics in different regions of the Roman Empire, wall and vault mosaics, craftsmen and patrons, techniques, motifs, and the relationship of mosaics to their setting.

  • Ling, Roger. 1998. Ancient mosaics. London: British Museum.

    Short, well-illustrated survey for the nonspecialist reader, tracing the history of mosaic from classical Greece to the churches of 6th-century CE Ravenna.

  • Sear, Frank B., and Katherine M. D. Dunbabin. 1996. Rome, ancient, §VI. Mosaics. In The dictionary of art. Vol. 27. Edited by Jane Turner, 58–68. London: Grove.

    Concise overview of Roman floor and wall mosaics, with discussion of mosaic types and techniques, subject-matter, and historical development.

  • Smith, David J. 1983. Mosaics. In A handbook of Roman art: A survey of the visual arts of the Roman world. Edited by Martin Henig, 116–138. London: Phaidon.

    Chapter on the development of Roman mosaics, in a standard textbook on Roman art. Includes extensive notes and suggestions for further reading.

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