What can mosaics tell us about life in ancient Roman culture?

Mosaic designs use symmetry, shapes, and angles to create patterns. Mosaics are a means of decoration and storytelling.

By Patrick Hoffman – Art Teacher, Bozeman High School, Montana

Decoration takes on many forms and defines a culture’s aesthetic. Adornment of an inhabited space communicates its importance to a guest, a visitor, or a stranger. Society has learned to understand that beautification of a space also communicates status by the owner of the home, or the importance of a public space by the arrangement of objects, the vast open expanse of architecture, and the subject matter of the decorative elements within that space.

Oplontis Mosaic. Villa A, room 15, white mosaic pavement with inserts of colored limestone. Photo: Simon J. Barker. (The Oplontis Project, The University of Texas at Austin, Texas)

Through learned skill, craftsman utilized materials to adorn the homes and spaces of ancient Romans by arranging tesserae (small squares of colored stone, glass, or ceramic) in elaborate arrangements that decorated floors, entryways, and hallways. At times, this adornment was a geometric pattern that lined a hallway, or marked the entrance to a space. Other mosaics were embellished scenes depicting everyday life, animals and plants, myth and legend, people and historical battles. These mosaics have proven invaluable for today’s study of ancient life, providing glimpses into the past of how Romans dressed, what they ate, how they understood their surroundings, and what they found to be important.


Mosaics Discovered at Oplontis. Villa A. Photo: Paul Bargadjy (The Oplontis Project, The University of Texas at Austin, Texas)

Some more expensive mosaics could be commissioned privately, or purchased at a market in the form of a panel as if purchasing a painting, or a ceramic object. These panels would be owned by an individual or a family, and could be installed or even removed from its place. A panel purchased at a workshop or market could depict anything from a decorative overflowing bowl of fruits to a classical Greek mythological or historical story. A private commission could have been a portrait of a family member, or a desire to have a specific subject matter rendered in the permanent form of a mosaic. These panels would be installed in a specific location, and then the artisan would frame the panel with more geometric patterns to finalize the space.


From Lesson Five…

Create a Mosaic: This activity is for all grade levels. Adjust the complexity of design, materials, and size of tesserae according to grade/skill levels.

  1. Have students research Roman mosaic designs with geometric patterns or pictures of animals. Students can replicate a Roman mosaic or design their own mosaic.
  2. Have students work out their designs on a piece of paper using a ruler and pencil.
  3. Students should use gridded paper to help keep symmetry in their planning. Distribute “Design a Mosaic”.
  4. Encourage symmetry and balance if they are working with a geometric pattern.

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