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Snap! Comparing ancient mosaics.

Mosaic floor in situ, Pompeii bath house.
Mosaic octopus, Pompeii bath house. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Octopos, Isthmia
Mosaic octopus. Isthmia, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Finding similarities between ancient mosaics

The day is done. The dishwasher is rumbling away, the boys are arrayed on the sofa in front of the TV, the dog is stretched out in the part of the sitting room that he has claimed as his own and I slink off, tea in hand, to my computer. It’s my way of unwinding.  A quick check for any interesting mosaic pins on Pinterest,  a glance at mosaic matters on Twitter (oh, how I love it’s brevity), followed by a longer, slower look at what fellow mosaicists are up to on Facebook, clicking through to interesting links they’ve posted which often leads on to another link and then another… And as the idle minutes pass, day after day, I start to notice certain similarities between ancient mosaics from all over the Roman world.

Leaf border design. Byzantine Museum, Thessaloniki. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Leaf border design. Nikopolis, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Leaf border design. Stobi, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Hardly surprising, one might say, given that well-worn themes are repeated over and over again in mosaics of the time. Then (and sadly, often now) mosaics were a high-end commodity reserved for the rich, so their subjects of the mosaics tended to reflect the interests and pretentions of their owners.

Geometric border design with swastika. Corinth, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Geometic design with swastika. Palazzo Massimo Museum, Rome, Italy. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

In a precarious world where natural disaster or invasion were a constant threat, it was understandable that one would want to adorn one’s floors with upbeat images that took one’s mind off the ever present possibility of famine, disease or physical attack. Scenes of successful hunting trips where wild animals ran willingly and cleanly into outstretched spears were common.

Tiger hunt. Grand Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

So too were gladitorial battles showing one’s enemies being mauled. Seas teeming with fish, baskets brimming with fruit, the potentially deadly vicissitudes of the seasons reduced to familiar personifications, normally volatile divine beings depicted looking benignly relaxed and mythical beasts tamed and domesticated underfoot were all popular motifs.

Basket of fruit. Vatican Museum, Rome. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Not just subject matter but design elements too recur throughout the empire. The ubiquitous guilloche and wave borders are an obvious example and urns also seem to have had a special place in the Romans’ hearts. There are urns with leopards:

Leopards and urn. Lod Mosaic, Israel. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

With peacocks:

Peacocks and urn. Nahariya, Israel. Photo:

And just ordinary birds:

Bardo Museum, birds and fountain.
Birds and fountain. Bardo Museum, Tunisia. Photo album shared by Mariapaola Landini on Facebook

But when one thinks how extraordinarily large the Roman empire was, some similarities between ancient mosaics begin to seem more remarkable. Wikipedia tells us that the ‘Roman Empire was among the most powerful economic, cultural, political and military forces in the world of its time. It was the largest empire of the classical antiquity period, and one of the largest empires in world history. At its height under Trajan, it covered 5 million square kilometers and held sway over some 70 million people, at that time, 21% of the world’s entire population.’ 

These three all from within the same general region of eastern Turkey – two from Zeugma and one from Hatay – could just be a simple example of keeping up with the Joneses:

Oceanus and Tethys. Zeugma Mosaic Museum, Gaziantep, Turkey. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Oceanus and Tethys. Antakya Museum, Hatay, Turkey. Photo: Dick Osseman.
zeugma new discovery. archeology magazine.
New discovery at Zeugma, Turkey. Oceanus and Tethys. Photo: Archeology Magazine

Five million square kilometres with only horses as a means of transport over rough, unfamiliar terrain; carrying heavy equipment, vulnerable to attack, far from home and exposed to the elements. Reading about a modern day project to retrace the movements of the emperor Hadrian in Following Hadrian’s fascinating blog gives you an idea of just how vast were the distances travelled and how dogged and undauntable the Romans were.

Sheep. Stobi, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Sheep/deer? mosaic. Byzantine Museum, Thessaloniki. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Experts tells us that master mosaicists roamed the known world with pattern books of popular designs which goes some way to explaining the similarities between ancient mosaics. Of course, there was trade too and military expeditions so one can see how ideas for mosaics would have been exchanged and copied.

Bird with ribbon, Nikopolis
Bird with ribbon. Nikopolis, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
jordan bird. tessahunkin
Bird with ribbon. Church of the Lions. Umm al Rasas, Jordan. Photo: Tessa Hunkin.
Bird with ribbon. Israel.

And where distances were not that great as between these two mosaics, at Corinth and at Athens, a mere 85 kilometres away, it doesnt seem far fetched to suppose that the same designer and even mosaic making team could have been responsible for both works or that one mosaic was a direct copy of another.

Head of Dionysos in spiral pattern mosaic. Cornith, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Gorgon head in spiral pattern mosaic. Archeological Museum, Athens. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

But other variants turn up thousands of miles away. This one was in Rome:

Spiral pattern mosaic. Palazzo Massimo Museum, Rome. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

And remarkable similarities in both subject and design occur much further apart. These two mosaics are separated by about 1,300km:

Hunting scene, bear. Nikopolis
Hunter and bear. Nikopolis, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Hunting scene, The Burnt Palace, Madaba.
Hunter and bear, The Burnt Palace, Madaba, Jordan. Photo: Tessa Hunkin

Maybe one could argue that close similarities between ancient mosaics might just be a result of the fact that some designs dont allow much lee way. After all an octopus can only ever be an octopus. But this octopus from Aquiliea shows how differently octopi can be rendered in mosaic:

Marine scene with octopus. Aquilea, Italy. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

And there is a vast difference between this rough ‘sketch’ of two birds at an urn from Palazzo Massimo Museum in Rome:

Birds and bath. Palazzo Massimo Museum, Rome. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

And this minutely rendered design from Pompeii:

birds and urn. roman
Birds and bath. Pompeii.

I suppose a full understanding of how mosaic designs were shared across the empire and how different laying styles and techniques were developed will never be fully known and the fact that hundreds of mosaics must still lie undisturbed not to mention the countless others that have been destroyed over the centuries means that drawing comparisons between ancient mosaics will always have its limitations. What is clearer, though, is that the mosaic work of the ancients had a profound influence on the making of subsequent mosaics; from the Byzantine era where borrowings and adaptions from Roman designs were commonplace:

Peacock and urn. Byzantine Museum, Thessaloniki, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Galla Placidia's Mausoleum, Ravenna, Italy.
Galla Placidia’s Mausoleum, Ravenna, Italy. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

To the present era where we still cant get enough of them (Oceanographic Museum of Monaco):

Octopus mosaic. Sea world museum, Monaco.
Octopus floor mosaic. Oceanographic Museum of Monaco.

Coming up soon: Mosaic memorials, ancient and modern. 



  1. Stephanie Wolff

    Dear Helen, since I started some time ago to be interested in mosaic art, I found your page in the internet and love to get news and fotos from your wonderful work.
    Thank you very much.
    Greetings from Mexico,

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