Carpets of Stone
The Graeco-Roman Legacy in the Levant

[Part 1]

Claudine Dauphin[1]

Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

The term 'mosaic' derives from the Latin musivum opus. It originally described the mosaics which decorated the walls and vaults of natural or artificial grottoes, and of fountains (nymphae), those being the most important elements of Roman gardens from the first century BC. These gardens dedicated to the Muses were called musaea, hence musivum opus, in abridged form musium, becoming 'mosaic' in translation.

Mosaic art in the Classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods

Mosaics, as such, are not found in the art of the ancient civilizations of the Near East. During the fourth millennium BC, a form of decoration arose in Mesopotamia which approximated to later mosaic techniques. Small cones of hardened clay, dyed with various colours, were pushed into the mud walls of buildings before they dried, leaving the round bases of the cones to decorate the surface. An example of this has survived in the palace of Uruk in Chaldea. It was, however, the Greeks who, in the humbler sphere of domestic floor-surfacing, originated all later architectural mosaic decoration.

There are two types of mosaics, corresponding to the two great phases of the historical development of mosaic art: pebble-mosaics which characterized the Classical period, and tessera-mosaics in the Hellenistic period.


Pebble-mosaics make use of small, round, white or coloured, sea or river pebbles, approximately 1 cm in diameter, embedded in a thick coat of plaster, this producing an extremely firm flooring. The most ancient pebble-mosaic, dated to the eighth or seventh century BC, was discovered in Phrygian Gordion in Anatolia. This mosaic which covered the large surface of a meeting-room 11 x 10 m, was purely ornamental, with an irregular pattern of red and white squares, rectangles, triangles and circles on a black ground.

After a gap of some four centuries, pebble-mosaics reappeared in full force all over the Hellenistic world, from Motya in Sicily in the West to Olbia on the Crimean Chersonese to the North-East. The most ancient known example is a fragment depicting a triton blowing into a conch, on the floor of the pronaos of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. The excavations of Sicyone, near Corinth, and particularly of Olynthos in Macedonia, in Northern Greece, just before the Second World War, have yielded an important corpus of pebble-mosaics. At Olynthos, for example, the mosaics depicted animal combats, Bellerophon attacking the Chimaera, Thetis and the Nereids bearing arms to Achilles, and Dionysos and his retinue. These pavements must have been laid before 348 BC, since at that date the city of Olynthos was destroyed by an earthquake. These pavements perpetuated in durable form a tradition of carpet design. Textile fragments with designs similar to some of those on the Olynthos pavements have been found in the Kertch peninsula of southern Russia. This kind of merchandise could easily have found its way to Greece through the busy port of Corinth. These stone carpets were more resistant and more easily washed than their textile models, of which they retained, however, bichromy (the use of black and white) and flatness of design. Some of the more ambitious designs, such as Bellerophon killing the Chimaera, may have been borrowed from Greek light-on-dark vase painting, whose standards of artistic tradition were at this time extremely high.

The mosaics found at Pella in Macedonia represented a first step in the evolution of mosaic art. The contouring with strips of lead of the main lines of the composition, of the bodies and of the muscles, as well as the use of a wider palette (black, white, red and yellow for the 'Lion Hunt', for instance) aimed at producing an illusion of relief and emphasized the interplay of light and shade.


A turning point in this evolution was the introduction of the tessera, a four-sided, regularly-shaped stone cube. The exact date and place of the invention of the tessera remain unknown. The oldest tessellated mosaics dating to 260-250 BC were uncovered at Morgantina in Sicily. This does not necessarily imply that the tessera was invented in Sicily. Tessellated mosaics fall basically into two groups, which differ from each other mainly in the size of their constituents. In opus tessellatum, the cubic tesserae measured between 0.7 x 0.7 cm and 1.7 x 1.7 cm; the colours ranged from two to more; geometric motifs were often contoured with small strips of lead. In opus vermiculatum (from the word vermiculus, worm), the size of the tesserae was frequently under 0.7 x 0.7 cm, and narrowly spaced bands of tesserae winded in and out, following the movements of the plastic forms or defining their outlines and their internal lines. The palette was infinitely varied and often the cement between the tesserae was tinted to match them as well as to conceal the joints.

These two kinds of mosaics corresponded to two different uses. The tessellatum covered large areas, either with monochrome mosaics (mainly white) or with mosaics enlivened by geometric or vegetal motifs. On the other hand, opus vermiculatum was the technique par excellence of most finely executed figurative paintings, which Pliny the Elder, quoting Lucilius, described as the art of 'painting in stone' (Hist. Nat. 36.185). A particularly vivid illustration of Pliny's descriptive phrase is the Hellenistic 'Battle of Alexander' which constituted the central panel of a floor mosaic in the Casa del Fauno in Pompeii, based upon a 318 BC painting by Philonexos. The use of tiny, closely set tesserae of basically four colours - black, white, red and yellow - but arranged in fine colour gradations, and the emphasis on modelling with striking foreshortenings, combined to produce truly a 'painting in stone'. The vermiculatum was frequently used for the central panel, mounted separately on a marble or tile tray in a luxury workshop, later transported to the site and ultimately embedded into a simpler floor or decorative border set on the spot. Hence the Greek name emblema for this kind of ready-mounted mosaic, meaning an 'element introduced into another element'. Such a differentiation between a central focal point usually depicting mythological scenes and large surrounding areas of simpler ornamentation was already present at Pella.

Tessellatum and emblema coexisted in Greece from the very beginning of the art of tessellated pavements and were transmitted to Rome only in the first century BC. The Hellenistic tessellatum is represented by fragments of pavements in the second century BC palace of the Hellenistic rulers of Pergamon, where glass (smalto) was first used for pure blue, red and green. It is further exemplified by a corpus of 354 mosaics from the houses of wealthy merchants on the Island of Delos in the Aegean, all dating between 130 and 88 BC, at which date the city was sacked by Mithridates VI Eupator, King of the Pontus. All these pavements followed a set pattern. A rectangular central carpet consisting of several concentric borders decorated with 'trompe-l'oeil' geometric motifs such as meanders, was inserted into the middle of a floor of tessellatum or of white marble slabs. The colour range was limited to white, black, red and sometime yellow. Occasionally, blue or green was used for geometric motifs. In the centre of the carpet, a monochrome surface (generally white) was broken into by a figurative emblema or by a rosette.

Greek influence on Italy is clearly felt in small polychrome emblemata executed with tiny coloured tesserae on a tile base. These could be moved easily and were usually inserted into the middle of rougher pavements in tessellatum, as in the House of the Faun in Pompeii. The motifs depicted on these emblemata were adopted from the Hellenistic East: Nilotic scenes, Erotes, doves, and the asaratos oikos or 'unswept floor' consisting of all kinds of scraps left over from a meal - motifs invented by the famous mosaicist Sosos who lived in Pergamon. There were also fish (which developed ultimately into marine scenes), xenia or still-lives, theatrical scenes, cockfights, masks and wreaths. These were executed by Greek master-craftsmen, such as Dioscorides of Samos and Herakleitos.

These emblemata may even have been produced in the Hellenistic metropoles of the Eastern Mediterranean, bought and brought back to Italy by wealthy Italian collectors. They were all artistic tours-de-force, mosaic translations of paintings rather than creative works of art in their own right. In first century BC Rome, however, the tendency was to do away with these emblemata. Mosaic art on a grand scale first appeared around 80 BC in the Temple of Fortuna built under Sulla at Palestrina near Rome. In the halls on both sides of the temple courtyard, huge apses were covered with floor mosaic, notably one apse with fish and Nilotic scenes. Very small tesserae were used over the entire floor, and there were no geometric borders. Gradually the emblema was superseded by an all-over pattern which finally predominated in the first and second centuries AD. Already in the first century AD, bichromy - the 'black-figured' technique - had been applied to the vestibules of private houses in Herculaneum and Pompeii. Black basalt figures were scattered on a white marble or limestone surface. Monumental compositions which combined ornamental and figurative scenes without partitions, gradually replaced the Hellenistic emblema and border type of pavement. Marine scenes were particularly popular, as in the second-third century AD Terme di Nettuno at Ostia or the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.[2]

The history of mosaic pavements in the Levant is far less known than in the West, despite numerous pavements uncovered in the excavations of Antioch-on-the-Orontes, Misis and Tarsus in Turkey and Apamea in Syria. In particular, the Antioch excavations have brought to light a series of mosaics ranging from the second century to the sixth century AD.[3] The stylistic evolution of Levantine mosaic art was very different from that of the Latin West. Although the emblema and border mosaic type persisted at Antioch much longer than in the West, the difference between the emblema and the frame was not sensed as acutely as in Pompeii or Delos. The main reason for this was that vermiculatum was rarely used and tessellatum was applied to the whole surface. Stylistic evolution was one of architectural conceptualization and composition rather than of technique.

Mosaics in the Levant from Late Imperial times to the Arab Conquest

In the Roman period, mosaicists tended to produce grandiosely designed pavements in which they attempted to portray analogues to reality. This was based on the artist's knowledge of the physical flatness of a mosaic floor, and on his desire to counteract this by skilfully creating illusions of depth and perspective. Even geometric borders contained elaborate exercises in perspective. Such borders were occasionally replaced by the representation of an entrance portico incorporating a floor, flanked by columns and surmounted by a carved lintel.

This produced a 'trompe-l'oeil' effect, in which the emblema or central panel was set back in perspective from the frame or border. The onlooker practically 'entered' the picture through the portico. The illusion of depth in the emblema usually depicting mythological scenes was further accentuated by the depiction of figures and scenery in receding planes. Such was a second-century AD mosaic pavement from Byblos in the Lebanon which depicted Meleager, King of Caledonia, presenting the hunting goddess Atalante with the dead Caledonian boar. According to Diodorus Siculus (4.34.2-4) and Ovid (Metam.8.270), Artemis, principal goddess of the Hunt, had sent this boar to devastate the countryside of the Northern Peloponnese. At the head of a gathering of heroes from all over Greece, Meleager killed the boar and gave its skin to Atalante with whom he was enamoured.[4] At its most elaborate development during the Roman period, mosaics thus appeared to be no less than paintings made up of stone tesserae instead of an artist's brush strokes.

From scene to scatter

The Early Christian mosaicists who succeeded to that Roman tradition had no such ambitious aims. They did not wish to counteract the incontrovertible flatness of the floor by depicting depth and perspective. Their intention was not illusionist; for them, space was an abstract dimension in which objects did not need to have conceptual relationships. The motifs created by Early Christian mosaicists hung complete in themselves as though on the margin of reality. Such were 'hunting scenes', in which figures of hunters were surrounded by wild animals shown in varying scales and positions, without any attempt at narrative sequence. Likewise in 'Nilotic' scenes with various juxtaposed waders and ducks, as in the fifth century AD pavement of the Church of the Multiplication of the Fishes and Loaves at Tabgha on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.[5]

The change of course in mosaic design was mainly a return to the mosaic conceived of primarily as a floor, and only secondarily as an artistic creation, separate from its architectural context. While the Roman mosaic was intended to be seen from a single view point as a complete and coherent depiction of a narrative scene, the Early Christian mosaicists realized the functional nature of their art, by recognizing the floorness of their working surface, and by understanding that people primarily regard floors as surfaces on which they walk. One rarely stands at one end of an empty floor and surveys it in its entirety. It is more usual for the gaze to remain at shoulder level, and for the onlooker to be more aware of walls and furniture, than of floor design. Churches offered their own focal points: the eastern end with its apse and altar. Moving around the floor towards the altar, the onlooker could only grasp a sequence or a number of isolated elements at a time. In each small area therefore, the artist placed a motif which was complete in itself, occasionally without providing it with any link whatsoever with its neighbours or attempting to create an overall design.

The scatter of disconnected depictions however was not completely haphazard. There were carefully distributed although they may have been represented upside down, perpendicularly, or at any other angle to the orientation of the floor. The demands that there should be a motif of interest close to every point on the floor was combined with the knowledge that the onlooker would follow certain predictable paths on his way around the building. Standing in the entrances the onlooker would be able to see the depictions the right way up as would someone reading an inscription set into the floor. The mosaicists made particular provision for someone entering the chancel and approaching the apse. In the Church of Nahariya in Western Galilee, the mosaicist assumed that queues of pilgrims and visitors would move around the edges of the nave and side-aisles in an anti-clockwise direction, and therefore would wish to have all the motifs facing them to their right.[6] This conformed with the liturgical practice of the time, which required pilgrims to approach the altar or crypt along the sides of the church. The mosaicist normally did not have to take account of someone standing in the middle of the nave, and could therefore concentrate on ornate borders to be seen at close quarters.

Within the demands of having motifs facing the right way for someone entering and moving around the building, the Early Christian mosaicists were free to improvise the direction in which animals and human figures were to look, to face, to seem to advance and if they were to form self-contained units. Individuals or groups of figures standing upright in the same direction, could face left, right or be depicted frontally in an apparently random fashion. Some figures advanced towards the centre, others towards the border, others formed self-sufficient units, such as a grape harvester leading his donkey towards a wine press, or a huntsman spearing a tigress or lion. The rhythmic succession of isolated figures and groups of scenes, when viewed horizontally, vertically or diagonally across the floor were usually irregular:

Fig. 1. Rhythmic pattern of the mosaic pavement in the nave of the Church of St. Christopher at Qabr Hiram, Lebanon, AD 575. Big arrows indicate the direction in which the 'inhabitants' move, small arrows the direction in which they look.

An exception to this apparently total random placing of figures is the Church of the Holy Apostles at Madaba in Jordan dating to AD 578-79, where the inhabited acanthus scroll border was punctuated not only by a head (traditionally symbolizing a Season) in each corner but also by depictions of a child in the middle of each side:[7]

Fig. 2, mosaic pavement in the nave of the Church of the Holy Apostles at Madaba, Jordan, AD 578-79

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