Throughout the Roman Empire mosaic artistry was an industry in its own right, with geometric patterns widely used for architectural enhancement. While today we view the intricate and detailed work of Roman mosaics as art, in Roman times mosaicists were seen more as craftsmen than artists. While true artists always sign their work, Roman mosaicists rarely did. Further weight is given to the theory that Romans put little artistic value on mosaics by the fact that ancient writers on the subject of art make little mention of mosaics.
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Roman mosaics have a long history with roots stretching back to the ancient Greeks who used pebbles and coloured stone to decorate jewellery and small items of furniture. Following the Alexandrian conquest around 330 B.C., more colourful mosaics were created using specially made tiles (called tesserae). These enabled the mosaic artists to create more intricate scenes with inspiration being taken from paintings. The vast Roman Empire, spanning most of Europe and beyond, took its influence from the civilisations it conquered and gradually, over hundreds of years, the inspiring mosaic legacy we know today grew up and took shape, growing in range, scope and detail.
Roman mosaics were used for both practical and aesthetic reasons. From durable, pebbled roads to more detailed, artistic pavements, mosaic floor coverings were popular throughout the empire. Wall mosaics (called opus musivum) used the finest of materials such as brightly coloured glasses or even gold to produce rich murals. Mosaic work was featured everywhere, from public buildings such as bath houses and roadways to private dwellings. The wealthy villa owners of the time would often privately commission mosaic artists to enrich their homes.
Popular Roman mosaic themes were those of a mythological nature, with gods and goddesses being widely represented. Also popular was to match the theme of the wall mosaic with the usage of the room. For instance, scenes featuring Leda and the Swan might be used in a bathroom, or themes relating to Dionysus (the god of wine, fertility and nature) would be popular in the dining room.
The type of preferred mosaic design varied between the Eastern and Western Empires. Both areas favoured mythology although each chose different representations. Whereas in the Greek East mythological figures from specific stories took preference (as mentioned above), in the West the leaning was more towards the depiction of the victories of the gods and their followers. Neptune and Aphrodite, for instance, were common subjects.
Roman mosaics have great historical significance not only for their great beauty but also for the light they shed on everyday Roman life. They speak of the small, regular events such as harvests and the passing of the seasons, but also tell us about the relative wealth of individuals and note the important historical characters such as Alexander the Great and his defeat of King Darius of Persia. Some of the greatest Roman heritage treasures were uncovered in Pompeii.
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