detail of the Stag Hunt mosaic at Pella

Greek Mosaics of the Classical & Hellenistic Periods

Abstracts of Papers by Ruth Westgate

detail of the Stag Hunt mosaic at Pella

Hellenistic Mosaics

D. Ogden (ed.), The Hellenistic World: New Perspectives (Duckworth/Classical Press of Wales, 2002) 221–251

Tessellated mosaic is a Hellenistic invention. This paper looks at the development of mosaics in the Hellenistic period, starting with the spectacular pebble mosaics at Pella, probably financed with the spoils of Alexander's conquests, which are the first manifestations of a fundamental shift in attitudes that made private ostentation increasingly desirable. These mosaics show important stylistic and technical innovations, which point the way to the invention of tessellated mosaic. However, exactly when, where and how this invention took place remains a mystery: there are a few simple tessera mosaics from the third century BC, and a large number of very accomplished pavements from the mid-second century onwards, but none of the proposed 'missing links' can be securely dated. It seems likely that the technique was refined at one of the Hellenistic royal courts: it may be significant that both Alexandria and Pergamon have produced extremely fine and relatively early tessera mosaics which can be identified as royal commissions.

From about the middle of the second century, mosaics are found in wealthy houses all over the Hellenistic world, from Spain to Afghanistan. There are many indications of a substantial rise in living standards in this period, driven by economic prosperity and perhaps by aspirations to live like a king; people in different areas on the margins of the Greek world adopted mosaics along with other aspects of a Greek lifestyle as a way of expressing a Greek identity or displaying a fashionable familiarity with Greek culture.

Pergamon, detail of mosaic from Palace V, mid-2nd century B.C. Some of the tesserae used are as small as 1 mm.
Pergamon, border of mosaic from Palace V, mid-2nd century B.C. The highlights on the beads may have been made from a precious material, such as mother-of-pearl.

Greek Mosaics in their Architectural and Social Context

Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 42 (1997–98) 93–115

Olynthos, pebble mosaic in the dining room of House, 4th century B.C. The outer band is for dining-couches. (photo by Janett Morgan)
Olynthos, plan of the Villa of Good Fortune, 4th century B.C., showing how the mosaics mark out the reception suites in the house
This paper is an attempt to understand the social and economic forces that brought about the invention and development of mosaics in the Classical and Hellenistic periods. The first mosaics, made of natural pebbles, appeared in the Greek world in the late fifth century BC: a study of their contexts shows that the majority are in houses, most commonly in the dining room (andron) and its adjacent anteroom. This suggests a close connection between mosaics and the symposium; this is clearly reflected in their Dionysiac subject-matter and concentric composition, which was designed to present a similar view to all the diners reclining around the sides of the room. Within the house, the decoration on floors and walls is often arranged to create a 'crescendo' on the route that guests would have followed to the andron. As only adult males participated in the symposium, the decoration thus serves to distinguish male and female space in the house.

In the Hellenistic period, there appears to be a substantial increase in the proportion of houses with mosaics, and many houses have mosaics in a variety of different types of room; there is a parallel increase in the frequency and complexity of wall painting. It is clear that a much larger part of the house was now given over to entertaining guests. This decorative 'inflation' was probably the product of increased prosperity, combined with changes in attitudes which made private ostentation more acceptable.

Space and Decoration in Hellenistic Houses

Annual of the British School at Athens 95 (2000) 391–426

Delos, mosaic in House III N of the Theatre Quarter, late 2nd/early 1st century B.C.
Morgantina, mosaic in the Pappalardo House, late 2nd/early 1st century B.C.
Delos, plan of the House of the Trident, late 2nd/early 1st century B.C.
The decoration of Hellenistic houses can be understood in terms of hierarchies, which marked out the relative importance of the rooms and spaces in the house. In mosaics, the hierarchy is related to the materials used and the complexity of the design; wall painting is capable of expressing more subtle distinctions, through a combination of colours, motifs, decorative friezes, and architectural features in stucco relief. Surviving houses from Delos, Morgantina and Monte Iato are analysed in detail to suggest how a contemporary visitor might have read their decoration.

From these examples some conclusions are drawn about changes in the use of domestic space in the late Hellenistic period. The reception rooms occupy a larger proportion of the space than in earlier houses, and there are often several dining rooms of different sizes. It appears that in this period more of the house was opened up to invited visitors, which perhaps indicates a change in the status of women. In all of the houses there is a stark contrast between the spacious, carefully decorated areas which were used for receiving guests, and the cramped, undecorated rooms which must have been the service quarters; some houses have two courtyards, so that these functions — and the people who performed them — were physically separated, but in smaller houses the decoration had to serve in place of a physical division.

Pavimenta atque emblemata vermiculata: Regional styles in Hellenistic mosaic and the first mosaics at Pompeii

American Journal of Archaeology 204 (2000) 255–275 available online
Mosaic production in the Hellenistic period can be divided into two broad regional types, eastern and western, on the basis of stylistic and technical differences which are derived from different local traditions of paving. The characteristics of these schools are outlined, and the earliest mosaics at Pompeii are shown to be derived from the western Greek tradition. However, comparison of the Pompeian floors with contemporary mosaics from Greek sites reveals a significant difference: the first Pompeian mosaics consist almost exclusively of figured scenes, set into relatively plain pavements, whereas in Greek mosaics abstract decoration is much more common, and figural motifs are the exception rather than the rule. This reflects a difference in the purpose of mosaics: Pompeian patrons wanted the decoration of their houses to display their familiarity with Greek culture, which encouraged the production of copies and pastiches of Greek artworks, and generic designs in Greek style.

The very specific demands of the Pompeian market may have been served by a different process of production: there are signs of a separation between the production of figured panels, which were probably made by Greeks, and the laying of the pavement itself, which may have been the work of local craftsmen.

comic actor: detail of a mosaic from Pompeii, signed by a Greek mosaicist, Dioskourides from Samos

Life's Rich Pattern: decoration as evidence for room function in Hellenistic houses

R. Westgate, N. Fisher & J. Whitley (eds.), Building Communities: House, Settlement and Society in the Aegean and Beyond. Proceedings of a Conference held at Cardiff University, 17–21 April 2001, British School at Athens Studies 15 (2007) 313–321 conference webpage
conference volume
mosaic with all-over pattern in a circulation space: vestibule & court of House B, Delos

This paper considers how far it is possible to identify the function of rooms in Hellenistic houses from their wall and floor decoration. It is demonstrated that certain types of plain flooring were used predominantly in service rooms, and some types of pavement design can be broadly related to room type. However, although most decorated pavements have the concentric type of design which originated in Classical dining rooms, this is not a reliable indication of dining function, as it had become conventional; little evidence is also found to support the common assumption that the subject matter of figural decoration is directly related to the function of the room.

concentric design in a courtyard: mosaic in the House of the Single Column, Delos
chip mosaic, used in secondary rooms tile mosaic typical of service rooms opus signinum (with inset tesserae)

Genre and Originality in Hellenistic Mosaics

Mosaic 26 (1999) 16–25

Mosaic homepage
mosaic of doves, from Delos, possibly based on a famous mosaic by Sosos of Pergamon

Many figured scenes and motifs appear more than once in mosaics of the Hellenistic period and beyond. These repeated scenes are often interpreted as copies of famous paintings, identifiable from literary sources, and their transmission is usually explained by the movement of craftsmen or the circulation of hypothetical 'pattern-books'. This paper analyses some examples of repeated compositions, to show that the process of transmission was more complex than this. Some scenes probably were more-or-less exact copies of a specific original, although the prototype could be a sculpture or manuscript illustration rather than a painting. In other cases, however, the similarities between scenes are less close. Some appear to be generic works based on a common theme, which could be re-invented to suit the requirements and means of each customer. In addition, the artists seem to have had at their disposal a repertoire of stock figure-types and compositional formulae, shared with artists in other media, which they could combine in different ways to create an infinite variety of scenes. These stock elements need not have been transmitted in a physical form, but could have been drawn from memory as required. Greek mosaicists were not merely skilled copyists reproducing the work of others; they were also capable of creating original compositions.

fish mosaic, from the Casa Romana, Kos
detail of fish mosaic, from the House of the Faun, Pompeii

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This page is maintained by Ruth Westgate. Last updated: 30 November 2007.
Images © Ruth Westgate, Janett Morgan.