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  • Writer's pictureIldiko

10 Awesome Roman and Byzantine Mosaics

Updated: Feb 19, 2023

As a lover of art and history, mosaics have always caught my attention throughout my travels. While existing on a continuum, Roman mosaics and Byzantine mosaics evolved to become quite different from each other. Ancient roman mosaic patterns included recurring geometric motifs as well as elaborate mythologic, hunting, and sporting scenes. Byzantine mosaics, which succeeded the Roman era, were bedazzled with glittering gold, incorporated precious stones, and often centered on imperial and religious figures. This blog shares five fantastic ancient Roman mosaics and five spectacular Byzantine empire mosaics. Check them out!

The Alexander Mosaic in Pompeii, Italy (Roman)

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Pompeii is a city frozen in time. Thanks to the 12 meters of ash and lava that buried the city in 79 AD, a window into ancient Roman life was preserved for millennia until archaeologists unearthed the city. The most well-known artifact uncovered from the Pompeii excavations are the plaster casts of bodies, but one of the greatest mosaics in the Roman empire was also preserved under all that ash – the 'Alexander Mosaic.'

The huge (8 x 16ft!) mosaic once decorated the floor of what is now known as the House of the Faun in Pompeii, the largest home in the city. Today, the original hangs in the National Archaeology Museum of Naples, but a replica mosaic is located at its original location in Pompeii.

The incredibly detailed and artistic art piece depicts Alexander the Great and his troops battling those of the Persian King Darius III, at the Battle of Issus (333 BC). Alexander himself is shown to the left, riding into battle on his horse. The Persian King is shown fleeing on his chariot, with his forces in disarray.

The mosaic stands out because, from a distance, it looks like a painting. It is uncharacteristically complex for a Roman mosaic, using foreshortening and shadowing effects. One and a half million tiles were used to create the intricate scene. It is truly a masterpiece and worth seeing on a trip to Pompeii.

The replica in Pompeii, Italy:

The original displayed in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy:

Baths of Neptune Mosaic in Ostia Antica, Italy (Roman)

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Ostia Antica, an expansive archeological site in what used to be Rome’s seaport, is home to the remains of 24 bath complexes. Ostia Antica is about 15 miles from Rome, and it’s worth visiting to see one of the more impressive bathhouses, the Baths of Neptune.

The thermal baths of Neptune were built near the end of Emperor Hadrian’s rule in the 2nd century AD. Baths in the Roman Empire served a social function along with a hygienic one. Bathers used the space to conduct business, eat a meal, or seduce a romantic partner.

The Baths of Neptune included a gymnasium, hot, cold, and warm baths, dressing rooms, and an entrance hall with two magnificent mosaics on its floor. One depicts Neptune, the god of the sea, riding a chariot drawn by seahorses and surrounded by various marine animals. The other, in the adjacent room, shows his wife, Amphitrite, riding a seahorse.

The mosaics are created from white and black tiles, in a style that was used throughout many spaces in Ostia. These mosaics are particularly well-preserved, and the images depict active scenes of gods and animals from the sea. As Ostia was a harbor town, the use of marine imagery seems especially appropriate!

For visitors to Ostia Antica, there is an elevated platform adjacent to the Baths of Neptune, from which you can look down on the floor mosaics. Informational plaques identify the figures in the mosaic and share information about the function of a Roman bathhouse.

Aldborough Fort Mosaic in Yorkshire, UK (Roman)

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Tucked away in North Yorkshire in the UK is a tiny village with the remains of an impressive Roman Fort. Far from the well-trodden tourist trail, the Aldborough Roman site is a modest and unassuming hidden gem, well worth a trip from York. Once the capital for Britain’s largest tribe - the Romanized Brigantes – Aldborough now showcases that past. It houses a small museum with archaeological finds from 1,800 years of history. Its beautiful grounds contain the remains of the original town walls. In addition, two incredible 2nd-century Roman mosaic pavements can be viewed in their original positions. The beautifully preserved Star Mosaic features an 8-pointed star surrounded by interlaced geometrical patterns. It’s housed inside a small building towards the end of the fort. The second mosaic, the Lion Mosaic, was discovered in the garden of a local pub and while it has suffered some damage to the central area, it’s still stunning. The best way to visit Aldborough- known to the Romans as Isurium Brigantum - is to drive to the pretty nearby town of Boroughbridge and then walk the mile from the public car park. The only parking at Aldborough is for disabled drivers. The Aldborough Roman site is managed by English Heritage. The admission charge is £5.60 for adults.

Villa of the Birds Mosaic in Alexandria, Egypt (Roman)

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Alexandria is one of the most surprising cities in Egypt as the metropolis combines the remains of ancient Egypt's history with the vibrancy of its Mediterranean port. A particularly impressive site to see in Alexandria is the Kom el-Dikka Archaeological Park, home of the only still-intact Roman amphitheater in Egypt.

Within the Kom el-Dikka complex, you will also find the Villa of the Birds, which is the ruins of an ancient Roman mansion that still has some intact mosaics on the walls and floors. It is believed that the mosaics have been laid down in the 1st century AD and they are in very good condition. The colorful Birds Mosaic represents different species of birds, as well as geometric motifs.The bird mosaic could have been one of the bedrooms of the villa. It is adjacent to the dining room, the biggest space in the villa. One of the floors has a mosaic with a panther centerpiece. The villa was discovered in 1998, beneath the wall of a Byzantine building. The Villa of the Birds is a fantastic example of ancient Roman design and style. It is one of the few remaining structures from Alexandria’s Roman era.

Bikini Girls Mosaic in Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily, Italy (Roman)

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The 3rd century Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina, a rural town in the center of Sicily, is a site to behold. Proposed to be the potential “retirement villa” of Emperor Valerianus Maximianus, the villa is lush with numerous exquisite and very well-preserved mosaics. Gorgeous, elaborate, and colorful mosaics throughout the villa feature complex hunting scenes, animals being loaded onto boats, transported and disembarked to Rome, destined for the Roman amphitheater, chariot-racing scenes, many mythological scenes, geometric and floral motifs, intimate scenes, and even a fun mosaic showcasing ‘Bikini Girls”.

Intended as a room for the servants of the residence’s matriarch or Domina (Eutropia), the rectangular ‘Bikini Girls’ cubicle interestingly had two overlapping mosaic floors, for even in ancient times women seemingly loved redecorating! The original mosaic, as can be seen in the top left-hand segment of the flooring, was a simple geometric motif dated to the 3rd c. AD. Once the owner tired of that pattern and wanted a change in the decor, craftsmen from the Constantinian period (320 AD) laid a new and fun mosaic atop the geometric one, featuring ten bikini girls!

The girls actually represent serious athletes engaged in a pentathlon which was comprised of five sports: spoked wheel, hand weight jump, discus throw, free running, and handball competitions. Note that in the second register, the girl in the center has already been awarded a victory palm and crown of flowers, while the girl holding the spoked wheel is about to be rewarded a victory palm and crown of flowers by the young women wearing the gold cloak.

Armenian Bird Mosaic in Jerusalem (Byzantine)

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This is a rare Byzantine mosaic in that it is not open to the general public, but can only be viewed with the permission of the Armenian Patriarch in Jerusalem. I feel very fortunate to have had that opportunity on one of my visits to Jerusalem.

The mosaic is a stunning, colorful floor mosaic showing medallions of vines and grapes, and 39 various birds, all bordered by a geometric braid. The inscription along the top of the mosaic reads, 'To the memory and salvation of the souls of all Armenians whose names are known by God alone.'

The mosaic floor is the remains of an old Armenian chapel constructed sometime between the 5th and 6th centuries AD, based on the style of the motifs and the shape of the inscription. It was built in honor of St. Polyeucte who was an Armenian from Malatia and an officer in the Roman Army. He was martyred in 260 AD for his deep Christian faith. Consequently, the mosaic is considered to be a monument erected in memory of a fallen Armenian soldier and lays overtop a grave full of bones belonging to Armenian soldiers.

The ruins of this chapel, discovered in 1894, are hidden behind an obscure run-down entrance located just outside of the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem's Old City.

Basilica of San Vitale Mosaics in Ravenna, Italy (Byzantine)

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If you love art history then the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy is a must-visit. While all of the Ravenna mosaics are spectacular, the Basilica di San Vitale mosaics are without question the best of the best! The 6th-century late antique church, with seven other structures in Ravenna, is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Construction on the church was completed in the year 547 AD.

While the presbytery and choir are covered in mosaics, there are three main mosaics that grab the bulk of your attention. In the apse above the altar is a gorgeous mosaic of Jesus, seated on a globe and flanked by an angel on either side. At the bottom of the side walls of the apse are two of the most famous Byzantine mosaics in the world, one depicting Emperor Justinian and his courtiers, and the other depicting Empress Theodora and her ladies in waiting. The colors and details of the mosaics are incredible and will leave you awestruck. Theodora's jewels, the colors in the robes of the ladies, and the beautiful backdrop make the Theodora panel one you'll want to examine at length. The Justinian panel shows the Emperor in the center, with members of the military and court on his one side and members of the clergy on his other, indicating that he is the head of both church and state.

Allow plenty of time to view the magnificent mosaics of Basilica di San Vitale when you visit Ravenna!

Madaba Map Mosaic in Madaba, Jordan (Byzantine)

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The Saint George church in Madaba, Jordan houses a mosaic treasure from early Christianity. It’s a map of Palestine and it’s the oldest in existence. The map dates from 560 AD and it is a floor mosaic. The map is located in the apse of the church and faces eastward towards the altar. The Saint George church is a Greek Orthodox church from the 19th century. The ancient mosaic map is among the remnants of an early Byzantine church that once stood on that spot. The map was discovered in 1884 when the Greek Orthodox church was being built. Sadly, much of the mosaic has been lost. However, there’s still enough of it remaining to get a sense and feel of its enormity.

The mosaic is about the Holy Land sites and depicts 157 captions in Greek of the major biblical sites from Palestine to Egypt. You can only see about a quarter of the original map, but still get a good feeling of the Holy Land. For example, you can see Mount Sinai, the Dead Sea, fish swimming in the Jordan River, and prominently in the center, Jerusalem.

Next to the church is an exhibition of the map. Visit this exhibition first, for it explains a lot about the map and makes it easier to recognize the various sites when you see the actual map.

Constantine and Justinian Mosaic in the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, Turkey (Byzantine)

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Once Emperor Constantine granted the Christians freedom of religion in 325 AD, it didn't take long for Christianity to become the official religion of the Roman state, in 380 AD. With that, the Roman emperor invariably became the leader of both state and religion. Constantine re-located the governance of the Roman Empire to the east and established Constantinople. There he built a church.

At that same location in Constantinople a couple of centuries later, Emperor Justinian re-built a new and significantly larger church to reflect the immense wealth and power of his empire. His church came to be known as the Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom. Justinian filled it lavishly with slabs of marble, granite, porphyry, and precious stones from across the empire. Interestingly, the original Byzantine mosaics that the craftsmen laid were simple Christian symbols, such as crosses and fish, as well as floral and geometric motifs. It wasn’t until the post-iconoclastic period in the mid 9th and early 10th c. that Byzantine artists decorated the Hagia Sophia with gleaming, radiant golden mosaics featuring Christian scenes and figures, as well as imperial ones. Both Emperor Justinian and his wife, Empress Theodora, are represented in several scenes.

One byzantine mosaic panel located at the southwestern entrance of the basicila, is particularly impressive. In gleaming golden and polychrome tesserae, the scene depicts four figures. On the right is pictured Emperor Constantine I presenting the center figures, the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child on her lap, with a model of the city of Constantinople. The figure on the left is Emperor Justinian I presenting the Virgin Mary with a model of the Hagia Sophia. Both emperors are offering the blessed Mary their unique gifts.

Pantocrator Mosaic in Monreale, Sicily (Byzantine)

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The Cathedral of Monreale on the outskirts of Palermo, Sicily is also known as ‘The City of the Golden Temple.' Germanic invaders, the Normans, gradually settled, occupied, and ultimately overtook the island of Sicily beginning in the 11th century under Roger I. With full papal endorsement and a desire to restore Christianity to the area previously taken over by Arabs, the Normans built massive fortress churches throughout Sicily. Under William II, ecclesiastical authority was transferred to Monreale, just outside of Palermo, where a monastic Abbey was established between 1172-1176 AD. The resultant cathedral, by way of the splendor and magnificence of its architecture, boldly displayed the regal power and wealth of the Norman sovereigns.

Upon entering the cathedral you see gleaming golden and polychrome tesserae on every wall column and arch, reaching out into every conceivable space. Over an area of 8000 square meters, radiant mosaics pictorially tell the story of the Christian faith beginning with Creation, the Old Testament stories, the Life of Christ, the Apostles, and ending with the Evangelists announcing the word of Christ and His church to the world. The mosaics were not just decorative, but intent on conveying a message aimed at the very often illiterate populace… a message of faith in Christ the Savior.

The crown jewel of the mosaics is not surprisingly Jesus, the Pantocrator, looming large in the apse vault over the main alter. The entire image spans 13 meters. Jesus is wrapped in rich pleated robes and His arms are extended, welcoming all. His right hand is held in a gesture of a blessing and in His left hand he holds a bible opened to a page in the gospel. The gospel inscriptions are written in both Greek and Latin and read ‘I am the light of the world. He who follows shall not walk in the darkness.' He is surrounded by his Heavenly Court of angels, prophets, and saints.

The entire cathedral is spectacular aesthetically, architecturally, and artistically. If you travel to Sicily, be sure to include a visit to Monreale so you can experience this treasure firsthand.


So, there you have it ...

Ten stunning mosaics for you to seek out and admire as you travel the vast stretches of the former Roman and Byzantine Empires. On those journeys, you will undoubtedly see MANY, MANY more such mosaics. I hope you are on the lookout for these beautiful works of art and slow down long enough to appreciate the fine craftsmanship of the ancient Roman and Byzantine artists.

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