The mosaics in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum span the second through the sixth centuries AD and reflect the diversity of compositions found throughout the Roman Empire during this period. Several of the mosaics in the Getty collection can be traced to specific discoveries made in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Italy, Gaul, North Africa, and Syria. Although the Greeks introduced the medium, using pebbles embedded in mortar, it was really the Romans, with their use of tesserae in a technique called opus tessellatum, who fully explored it as suitable ornamentation for their architecture. In fact, mosaic floors are closely aligned with Roman culture, and because of their durability they have survived in greater numbers than paintings and sculptures and testify to a lively and imaginative practice of decorative and figurative arts.

The placement of mosaics can suggest the function of the spaces they once decorated, and certain mosaic themes call on the visitor to interact with the work in a specific and intentional way. Unlike wall paintings, floor mosaics insist on movement over them and engage the viewer in a surprisingly physical experience. In order to better understand these compositions, it is critical to keep their spatial and tactile qualities in mind. Through the hundreds of visual images that survive in Roman mosaics, we can sometimes read the aspirations, anxieties, and pleasures of those who lived in the houses, towns, and cities of the Roman Empire.

The Roman architect Vitruvius, in his treatise on architecture, De Architectura, documents the techniques used for the preparation of mosaic pavements, but he does not indicate how the tesserae were gathered or cut, or how the compositions were laid out. The use of mosaic pavements followed the spread of Roman culture throughout the empire during the Imperial period (about the first through fourth centuries AD). When painterly effects were desired, the colored stones were cut into very small tesserae, and sometimes glass was used to create tones of orange, yellow, blue, and green not easily found in nature. In view of the grand pictorial works such as the Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii and the number of similar examples found throughout the empire, it is reasonable to assume that mosaicists, like painters and weavers, relied on cartoons, drawings, and sketchbooks. However, the artisans were highly skilled and clearly at liberty to be flexible and imaginative with their commissions, so no one mosaic is exactly like another.

As the empire expanded, the elite increasingly displayed their wealth and Roman identity in private settings. Regional workshops developed to meet the increasing demand for domestic mosaics. The mosaics in the Getty’s collection reveal a rich variety of approaches from different parts of the Roman Empire. Certain themes and organizational patterns were typical of particular regions. In Italy, for example, black-and-white style mosaics came into fashion in the late Republic (mid-second to first century BC) and remained popular well into the third century AD. The Getty Medusa (cat. 1), most likely of the Hadrianic period (during the reign of the emperor Hadrian from AD 117 to 138), is largely black and white with a polychrome center featuring a frightening serpentine visage. Triangles of black and white produce a swirling circular pattern around the Gorgon’s head, directing the focus to the central image, which in this case was probably also the center of the room. The fact that almost all the extant Medusa mosaics—about one hundred—are set within a kaleidoscopic pattern that produces the impression of motion suggests that the ancients believed the kinesthetic effect of ornament could work in tandem with the mythic image of the Gorgon to ward off evil.

In the Gallic provinces of Rome, mosaic compositions are largely arranged in a field of patterns divided into compartments spread evenly across the floor. This approach is well illustrated in a mosaic from Saint-Romain-en-Gal in southern France (cat. 3). The very popular subject of Orpheus charming the beasts is set out within hexagonal compartments inscribed within a circle, demonstrating how geometry and ornament were equally balanced with figural subjects in this region. Two other Gallic mosaics come from a Roman villa at Villelaure, near Aix-en-Provence. Multiple borders, including the braiding and chevrons typical of the Roman workshops in Gaul, surround each part of the floor’s designs. The larger panel (now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; see fig. 14), with Diana as huntress at its center, is surrounded by four different hunting scenes. These four vignettes face in different directions, offering multiple viewpoints to those walking over the mosaic and suggesting that it once decorated a reception space. The pendant panel at the Getty (cat. 4) features a scene from Virgil’s Aeneid, in which the Trojan Dares fights a local Sicilian named Entellus. While the figural elements of pendants typically relate to one another thematically, it was not always so, and in this case there may be only a broad connection—perhaps the two mosaics represent ideal masculine endeavors.

The mosaics of Roman North Africa are quite different from those of Italy and Gaul in their exuberant embrace of color and scale; large-scale figural mosaics spread out across the floors, accommodating rooms of many shapes and sizes. However, the very first mosaics in this region, dating to the late first and second centuries AD, rely on Hellenistic Greek traditions. This is well demonstrated by a mosaic showing a lion attacking a wild ass, or onager (cat. 5), which is set in a rocky landscape beside a pool of water, purportedly from Hadrumetum (present-day Sousse in Tunisia). This mosaic was created as a separate picture panel known as an emblema and made of tiny pieces of stone and glass arranged to imitate painting. The subject and the style recall the famous panel from Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli (now in Berlin), which depicts a battle of centaurs and wild beasts in a rocky landscape. A similar theme of wild felines attacking onagers occurs in two panels from a dining room in the House of the Dionysiac Procession in Thysdrus (present-day El Djem in Tunisia), but these panels are probably of a later date than the Getty mosaic, as there is a less pronounced illusionistic handling of the landscape.

The Hellenistic tradition of emblemata remains strongest in the Greek-speaking part of the empire, namely the Roman provinces of Arabia, Cilicia, Cyprus, Palestine, and Syria. Many floor mosaics found in Antioch, the ancient capital of Syria, show a preference for the framed picture panel associated with the Hellenistic style of earlier periods. The Getty’s Achilles and Briseis panel (cat. 6) may be closely related to two mosaics from Antioch, one from the second century and the other from the third century AD, which illustrate the same episode from the Iliad. Most likely the Getty panel is also from a Syrian workshop but presents a more detailed composition than either of the Antiochene examples. The painterly effects are obvious in all three mosaics despite their fragmentary states, and they underline how committed the Eastern artisans were to depicting paintings in stone.

The stylistic interconnections of these regional mosaic workshops suggest that many artisans were itinerant. The North African school, once established, had a far-reaching influence. We can see this in the example of the Bear Hunt mosaic (cat. 2). The scale and style of the Getty mosaic evoke that of a large multicolored mosaic found on the Esquiline Hill in Rome (near the Church of Santa Bibiana), which was possibly part of the Constantinian imperial palace known as the Sessorium. (Today, the mosaic is on view at the Musei Capitolini Centrale Montemartini.) In this mosaic, hunting scenes from a stock repertory depicting the capturing of the wild animals for the venationes (animal hunts) are distributed across a wide rectangular panel, which perhaps once covered a long palace hall. Both of the fourth-century AD Italian mosaics exhibit themes that can be directly linked to the gathering of the beasts for the venationes featured on the great portico of the Villa of Piazza Armerina in central Sicily, which also dates to the fourth century. There is little doubt that North African workshops took part in the massive commission of the Villa of Piazza Armerina. Their work stands out for the exceptional realism of the staged wild beast hunts that began to appear in their repertory in the late third century AD.

Mosaics featuring hunts and wild beasts have been found throughout the Mediterranean and have proven to be one of the most popular themes in the Greek East as well as in the Latin West. The display of animals lent itself well to the demand for pavements covering large and irregularly shaped spaces, as these subjects could be scattered about, facing in different directions. This is the case with a group of fragments (depicting a griffin, a horse, a lion, bulls, a rabbit, a donkey, a stag, birds and a tree, and two peacocks; see cats. 8, 9–19) whose style, subject, and arrangement clearly belong to an eastern Mediterranean workshop of the fifth or sixth century AD. The types of subjects, especially the peacocks and the vines and their free distribution within the compositions, are characteristic of the treatment of a number of nave mosaics in Christian churches in the Syrian region at this time. This shift from the iconography of the Roman amphitheater to the realm of Christ demands an explanation. By the early Byzantine period, the beasts in such parades are often represented as quite tame and are thought to refer to the peaceable kingdom of paradise, and may even more broadly imply the domain of the Lord and his Creation. The boundaries between secular and religious imagery were quite permeable in the new Christian Empire.