Some Thoughts on Roman Mosaics

Roman Mosaic- Naked Goddess-Woman

Above is a fine example of a mosaic depicting a Roman woman or a goddess.

Roman mosaics, the very words conjure visions of beautiful women or goddess floating almost ethereally, or delicious fish swimming in the sea,

Roman Mosaic-Fish

or eye entrancing geometric patterns.

Roman Mosaic-Geometric Pattern

Every home that aspired to be the home of someone worth knowing had them. They have been found in Israel, in Africa, in Spain, in France, and, of course, in Italy. They graced the floors of not only private homes, but also temples, and public buildings. They covered every subject from birds, to animals, to flowers, to clothing, to tools, to portraits, to gladiators, to senators, to hunting, to fishing, and to plowing. Our knowledge of the Roman era would be markedly less visual and less exciting without the world of the mosaic.

Mosaics are composed of small squares of material, usually, with each square being called a tesserae or a tessellae in Latin. The process of making a mosaic was called opus tesellatum. Each tesserae was white, black or colored and measured about 1 cm, although examples range from .5 cm to 1.5 cm. Further, a tesserae could be made from marble, tile, glass, pottery, stone, or sea shells. Sometimes glass was crushed and then made into a paste called smalto.

When one made a mosaic, the first step was to clear a level space and then place fresh mortar over it. The tesserae were then fitted closely together and pushed into the drying mortar. The mortar was made of quick lime and water to first make putty. To the putty, the Romans added sieved sand and crushed stone. After the tesserae were laid, any gaps were filled with further mortar. The mosaic was then left to dry. Later, the mosaic was cleaned and then polished.

As an art form, the Roman raised the art of mosaics to the point that portraits that copied paintings could easily be made. Shading could be incorporated into a mosaic, as well as a complete spectrum of colors.

The following is an example of a portrait with shading:

Roman Mosaic-Head of Man

In time, mosaics were made in a rimmed tray about 40 by 40 cms. These rimmed trays were called in Latin emblemata. Because they were made in a tray, they could be reused time and time again and were handed down from generation to generation. They were quite costly to produce and were highly treasured.

Mosaics were made depicting gods and goddesses, as well as heroes.  For example, the following is a depiction of Alexander the Great:

Roman Mosaic-Alexander the Great

Or Mosaics could be made depicting scenes of battle:

Roman Mosaic-Battle Scene

In Italy, black and white mosaics dominated the scene, although there are plenty of colored mosaic examples. Often, these were made with marine themes. In the Roman Baths of Caracalla in Rome, the first floor is covered with such black and white mosaics with an abundance of marine imagery.

Flooring could be done with black and white mosaics, with red mortar to provide more color. Often these were done in geometric forms and were called opus signinum. Of course, mosaics were not only confined to floors, but could be on walls as a mural or even on the ceiling of vaults.

An example of an opus signinum:

Roman MOsaic-Balck and White Head of Man

Our world be far less complete without beautiful Roman mosaics.


The City of Gath: Goliath’s Home?

“A massive gate unearthed in Israel may have marked the entrance to a biblical city that, at its heyday, was the biggest metropolis in the region.

The town, called Gath, was occupied until the ninth century B.C. In biblical accounts, the Philistines — the mortal enemies of the Israelites — ruled the city. The Old Testament also describes Gath as the home of Goliath, the giant warrior whom the Israelite King David felled with a slingshot.

The new findings reveal just how impressive the ancient Philistine city once was, said lead archaeologist of the current excavation, Aren Maeir, of Bar-Ilan University in Israel.”-

This archaeological event underscores the fact that not only are major finds being made, but also that some of these finds help to demonstrate the historicity of the Bible.  While the archaeologists are not saying that this proves that David slew Goliath, it does prove that a city named Gath did exist and that this city was quite large and thus presumably quite important.

Beyond this, this find also shows the influence which each culture had one upon the other.  “The team also found ironworks and a Philistine temple near the monumental gate, with some pottery and other finds typically associated with Philistine culture. Though the pottery represents a distinctive Philistine style, it also shows elements of Israelite technique, suggesting the cultures did influence each other in ways unrelated to war.”

The Philistines were a people who inhabited an area  comprised of at least five city states (the so-called Pentapolis): Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath.  Not a great deal is known about the Philistines; most of what is known comes from sources written by their neighbors: the Hebrews and the Egyptians.  We do not have inscriptions from the Philistines themselves.  Based upon the Egyptian inscriptions, it would appear that the Philistines are the “sea people” (and maybe the southern sea people) who repeatedly attacked Egypt.

In 2003, a statue of a king named Taita bearing inscriptions in Luwian (an ancient Indo-European language) was discovered during excavations conducted by German archeologist Kay Kohlmeyer in the Citadel of Aleppo. This King Taita described himself as being the King of the Palistin.  The similarities of the Palistins to the Philistines, has caused some some scholars to speculate that there is a relationship or a connection between the Hittite-Palistins and the Philistines.

Others have tried to differentiate the Philistines in the south from “relatives in the north” as being the ‘southern’ and ‘northern’ sea peoples.  Archaeological investigations north of the Philistine Pentapolis uncovered five significant sites inhabited by the ‘northern’ Sea Peoples—Aphek, Tell Qasile, Tell Gerisa, Jaffa and Dor—of which Dor is the largest.

Excavations at the northern Sea Peoples’ site of Dor, which Ephraim Stern directed for two decades, revealed that the Sikil city boasted a particularly strong defense wall and engaged in metallurgical activities. Cult objects discovered at Dor reflect both Aegean and Cypriot origins.

The Philistines seem to have appeared for a while upon the stage and then they disappear. They appear to have existed for about 200 or 300 years from about 1300 BC to 1000 BC.  Some have suggested that they came from Crete or Mycenae, the latter being based upon various similarities in pottery design.

Unlike the Mycenaean culture, the Philistines worshiped gods such as Baal, Astarte, and Dagon.  These gods are the same ones later worshiped by the Carthaginians.

The Philistines’ cities were carefully laid out and included industrial areas.  The city of Ekron had at least 200 olive oil production facilities which are estimated to have produced 1,000 tons of olive oil a year.  To put this in modern terms, that would amount to 30% of Israel’s current production of olive oil.

Returning to Gath, this city’s walls are extremely large and would have functioned as a means to counterbalance the Israelite nation nearby. In fact, researchers have said that the gate is largest one ever found in Israel.

None of this proves Goliath lived in Gath.  But if Gath existed, so too Goliath may have existed.

Rome: Random Thoughts-Part I

When one thinks of Rome, one thinks of an ancient people living an alien life-style in the dim-distant past. This article will try to make Rome seem less remote, their life-style more accessible, and the past more alive. However, this article will not conform to a scholarly article but will be more of a collection of thoughts, facts, and figures.  In the future, I will from time to time publish additional articles in this series.

The population of Rome and of the Empire have often been the subject of debate.  While most authorities agree that the population of the Roman Empire was greater than the population of same land area in the fifteenth century, authorities do not agree on a specific number.  Having said that between 70 and 80  million is a good estimate during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.  The Roman Empire probably had at least 1/5 of the then world’s population.  Interestingly, authorities agree that the growth of population was stable at about 0.15 percent per year for about 150 years (between Augustus and Aurelius).  Of the total population, about 10% were slaves, meaning 7,000,000 or more at the time of Aurelius.

About 1/3 of the population of the Italian peninsula lived in cities.  There were some 450 cities on the Italian peninsula. Rome itself had about a  population of 750,000 in 14 AD. This grew to over a million ( and maybe 1,250,000) by the year 100 AD.

Other cities in the Empire, while large in size, did not approach Rome’s population. Alexandria, next largest after Rome, had about 300,000 inhabitants, with Carthage and Antioch having about the same number.  Ephesus and Pargamum, the next largest cities, were not in this class having only about 180,000 inhabitants.

The other 2/3 of the population lived outside of cities.  Farming was the main occupation.  It is instrumental that a legionary, after having served his term, was usually granted land to farm.  This inducement was a powerful one-land was the main form of wealth.  The area around the Mediterranean is not suited to pastoralism, as only goats and  sheep can withstand the lack of water during the summer.  Thus agriculture was the main economic endeavor.  The Mediterranean climate and soil is suited to olives, grapes, figs, and some cereals. Pigs and poultry were raised but usually only near a city here they cold be easily sold at market.

Trade was very important during the Roman Empire.  This trade not only moved by sea, but also throughout the large river net work.  For example, the Nile River and its basin were exceedingly important.  Grains, particularly wheat and corn were grown along the banks of the Nile, and then were transported up river to a port, such as Alexandria, thence from there by sea to Rome.

Roman sea-trade ships were large and were only rivaled in size by European vessels in the 1750’s.  Some authorities believe that the cost ratio of sea transport to river transport to land transport is 1:6:55.  Meaning that land transport cost about ten time river transport and 55 times sea transport.

Besides agriculture, mining, and trade, the Roman Empire had some industrial base.  Obviously, bricks were made in vast quantities.  The vast ruins of buildings of Leptis Magna in modern day Libya, for example, are made of thousands upon thousands of bricks, which was the main building material of the Roman Empire.  Nonetheless, there were other industries, including, but not limited to glass making, pottery, textile mills, and lumber mills.

How much did these industries contribute to the GDP of the Empire?  Although no one can know for sure, it appears that industry contributed about 5% to GDP.  Commerce, may have contributed another few percent to GDP; agriculture, again was the bulk of the Roman GDP.  As a corollary to this, it would appear that the average Roman was living a subsistence life-style, with three-quarters of the population engaged in farming.

From this it would appear that the Roman Empire was much like a developing third world economy today.