The Romans decorated their walls with paintings, and their floors with mosaics.


Aeneas with Anchises and Iulus/Ascanius

Aeneas carries his father Anchises and leads his son Ascanius from burning Troy: copy of a wall painting from Pompeii, first century AD. (VRoma: EUR (Rome), Museum of Roman Civilization: Barbara McManus)

As far as we know, paintings were used almost exclusively to cover walls of rooms in houses. These frescoes are brightly coloured, and frequently depict scenes from Greek and Roman mythology.

Garden scene with fountain

Wall painting of a garden scene with fountain and birds, from Oplontis, first century AD. (VRoma: Barbara McManus)

Landscapes were employed to give the impression of picture windows, while the effect of a garden was often extended and enhanced by landscape frescoes along its boundary walls. We have still-life paintings, too, of dead game birds, fish, vegetables, and other kinds of food.

Painting of food

Display shelves and painting of food, from a Roman restaurant of the third century AD. (VRoma: Susan Bonvallet)

The art of mosaic seems to have originated in Babylon and was widely practised in Egypt in the third century BC. The medium spread throughout the Roman empire, and has come to represent Roman pictorial art to many who have never seen the sculptures and paintings which Italy has to show.

Opus sectile

(VRoma: Jeremy Walker)

Mosaics were of three kinds. Opus sectile (above, in House of the Faun, Pompeii) consists of small pieces of different-coloured marble cut into various shapes and fitted together in a geometrical pattern. In opus tessellatum, the dice are square and all of the same size. In opus vermiculatum, the dice are of varied shape and size, often of minute proportions, and and are often set in wavy lines (vermiculatus means “resembling the tracks of worms”). Sometimes more complicated works were made in a studio, and transferred to the site and embedded in concrete, either as wall decorations or pavements.

Dancing girl

Detail from a mosaic from the Aventine Hill: dancing girl with musicians. (VRoma: Vatican Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)

Believe it or not:

Julius Caesar spent almost two million sesterces on two mythological paintings by Timomachus of Byzantium to decorate the temple of Venus Genetrix in Rome. He also installed there a statue of Cleopatra, which caused great offence.