Discover Pompeii’s Famous Mosaics

This article delves into the stories behind Pompeii’s twelve most famous mosaics and tells readers where to find them.

Jun 7, 2024By Jessica Venner, PhD Classics, Ancient History, Archaeology; MA Classics

discover pompeii famous mosaics


Hidden under the ash for almost 2,000 years, the mosaics that once adorned the wealthy homes and public buildings of Pompeii are now viewable by visitors to the site and museums around the world. Before this, they were created by highly skilled artists and craftsmen for the pleasure of wealthy patrons and the public in both private and public buildings. Featuring mythological tales, legends, and oozing with symbolism, ancient Pompeii’s mosaics provide a vivid window into the lives of an ancient population living two millennia ago.


The Alexander Mosaic

Alexander mosaic
The Alexander Mosaic from the House of the Faun (VI.12.2) in Pompeii. Source: Berthold Werner, Naples National Archaeological Museum.


Just north of the Forum in Pompeii, past the Temple of Fortuna Augusta and down the street named by modern excavators, the Vicolo del Fauno, visitors today will come upon one of the most visited houses in the city. The House of the Faun (VI.12.2), so-named due to the statue of a bronze faun found frolicking in the center of the entrance hallway (atrium) fountain, was a large house (domus) in antiquity built in the second century BCE. This wealthy property had mosaics throughout, on the floors of side rooms, and even surrounding an elaborate garden fountain. But the most famous of them all could be found just beyond the atrium on the floor of the tablinum (master’s study).


Measuring 272 cm × 513 cm (8 ft 11 in × 16 ft 8 in), the mosaic covered the expanse of the room’s floor. It was first discovered in the 1830s by excavators working for the German Archaeological Institute and was initially thought to be depicting a battle scene from the Iliad. However, since then historians have deduced that the mosaic was, in fact, depicting the Battle of Issus in 333 BCE between Alexander the Great and Darius III, the last Achaemenid King of Kings of Persia. This event was fairly recent in history when the house was originally constructed, preceding it only by 150 years. The mosaic is thought to have been created in around 120-100 BCE.


The mosaic is made up of around 1.5 million tesserae, or small cut cubes of glass and stone. It is thought that the mosaic was likely a copy of a fourth-century painting by Philoxenus of Eretria, who Pliny the Elder refers to in his works. In the painting, the mighty general Alexander charges across the field of battle on horseback towards Darius, his spear thrusting into an oncoming Persian who recoils in pain. On the opposite side of the battlefield, a Persian frantically turns his horse around, navigating dead bodies, as his leader charges towards Alexander in his chariot. The battle is incredibly detailed and provocative and would have made an excellent talking point for any visitors to the grand home.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


Memento Mori: “Remember You Must Die”

Memento mori
The Memento Mori featuring a skull in the Wheel of Fortune from the House of the Vestals. Source: Jebulon/Naples National Archaeological Museum/Wikimedia Commons.


In two properties in Pompeii, two mosaics have been found to date, which appear to foreshadow the tragic end of the people who once commissioned and enjoyed them in their own homes. Memento Mori, meaning “Remember You Must Die,” was a popular form of symbolism used in Roman art. It was a reminder to live in the moment and enjoy the day, for tomorrow was an uncertainty promised to no one. For example, in 2016, excavators discovered a reclining skeleton mosaic surrounded by food and wine entitled “Enjoy Your Life.” Elsewhere, in a villa in Boscoreale (close by to Pompeii), a mosaic of dancing skeletons was discovered.


The first, depicting a skeleton in black and white holding a wine jug in each hand, was found in the House of the Faun (the same location as the Alexander mosaic), while the other, a sophisticated and colorful depiction of a human skull hanging from the Wheel of Fortune, was found in the House of the Vestals (VI.1.7), another large and wealthy building. As can be seen from these examples, the link between dining and death was strong in the Roman world. The Wheel of Fortune Memento Mori was actually discovered on the top of the dining table at the garden triclinium, and would have provided a poignant reminder to dinner guests.


Memento Mori were not limited to mosaics. Larva convivalis, miniature bronze skeletons, were frequently given as gifts at the dinner table. Their presence urged guests to savor transient joys and acknowledge the ever-present proximity of death. Crafted with articulated limbs, these tiny skeletons could partake in the festivities through a lively, jiggling dance.


Entranceway Mosaics in Pompeii

Cave canem
The Cave Canem mosaic in the entranceway of The House of the Tragic Poet (VI.8.5) in Pompeii. Source: Sailko/Wikimedia Commons.


Though mainly used for decoration, mosaics could also be used as a warning. In the entrance passageway (fauces) of The House of the Tragic Poet (VI.8.5) in Pompeii, just beyond the front door, a special mosaic was found by excavators. Emblazoned in black and white tiles, a large depiction of a black dog was uncovered below the ash. This dog had pointy ears, white spots, a long tail, and was tied to a chain by his red collar. Below his feet was a warning written in tesserae. It read CAVE CANEM, “Beware the Dog.”


Two other very similar mosaics have been found elsewhere in the town, each also depicting a black dog with pointy ears tied to a chain which is attached to his red collar. Tragically, the remains of a dog wearing a collar and chain have also been discovered in Pompeii, with the dog’s ears and stature appearing to match the mosaics.


There are a few reasons to believe that this type of practice was not limited to Pompeii. In the satirical work of the Roman writer Petronius, entitled Satyricon, the protagonist describes seeing a sign that read “Cave Canem” upon entering the house he was visiting for dinner. The type of the dog was likely universally used for guarding entryways, with the description matching those provided by ancient writers for working and guard dogs.


But warnings were not the only type of notice to be found in Pompeian entryways. At the entrance to a house in Region VII, a mosaic reads “Salve Lucru,” which translates as “Welcome, gain!” Put simply, the owner of this house, likely a trader, is wishing his guests good fortune as they enter his home. Perhaps surprisingly, only twenty-nine instances of fauces mosaics have been discovered to date in Pompeii, though graffiti was sometimes found in the place of frescoes and mosaics. Research on all of these has found that they were not only used as a greeting or warning, but also as a superstitious means of providing the household with protection.


Mosaics of Food

Marine mosaic
The marine life mosaic from the House of the Geometric Mosaics (VIII.2.16) in Pompeii. Source: Carole Raddato/Naples National Archaeological Museum/Wikimedia Commons.


Another common subject of mosaics from Pompeii was food. An especially beautiful example was found in the indoor dining room (triclinium) of a house at VIII.2.16, now kept in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, which exhibits the level of skill needed for creating such masterpieces. Measuring 88cm x 88cm (34.6 inches x 34.6 inches), this elaborate mosaic of marine life is a sight to behold, but should not be confused with a very similar mosaic found in the House of the Faun.


At the center, an octopus with wide eyes fights a lobster. Around the periphery, 21 types of marine and bird life can be seen, including different types of fish, eels, and even a little kingfisher bird. Elsewhere, a rather simple mosaic reveals the food-related occupation of the property’s owner. Found in the House of Aulus Umbricius Scaurus (VII.16.15), a mosaic panel on the floor of the house showed a container of the popular Roman fish sauce, known as garum, inscribed G.F. SCOM[bri] SCAURI EX OFFI[ci]NA SCAURI. This translates as “the flower of Scaurus’ mackerel garum from the factory of Scaurus.” Scaurus was Pompeii’s leading fish sauce manufacturer and bottles such as the one in the mosaic (known as urcei) have been discovered all over the Mediterranean.


Elsewhere in Pompeii, mosaics decorating the walls of homes have been used by historians to understand the types of foods they were eating. From one house, an elaborately detailed square mosaic depicts large fish and ducks strung up and ready to be cooked. However, not all food was depicted as ready to eat. Mosaics and frescoes of animals were also commonly found in dining rooms and kitchens or in rooms where guests would be greeted. One such example is a mosaic depicting a cat catching a chicken in its mouth, while below, a canard and a female duck expectantly await their fate on the kitchen table.


Mythology and Theatrics in Mosaics

Actors mosaic
The Choregos Actors mosaic from the House of the Tragic Poet (VI.8.5) in Pompeii. Source: Pompeii Sites.


The stuff of legends is also another common theme of mosaics from ancient Pompeii. The owner of the House of the Tragic Poet took this theme to extra lengths. Discovered by excavators in 1824, what this house lacked in size, it made up for in decoration. Also the site of one of the Cave Canem mosaics, this house originally contained twenty painted and mosaic panels, six of which can be viewed in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples today.


Adorning the tablinum floor was a detailed mosaic depicting choregos actors in the backstage hustle, with one dressing, another playing a flute, and additional characters surrounding a box of masks meant for the upcoming performance. Elsewhere in the town, excavators recently discovered a striking mosaic in the so-called House of Orion (IV.2.15-16). Here a mosaic known as the “Orion Mosaic,” dating back to the late second to early first century BCE, was uncovered. The mosaic features a winged male emerging from a scorpion, beneath which is a coiled cobra. Above, an angelic winged figure points skyward with one hand and holds a torch, setting ablaze the head of the first figure. A third winged figure above offers a laurel crown to the ones below. The scene represents the myth of Orion and has been linked to another mosaic in the house showing similar themes.


The depiction of myths, legends, the arts, and theatrical themes in mosaics was intended to reflect positively on the patron of the home. Not only did it demonstrate their level of culture, but also their connections to other parts of the world or to their occupations and source of income. Creating a mosaic was a costly endeavor, both in time and monetary terms, and required a great level of skill. And it is partly down to this skill that we are still able to look upon the same scenes as the people of Pompeii.

Author Image

By Jessica VennerPhD Classics, Ancient History, Archaeology; MA ClassicsJessica is a world-leading expert in ancient Pompeii with a special interest in urban agriculture, domestic architecture, and identity formation in the late Republican and early Imperial period. She is an Early Career Research Associate at the School of Advanced Study, University of London and holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, with a full scholarship from the AHRC-M3C Doctoral Training Partnership. She has previously held roles at the British School at Rome and the Ashmolean Museum and has over 55,000 followers on TikTok for her history channel, Life in the Past Lane.