Mosaics in Roman Britain

Review by Stephen R Cosh.

Anthony Beeson has been among those at the forefront of mosaic research in Britain for many years, particularly on mythological subjects. This little book is very much a personal journey and summarises his own research and interpretations over that time. It is ‘intended as a popular introduction to Romano-British mosaics, their construction, mythology, and imagery.’ This it certainly does. Such a slim book in small format (octavo) cannot hope to cover all aspects – no mosaic is related to its building plan, for instance. On the other hand, it covers more ground than most previous ‘popular’ books have.

The first half of the book deals with Romano-British mosaics in general. As well as construction methods and the organisation of the craft, Beeson includes short sections on coarse borders, repair, and other forms of decorative flooring, which are often neglected; some designs are linked to gardens and water features. The development of the craft is considered in short chapters on each century, from the largely black-and-white pavements of the 1st century AD to the 2nd-century ‘flowering’, the 3rd-century ‘stagnation’, and the 4th-century ‘resurgence’, as well as a short chapter on the possibility of 5th-century mosaics based on recent post-excavation work at Chedworth villa, Gloucestershire. The second half of the book is devoted to figurative work which, while it has considerable scholarly interest, arguably has a surfeit of mythology, too esoteric for what is claimed to be a ‘popular introduction’. Bellerophon and Orpheus, who occur with a far greater frequency on mosaics from Britain than elsewhere in the Empire, take up almost a quarter of the book, and the reader’s vocabulary is certainly tested. The final chapter is devoted to the spectacular Boxford mosaic, which was fully exposed in 2019, and even the one from Rutland announced late in 2021 is mentioned.

Some personal interpretations, with which others might disagree, are presented as facts, but there are very few mistakes (Littleton, Somerset, being called Littledean is one example) and the book is generously illustrated, though one wishes that many of the illustrations were larger and the photos higher-quality.

Mosaics in Roman Britain, Anthony Beesonm, Amberley Publishing, £15.99, ISBN 978-14456-89883.