Mules, Gods, and Ad Men: Ostia Antica’s Mosaics

Man pointing mosaic

Forget stuffy archaeology! How about a 2000 year-old mosaic of someone’s favorite mules: Tipsy, Modest, Lame, and Dainty? I am not making this up.

Mule mosaic

In Roman times, much like today, a seaport was about moving cargo. In Rome’s ancient port, Ostia Antica, cart drivers and their mules were the prime movers and the lifeblood of the city.

Pillars and mosaics

Combine these hardworking muleteers with the Roman penchant for baths, and the result is The Cart Driver’s Bath, complete with a mule-and-cart themed mosaic floor.

Cart Driver mosaic

Roman mosaics were a common feature of private homes and public buildings throughout the empire. Some mosaics were strictly ornamental, while others, such as the floor mosaics in Ostia, were primarily designed to provide a durable walking surface. This durability made mosaics one of the most common relics found in ancient Roman sites, and Ostia Antica has a wonderful collection.


Like every other Roman city, Ostia had slaves, workmen, merchants, and a few wealthy people. Rich Romans preferred the company of other rich Romans (particularly at bath time), so they built baths for themselves as well.

Overhead view

The Baths of Neptune are the most impressive, with Neptune riding in a chariot drawn by hippocampi (mythological seahorses). He’s surrounded by dolphins, tritons (mermen), and sea nymphs.

Baths of Neptune

I’ve always enjoyed mosaics, but until my visit to Ostia, I didn’t fully appreciate the intricacy of their design. There’s a walkway near the entrance where I was able see and touch the individual stones (called tesserae). Using the geologist’s trick of pocket-change-for-scale gave me a much greater appreciation of the tiny size and huge number of stones involved in creating these practical works of art. Each tesserae was cut, laid, and grouted in place to produce a long-lasting walkway.

Coin for scale

Directly behind the theater, in the Forum of The Guilds, was another clever use of mosaic: advertising. The guild was made up of important town merchants: ship-owners, marine suppliers, importers and exporters – who did double duty as their own Ad Men. Shaded by ancient umbrella pines, the delightful black-and-white mosaics shows an amphorae for the wine merchant.

Guild Walkway

IMG_2901 - Version 2

Most of Ostia’s ornamental mosaics have been carted off to museums, but there are a few that remain on walls and arches throughout the complex.

Arch mosaic

Colorful mosaic

Colorful mosaic room

And on a final note, we’ve tossed around a few ideas about what this guy is doing. Is he:

• Showing off new dental work?
• Trying to heave a bad oyster?
• Saying “Read my lips” ?

Man pointing mosaic

What do you think?

Happy Trails,

Winged Creature mosaic

Photo Credits:
6. By dalbera via Wikimedia Commons


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

56 thoughts

    1. Sue, when we lived in Amsterdam, I chipped a tooth on a rock inside a french fry. So a mosaic stone in the throat might be it. One pun that didn’t make the cut was I was going to say that the cart driver’s bath had a “mule-saic”. Terri said it was too corny, even for me. ~James

      1. Oh my goodness perhaps you and Dave were brothers in a former life. Not only the ‘corny’ sense of haha but he too had a tooth popping incident. While cycling in Turkey one of his front tooth veneers came off while eating a sandwich in the middle of nowhere. A fellow traveler suggested Krazy Glue and now we never travel without it.

      2. Crazy glue for teeth. Great idea, and you probably get a little fume buzz as well. Early in my career I spent a month on a seismic boat on the North Sea. The first day on board I grabbed a candy from a bowl in the galley. It stuck to a crowned tooth, and when I opened my mouth, it pulled the crown off. I spent the next month with the incredibly sensitive tooth spike exposed. Anytime something hot or cold hit that bad boy, I think sparks shot out my ears (and expletives shot out my mouth). ~James

      3. Yikes James that sounds absolutely horrid! Apparently Krazy glue( I think the brand name is spelled like that just I case you were wondering if I had lost my spell check or my mind) is safe for dental work. Dave was hesitant to use it and emailed our dentist at home who said that is exactly what he would suggest till the return. Note of caution do not glue your finger to your tooth. 🙂

  1. Beautiful. I studies art history, classical architecture and antiquities at university, and always love to see images from places I’m yet to visit. Thanks for sharing guys.

    1. Steve, when you get to Rome, don’t miss Ostia. Central Rome has so much to offer that frequently, Ostia gets overlooked. As with most ruins, you’ll need some kind of guidebook, but given your training, you’ll love it. ~James

    1. Good one Lia. I hadn’t thought of that one. The mosaics of Ostia are the largest collection that I’ve seen in one location. They aren’t as intricate or colorful as some that I’ve seen in museums, but hey, they have been exposed to the elements for 1500 years! ~James

  2. I am so glad you shared this post and the photos since we did not make it to Ostia Antica due to bad weather. At least now I know better what I missed. Your photo showing the thickness of the mosaic stones is particularly enlightening. No wonder these walkways lasted forever.
    The mosaic with the hand near the mouth looked to me at first to be someone licking their fingers. Then I thought he might be whistling a signal. My favorite is the suggestion he was signaling for a drink. – Mike

    1. Bummer about not making it to Ostia, but you really do need good weather for a trip here. Now you have somewhere on the list for the return trip Mike. The thing that we like about Ostia, is that the ruins really are an entire city. Baths, temples, cafes, houses, markets, theaters, and even latrines. I’m always surprised that it doesn’t get more attention, but given Central Rome as competition, I can understand. ~James

  3. I can’t imagine how long it took to lay one of those floors. It is amazing all the work that went into those mosaics. Things back then were certainly built to last, too bad the floors lasted longer than that kind of work ethic.

    1. I’ve probably watched the movie “Spartacus” too many times Laura, but when I see all these incredibly tiny stones, I think of the poor slaves that chipped away, day after day to make them. I’m sure that as the supply of slaves decreased, the use of mosaic floors also dropped. ~James

      1. when i paint ‘mosaics’ on a floor, i often wonder if it would be faster to do the actual work in stones! reflecting on my state of mind when painting mosaics, i am very relaxed an in a zen-type meditation. perhaps those workers approached it the same way, and they secretly chuckled and said, ‘shhhhhh~~don’t tell the boss that we love our work!’

      2. I guess that almost anything can be a meditation Lisa, and ultimately, it comes down to one’s state of mind. I’m no artist, but from what I read and hear from artists such as you, is that their best work just comes – without much thought or conscious effort. ~James

  4. “read my lips”! Great post James. I’ve always been amazed by mosaic work – the time, skill, vision and patience to do it, especially with such tiny pieces. I think the places that most astounded me were St Mark’s in Venice, and St Peter’s in the Vatican – *all* the murals in both churches are mosaic. Truly astounding. In this post scroll down to the part on St Peter’s and there’s a pic of a mural detail, and underneath a closer one that shows it’s mosaic!
    You’ve made me want to go to Ostia even more 🙂

    1. I’m with you Alison. I also love the incredibly intricate, colorful, museum quality mosaics that usually were on the walls of temples and wealthy people’s houses. The Romans, and later, artists in the Italian Renaissance developed the technique to perfection. Thanks for the link to your post. It’s a very thorough look at Rome and Milan. ~James

  5. Love this post, love mosaics! Thanks for including the coin picture — I had no idea the mosaics would be so deep, but it makes sense. I’ve even tried making a mosaic picture (old Latin project), and it’s not easy, so I have no idea how folks pave the floor of a bath or something larger. As for the guy, he may be making a gesture to all of us who stomp on him on a daily basis! Just a thought.

    1. Thanks Rusha. I’ve always enjoyed stonework of all kinds (sculpture, mosaics, stone fences, etc.) And I’m particularly impressed that you tried your own mosaic. As a geologist, I hammered on enough rocks to know how difficult they would be to work with in art. BTW, the coin for scale is an old geologist’s trick. ~James

    1. Thanks Joanne. With so much other stuff to do in Rome, it’s easy to overlook Ostia. It’s a bit of work to get to it (on the train), but it’s worth it. You should definitely check it out on your next visit. ~James

  6. Great essay James. I like the ad part. As I remember, the prostitutes in Pompeii also ran ads using mosaics. Have you seen the TV program “Voice?” Blake Shelton is always doing the finger bit pointing at his face. With Blake it means me, me, me. 🙂 –Curt

    1. I’ve been to Pompeii Curt, and I remember the mosaics. I also remember the little menu of “preferences”. This is like the “point and pay” system that I discussed for ordering food – except a bit more active. ~James

      1. Certainly didn’t leave much to the imagination, did it. 🙂 Did your visit include the “secret room” at the Naples museum. Even my old soul was shocked. LOL –Curt

      2. Well Darn Curt! I pride myself on being able to ferret out all the secret rooms, and I missed this one. I’ll have to do a bit of internet research. ~James

  7. Saw some great mosaics in Paphos, Cyprus and also a spectacular floor in Faro, Portugal. The skill involved and work that went into these make me glad so many have survived as they give us a unique glimpse into history and the lives of people then.

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog Dorothy. We’ve seen a few nice mosaics scattered around the Med, in Europe as well as Africa (Tunisia), which is a testament to their durability for sure. I sometimes wonder, if I were designing a mosaic that gave a glimpse into my life what would it be. ~James

  8. Mosaics have always intrigued me, as has this post as I knew nothing of Ostia Antica. I feel so much more worldly just reading your posts. 🙂

  9. The naming of the mules had me laughing out loud! How on earth does a mule conduct itself to earn the name “Modest?” And poor Lame. Clearly not the favorite child.

    1. I thought the names were pretty funny as well Miranda. FYI the latin is: Pudes (Modest), Podagrosus (Lame), Barosus (Dainty) and Potiscus (Tipsy). If ancient Rome had reality TV shows, I can see these mule mosaics installed the the Mule Dynasty mansion. ~James

    1. Absolutely Jo, if you visit Rome we put Ostia Antica on the must see list. The day we were there, there were so few other tourists, we felt like we had the place to ourselves. ~James

    1. Definitely add Ostia Antica to your list Juliann. There are lots of mosaics (15?), and the ruins are interesting as well. The mosaics have viewing platforms, and are very accessible. It will help if you do a bit of research in advance or have a guidebook (we downloaded a Rick Steves guide onto our iPad.) Enjoy. ~James

    1. Thanks for the reference to our Ostia Antica post. I had seen many mosaics but just assumed the stonework was a thin facade. This section of thick tesserae mosaic was exceptional to me, which is what inspired the photo. I’m happy you are a able to use it. ~James

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