Terracotta Angel, c.1896
Watts Chapel, England

 Photo : Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

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Roman Labyrinths

While the classical labyrinth was known throughout the Roman Empire, the popular use of the labyrinth as a design element in mosaic flooring resulted in a number of developments, all conveniently classifiable as “Roman” varieties. While rarely encountered amongst the examples created since these times, these labyrinths are of considerable interest, as they represent the first real attempts to create different forms of the genre and the first major changes to a symbol that had already been in circulation for some two thousand years. Researchers have attempted various classifications of these Roman designs, usually based on mathematical or geometrical properties, but basically the majority of the sixty or so Roman mosaic labyrinths documented or preserved can be designated as meander, serpentine, or spiral types, with just a few complex designs falling outside of this simple system.

A typical meander type labyrinth,  Harpham, England

Mosaic labyrinth, Pula, Croatia. A very complex roman design,
with a continuous single path leading to the centre,
and back out by a different route

Labyrinth Typology

Roman mosaic labyrinth
(meander-type), Coimbra, Portugal

Photo : Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

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Numerous variations on these basic design types are encountered, with more or less circuits, single or multiple groups of meanders or turns, and more or less than four axis of symmetry. They were also created in a number of shapes - square and rectangular, circular, polygonal, etc., and date from the middle of the 2nd century BCE until the 4th century CE.

A very simple serpentine-type mosaic labyrinth, Paphos, Cyprus