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Roman mosaic mazes

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It is a perfect maze of intrigue. Honoré De Balzac (1799-1850)

Roman maze walls Roman maze path
The Roman mazes are mosaics, on the floor. The paths were too narrow to walk, so they must have been a pattern to look at. Sometimes the mazes were a picture of a fortified city, sometimes Theseus was dragged in again (see right). They were mostly square because, well, you try to lay mosaic tiles in circular patterns! Also, with the four paths almost meeting in the centre, the maze looks a little like the standard Roman city layout (see the street plans of many smaller English cities.) The Roman maze is unicursal (without choice or branches). It is usually divided into four, and one quarter is finished entirely before moving onto the next. This makes an attractive pattern to look at, but rather boring to walk. As usual, the blue diagram above shows the walls of the maze and the red, the path you walk. Roman maze mosaic

How to walk the maze

The red diagram above shows the path, but it's easy to get confused with all those lines going back and forth, so here are different ways of looking at the same path.

Roman maze coloured path Roman maze - rectangle
The same path redrawn it in rainbow colours. You start on red, which turns to orange, then yellow, and so on through the rainbow. Since the Roman maze is divided into quarters, we cycle through the rainbow four times. This diagram looks strange, but what I have done is cut from the bottom of the maze to the middle, being careful not to cut through a path. Then I uncurled the maze so it made a rectangle. I kept the colours the same, so hopefully you can see what's going on. This method makes it easier to analyse the design.

Studying the maze, you can see that it is not quite symmetrical. With this type of maze, whatever pattern you use, for each quarter, either you start at the edge and end at the edge (in which case, how do you ever get to the centre?), or you start at an edge, and end at the centre for one quarter, and next quarter, start at the centre and end at the edge. Since there are four quarters, this STILL means that you start at the edge and end at the edge! So there has to be one unsymmetrical line to get you to the centre.

Scaling up & down

This maze's paths have 9 circuits, and the walls have 10 circuits, but walking the maze shows that there are two layers. It is easy to add on an extra level to make a large Roman maze, and there are examples of these. You can also have a small Roman maze with just one level, which is rather sweet. These small mazes can be circular, although the example above is square.


How to make a Roman maze

Each quarter of a Roman maze is the same and it has rotational symmetry. So you draw the first quarter, then pivot the same pattern round the centre to get the second quarter. Continue with the other two quarters. Finally, since at this point you will still be at the edge, add the line into the centre.

First quarter Second quarter Third quarter Last quarter Add the line

You can construct similar mazes with reflective symmetry, where one half mirrored the other (see below). If you want to learn more about symmetry, read my website on symmetry which includes interactive webpages where you have make your own symmetrical pictures.

Different Roman maze designs

A Roman maze does not have to be the same as the mazes above. Most of the Roman mazes in England are this pattern, yet elsewhere in Europe there are different patterns. Here are four common forms. Since in the final maze form these patterns tend to blur together, the top line gives one quarter and the bottom line gives the complete maze.

Serpentine quarter Spiral quarter Simple Meander quarter Complex Meander quarter
SerpentineSpiralSimple MeanderComplex Meander
Serpentine maze Spiral maze Simple Meander maze Complex Meander maze
Most of the mazes on this page are simple meanders.

Examples of Roman mazes

Small circular mazes

Medium mazes

Large mazes

Maze in Etymologiae

Maze in Etymologiae

This maze is in a copy of Etymologiae, by Isidore of Seville. Etymologiae (Latin for "The Etymologies"), also known as the Origines ("Origins") and usually abbreviated Orig., is an etymological encyclopedia compiled by Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636) towards the end of his life. The copy with this maze is dated 2nd quarter of the 12th century. The text is as follows (from here):

36. A labyrinth (labyrinthus) is a structure with intricate walls, of the kind made at Crete by Daedalus where the Minotaur was shut in. If anyone should enter into it without a ball of twine he would not be able to find the way out. This building is so situated that, for those who open its doors, a terrifying thunder is heard within. It slopes down more than a hundred steps. Inside are images and monstrous effigies, innumerable passages heading every which way in the darkness, and other things done to confuse the way of those who have entered, so that it seems impossible to pass from its darkness to the light. There are four labyrinths: first the Egyptian, second the Cretan, the third in Lemnos, the fourth in Italy. All were so constructed that not even the ages can destroy them.

Click here for online version - the maze is on page 142v.

This maze is interesting because because it is made of 4 very similar quarters, like Roman mazes, but alternate quarters go from edge to centre, or centre to edge. That means part of the path travels through two quarters without a turn. This is more like the Chartres patterns, although they are far more complicated.

Gonzaga maze

This is one of the Gonzaga mazes. The Gonzaga were an Italian family who ruled Mantua from 1328 to 1707. The labyrinth was a Gonzaga symbol.

You may be able to see that it is not a mosaic. In fact it is painted on a ceiling. It's also well after the Roman period. It is roughly a serpentine pattern (see above), but not quite the same as the Roman patterns. This is because each quarter is reflected instead of being rotated. The path zigzags outwards, then inwards, then out and finally in to the centre.

There are other Gonzaga mazes here and here.

Complete Gonzaga

Walls of maze in Victoria Park, Glasgow

Maze in Victoria Park, Glasgow

This is a modern hedge maze in Victoria Park, Glasgow. It is a unicursal maze, where you walk through each quarter in turn, so is similar to Roman mazes. However, there are also a couple of areas in the middle of two of the sides. One has a bench in, and the other a sculpture of a man (?) which you can turn around (see below). There are also fun fiddle things set into the walls of the maze, and climbing ropes in the middle. The green areas are trees.

Path of maze in Victoria Park, Glasgow
Maze in Victoria Park, Glasgow Maze in Victoria Park, Glasgow Centre of maze in Victoria Park, Glasgow
Sculpture in maze in Victoria Park, Glasgow Decoration in maze in Victoria Park, Glasgow

Maze in Arbury Court, Cambridge

This maze is in Cambridge, but not the pretty bit in the centre. It's a pavement maze in a shopping centre to the north of the city, called Arbury Court, on Arbury Road. It is a conventional Roman maze.

Photo from Google maps.

Maze in Arbury Court, Cambridge

Some designs of my own

We can take this idea from the Gonzaga further. First take some standard Roman designs, but reflect them rather than rotate. This creates a continuous line.

Return design 1 Return design 2 Return design 3

To make a maze, we can break the line anywhere around the outside. This creates a maze where you travel into the centre and out again, eventually ending up where you start.

Return design 1 Return design 2 Return design 3

You can use a similar idea for a perfectly conventional Roman maze. I found this small serpentine roundel. It wasn't a maze at all, but if you make a break in the edge, then you make a serpentine maze, rotated in the conventional way, and you exit at the edge. It shows the walls rather than the paths. Roundel

The Romans had come up with a maze solution that worked, but was not very elegant (perhaps rather like their number system). They were restricted by their square frame, and reliance on quarters. If you try mazes with an odd number of parts, say three or five, you can have a maze which ends in the middle.

Flower 1 Flower 2
This is a three way meander based on the maze. I have made it into a circle, because a triangle would look a little strange. Here is a pentagonal serpentine maze. I must admit pentagons are not too easy to work with. You need some school trig!
I find Roman mazes to be rather mesmerizing. Here is a pattern to increase the effect. The individual mazes are not just repeated. See if you can work out what's happening. Pattern using Roman mazes

This one is even worse! It is an attempt at a Roman maze fractal. It is one continuous line, without a start or an end. You could make a break in the line at any point to make both a start and an end. Or perhaps two breaks, on opposite sides, to make a start and a destination, and a different path back again.

There is an analysis of this pattern in my Greek key website.

Fractal Roman maze

Design your own Roman mosaic!

Roman mazes are usually made of mosaic. Click here to design your own Roman mosaic online.