Marble, Natural Stone, and Minerals

Marble: one of the main building materials from Antiquity, also used for sculpture. On this page, marble is discussed together with several other types of natural stone and minerals. You will find photos of the main types of marble, various other stones, minerals, and related stones.

The Cycladic idols are among the oldest sculpture made of marble

What we call “marble” is, essentially, a kind of limestone, which in turn is a petrified sediment, deposited hundreds of thousands of years ago. The recognizable characteristic of marble is that it can be made to shine by polishing and the Greek word μάρμαρον means “shiny”. The ancients also used this word for several types of stone that are not limestone, like granite.

Greece

While limestone has been quarried since times immemorial, marble was not often used. Among the exceptions from the Bronze Age are the “idols” from the Cyclades. The Mycenaean Greeks also used marble, but not very often. To make marble popular, the workers (λιθουργοί, “stone workers”) first had to have instruments made of iron. Even then, marble remained rare. Usually, it was quarried for one, specific project. Once the project – which could be an Archaic statue or a Classical temple – was finished, no more stones were cut.

Although the Achaemenid kings Darius I the Great (r.521-486) and Xerxes (r.486-465) ordered several inscriptions in Susa to be written on slabs of marble, the use of this type of stone was essentially a Greek monopoly. Among the various types of Greek marble were

Naxian Naxos From the seventh century BCE
Parian Paros From the sixth century BCE
Thasian Thasos From the sixth century BCE
Proconnesian Marmora From the sixth century BCE
Pentelic Athens From the fifth century BCE
Hymettian Athens From the fifth century BCE
Ephesian Ephesus From the fifth century BCE
Pavonazzetto (or Docimean) Phrygia From the fourth century BCE
Wall fresco imitating marble panels (Pella)

In the Hellenistic age, there was sufficient demand for shiny, colored stone to allow for mass production. The courts of the Ptolemaic, Antigonid, Attalid, and Seleucid kings (i.e., the palaces of Alexandria, Pella, Pergamon, and Antioch) were known for their marble wall decorations. The First Pompeian Style of wall painting, which imitates marble plates, offers an indication of the popularity of the new type of art.

Rome

Rome expanded the field. Marble became ubiquitous. The emperor Augustus famously boasted that he had found a city of brick and had left a city covered with marble.note Other cities followed suit. Ephesus had its main street paved with marble.

It is easy to understand why the shiny stones became so popular. Marble workers (Latin: marmorarii) could find very large stones with a consistent quality, which were available in several colors and quite easy to work. This type of stone was strong enough to use in monumental buildings, but could also be used to make statues, furniture, or other objects. The use of several polishing techniques allowed the politores to create surfaces that could be very shiny or opaque.

Verde Antico Larissa From the second century BCE
Giallo Antico Numidia From the second century BCE
Cipollino Karystos From the first century BCE
Africano (or Lucullan) Asia Minor From the first century BCE
  Skyros From the first century BCE
Marmor Claudianum Egyptian granite From the first century BCE
Marmor Lunensis Carrara After c.50 BCE
Portasanta Chios Late first century BCE
Rosso Antico Mani Peninsula Late first century BCE
Purple Porphyry Egypt First century CE
Belgian Black Belgica First century CE
A modern marble quarry in Turkey

Every Roman who was proud of his education, would recognize these types of stone. When he saw the bright colors of the monumental buildings erected by the emperors, he would understand how large the Roman Empire actually was. In the words of the poet Statius, describing the room in which Nero served dinner:

The splendid African and Phrygian marbles compete and there are numerous examples of those from Syene and Chios, and they in turn compete with the green from Sparta and the white from Luna.note

The main stones

In Medieval and Renaissance Italy, many stones that had in Antiquity been brought to Rome and other cities, were reused. The stoneworkers introduced Italian names like giallo antico ("old yellow"), cipollino ("onion stone"), and pavonazzetto ("peacock") that art historians and archaeologists still use today. Here are the main types.

Other stones

Below are several other types of natural stone, marble and other, used in the provinces of the Roman Empire.

Minerals

This page was created in 2017; last modified on 20 September 2017.