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The floors, columns, fountains, and walls of Roman buildings and private homes across the Empire were often decorated with mosaics featuring geometric patterns and scenes from history, mythology, and everyday life. By 200 BC, tesserae (small colored cubes only a few millimeters thick cut from glass, shells, pottery, limestone, and marble) were fit tightly together to form these images. Any gaps were then filled with liquid mortar in a process known as grouting. These mosaics are not only beautiful in themselves but are a valuable record of Roman life.

But even the imperfect tiles had a use. Miriam explains in THE DEADLIEST SPORT as she and Judah are about to go to the gladiatorial games:

Digging through my satchel, under the pouches of walnuts, amphorae of honey-sweetened water, and the seat cushions I’d brought for us, I groped for my leather purse and fished out the two tesserae, the coin-like disks of pottery I’d picked up at our branch of the Bank of Gabinius.

“Here,” I said, pressing them into Judah’s palm. “Show these to the usher. They’re marked with our entrance gate, tier, sector, and seat numbers. See,” I said, tapping my index finger on the numerals. “Our seats are in the lower section of the third tier, which is reserved for upper-class plebeians.”

These tokens were free and good for the duration of the festival, but you had to have one to be admitted, and there were never enough to go around. But why would Miriam be going to the games in the first place? Well, I cannot tell you that without giving away a piece of the story. But here’s a hint: Her twin brother, Binyamin, would be fighting his last bout. Want to find out more? Just click here.

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