Aesthetic, Sociological, and Exploitative Attitudes to Landscape in Greco-Roman Literature, Art, and Culture
Abstract and Keywords
This article introduces and discusses ancient and contemporary approaches to landscape and proposes model readings for their evaluation. Model readings suggest strategies drawn from environmental and ecocritical studies alongside art historical, and more traditional literary studies approaches. This article emphasizes in particular the benefits of evaluating architectural and agricultural interventions in nature alongside one another. Perceptions of landscape in the Greco-Roman world were strongly associated with cultivation and human invention. In order better to understand how and why aesthetic interest, sentiment, mood, and movement can also be significant, this article explores what makes for “improvement” and value in landscape. It also investigates how contemporary theory offers new ways of evaluating ancient depictions of landscape and responses to the natural environment.
Where things happen is critical to knowing how and why they happen.1
When the natural environment was subject to the human gaze in classical antiquity, it was conceived within a dialogic relationship in which habitation, ethos, civilization, cultivation, and technology were all more or less implicated. The synthetic quality of this experience has echoes in trending approaches familiar within social geography, yet already, I suggest, elite experiences of a managed, cultivated natural landscape within the ancient Roman worldview were not dissimilar to Renaissance Italian idealization of rustic culture. Renaissance villeggiatura, and as Clemens Steenbergen and Wouter Reh observe (1996, 35), the ideal of otium, set the enjoyment of one’s cultivated landscape against a backdrop busy with the negotium of elevated “social or ecclesiastical position.”2
In essence, villeggiatura’s environmental ethos was a descendant of approaches current in classical antiquity. Matured within Renaissance humanism’s melding of classical philosophical systems, this approach also built on the ancient stoic practice of self-fashioning and the equally ancient notion of contemplative seclusion as an aid to self-care. Their Christian iteration acknowledged nature’s ability to produce a space for reflection upon cosmic and divine order. Nonetheless, continuity with aspects of ancient understanding of the cosmos flourished as this tradition persisted. Renaissance humanism supported an interest in anthropocentrism that reflected classical phenomenology; it also continued to foster dynamic, interrogatory understanding of positionality that would lead to geospatial advances (developing on the logical knowability of space as a Cartesian plane) and to interrogation of experiential and authentic realities and how they might interact.
Geographic relativism has a long history, especially where environmental determinism conceives place and ethnicity to be reciprocally linked. In ancient Rome empire building developed against a backdrop of environmental and territorial drivers, and the sociopolitical shifts that accompanied expansion encouraged and accelerated an associated flourishing of cultural production. In particular, imperialism gave an impetus to synthetic study of how cartography and epistemology could support aspirational imperial rhetoric. It also stimulated intellectual inquiry into what constituted a state’s territory, exploring issues such as mappability, potential for further expansion, and susceptibility to totalizing representation.3 Rather than taking on a monolithic impetus, however, discourses of space and its representation—in effect, the narrative and aesthetic qualities of space—found value in a progressive, dialogic quality around the edges of geographic knowledge, responsive to its ebbs and flows and in tune with shifting cultural norms.4
That “scientific” geography remained rooted in Greek theory was indicative of the levels of comfort with technical ambiguity that Roman geographic enthusiasm retained, while its pragmatic needs through to the first century CE tended to downplay the significance of theorizing.5 David Braund (2005, 222), discussing the development of geography as a science, is broadly speaking correct to argue that until relatively late, Rome seemed willing to leave to Greece “the theory of and writing about the world; better for the Romans to focus on ruling it. In that way, the well-established notion of Roman practice as superior to Greek theory could counterpoint the ‘practical geography’ of Roman world conquest and the Greek ‘theoretical geography’ propounded by Eratosthenes and his ilk.” Yet geographical and environmental topoi flourish within nonscientific cultural production, as evidenced by examples such as Tibullus 1.7 and Propertius 4.3.6 Clearly Romans continue to see the world through a wider array of filters than the adversarial and acculturated “theory versus practice” contrast would suggest.
When humans encounter the environment, there is no outcome without practice—and no practice without theory, which after all is about ways of perceiving. The fluidity in human experience of the world continues to negotiate continuously among perceived, real, and intellectualized responses, and many of these ideas are summed up in Stephen Greenblatt’s influential 1986 discussion of Yosemite National Park, in which one iconic “scene” (at the Nevada Falls) becomes paradigmatic of mediated, complexly “natural” contemporary landscape framing.7 Greenblatt’s analogy prompted Monika Fludernik to give further consideration to the pulls among “unknown,” “unspoiled,” and “unimproved” in the environment:
As that which exists on earth, the human is both part of nature and constitutive of civilization. Anything concerning man in his civilized habitat and his living-acting-working conditions thus inevitably discredits the nature-culture dichotomy and the very artificial opposition between the natural and the contrived. In fact the artificial is not a graft on the human-natural but its natural by-product. If one defines the natural in terms of the human (as is after all entirely appropriate from a human perspective), one should not be surprised to find products of human invention such as narratives proliferate on a scale from the more immediately spontaneous enactment of conversational storytelling to increasingly more deliberate and reflexive manifestations in the creative shapings of literature.
(1996, 14; emphases in original)
This characterization suggests that contemporary understanding of the natural environment shares much with ancient values, because human consciousness operates determinatively, but also creatively.8 There is, however, a significant difference between ancient and modern perspectives, and it is situated most vividly in late twentieth-century anxieties about finite resources, perfect ecosystems, human fallibility, and the increasing ability to enact radical environmental change supported by technology and global capital.9 Much of this ambivalence glances back to eighteenth-century formulations of the sublime (valorizing uncultivated nature as authentic rather than as raw material and approving sites indicative of uncontrollable forces), itself a product of a then (again) newly technocratic moment. As Dana Philips recently summed up, the ecocritic’s epiphany is close cousin to the romantic movement’s ascription of the utmost value to “raw” nature; ecocriticism finds: “(1) that nature, which is refreshingly simple, is good; and (2) that culture, which is tiresomely convoluted, is bad; or (3) at least not so good as nature” (2003, 3).
For the romantic precursors of ecocriticism, there were other significant factors. The sublime responded to technological advances by focusing on the experience and sentiment of the individual, a heroic figure, deeply rooted in often strongly nationalistic ideologies. It is clear that despite the superficially easy association between the aesthetics of romanticism and early ecocriticism’s reactionary enthusiasm for undamaged natural environments, there are differences. Moreover, the sublime is not the only influential factor. Scientific research is also a significant ingredient. An exploration of the ripples of Renaissance scholarship uncovers a renewed intellectual armature within which, by the eighteenth century, scientific inquiry and discovery would thrive. In turn, renewed enthusiasm for the development of a scientific consciousness, supported by ever more specific and accurate technologies of measurement and production, not only made possible the Industrial Revolution but also primed, as Barney Warf and Santa Arias (2009, 2–3) sketch out, a rupture—distinguishing humans as separate from and superior to their environments.10
Early ecocriticism, a movement still associated with environmental activism, made assumptions that separated humans qualitatively from “nature” (a recognizably ancient model) but found that the progressive trajectories of phases in human civilizations were typically detrimental to an otherwise inherently balanced global ecology.11 Hence, as global boundaries blurred (and Augustan imperial ideology, developing in the first century BCE, has comparable ideas about what happens when empire and cosmos are coterminous), the potential for individuals to share in a much wider sense of ecological change increased, bringing with it an anxiety rooted in this wider potential for individual impact combined with a diminished sense of an individual’s authority as a protagonist.12 Thus, what might look like a potential opportunity to respond to, and to evaluate holistically, the relationship(s) between humans and the environment instead saw a hardening of boundary lines, with blame, guilt, and responsibility reconstituting the environment as humanity’s burden. This firmed up a division from classical models that is only lately being undermined: some ecologists, as Philips puts it, have begun to suggest “that our vision of ecology, and our ideas about and attitudes toward nature, need to be much humbler and a lot more supple than they are” (2003, vii).13
The Judeo-Christian tradition shares some complicity in shaping this worldview in the West. It set an idyllic lost landscape, Eden, at the center of humanity’s fall, but this was of course part of a much more extensive discourse. The dangers that lurk in classical landscapes, especially Ovid’s (in the Metamorphoses), showcase the juxtaposition among knowledge, misapprehension, chaos, unpredictability, and succor that nature already embodied. Gazing back to classical antiquity, like the Renaissance villascape, what is most significant, and what the various “frames” prioritize, is what can be related meaningfully to human endeavor, progress, or experience, whether in a positive or negative sense. What remains “outside” this model is in effect “that which is not,” and while awareness of wilderness, or unmodified, uncultivated nature, flickers in ancient landscape scenography, it is primarily with reference to its ability to impinge upon or provide definition for human experience. This is also, I suggest, a perspective lurking in Greenblatt’s wry description of the double take on gazing across at Nevada Falls when, competing for the viewer’s attention, there sits an etched image on the guardrail, a vista of the falls photographed from the spot the onlooker occupies (1987, 10).
In an attempt to scrutinize “that which is not,” Jonathan Bordo argues, “The wilderness … posits itself as a sign to threaten the extinction of the very human sign”; once again, key to this interpretation is the presence of what he calls a “specular witness”: exalting “a picture that testifys to an unpicturable condition—the wilderness sublime—while simultaneously legitimating, as a landscape picture, terrain violently seized, dispossessed of its indigenous inhabitants, and reconstituted as territory” (2000, 227; emphasis in original). This brings readers back into a framed positionality, but Bordo’s analysis also injects a note of violence into Greenblatt’s anecdotal model order, one that sits productively in the company of ancient imperializing epistemology.
Points of dramatic intersection between natural landscapes and human agency highlight the ability of environments to modulate between mundane life and the cosmic, environmental mysteries that ancient science struggled to wrest from the aetiologies of divine anthropomorphism. Not only were natural forces still beyond the reach of scientific breakthrough in many cases, but also the processes of category determination and epistemological rationalization for the land were shaped by varying historical factors. In the Greek world coastal civilisations found agricultural land to be (relatively) scarce and also threatened by maritime invasion. Bringing Rome into the mix, from the city on the Tiber one sees a tradition shaped by the determinative extremes imposed by mountains (land that was “impossible” to exploit agriculturally, that required technological intervention to deliver natural resource) juxtaposed with fertile/wet plains, subject of empire-building battles. In ancient thought, landscape shapes civilization in real and immediately evident ways.
The paradigmatic role of nature in identity fashioning in classical antiquity is at the heart of landscape’s still ongoing big-picture significance for modern environmentalism. Developed across two sections (“Aesthetics and Cultivation,” and “Scenery”), this article explores that significance in the Greco-Roman world with regard to attitudes taking in aesthetic, sociological, and exploitative agenda, manifest in cultural production, across an array of media and approaches. While one might, with Garrett Eckbo, define “landscape” as “everything which surrounds us wherever we are,” including “the entire social pattern of customs, laws, traditions, permissions, prohibitions, and attitudes which anthropologists and sociologists call culture,” this article homes in on what Eckbo calls the “product of the processes of nature and human culture, combined in varying proportions” (1969, 3). Identifying trends and key developments in recent scholarship helps to articulate how, why, and whether new agenda are delivering novel or developmental approaches and sets the scene for future study. This article is not an exhaustive survey; rather, it draws together approaches likely to challenge and also to encourage alternative disciplinary approaches significant for classics.
Landscape, like nature and human society which together produce it, is not static or fixed. It is constantly in development, growth, change, improving, or retrogressing. This is true even of those wild or pastoral landscapes which may appear to us to be in equilibrium.
(Eckbo 1969, 7)
I have looked back, here, almost half a century to Eckbo’s polemical call to arms, a product of Cold War anxieties and post–WorldWar II norms of comfort and convenience, tackling “our” perception of landscape as a product of intellectual reflection (Eckbo 1969, 42–43, 53). Eckbo’s structuralist scheme is not just important to my discussion for its interest in locales and regions; it adds particular value by drawing out nature’s inherent dynamism, in which human practice frequently plays a crucial role. When dividing up landscape Eckbo identifies repeated (daily, weekly, regular) and special occasional routes as crucial modeling forces for how and when the environment is perceived; these are acted upon by paths of least resistance (which themselves are in flux as technology and wealth shift). In addition, Eckbo (1969, 160–62) identifies major natural features, produced by the earth’s constructive and destructive forces, plus the diurnal and climatic divisions, as the core drivers of experience-based patterning. Through the derived patterns, understanding of the environment as landscape—and thus transitory—becomes possible. What transpires is an approach that characterizes landscape in ways that would become significant for a series of theoretical approaches, the so-called critical turns, wherein dynamism is key to unlocking increasingly complexly textured perspectives.
Broadly speaking, movement as a theoretical force has helped scholarship to understand “the substance of spatiality” (Warf and Arias 2009, 1), and unsurprisingly, a characteristic of recent work on ancient topography has been its reanimation of space as a locus of movement. This has encompassed urban movement, of course, but also movement through the natural environment.14 The “turns” these approaches have taken (spatial,15 linguistic or literary,16 cultural17) have counterparts in the growing recognition that three-dimensional virtual modeling technology has thus far tended to produce silent, static, perfect imaginaries, which perpetuate the monochrome sterility of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century notions of classical harmony.18 That is, when they are not producing technicolor extravaganzas of unmodulated tones never exposed to the elements, contextual lighting, or the destructive properties of use and time.19
The work of four scholars in particular has been instrumental in creating this paradigm shift within classical studies: Gaston Bachelard (1994), Michel de Certeau (1984), Henri Lefebvre (multiple studies), and Edward Soja.20 But many of the advances their theoretical work has made possible draw on the relationship between somatics and aesthetic experience that Robert Vischer encapsulated in his 1872 coinage (published as Vischer 1873), Einfühlung (typically translated as “empathy”; Vischer’s 1872 dissertation explored how and why perception might be understood as a function of emotional responses and feelings). “Feelings may be aroused by experiencing totally abstract objects (as well as storms, sunsets, and trees)”; thus, “we may empathize with objects by projecting our personal emotions onto them,” and so “the feelings of the artist while making a work of art could become the content of the work of art.”21 For Kent C. Bloomer and Charles W. Moore, writing in collaboration with Robert J. Yudell for an audience of architects in training (1977), Geoffrey Scott’s Architecture of Humanism (1914) represents an interesting and complementary landmark in the development of this kind of dialogism in environmentalism.
Scott’s paradigms emphasize the role of “weight, pressure, and resistance” as the forces that govern sensory existence and that human cognition expects to find and thus maps onto space and the forms within it.22 Within this model, and focusing on the built environment, three areas of distinction are possible: real-world dimensionality, apparent dimensionality, and experienced dimensionality (“mechanical measurement,” “visual measurement,” and “bodily measurement”), but only the last is implicated in aesthetic sensibility. At a stroke, Scott’s model undermines the primacy of vision among the senses when considering how inhabited space can be understood. Scott’s complication of spatial perception sits comfortably with developments associated with Gestalt theory, within which the shifting, tangled, inexplicable complex of sensory threads pulled back and forth between an object and the person perceiving it have a transformative effect on the object itself. Objects and their environments become subject to unique and dynamic processes of systematization (or perhaps narrativization) dependent on individual perceptive experiences and patterns of association.
The processes of detection that underpin this sensory model depend for their meaning on a consensus regarding the available repertoire of movement enabled or triggered by particular spaces and experienced as a product of human anatomical form. Susanne K. Langer (1953, 95) argues that “architecture is an ethnic domain,” where “domain” is “the sphere of influence of a function, or functions.” In the terminology of “domain” sits a principle crucial to understanding representation of space: human conceptualization of space is what produces center and periphery, and what connects or separates the two is the available repertoire of movement. This might be virtual movement, or perceptual (implied or real lines of sight or routes), but it assumes a relational and relative quality that is intrinsically linked to the subjective “I.” This returns us to the role of imperialism and territorial negotiation with which I began this article, and I offer one contextualizing ancient example with which to conclude this introduction.
In classical antiquity, a discourse of center and periphery underpinned political space and societal self-fashioning. The incorporation of groups as communities and city-states required the tethering of individuals to particular and specified locales within which relativity, and thus proximity and boundaries, became crucial identifiers. For the Greek world these were Delphi and the Omphalos (aka Umbilicus), legendary center point and marker of relational divergence from Greek semiotics; at Rome, these were the features in the Forum known as the Golden Milestone (erected by Augustus in 20 BCE) and the Umbilicus (which may have eventually incorporated the Golden Milestone):
The Umbilicus [at Delphi], as they say, is derived from our umbilicus, because it is the middle place of the lands, as our ‘navel’ is in us; but both of these are wrong: neither is this place the middle of the lands, nor is our navel the middle of a man [Pythagoras’ theory of paired earth globes fits here; and the notion that centre points must be points of origin, and thus the real human umbilicus is located in the genitalia, and the earth is the centre of the universe]. What is more, if there is a centre-point, an umbilicus to the globe of earth, Delphi is not that centre; and the Centre of the Earth—not really, but so-called—at Delphi is in a temple structure (that looks like a treasury) off to one side; this is what the Greeks call ὀμφαλός—what they say is the tomb of Python. From this our ’interpreters’ have termed ὀμφαλός, umbilicus.
(Varro, Ling. 7.17)
The contingency that Varro, writing (probably) in the 40s BCE (and therefore likely before Rome’s monumentalization of a center point) brings to bear on the notion of center versus periphery highlights the bodily (rather than objective) quality of acculturated space and the plasticity of geopolitical cartography. The confluence of internal and external landmarks in this passage emphasizes how porous was the psychic demarcation between modes of spatial perception and experience. Varro’s comments wryly acknowledge that the existence of a “Centre of the Earth” tourist attraction at Delphi is only tangentially related to his vision of geographic realia, yet still returns to the idea of centrality and its definition and location as a crux worth addressing.23 Value judgments, Einfühlung, relativity, and movement are all in the mix here and become important for the second section of this article, but it is the matter of articulating landscape as a function of changing notions of center versus periphery to which the first themed section initially turns.
Aesthetics and Cultivation
Raymond Williams’s influential cultural analysis The Country and the City (1973) characterized a disconnect between urban and rural and focused on the condition of modernity as a mode within which the ability of the countryside to exist independently from the city was lost. He also identified the city as the new normative topography. This finding has its roots in the transition experienced by cultures of late capitalism, within which the commodification of consumption and the marginalization of the means and landscapes of production were becoming lived experience for majority populations in postwar economies. Technocracy, and the diminution of the need for mass labor in small-scale traditional agriculture, were both an aspiration and a dilemma, but whether or not technocracy was a positive factor for individual experience, it inevitably created a momentum that shifted populations from rural to urban lifestyles. This has significant implications for the patterns of interpretation available to individuals and groups responding to the natural environment within more or less recent historical contexts.
One shift occurs when experiential repertoires of how to read a landscape begin to operate by way of textual rather than directly obtained knowledge, and finding the most appropriate script with which to fill in the blanks when confronted by a scene situates the subjective response within a mediated process. A distinctive feature of this mode is that what Catherine Emmott (1997) calls the “contextual frame” for reading a story-world will then be slanted toward cultivated rather than experienced interpretive strategies. Moreover, available cognitive vantage points signaled within landscape texts (Werth 1999) will begin to open primarily virtual vistas, whose knowability requires inquiry and explanation rather than a “natural” or instinctual response.24 The landscape ontology that results locates the human subject at least at one remove from the lived experience of praxis. It also encourages individual recalibrations of space as a dynamic product of shifting visual, personal, and political perspectives.
We can see aspects of this modality already transforming Greco-Roman understanding and textualization of the environment and its scenography, and this comes into focus in particular when agricultural landscapes are in the frame. Hesiod’s epic poems of cosmogony, cultivation, and commerce (Theog., Works) set their audiences in dialogue with a poet-shepherd (Theog. 22), whose pastoral lifestyle has put him in direct contact with the Muses and thus opened a main line to otherwise inaccessible arcana. The protagonist of Works and Days, subtly differently, challenges audiences to understand their individual autonomy against an agriscape that stages political systematization as an essential function of human environmental exploitation. The model accessible to Hesiod’s audience is already polyphonous, showing how πόλις (polis: often translated as city-state, but perhaps best understood as a complex civic organization with a surplus economy); χώρα (chora: farmed, territorial hinterland); and the degrees of Otherspace quality assigned to the worlds of foreigners, gods, and wild beasts intersect.25 Greek literary conceptualization of the polis imagines a turn from individual family farms (oikoi) to clusters of mutually supportive manufacturies and civic communities within which the defining factor is the urban center, but which survive dependent on a close and directly sustaining relationship with an economic basis in agricultural territory. As Lin Foxhall (2003, 76) sums up, in Hesiod’s world, “land was the most important and most coveted economic resource.” In this way productive “agricultural regimes” (Foxhall 2003, 77) underpinned all other economic activity during the archaic era. Even as urban centers began to take center stage, and in their novelty often became the described focus of, or relative to, contextual scenography for literary manifestation, nonetheless the countryside remained the central fact of life (Osborne 1987, 16).
Edward S. Casey (2007), responding to Philip J. Ethington’s provocative opening article in the journal Rethinking History (2007), sketches a new way of understanding historical consciousness: as a set of dialogues between boundaries (points of overlap, porous) and borders (impermeable). Boundaries are thus what Casey terms “the privileged region” and “where places happen” (2007, 509). He wraps up by considering how “the map” needs redefinition in the light of his analysis:
[It] needs to be liberated from its alliance with modern cartography so that it can resume its original sense of charting one’s way in a given place or region. Hence it can be something quite informal—indeed, anything that indicates a sense of direction and gives a basis for orientation. Construed in this way, mapping is place-finding, a term that is in the same league as place-taking and place-making. Similarly, topos has to be led back to its root sense in Aristotle’s Physics, where it is conceived as the most snugly fitting container of that which is held in place. But the basis of any such containment is precisely the boundary or border that acts to include what belongs to a given place—that surrounds it in an action of ‘having-around’ (periechon in Aristotle’s technical term for the character of the containing surface).
(2007, 512; emphases in original).
Pragmatically and conceptually, what characterizes any successful farmer is a mastery of boundaries and thus an appreciation of what constitutes transgression and acceptable risk. This can be as basic a proposition as the need to know where to sow and harvest without treading on someone else’s fields, or knowledge of the land and its microclimates as a guide to where and when to plant, or the most productive points of overlap for planting schemes and annual cycles of cultivation. Turning back to ancient Greece, something like three centuries after Hesiod, Aristotle (Pol. 1318b9) observed that the best democracy is one in which the majority employment is farming and shepherding, with all other forms of labor deficient to a greater or lesser extent in virtue; Plato, in the quirky dialogue Statesman, makes the eponymous leader a practitioner of animal husbandry in which citizens need to be tended and protected, rather like a herd of domestic animals.26 The shift from an assumption of rustic significance with a substantial data set underpinning success in the field, to the development of a figurative importance for country practices, seems like an obvious manifestation of growing urbanism and increasing focus on complex communities and their structures. In reality, reading the literary texts conjures up a conversation linking (among many others) Hesiod to Xenophon (Oeconomicus; fourth century BCE), Cato (De agri cultura, second century BCE), Cicero (by way of his interest in Cato and, e.g., translation of Xenophon’s Oeconomicus [Off. 2.24, 87], and rhetorical publication on agrarian legislation [Leg. Agr.], first century BCE), Varro (De re rustica, first century BCE), Vergil (Georgics, first century BCE), and Columella (first century CE).
Literature of agriculture depends, implicitly or explicitly, on a sufficiently leisured and educated society of consumers hungry for a stake in the means of production but culturally and economically distanced from the day-to-day grind of plowing, shearing, fertilizing, feeding, harvesting, and slaughtering. Recent studies of agri-lit (e.g. Kronenberg, Nelsestuen, Sciarrino) have showcased the satirical and political weightiness of farming; the rural aesthetics of farmed landscapes (see, e.g., Spencer 2010) is now an accepted strand in the interface evident in ancient thought between people and place (Spencer 2016, 172–76). Drawing these ideas together, we have a model that situates the cultivated farmscape as the boundary (soil, territory, labor) between the semiotics of untamed wilderness and the acculturated structures of urban morphology.
The farmscape underlies the cityscape economically, but typically not phenomenologically; exceptionally, Roman authors are eager to “see” manifestations of pastoral scenography shimmering behind elegant townhouses, temples, and commercial zones.27 Where the irregular qualities of the organic cosmopolis can make space for a pastoral mode in citizen self-scrutiny, co-locating agri- and cityscape within an urban frame is unsatisfactory precisely because of the increasingly organized quality of both. In the Roman world a traditional citadel model, complete with acropolis, came to be accompanied by the expectation of political terraforming of the hinterland (centuriation); as part of the spatial grammar of colonization, its close, ongoing topographic association with the city made philosophically unnecessary any refraction of city-space by way of an agricultural filter.28 Yet concern with the quantity as well as quality of hinterland remains a driver for aesthetic responses, one that would come to dominate Latin scripts as the city-state spread across the peninsula and beyond.29
The rambling urban stroller and the herder following and shepherding a flock share a quality of movement that superficially at least has more in common than the regular dynamics of a farmer’s day. This is evident in Theocritus Idylls 3, whose paraclausithyron asks the audience to imagine an urban irruption into a natural landscape not yet economized. Refining the focus to the farmscape, compare the versions of agribusiness produced in Theocritus Idylls 5, and more generally in Cato De agri cultura. Theocritus’s tone here is dramatically different from that adopted in, for example, Idylls 1, or his other country-competitive poems. A puzzle at the heart of the tonal shift in Idylls 5 is why the poem’s central conceit, a song contest between Comatas (a goatherd) and Lacon (a shepherd), sees Comatas emerge victorious. Nothing in either character’s performance appears to distinguish one or other qualitatively; Charles Segal (1981, 3–24) sets out a clear case for how Theocritus may here prefigure what might be characterized as a tension between “real” bucolic and “artificial” pastoral modes (compare Elliger 1975), an approach developed by, for example, David Halperin (1983). One explanation might be that Comatas produces the more authentic response (see Serrao 1975), yet drawing on the reading advanced by Gregory Crane (1988), there might be a simpler explanation, which has a bearing on the nature of Theocritus’s approach to scenography.
At Idylls 5.31–34 Theocritus imposes a change in tone from rustic realia and the apparently natural authenticity of a gritty herding lifestyle (salted by its formal expression in verse) to a competition space, in effect a theatrical space, in which the two “slaves” will produce and enact a lovelier version of reality. The process by which they bring down the house lights on something like a recognizably real countryside and power up the floodlights on “pastoral” is, in this reading, central to the outcome.30 Piling on the special effects, the evident shift in tone lays bare the stratagems whereby a fantasy landscape can temporarily overlay a state of present decline, reversing the Hesiodic order of ages by way of an ever more extravagant turn to golden age motifs.31 Comatas and Lacon “do not actually leave their world behind (they still picture themselves as slaves, and never quite abandon their mutual abuse and chicanery) but instead augment their world with their own dreams” (Crane 1988, 121). Theocritus (pushing this reading) gives Comatas the prize because it is in Comatas’s wry final parry of the competition (Idylls 5.136–37) that the artistic bubble is burst and the audience is returned neatly to the reality of a rustic quarrel (whereby an audience’s sense of empathy with the environmental experience of the characters is reignited) rather than a literary-aesthetic game.
Aesthetics are central throughout Theocritus’s bucolic and intensely literary pastoral vistas. A more challenging text for testing the relationship among aesthetics, perception, and value within the experience of landscape is Cato’s De agri cultura. Enrica Sciarrino’s recent study has suggested that “the assemblage of haphazard materials and the piling up of instructions on different topics can be described as the main features of this text” (2011, 142), yet within that miscellany sits a dialogic model well-suited to the transmission of what we might term the lore of cultivation. Sympathetic qualities are ascribed to particular kinds of rustic environment and crops, and there is a figurative quality lurking within even the more apparently straightforward diktats. If, with Sciarrino, we read De agri cultura as an experiment in placial embodiment, helping Cato to guide his contemporaries toward self-projection first within the traditional back and forth from farm to city that urban politics required, but then more ambitiously and by analogy within the new, wider Mediterranean of Rome’s growing empire, we can see a logic for the elements of repetition and selective heterogeneity (Sciarrino 2011, 147–59).
To choose one sequence, Cato’s instructions on where to plant crops start by introducing the visual field to the semantics of textual instruction: “sic obseruari oportet” (“one must observe as follows,” Agr. 6). The landscape for planting starts with a rich (crassus), flourishing (laetus), and open expanse of ground described as fieldland, suitable for grain; temporal modulation means that not all such soils produce somatically equivalent terrains. Fog, for instance, where environmentally pervasive, turns resource-hungry agriscapes of waving grain into patchworks of mixed-use terrain, visually and practically very different. Grain, by contrast, promotes a sense of surplus (both within the land and as an experience for the landowner), of coherence, and thrives where clarity is present. Moreover, grain encourages an identification of value and identity between the pater familias and his praedium (Agr. 2, 1).
Cato’s use of praedium to characterize the estate subtly draws out the double vision his instruction depends on (Oxford Latin Dictionary, sense 2): this is a piece of property whose development is subject to and indicative of its owner’s status. Praedium in this sense is a function of boundaried territorialism within which the points of contact are also symbiotic, enabling comparative self-fashioning (e.g., a little later Cato notes the importance of human and topographic neighborhoods for defining and productively working each individual property; Agr. 2–4). The land should nevertheless be defined with a sense of autonomy and integrity: its borders thus need to be clear, or as Cato puts it, its identity as a productive landscape should be evident without the need for technocracy or substantial extrinsic addition (Agr. 5), because after all, a field and a man are alike in that their wealth is soon spent by extravagance (Agr. 6). Clear sight produces the best result in both instances, one might suppose. Despite the obvious relevance of Oxford Latin Dictionary sense 2, praedium sense 1 is also flickeringly in play: land pledged by a guarantor to support a public/private transaction. The personified farm is a bellwether for the monetization of the rustic landscape and in itself guarantees that the citizen landowner is in a position to evade the ethical disasters that attend on money making (Agr. Praef.).
Geographical thinking (which sits behind much ancient landscape discourse) is influenced as much by “invisible information and environmental stress surfaces,” which fluctuate with an economy of information, as it is encoded by specific and evident threats or physical topographic features (Gould and White 1986, 110). Both Hesiod and Cato are, in various ways, attempting to empower (but also to model) “the mental maps of the decision makers” (140). For the text of Hesiod, this is in part implicit; even if the poem had its genesis in a culture comfortable with oral composition and performance, consensus enabled the eventual acceptance of one canonical text. Taken in conjunction with Hesiod’s authorial nods to the work’s literariness, as noted above, this is clearly a handbook for landowners (“Hesiod” and his “brother,” within the poem, are heirs in a dispute about their inheritance), with the character Perses, the narrator’s brother, represented as having had enough slack in his original share to squander (see Gagarin 1974).
Cato’s position is even more explicit: farming is the only pragmatic, productive, honorable way of citizen life; where praise was due to a good man, “good farmer” (cultivator of the land, agricola) and “good cultivator” (colonus) were once the go-to terms (Agr. Praef.). Yet even in Cato’s day, estates had become commodities; Cato is notionally addressing a potential cash purchaser, producing a buyer’s guide and instruction manual rolled into one. Cato’s landowner never gets dirt under his nails, but cultivates his assets at one remove, by way of an overseer (uilicus, Agr. 2.1).32 The world of Hesiod was (hierarchically) flatter in its political organization, but in both texts the conceptualization of agriscape assumes that audiences will understand the presence of a more or less implied figurative dimension. Cato’s “Lucius Manlius” (a Roman everyman) needs to make a full tour of his property on each visit (“fundum … circumeat,” Agr. 2.1) and heads up a complex polity. There is a sense in which each of these texts is about rooting the citizen effectively in a territory, but the particular novelty confronting Cato’s audience is that Roman territory, and thus notions of what constitutes family land, is becoming much more conceptually elastic.
Strabo’s early-first-century CE Geography (1.1.17) shows the dangers of allowing unknowability to persist in captured terrain, and one of the benefits of empire was a rapid increase in the amount of knowledge available, knowledge that could in turn sustain grand imperial designs.33 Within a century of Cato’s death the possibilities for cultivation and understanding of botany were dramatically increased, not least by the works of, for example, Posidonius, whose scholarship on the natural sciences encompassed remarkable trees and viticulture (Fr. 241, 242), and the extensive biblio-booty that washed up in Rome in the wake of conquests such as Corinth (Plin., HN 12.111; Praef. 14; see Spencer 2010, 155–56). Superficially at least, a combination of territorial expansion, increasing density of encounters with new nations and peoples, and the scope for systematization of knowledge in new ways that these not only enabled but necessitated (politically as well as economically), led to the kind of holistic encyclopedism that endowed geographical expertise, in the widest sense, with hitherto unexpected cultural capital.
The immersive frescoes that decorated uiridiaria (e.g., the garden-room of the Villa of Livia, Prima Porta; the Villa “of Poppaea,” Oplontis; the Casa del Bracciale d’Oro, Pompeii; in miniature, the “Auditorium of Maecenas,” Rome) are showpiece examples of the significance of greenery for transformational scene setting.34 Fantasy landscapes emancipated from seasonal change and temporal attrition provided all-weather opportunities for wealthy Romans to enjoy the healthful benefits of flourishing nature (Spencer 2016, 178–179, on Vitruvius 5.9.5–6) and at the same time to signal their felicity and “natural” authority. Whether as venues for entertainment, discussion, dining, or business, the ability to freeze time to order made the very best of nature’s aesthetic benefits available to appropriate guests, who could experience a translation in time and space on stepping in. In the process, such decorative schemes clearly enhanced a host’s discernment, substance, and beneficence.35
These sites are easily intelligible as loci (drawing on the distinction between loci and imagines that underlies the art of memory): places that representationally evoke particular qualities of experience and have a distinctive and hyperreal and therefore also mimetic effect. Not all landscape frescoes are so evocative of synchronic abundance or mythological set piece or so ostentatiously representational. Eleanor Winsor Leach (1988, 75–78) introduces the systematic quality delivered by the convergence of loci and imagines in ancient rhetoric succinctly, but also draws out the question of authenticity (significant for this discussion), especially as it relates to the role of the viewer in filling in the gaps.36 The key term here is Quintilian’s enargeia, which Leach (1988, 78) situates alongside Horace’s tag line “ut pictura poesis” when evaluating the significance of audience input and output.37 The role of the viewer is most acutely evident where the framing device and context impinge explicitly on a depicted landscape, and rural or peri-urban scenes are significant features in funerary edifices of the first century BCE, that is, scenography marking up a liminal experience and site.38
Townhouses and villas from this era often exuberantly manifest the visual puzzle offered by the free-floating glimpses of country life and laborers that miniature decorative scenes offer. This more do-it-yourself genre of free-floating landscape vignette, wherein the viewer completes the meaning with fewer visual guidelines than are on display in reality-effect, representationally rich and immersive images, is my next focus. To explore the role of this imagery in shaping everyday perspectives of the natural world, but also of course its role in reflecting preconceptions and desires, the Tiber-side Villa “Farnesina” offers multiple examples. The exquisite decoration of this grand suburban villa transforms the walls into picture galleries, transports viewers into imaginary gardens, plays with perspective and architectonic logic, riffs on Rome’s love affair with Egyptian exoticism, and recounts myth. Along one curving corridor (F-G), rustic, often sacral, often laborious vignettes create a stop-motion story of what might, should, or never could lie beyond the walls, were they punctuated by windows or if the painted “columns” were indicative of a portico. Studies of corridor F-G have emphasized the dialogic relationship between the mobile viewer and the cartoon-strip quality that this kind of frescoed glimpse offers.39 An interestingly different viewing experience is triggered in Villa “Farnesina” cubiculum B, specifically, one of the bas-relief stucco landscapes from the ceiling vault.40 This stucco scene is my focus for the remainder of this section.
First, some context. Cubiculum B (like cubiculum D) is themed red, and its walls conjure up a painted pinacotheca in which disproportionately slender columns (i.e., painted supports that ostentatiously fail to look fit for any purpose outside the realms of fantasy) hold the gaze within the room by way of relatively flat visual modeling (enlivened by rich detail and trompe l’oeil motifs) and a busy system of planar division that encourages viewing with reference to x-y axes. As Mirtella Taloni (1982, 128) observes, the best viewpoint to activate the perspectival aspects is immediately inside the entrance on the short, southeast wall (with one’s back to the garden court).41 The mural scheme is characterized by crisply framed decorative segments, with images whose dimensionality for the most part relies on their being foregrounded (moving into the room, popping toward the viewer and away from their red background), not recessive, and images wherein individuals or small groups act against a plain ground.42 The imagery on the walls is connotatively rich, drawing Greece and Egypt thematically and stylistically into the mix, adding “archaizing” tones to mess with chronology and thereby adding the cognitive depth missing for the most part from the representational perspectives of the scheme. Taloni (1982, 128) suggests that when one looks in from the garden court end the images take on a generic quality that further hastens the eye toward the back wall of the room, although she also acknowledges the exuberant variety and stimulating color contrasts that the space conjures up (when set against the other two comparable cubicula, D and E). The mural effect at once encourages rapid progress to the rear wall and enforces a halting progress to enable individual appreciation of each “frame.” For the most part, both dynamics still restrain the gaze within the real dimensions of the cubiculum.
By contrast, the vaulted ceiling of the main space projects the gaze out of the room’s architectural confines by way of a multiplicity of narrativized moments and deep vistas. The additional reality-effect depth offered by the stucco format, and use of both higher and lower relief modeling, enhances their perspectives. Creamy-white stucco, set in motion by flickering shadows from artificial light or shifting patterns of daylight through the door from the garden court, might cause these ceiling panels to float free from their real structural context, giving the impression of an airy expanse whose dynamics and kaleidoscopic scheme invite the eyes and signal the gravity-defying existence of an exterior world (unlike the grounded, enclosing quality of the richly colored walls).
The ceiling panels, of course, in drawing the gaze aloft are also parading their artifice: gazing up into a bright “sky” jars with encountering representations of humane topographies mimicking country life. The stucco scene under discussion sits above the “Venus” aediculum (in the reconstruction) and depicts a rocky landscape crossed by a river, itself crossed by a bridge.43 The objects, natural features, and structures are depicted realistically in terms of detail (which adds a sense of verisimilitude), but the sense of depth for the architectural structures is addressed representationally by way of juxtaposition; perspective only minimally affects the relational spatial ambience. The effect is comparable with the spatial minimalism of, for example, the Ara Pacis “sacrifice” panel or the landscape “reliefs” of the silverware from the Insula of the Menander (Pompeii), which bring Hellenistic conceits into the frame of reference, if one agrees with Amedeo Maiuri (1933, 262) on dating.44 The narrative force of our “Farnesina” stucco panorama is in part architectural, and the juxtapositions will prove less syntactically eclectic than might at first seem to be the case. As Leach sums up (on a set of landscape frescoes from the same villa), we see “a series of contrasts bringing together a variety of environments, of architecture, and of activities that structure man’s world” (1988, 271).
One obvious intertext, also noted by Leach with regard to this scenographic style, is Varro’s work De re rustica.45 There, the conversation between his protagonists turns to the architectural features that animal husbandry necessitates, which can, with careful consideration, be made to enhance an owner’s prestige and complement the design and impact of the main family living quarters.46 None of the architectural elements in the “Farnesina” stucco under discussion are evidently related to animal husbandry, but they are clearly populating and enriching a landscape of cultivation and rustic labor.
Reading left to right (and with a vanishing point right of center), the lower part of the landscape, rising from the egg-and-dart molded “frame,”47 is occupied by raised ground defined by a gently rocky slope, atop which sits a rectangular tower. The intended height is difficult to judge. The tower has a rustic pitched roof, creating a kind of loggia: thatch, supported by four posts, above a segment where the wall is pierced by two narrow windows on each of the visible elevations (front, or river, and left). Below the sequence of openings, the cornice supports swags of garlands. Taloni (1982, 138) reads the structure as two story, with the thatched roof adding plein-air volume above one tall story, ventilated (and to an extent at least illuminated) by narrow, ceiling-level openings. Alternatively, the architectural connection between this design and comparable Egyptian “wind tower” structures (already integrated within the Roman decorative idiom) might at a stretch make the ventilation windows indicative of an additional story, foreshortened perspectively.48 Whichever reading had more contemporary currency, by the last decades of the first century BCE these towers were iconographically recognizble (and thus to an extent naturalized), in vogue, and novelly Egyptian.49
Two trees sprout, one with date-palm-like branches, from behind the tower (adding movement to the building’s rectilinear, static, grounded-on-rock foundations). The entrance is framed by an open enclosure, with two pierced walls each crowned by a covered urn, each with a handle, at the end farthest from the tower. In front of the enclosure and facing the river stands a guardian figure of Priapus, near enough to scaled life size (depending on how one reads the perspective). Priapus warns malefactors off, but the airy quality of the building and enclosure, its embrace of atmospheric and riverine breezes, and its spatial aspect facing toward the scene’s most dynamic feature (the river, and the human activities it supports), combine to suggest how aesthetics and (violent, Priapean) pragmatics meaningfully intersect in the right kind of landscape.
Priapus’s presence specifically indicates that this is a fertile scene and also a territory with boundaries that reward policing. The combination of trees, terrain, and people is in tune with the nostalgic idyllic landscape of (for instance) Propertius 3.13.25–46, rather than the pessimistic deserta sacraria that he conjures up for Rome’s “present” state of moral decline.50 The central foreground freezes two women at the moment of sacrifice, by a blazing altar, facing left. Farther into the scene, behind them, the entrance of a large circular tower invites the viewer in, but also engages with the river: to the right, the large L-shaped podium juts out to form a simple embankment or wharf. From the far side of this platform extension a footbridge leads the eye toward the right background and the deepest spatial element (another tower; pushed “backward” by lower relief modeling). There is, however, a slight resistance inherent in the scenography, or at least an invitation to linger at the central tower.
Projecting toward the viewer from the central circular tower is a vestibule, propylaea-style, with solid walls and roof. Extending still further into the foreground are two broad walls, waist height, against the left of which an elegant woman leans, one leg crossed in front of the other, supporting a meditative stance by resting her chin on her hand. This figure, overshadowed by a tall deciduous tree emerging from the rocky ground behind the circular structure, faces front, but with her gaze directed down and toward the sacrificial scene. In her graceful, static pose, and the intrigue of her reserved gaze, she encourages the viewer to linger in contemplative mode. Should one imagine stepping past her, to enter the tower, its circular form involves a complexly mathematical experience.
First, pass between the half walls, humanized by the leaning female body; next step into the full-height rectilinear vestibule, with blind walls on either side and a shallow, pitched roof; and the drum construction of the tower itself, once through the vestibule, then discourages forward momentum. Here, five (visible) narrow ventilation openings punctuate the upper wall above a cornice, externally decorated (as at the first tower) by swag garlands. The entire structure is surmounted by a large covered urn atop a column with a plain capital. On the embankment abutting the river stand two herms, and stretching from the drum and covering part of the embankment and bridge is an awning.
Here the iconography is as much that of the tower-tomb, familiar from the Hellenistic world and a popular, locally normalized model in Rome by the later first century BCE (as much as it is an evocation of Egyptian form). The garlands broadly evoke the repeating pattern of bucrania (with sacrificial filets and festoons) familiar from the nearby, albeit later, Ara Pacis enclosure, or, for instance, the Tomb of Caecilia Metella close to Rome on the Via Appia. Whether or not the scheme is intended to suggest ox heads, nonetheless the decorative form was one with particularly Augustan (and possibly semiotically playful) connotations, as set out by Richard Jackson King (2010). Should viewers read this tower as funerary? On balance, its relationship to the sacrifice in progress, the matching scale for these two elements, and the mood conjured up by the slender woman beside the enclosure suggest the asnwer is yes; the pose of the woman also evokes Attic grave reliefs (Wadsworth 1924, 32). In addition, the geo-cultural association among elite villas, landscape vignettes, and monumental family tombs (as noted above) locks this scene into the cultivated farmscapes and their overlap with pleasure gardens, as described by Varro and his friends.51
The right third of the landscape is separated from the rest by the small river, but joined by the bridge, traversed by two figures (in the background) and two men (on the right bank, in the foreground) whose activities balance the (smaller-scale) women sacrificing (center, foreground). The woman and child, frozen just over halfway across the footbridge (moving left to right), are approaching a small tower comparable to that at the left of the scene (where we started). The rectilinear tower has one “short” side, with one narrow ventilation opening, and one longer (with two matching openings). This structure has no rooftop loggia but does have a porch, open on both sides, shallow-gabled, extending from the short right-hand elevation (comparable to the central tower, but without solid walls). A rocky incline falls away beneath and rises behind (with a slender, fronded tree matching that behind the first tower we examined), while the four corners of the tower’s roof are marked by finials.
The landscape’s largest figures are poised on a rock, apparently on the right bank of the river. This pair are most obviously read as fishermen: one seated, leg dangling over the water, leaning forward and intent on the stream; the other standing, with a peaked cap, short tunic, and knapsack, facing in the opposite direction (perhaps moving away from his companion) and carrying a pole. Logically, these are the closest foreground characters, with the small tower (top right) in the background and some distance away. If so, then viewers are already being nudged to storyboard the elements in spatio-temporal terms: How far is one from the other? How long will it take the woman and child to reach their destination? What effort does the rocky terrain add, and how much further does that background tower seem as a result? Does the bridge disrupt the possibility of leaving the frame by way of a route from fore- to background? Does the scale of the fishermen encourage the eye to start and finish there? What difference does the curve of the vault make to the physical relationship between the viewer and the overall scenography and each individual element?52
The awning attached to the central tower, in combination with the ventilation windows in the various structures, imbues the scene with a sense of pleasant, airy shade, but also with a sense of movement: the river is flowing, but so are the breezes, and the scene has been set to showcase how best to take advantage of these features, relative to the room itself, rather than to send the viewer into the imaginary unknown environment beyond the frame.
The artifice of this panel is multifarious, even as it homes in on minute details to generate a reality effect. The descriptive mode I have adopted in “reading” the stucco creates its own idiomatic reality, as individual as that privileged by any ancient visitor to the room (see Tuan 1991); indeed, in describing this landscape I have given it dynamism and a performative quality that assumes that each element is recognizable as the kind of thing that such a landscape might contain. If viewed by way of Gestalt psychology as an example of grouping, further analysis of the organizational agenda (see Goffman 1974) can be attempted. We can see how the similarity of themes (vault and walls) and the similarity of spatial markup (pinacotheca) are also reinforcing the dramatic points of contrast between walls and vault (plane, color, density of framed images). Moreover, the pinacotheca scheme implies design and thereby nudges the viewer to generate some organizing principle other than the simple artistic representation of random objects, individuals, and scenes. What is especially interesting about the Gestalt approach is that it encourages viewers to consider their position not simply with respect to the unified experience of the cubiculum, but with attention shifting between the whole and parts. This sits neatly with the vault’s removal of blank space, since the frames are also boundaries, making a linear pattern that complements the “framed” scenes and introduces an alternative visual rhythm in counterpoint.
In assuming a narrative unity, my description has both recognized and fixed a set of archetypal qualities that imply the possibility of understanding landscape as a totality composed of symbolic unity. The ceiling vault contributes to the pinacotheca theme evident in the room as a whole, with the complex of framed images (of different sizes, with some stand-alone motifs, but regularly organized) including an offertory group at a Priapus herm, other landscapes with a sacral-idyllic theme, and scenes relating to the worship of Dionysus. In addition, the angle of gaze required would float the elevated landscape, privileging it well above the terrestrial plane; the lack of any evidence of pigment means it was always intended to have a visually recessive status, and the physical location (on a vaulted ceiling) adds dimensionality to the recessive element by way of the gentle curve.53 Even freed from my description, this panel could never pretend meaningfully to be a window or intercolumnar vista onto reality.
Whether envisioned in art or literature, landscape had a symbolic potential to produce a double vision or dual nature in which the materiality of natural elements (thickets, springs, crags) could take on an archetypal role and participate in a mythic reality. One example this article has briefly touched on, and which draws some of these issues together, is antiquity’s pragmatic banishment of tombs to line the external but still peri-urban routes of roads in and out of settlements. This practice eventually resulted in trips in and out of Roman cities becoming excursions into topographies of memory. This was possible by the late republic because Roman tombs became cultivated landscape features which, even as atmospheric wallpaper, were reframing and mediating admonitory, mnemonic, and melancholy experience for passersby (see Purcell 1987; cf. earlier, and Greek, models, in Marchegay, Le Dinahet, and Salles 1998). This juxtaposition of landscapes of death against flourishing life had as its counterpoint an inside-out experience within many tombs, where ethereal frescoed landscapes frequently formed the backdrop for formally concluding citizens’ lives.54 With the enclosure of Roman tombs in recognizably cultivated suburban environments, and given the significant overlap between the decor of tombs and houses, the figure-ground boundary characterizing human agency as a primary qualitative factor for valuing particular environments, not just mortuary, might seem more widely to blur.
Can looking “easily be singled out from an interlocking network of activities” (Green 1995, 34)? An important question for anyone approaching cultural responses to, and constructions of, the natural environment must be whether any literary or aesthetic or documentary reproduction of nature can (or should) escape from acculturated, evaluative mode, or indeed seek to shuck off this mode’s authoritative quality. In effect, is (Greek) theory always compromising (Roman) adventures in (and taming of) the wild? Or is it integral to their enjoyment? Of course in classical antiquity, apparently “wild” land was more readily visible (even if not culturally accessible) for many, given the realities of population density and lack of exploitative technology for transforming difficult environments. This might lead twenty-first-century commentators to assume greater opportunity for urbane ancient citizens to find seamless and instinctual continuity between cultivated and “natural” space, but this article argues strongly for the early development of perceptual frames (and an awareness of their effects) even as it acknowledges the much narrower rift in antiquity between experience of agricultural labor and understanding of the economies of subsistence and surplus.
This is evidently the case as ancient city-states reached a position of surplus production. Town and country were already taking on oppositional nuances in elite Roman rhetoric of the mid-first century BCE, but this nostalgic, politically reactionary overlay, assuming a negative disconnection from working the land, was for the most part a veneer. Even in a city of around a million inhabitants, few Romans would be without meaningful connections to small or large landholdings within an extended family context. Even agricultural laborers, or slaves, whose control over their environment was especially circumscribed, would perforce consult with overseers, colleagues, peers, or their own internalized lore when laboring on the land. Successful and thus productive collaboration with nature generates narrative at every level. Moreover, the increasing construction of landscaped gardens accessible to the public within Rome offered a gateway to a wide social range eager to experience and perhaps internalize the landscapes of elite otium to which wealthy Romans aspired.
The intensity, flavor, and context of these relationships linking the city to the wider environment are components of “the total force that transforms nature into a human place” (Tuan 1991, 685). At Rome, if one strolled in the gardens of Pompey’s theater or through Caesar’s park across the Tiber, it was possible to think oneself temporarily in possession of a landscape ostensibly all about luxury and sensory pleasure. Such spaces, of course, were also working powerfully for their donors, “a medium of exchange between the human and the natural, the self and the other … expressive of a potentially limitless reserve of value” (Mitchell 1994, 5). Hence the aesthetic perception of landscape, in antiquity, is rather more about identification of aspects relevant or beneficial to oneself within it, and its potential to offer a culturally meaningful space to operate within, than it is about isolating it as a text for aesthetic interest. For the Hellenophile sophisticate and the hard-bitten estate manager alike, a tree is never simply a tree. It is always good for something and means something within a preexisting cultural system. Just to look at it is to place it within a genre of “landscape,” and readers will still find this tension when interpreting the key Latin term locus amoenus—a delightful (natural) spot, or one packed with amenity value?
The down-to-earth significance of cultivation for ancient environmentalism crosses class and political boundaries, and as I have argued, aesthetic appreciation was only a minor (albeit powerful) aspect of the “codes of perception/reception” (Green 1995, 34). Nevertheless, Greco-Roman engagement with the environment recognized, and evaluated pragmatically (recalling Scott 1914), the close alignment between vision and other somatic interactions. Social strata and status acknowledged the value of landscape and experienced its realities in different ways, to be sure, but always within a world where responses to precarity of resource and sustainability were significantly focused on individual ability to exercise authority over the natural environment.
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(1) Barney Warf and Santa Arias, The Spatial Turn: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2009), 1.
(2) For summary discussion, see Diana Spencer, Roman Landscape: Culture and Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 136–139.
(3) David Braund, “Greek Geography and Roman Empire: The Transformation of Tradition in Strabo’s Euxine,” in Strabo’s Cultural Geography: The Making of a Kolossourgia, ed. Daniela Dueck, Hugh Lindsay, and Sarah Pothecary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 216–234, offers a concise guide to the Roman context framing Strabo’s interpretation: “Imperialist values were so embedded in Roman thought and practice that debate centred upon not why or whether but how should Rome have an empire” (218).
(4) Building on Marie-Laure Ryan’s influential work (2003, 2009, 2012). The five categories of how space is narrativized, outlined in Marie-Laure Ryan, “Space,” in Handbook of Narratology, ed. Peter Hühn, Jan Christoph Meister, John Pier, and Wolf Schmid (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009), 420–433, continue to resonate: spatial frames, setting, story space, narrative world, and narrative universe (421–422). Marie-Laure Ryan, “Space, Place, Story,” in Medienkonvergenz-Transdisziplinär, ed. Stephan Füssel (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 107–125, builds on this model with three categories enabling the distinction of space as medium (109).
(5) E.g., Cic., Att. 2.6.1.
(6) On both of which, see Phebe Lowell Bowditch, “Roman Love Elegy and the Eros of Empire,” in A Companion to Roman Love Elegy, ed. Barbara K. Gold (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2012), 119–133. Cf. Eleanor Winsor Leach, “Rome’s Elegiac Cartography: The View from the Via Sacra,” in A Companion to Roman Love Elegy, ed. Barbara K Gold, (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2012), 134–151, for a reading of the urban quality of elegiac focalisation. James Romm, “Continents, Climates, and Cultures: Greek Theories of Global Structure,” in Geography and Ethnography: Perceptions of the World in Pre-Modern Societies, ed. Kurt A. Raaflaub and Richard J. A. Talbert (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2010), 443–484, summarizes the kinds of geospatial Greek theorizing that were beginning (by the late republic) to prove influential.
(7) Excerpting: “The wilderness then is signalled by an intensification of the rules, an intensification that serves as the condition of an escape from the asphalt. You can continue on this trail then until you reach a steep cliff on to which the guardians of the wilderness have thoughtfully bolted a castiron stairway”: Stephen Greenblatt, “‘Towards a Poetics of Culture,’ Text of a Lecture Delivered at the University of Western Australia, 4/9/1986,” Southern Review 20, no. 1 (1987): 10. Cf. Umberto Eco, “Travels in Hyperreality,” in Travels in Hyperreality, trans. William Weaver (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1986), 49. Eco is especially keen here to prompt readers to question the availability of authenticity and to recognize how its manifestation might be redefined as a condition of culture, not a sign of “the real.”
(8) Diana Spencer, “Vitruvius, Landscape and Heterotopias: How ‘Otherspaces’ Enrich Roman identity,” in The Routledge Handbook of Identity and the Environment in the Classical and Early Medieval Worlds, ed. Rebecca Kennedy and Molly Jones-Lewis, (London: Routledge, 2016), 173–175.
(9) But cf., e.g., Columella (mid-first-century CE), Rust. Praef. 1, addressing claims about the soil being worn out through overproduction.
(10) Barney Warf, “From Surfaces to Networks,” In The Spatial Turn: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, ed. Barney Warf and Santa Arias (London: Routledge, 2009), 59–76, helpfully offers the debate between Newton and Leibniz (about the absolute versus relative properties of space) as a backdrop for the calibration of modern (planar, superficial, visible, containable) versus poststructuralist (networked, labyrinthine, arcane, unruly) understanding of space.
(11) Robert P. Mclntosh, The Background of Ecology: Concept and Theory (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985) discusses some of the excesses of popular “ecological” discourse during the 1970s. See Cheryll Glotfelty, “Introduction: Literary Studies in An Age of Environmental Crisis,” in The Ecocriticism Reader, ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1996), xviii. Donald Worster, “Nature and the Disorder of History,” Environmental History Review 18, no. 2 (1994): 1–15, exemplifies how ecocriticism began to confront early assumptions; see also the summary principles identified in William Howarth, “Some Principles of Ecocriticism,” in The Ecocriticism Reader, ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996).
(12) For boundless empire, see, e.g., Verg., Aen. 1.279, 6.793–794; Prop. 2.32.7-16; Ov., Fast. 2.683-684; for anxieties about boundaries, see, e.g., James S. Romm, The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought: Geography, Exploration, and Fiction, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), 11–31; cf., e.g., Hor., Carm. 2.15.1–5, 2.18 on the urbane muscling out nature; and see Stephen Scully, “Cities in Italy’s Golden Age,” Numen 35 (1988): 69–78.
(13) Dana Philips, The Truth of Ecology: Nature, Culture, and Literature in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), fleshes out the changes overtaking ecocriticism in the twenty-first century, tackles the dilemmas of critics working with cultural production where authorship is only complicatedly a product of civilization, and outlines new directions in the offing.
(14) Silvia Montiglio, Wandering in Ancient Greek Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); David H. J. Larmour and Diana Spencer, eds., The Sites of Rome: Time, Space, Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Spencer (2010, passim); Ray Laurence and David J. Newsome, eds., Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Space (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Timothy O’Sullivan, Walking in Roman Culture (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Ida Östenberg, Simon Malmberg, and Jonas Bjørnebye, eds., The Moving City: Processions, Passages and Promenades in Ancient Rome (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).
(15) Barney Warf and Santa Arias, eds., The Spatial Turn: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2009), building productively on, e.g., Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (London: Verso, 1989); in tune with, e.g., Julia Lossau and Roland Lippuner, “Geographie und Spatial Turn,” Erdkunde 58, no. 3 (2004): 201–211, and Charles W. J. Withers, “Place and the ‘Spatial Turn’ in Geography and History,” Journal of the History of Ideas 70 (2009): 637–658, and the trajectories of Günzel’s edited collections (2007, 2009, 2010).
(16) Rooted in disquiet expressed in Clifford Gertz, Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1988); cf. Barbara Piatti, Die Geographie der Literatur: Schauplätze, Handlungsräume, Raumphantasien (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2009).
(17) For example as manifest in Fredric Jameson, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983–1998 (London: Verso, 1998); evaluated by Victoria E. Bonnell and Lynn Hunt, eds., Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), especially the well-considered introductory chapter (1–32).
(18) Lothar Haselberger and John Humphrey, eds., Imaging Ancient Rome: Documentation—Visualization—Imagination, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series 61 (Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2006); cf., e.g., the solutions arrived at for Digital Hadrian’s Villa Project (http://vwhl.soic.indiana.edu/villa/index.php) and the personal “color” injected by Diane Favro, The Urban Image of Augustan Rome (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 24–41, 252–280.
(19) For a thorough test of the issues, focused on one medium, see Mark Bradley, “The Importance of Colour on Ancient Marble Sculpture,” Art History 32, no. 3 (2009): 427–457. Technical advances are exemplified in the conclusions drawn by Harikleia Brecoulaki, “‘Precious Colours’ in Ancient Greek Polychromy and Painting: Material Aspects and Symbolic Values,” Revue Archéologique (1), 3–35 (2014). Overview is provided by the collection Couleurs et Matières dans l’Antiquité: Textes, Techniques et Pratiques, ed. Sandrine Dubel, Valérie Naas, and Agnès Rouveret (Paris: Rue d’Ulm, Presses de l’École Normale Supérieure, 2006).
(20) See especially Edward Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996), 145–183. Applied to ancient Rome, see, e.g., Katharine T. von Stackelberg, The Roman Garden: Space, Sense, and Society (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), 49–72; and Diana Spencer, “Urban Flux: Varro’s Rome in Progress,” in The Moving City: Processions, Passages and Promenades in Ancient Rome, ed. Ida Östenberg, Simon Malmberg, and Jonas Bjørnebye (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 99–110.
(21) Kent C. Bloomer and Charles W. Moore (with Robert J. Yudell), Body, Memory, and Architecture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977), 27. See also Theodore Lipps, Raumaesthetik (Leipzig: J. A. Barth, 1897).
(23) See Diana Spencer, Varro’s Guide to Being Roman: Reading De Lingua Latina (forthcoming). On the Golden Milestone and centrality, with detailed bibliography, see David H. J. Newsome, “Centrality in Its Place: Defining Urban Space in the City of Rome,” in TRAC 2008: Proceedings of the Eighteenth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, ed. M. Driessen, S. Heeren, J. Hendriks, F. Kemmers, and R. Visser (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2009), 25–38. The niggling sense that centrality somehow required ongoing reaffirmation recalls Marc Augé’s epiphanic story—La Traversée du Luxembourg, Paris, 20 Juillet 1984: Ethno-Roman d’une Journée Française Considérée sous l’Angle des Moeurs de la Théorie et du Bonheur (Paris: Hachette, 1985)—of how he recognized the production of space and its warping tendencies against previously accepted signposting concepts (such as “center”) as key to understanding the modern self. One might compare Quintilian’s emphasis on the significance of the order within which sites are seen for the memorable embedding of a resulting narrative sequence (Inst. 11.2.17–22; cf. Auct. Her. 3.17–18.30). Evidently relational dynamics were understood as a factor in experiencing space in antiquity.
(24) Compare, by contrast, strategies applied to Homer; e.g., Donald Lateiner, “Homer’s Social-Psychological Spaces and Places,” in Geography, Topography, Landscape: Configurations of Space in Greek and Roman Epic, Trends in Classics Supplementary Volume 29, ed. Marios Skempis and Ioannis Ziogas (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014), 63–94; Alex Purves, “Thick Description: From Auerbach to the Boar’s Lair (Od. 19.388–475),” in Geography, Topography, Landscape: Configurations of Space in Greek and Roman Epic, Trends in Classics Supplementary Volume 29, ed. Marios Skempis and Ioannis Ziogas (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014), 37–61.
(25) Paul Cartledge, “City and Chora in Sparta: Archaic to Hellenistic,” in Sparta in Laconia: The Archaeology of a City and Its Countryside; Proceedings of the 19th British Museum Classical Colloquium Held with the British School at Athens and King’s and University Colleges, London 6–8 December 1995, eds. W. G. Cavanagh, S. E. C. Walker, A. W. Johnston, and J. N. Coldstream, British School at Athens Studies 4 (London: The British School at Athens, 1999), 39–47, presents a careful overview of what constitutes the polis, concluding that its primary lived sense reflects its organizational principle as a community of citizen men, with the built city representing a different model for framing the human system to which the term most vividly referred.
(26) Catherine H. Zuckert, “Practical Plato,” in The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Political Thought, ed. Stephen Salkever (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 183–192. Anthony T. Edwards, “The Ethical Geography of Hesiod’s Works and Days,” in Geography, Topography, Landscape: Configurations of Space in Greek and Roman Epic, ed. Marios Skempis and Ioannis Ziogas (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014), 95–136, finds a process of conflict between village and polis in Hesiod’s Works and Days that is (in his conclusions) emblematic of a dis-ease between subsistence and surplus communities. It might, however, be reimagined as illustrating the mutability of perspective that a natural landscape environment can uniquely sustain: if one can gaze from the city (the Homeric vista) and from the rustic habitation (Hesiod’s proposition), and recognize mutually significant concerns mapped onto the resulting topographies, then the reciprocity that literary production manifests becomes a point of authentic connection. Both urban and rustic communities draw power and meaning from the same space, and their difference becomes a question of degree or oscillation.
(28) See Cristina Corsi and Caterina Pada Venditti, “The Role of Roman Towns in the Romanization Process in Corsica. The Case-Study of Mariana,” in Changing Landscapes: The Impact of Roman Towns in the Western Mediterranean; Proceedings of the International Colloquium, Castelo de Vide–Marvão 15th–17th May 2008, ed. Cristina Corsi and Frank Vermeulen (Bologna: Ante Quem, 2010), 69–84, on how this plays out for one colonial case study. More generally, see Spencer (2010, 34–36; with bibliography).
(29) On Roman Ammaia, a foundation of the early first century CE, Frank Vermeulen and Devi Taelman, “From Cityscape to Landscape in Roman Lusitania: The Municipium of Ammaia,” in Changing Landscapes: The Impact of Roman Towns in the Western Mediterranean; Proceedings of the International Colloquium, Castelo de Vide–Marvão 15th–17th May 2008, ed. Cristina Corsi and Frank Vermeulen (Bologna: Ante Quem, 2010), observe that “the flourishing Roman town, lying in the province of Lusitania, … developed its urban structures in part as a result of the exploitation of the area’s natural resources: metals and minerals (e.g.[,] lead, silver, rock crystal), some fertile agricultural land, and perhaps the raising of horses. A further major asset was its location at the junction of several main roads, one of which connected Ammaia with the provincial capital of Emerita Augusta (Merida)” (311–324). This, despite the desolate (from the point of view of agricultural primacy in city foundation) landscape that formed the hinterland.
(30) For the countryside of Idyll 5, see lines 92–95, 108–111, 112–115, 120–123, 128–131.
(31) Hes., Works and Days 109–201.
(33) See, e.g., Strabo 11.5.5 on the contingencies attached (taking Alexander the Great as an example). The Geography may have been written later in Strabo’s life, in the 10s or 20s CE, but could have been for the most part a product of the Augustan Principate.
(35) For Vitruvius, by design architecture, social status, and individual qualities are all interrelated (De arch. 6.5).
(36) As Leach observes, key texts here are Cic., De Inuentione Rhetorica 1.38; Auct. Her., 3.19.32.
(37) Hor., Ars P. (Epist. 2.3.361); Quint., Inst. 6.2.32, cf. 8.3.68–72.
(38) E.g., the Large Columbarium (Villa Doria Pamphilij, Casa del Bel Respiro).
(40) Inv. 1072, Tav. 77, in the scheme presented by Irene Bragantini and Mariette de Vos, eds., Museo Nazionale Romano, le Pitture II,1: Le Decorazione della Villa Romana della Farnesina (Rome: De Luca, 1982). Comparable, from cubiculum D, is Inv. 1037, Tav. 111. See Emily L. Wadsworth, “Stucco Reliefs of the First and Second Centuries Still Extant in Rome,” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 4 (1924): 9–102 on stuccos in this era (1924, 23–34 on the Farnesina stuccoes); Roger Ling, “Stucco Decoration in Pre-Augustan Italy,” Papers of the British School at Rome 40 (1972): 11–57, explores the early development of stucco decoration at Rome.
(41) Although the painted architectural features are accompanied by shadows and set back from the viewer by a shallow, painted border indicating an additional strip of “floor,” they remain more planar than three-dimensional. The deepest perspectives in the scheme appear on the back wall, with the painted aedicula (and attendant architectonics) containing the scene of Leucothea and the infant Dionysus (Bragantini and de Vos 1982, Inv. 1118, Tav. 68).
(42) The long wall’s large focal scene is Venus enthroned at her toilette, a line-drawing image recalling fifth-century BCE lekythos style. Thematically this, plus erotic vignettes, in conjunction with the stylistic variation in the “framed” images (e.g., compare the trompe l’oeil scene of Leucothea), suggest a collector’s eye; they also suggest an interest in invoking or curating a private, female, eclectic art-gallery atmosphere by design. Compare schemes on display in the Palatine Casa “di Livia,” possibly contemporary; on this chronology, see Eugenio La Rocca, “Gli affreschi della casa di Augusto e della villa della Farnesina: una revisione cronologica,” in Le Due Patrie Acquisite: Studi di Archeologia Dedicati a Walter Trillmich, ed. Eugenio La Rocca, Pilar Léon, and Claudio Parisi Presicce (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2008), 223–242.
(43) The stucco can be seen online at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AS03_06_01_001_image_570.jpg (accessed June 11, 2016).
(44) Kenneth S. Painter, The Insula of the Menander at Pompeii, vol. 4, The Silver Treasure (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 27–38, presents a strong case for a date in the first century CE, in particular discussing the scenography (2001, 54–55, 65) with reference to Amedeo Maiuri, La Casa del Menandro e il suo Tesoro di Argenteria (Rome: La Libreria dello Stato, 1933), 263–300.
(45) Eleanor Winsor Leach, “Painters, Patrons, and Patterns: The Anonymity of Romano-Campanian Painting and the Transition from the Second to the Third Style,” in Literary and Artistic Patronage in Ancient Rome, ed. Barbara K. Gold (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), 152–153, discusses how Varro’s “dialogue” illuminates a tension between luxury and practicality in villa-culture and how it might appropriately be leveraged within a competitive elite social scene.
(47) A comparable example of this frame, similarly defining stucco panels, is the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta.
(48) Elfriede R. Knauer, “Wind Towers in Roman Wall Paintings?,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 25 (1990): 7 passim.
(49) The decor in this room (as well as in the extant villa more generally) nods to Egypt in other ways; e.g., for the painted statues of Isis and of Jupiter Ammon, see Mirtella Taloni, “Cubicolo B,” in Museo Nazionale Romano, le Pitture II,1: Le Decorazione della Villa Romana della Farnesina, ed. Irene Bragantini and Mariette de Vos (Rome: De Luca, 1982), 129–130, 133–134; Knauer (1990) concisely sums up the likely Egyptian input.
(50) Prop. 3.13.47. Propertius 3.13 conjures up a scene in which wealth once resided in orchards, blackberries, flowers, and birds; where rocky outcrops as well as fertile meadows supported human endeavor under divine auspices.
(51) See Monika Verzár-Bass, “A Proposito dei Mausolei negli Horti e nelle Villae,” in Horti Romani: Atti del Convegno Internazionale, Roma 4–6 maggio 1995, ed. Maddalena Cima and Eugenio La Rocca (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1998), 401–424; e.g., Varro, Rust. 1.2.10, 1.7.2, 1.23.4, 1.59.2, 3.4.2–3, 3.5.9–17, 3.13.2. Compare Spencer (2010, 113–134) on Pliny’s first-century CE villas.
(52) Following Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 126–128.
(53) Based on the visual dynamics of the scene, how its narrative logic follows the lower end of the curve of the vault and matches the position of a comparable landscape stucco in the vault of cubiculum D, this position seems secure. Dorian Borbonus, Columbarium Tombs and Collective Identity in Augustan Rome (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 187–188, describes vaulted ceiling stucco at the (probably early first century CE) Columbarium of Arruntii (Via Labicana/Esquiline Cemetery), where Piranesi’s record of the intact space suggests a comparable dynamic (1756, plate 10).
(54) See Borbonus (2014) for detailed discussion of the role of interiority and the design of columbaria in Augustan culture; Borbonus finds columbaria to be indicative of a much more wide-ranging social phenomenon than, e.g., Nicholas Purcell, “Tomb and Suburb,” in Römische Gräberstraßen: Selbstdarstellung—Status—Standard, ed. H. von Hesberg and P. Zanker (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1987), 25–41.