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date: 25 February 2020

Horticulture and the Roman Shaping of Nature

Abstract and Keywords

In the Roman world, horticulture (the art and practice of garden cultivation and management) is one aspect of the larger enterprise of farming and agriculture. Hortus denotes a kitchen garden near the house for growing vegetables; horti are large-scale pleasure grounds or parks, privately owned but sometimes open to public use. The literary and material sources from the second century b.c.e. to the second century c.e. in the regions of Latium and Campania adhere to and diverge from generic conventions, distort and exaggerate their subject, and provide social commentary on the purposes and meanings of gardens. After surveying the sources, the second section of this article reviews scholarship on gardens: archaeological studies that ask what gardens are, and cultural studies that ask what gardens mean. The conclusion suggests two future directions: reception studies and environmental sustainability.

Keywords: environmental sustainability, gardens, hortus, horti, horticulture, reception studies


At the end of the spring in 46 b.c.e., the year of Caesar’s victory at Thapsus and Cato the Younger’s suicide at Utica, Cicero wrote a series of letters to his friend, the polymath Terentius Varro, trying to arrange a meeting. Once the date was set, Cicero sent a short note to confirm, which ended with what seems to be a non sequitur: si hortum in bibliotheca habes, deerit nihil (“If you have a garden in your library, nothing is lacking,” Fam. 9.4.1).1 Varro’s dialogue on agriculture, the Res Rusticae, would not be completed for about ten years, but that same year Caesar asked Varro to collect Greek and Latin libraries (a project that was never completed; Suet. Iul. 44.2). So perhaps Cicero is suggesting to Varro that his public works project should include a garden. The closing remark occurs in isolation and is for Shackleton Bailey “rather obscure” (2001, 159n3); fairly so, since the emphatic position and stylistically punctual litotes, deerit nihil, give the sentence an aphoristic quality that is readily detachable and all the more universally applicable to circumstances beyond Varro’s Res Rusticae or Caesar’s plans for public libraries. Although devoid of meaningful context, the sentiment is clear: one needs both a source of food to sustain the body (si hortum…habes) and books to sustain the mind (in bibliotheca) for a complete life (deerit nihil). Gardens are necessary.

In the Roman world, the art and practice of garden cultivation and management—horticulture—is one aspect of the larger enterprise of farming and agriculture. In describing his ideal farm in the De Agri Cultura, Cato the Elder lists the watered garden second only to the vineyard (secundo loco hortus inriguus, “the watered garden in second place,” Agr. 1.7), a priority repeated by the interlocutor Stolo in Varro’s Res Rusticae (secundus ubi hortus inriguus, “where next the watered garden…” R. 1.7.9). These passages refer to hortus in the singular, which denotes a kitchen garden near the house for growing vegetables and perhaps also flowers for garlands used in votive offerings, all produced for subsistence and not for commercial purposes. Quite different is the meaning in the plural: horti are large-scale pleasure grounds or parks, privately owned but sometimes open to public use (see Purcell 2001, 548–549 on the meanings of horti). Bannon usefully reminds us that horti were not exclusively urban or rustic, nor exclusively for pleasure or for profit; rather, the categories overlapped (Bannon 2009, 9–10). From the singular to the plural, hortus and horti thus evoke opposite ends of the socioeconomic horizon—from simple rustic life to extravagant luxuries of the elite class.

To complement these definitions, archaeological evidence allows us to categorize Roman gardens into three types, depending on their relationship to the adjacent architecture: (1) gardens that surround a structure; (2) gardens that are attached to a structure and are more intensively planted; and (3) gardens located within an architectural structure (Nielson 2013, 41). Although these artificially imposed categories based on location (around, beside, within) are found to overlap, nevertheless they account for both hortus and horti in the classical period from the second century b.c.e. to the second century c.e. on the Italian peninsula, in the regions of Latium and Campania in particular.

The sources from this period and these regions, whether material or literary, adhere to (and diverge from) generic conventions, distort and exaggerate their subject, and provide social commentary on the purposes and meanings of gardens. After surveying the sources, the second section of this article reviews scholarship on gardens that has tended in one of two directions: archaeological studies that ask what gardens are; and cultural studies that ask what gardens mean. The conclusion suggests two directions for further study. First, because Roman gardens—like all historic gardens—are largely irretrievable, reception studies provide a feasible approach to ascertaining influences, attitudes, and ideologies. Secondly, I suggest that the moralizing discourse that pervades all of the sources on Roman horticulture be harnessed in service to a humanistic approach to environmental sustainability, that is, a decent standard of living that does not compromise future generations—the state of deerit nihil satisfied by Cicero’s condition that unites libraries and gardens, the metaphysical and the physical, knowledge and action.

Material and Literary Sources

Information about Roman gardens derives from material sources that help us understand what gardens were and literary sources that convey what gardens meant. Regardless of the medium, all these sources are subject to the cardinal methodological difficulty that besets the study of classical antiquity, namely the problem of ascertaining normative principles from exceptional instances. Despite obvious similarities, each garden—whether a vegetable garden plot, a public park, or a luxurious villa estate—is marked by a distinctive character that reflects its unique temporal and physical location and intention. Much of our physical evidence comes from Pompeii, Herculaneum, Boscoreale, Oplontis, and other sites in Campania preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 c.e. The static nature of this evidence, derived from a specific place captured at a specific time, makes it more difficult to discern dynamic processes such as fluctuating economies, changing tastes, or even changes in ownership that can impact a garden’s design, execution, and maintenance (on the influence of changes in the social composition of the elite, see Wallace-Hadrill 1998).

A fair amount of scattered literary evidence attests to the role of gardens in creating and maintaining social status. Our most abundant source is Cicero, who, according to Littlewood and von Stackelberg, “mentions gardens more than any other Latin writer” (2013, 146). A series of five letters to Atticus (Att. 12.19, 21, 22, 23, 25), written from Astura in March 45 b.c.e., discuss his attempts to purchase the gardens of Drusus in Rome (de Drusi hortis, Att. 12.23.3; on the location of the Horti Drusiani, see Grimal 1984, 117). Cicero’s initial interest is motivated by desire for a property that is conspicuous (Att. 12.19.1):

[C]ogito interdum trans Tiberim hortos aliquos parare et quidem ob hanc causam maxime. nihil enim uideo quod tam celebre esse possit.

Sometimes I consider buying a garden on the other side of the Tiber and indeed for this reason especially: I see nothing which could be so often frequented.

The next two letters address the raising of finances to cover the purchase (Att. 12.21, 22), followed by a letter urging Atticus to haggle the price (Att. 12.23). In the end, however, Cicero agrees to terms and has the cash for a property he prefers over Drusus’s gardens (Drusianis uero hortis multo antepono neque sunt umquam comparati, “I certainly prefer the property far above Drusus’s; they have never been regarded as comparable,” Att. 12.25.2). In the imperial period, Tacitus’s lurid narrative of the changing ownership and imperial escapades in the Horti Luculliani (Annals 11.1, 32, 37, 38) as well as Juvenal’s passing mention of the gardens of Seneca (10.16) and the gardens where Lucan was buried (7.79), indicate the assumption of garden ownership among the elite (Spencer 2010; Dewar 2014; Marzano 2014).

Primary evidence for the physical features of gardens consists of architectural specimens, furniture, sculptures, altars, sundials, planters, pots, pools, and water fountains, as well as gardening tools and implements. These items attest to the uniform presence of gardens in Roman daily life (Farrar 1998). However, they are rarely found in situ, and their location and use vis-à-vis the plantings of a particular garden are for the most part irrecoverable (Landgren 2013 is adroit).

In greater abundance is secondary evidence, that is, the representations of gardens in visual arts and literature. These tend to be most helpful when they deviate from their generic conventions. So, for example, Vergil creates a vivid picture of a flourishing garden in a passage of the Georgics that departs significantly from the didactic tradition in which it is embedded. Book 1 cleaves closely to Hesiod’s Works and Days, the farmer’s operations and calendar; Book 2 takes up arboriculture, vines, and olives; Book 3 instructs in animal husbandry; and Book 4 is on the care of bees, and it is in this context that gardens first appear in the Georgics (4.109–111):

  • [I]nuitent croceis halantes floribus horti
  • et custos furum atque auium cum falce saligna
  • Hellespontiaci seruet tutela Priapi.

Let there be gardens fragrant with saffron flowers and let the watchman against thieves and birds, guardian Priapus, lord of the Hellespont, protect them with his willow-hook.

If he were not nearing the end of his poem, he says, forsitan et pinguis hortos quae cura colendi/ornaret canerem, “Perhaps, too, I might be singing what careful tillage decks rich gardens” (4.118–119). The digression begins with a contrary to fact condition and ends with a refusal to engage in the subject of gardens: uerum haec ipse equidem spatiis exclusus iniquis/praetereo atque aliis post me memoranda relinquo, “But these topics I myself, prevented by limited space, leave for others to recount after me” (4.147–148). Yet the intervening lines are among the most descriptive of a garden in Latin literature: rose beds, endive growing thanks to irrigation, parsley, squash, narcissus, acanthus, ivy, myrtle (4.119–124). Then the poet recalls once seeing an old man who tended a garden on a plot in Tarentum nec fertilis illa iuuencis/nec pecori opportuna seges nec commoda Baccho, “not rich enough for plowing, unsuitable for flocks, unfavorable for grapevines” (4.128–129). Instead the old man planted herbs, lilies, and vervain, and he harvested roses in the spring, apples in the autumn; even in winter he could find hyacinth blooming. His trees bore fruit such as pears and plums, and the plane tree provided shade for drinking (4.130–146). Some have argued that the passage is “impossibly idealized or pointedly fictitious” (see Thomas 1988, 167); however, its value as a source for imagining an ancient Roman garden lies precisely in its comprehensiveness. A hortus will provide any number of herbs, vegetables, flowers, or fruits according to season. Additionally, a hortus can thrive in soil that is well watered, even if unsuitable for other uses; and a hortus is small enough to be tended by one person. A hortus is isolated neither from civilization nor from nature; it is located near a city (sub Oebaliae…turribus arcis, “under the towers of Oebalia’s citadel,” 4.125) and near a source of water (qua niger umectat flauentia culta Galaesus, “where dark Galaesus waters golden fields,” 4.126). Thus the general contours of a hortus can be discerned in a passage that is a conspicuous departure from the rest of the poem.

The image of the garden tended by the old man of Tarentum, though invented by Vergil, is nonetheless derived from actual gardens. A similar process of simultaneous invention and mimesis is at work in the wall paintings of gardens from the Late Republican second style (80–15 b.c.e., Ling 1991, 23; garden painting as a separate genre, Ling 1991, 142–153). According to Kuttner, the purpose of these wall paintings was not to record landscapes but to immerse the viewer “in a world of naturalized artifice” (1999, 8). The second style is specific in its depiction of architectural structures, materials, surfaces, configurations, and perspectives. Kuttner identifies a radical change in the 30s and 20s b.c.e.from this preoccupation with architecture to attention to the individual morphologies of fruits, flowers, and leaves of actual plant species, which she attributes to the recent arrival in Rome of the illustrated plant gazetteer of Dioscurides (1999, 29). Contemporary with the completion of the Georgics in 29 b.c.e., the garden room of the Villa of Livia at Primaporta, located about ten miles from Rome and painted in the 30s, portrays identifiable oak and fir trees (Figure 1). These are set in niches where earlier painters would have normally rendered urns instead of plants. Furthermore, this privileged position contrasts with the quince and pomegranate trees set in the background, fruit trees that would have required cultivation. The viewer, inside the room, thus occupies the uncultivated space with oak and fir but has a view of the cultivated garden, with its roses, irises, oleander, chamomile, and poppies, beyond the double fence that dominates the bottom of the scene. Even more so than the passage from the Georgics, the wall painting can be regarded as impossibly idealized and pointedly fictitious; winds blow from different directions and fruits blossom and ripen simultaneously. Yet its value as a source lies in the interplay between tradition and originality and in the marked departure from the conventions of the art that reveal the general form of a garden.

Horticulture and the Roman Shaping of Nature

Figure 1: Primaporta, Villa of Livia, garden room (now Rome, Palazzo Massimo). The fir tree is set in the niche, while the fruit trees and flowers are seen beyond the double fence.

Credit: Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. Frescos de la Villa de Livia “ad gallinas albas.” Miguel Hermoso Cuesta, WikiCommons.

Sources from the Neronian period also demonstrate this principle of departure from generic convention. Our longest and fullest treatment of the garden as an individual topic in literature is the 436-line poem by Columella. Each of the twelve books of De Re Rustica covers a particular aspect of the farm: situation and quality of the soil, water, farm buildings, and farmhands; fertilization of soil; care of vines; and the care of livestock, dogs, birds, fish, and bees. After nine books of didactic prose, however, in Book 10 Columella launches into hexameters on the cultivation of gardens (cultus hortorum, Col. 10 praef. 3); Books 11 and 12 revert to prose. The exceptionality of the garden is thus brought into high relief by the fundamental divergence in generic form. The poem begins with a proem naming the dedicatee (10.1–5), immediately followed by verses describing the suitable terrain for a garden (10.6–34) and an invocation to the Muses (10.35–40). The design of the poem follows the course of a solar year, beginning with the autumnal equinox (10.41–54); in winter, the farmer prepares the soil (10.55–76). Most of the poem is devoted to the activities of the spring (10.77–310) and the produce of the summer (10.311–422). After a brief return to autumn (10.423–432), the poem closes with a four-line envoi that harks back to Vergil, for in the preface of Book 10 Columella states explicitly his intention (10 praef. 3):

ut poeticis numeris explerem Georgici carminis omissas partes, quas tamen et ipse Vergilius significauerat, posteris se memorandas relinquere.

that I complete in poetic measures those parts of the Georgics left which Vergil himself indicated he would leave to be dealt with by later writers.

While the passage from the Georgics describes the contents of a garden, Columella’s poem details the activities of gardening in an exceptional poem that interrupts his treatise on agriculture.

Nero’s expansive Domus Aurea on the Esquiline Hill is likewise a radical departure from tradition that nonetheless partakes of traditional architectural forms. The Domus Aurea is characterized by Ball as revolutionary for its new motifs and for its complex integration of multiple spaces: “novelty in pursuit of luxuria was the driving force behind Nero’s architectural aesthetic” (Ball 2003, 27). The Domus Aurea was remarkable for its grand scale, its location in the heart of the city, and its proclamation of a Golden Age ideology. According to Tacitus (largely unfavorable toward Nero), the complex was less impressive for its gems and gold (Annals 15.42.1):

quam arua et stagna et in modum solitudinum hinc siluae, inde aperta spatia et prospectus.

than for its fields and pools and, as in a wilderness, forests here, there open spaces and vistas.

According to Moormann, the peristyle courtyard suggests a garden on the model of Pompeian houses, and the wall on its north side still contains the remains of plaster that was used as substrate for a fresco decoration—quite likely a representation of a garden (Moormann 1998, 359–360). The nymphaeum of Ulysses and Polyphemus, with a waterfall and central basin, recreated an illusion of a natural grotto opening out into a garden. Although short-lived (use was discontinued immediately after Nero’s death in 68 c.e.), the Domus Aurea bears witness to the importance of horticulture and garden design to even the grandest architectural innovations of imperial Rome.

Much information about gardens can be ascertained from examples of satire and invective that distort or exaggerate their subject. In Horace’s Satire 1.8, a statue of the god Priapus in the Gardens of Maecenas located on the Esquiline recounts his construction from the trunk of a fig tree. His job is to ward off thieves and pests, but he is particularly menaced by witches who visit the grounds to practice necromancy. One night he saw Canidia and Sagana dig a trench and fill it with the blood of a black lamb; they brought out voodoo dolls and invoked the gods of the dead. Priapus stood immobile and powerless to stop them until he farted so loudly that he split his fig-wood buttocks and frightened the hags out of the garden. They ran off, one dropping her false teeth, the other her wig, and the fifty-line poem ends with a joke and a laugh. Alive in the poem are the traditional exaggerations of Priapean poetry and invective against women; perhaps most tellingly, however, the poem bears witness to a change in land use. The far-fetched antics of the sorceresses are graphic confirmation of a real fact, that the Gardens of Maecenas were built over an old paupers’ cemetery. In his in-depth study of the Lex Lucerina, Bodel argues that inscriptions found on the Esquiline, which recorded prohibitions against creating dumping grounds for refuse and corpses, are evidence that illegal disposal of bodies in this area was a serious problem (Bodel 1994, 44; Purcell 1987, 37). Horace’s poem, with its overblown witchcraft, underscores the favor Maecenas performed for the citizens of Rome by transforming this sketchy part of town into a respectable garden estate.

The ironic tones of satire can also illuminate the character of the simple hortus. In Satire 3.226–228, Juvenal offers what Braund calls “a sentimentalised portrayal of a provincial property” (1996, 213). The speaker of the poem, Umbricius, is sick and tired of living in a Rome overrun by foreigners and so crowded that fires are a constant threat. He tells his listener that any reasonable citizen would opt instead for (3.226–228)

  • hortulus hic puteusque breuis nec reste mouendus
  • in tenuis plantas facili diffiduntur haustu.
  • uiue bidentis amans et culti uilicus horti.

a little garden and a well so shallow it doesn’t need a rope, for easy water to sprinkle on your tender plants. Live in love with your hoe as the overseer of your vegetable garden. (translations of Juvenal by Braund 2004)

Whether Umbricius or his audience would be satisfied with such a modest plot is immaterial; in order for the satire to deliver its sting (est aliquid, quocumque loco, quocumque recessu,/unius sese dominum fecisse lacertae, “It’s something, wherever you are, however remote, to make yourself the master of a single lizard,” 3.230–231), the description of the hortulus needs to be as accurate as possible. Thus it is small, well-watered, and easily tended by one person (we shall return to the problems of garden labor in section 3).

This literary diminuitive hortulus finds a counterpart in the miniature garden schemes painted in porticoes and interior rooms; Bergmann identifies at least sixty surviving examples of this art form (Bergmann 2014, 247). Balustrades of lattice fences or stone wall with pergolas and gates are represented in an axonometric plan, while the interiors of the gardens are neatly arranged with pools, fountains, statues, vases, and orderly plantings of trees and bushes. Unlike illusionistic wall paintings that merely suggest a garden or that are constrained by the shape and purpose of the room, these paintings, measuring in one case a mere 12 x 35 centimeters, can depict a garden in its entirety. The miniatures are often located along the colonnades of porticoes, so that the view alternates between the overly small representations of gardens and the broad vistas of the living gardens just beyond the columns (Bergmann 2014, 253). Not only do these small paintings with their exaggerations and distortions of scale manifest the ideal arrangement of a garden, they also bring to life the dialogue between the artificial and the natural that defines the art of gardening.

In the end, all art imitates and invents simultaneously. Our earliest prose on the subject of agriculture, Cato the Elder’s De Agri Cultura, is quoted or disputed by Varro ten times in Book 1 of his Res Rusticae (R. 7.1, 9; 18.1, 3; 19.1; 22.3; 24.1, 3; 58; 60). Thomas has demonstrated the ways Vergil integrated Varro’s treatise into the Georgics and reshaped technical material to his poetic style (Thomas 1987). As we have seen, Columella undertook to complete the Georgics; in doing so, he imitated Vergil in notable ways (Cossarini 1977; Noè 2002, 163). In some ways, Cato the Elder’s best successor was Cicero, whose De Senectute features a digression on the pleasures of agriculture in the voice of none other than Cato the Elder (Sen. 51–60), for whom the topic was naturally fitting, although the content and style are distinctly Ciceronian (Powell 1988, 205). Gardens surpass all other aspects of agriculture: [N]ec uero segetibus solum et pratis et uineis et arbustis res rusticae laetae sunt, sed hortis etiam et pomariis, “There is joy not only in fields, meadows, vineyards and woodlands, but also in gardens and orchards” (Sen. 54). Even the garden’s produce is superior: abundat porco haedo agno gallina lacte caseo melle. iam hortum ipsi agricolae succidiam alteram appellant, “it abounds with pork, goat’s meat, lamb, poultry, milk, cheese, and honey; then the garden, which the farmers themselves call ‘yet another side of bacon’” (Sen. 56). Such sentiments reflect the unique hold that gardens had not just within the landscape but also upon the imagination. As Cicero’s digression commemorates rather than duplicates Cato the Elder’s treatise, so frescoes that order plants and artifacts according to compositional conventions repeat and echo the contents of a garden but “at varying scales and in different planes of reality” (Bergmann 2010, 31). Or as Pliny the Younger puts it in his description of his Tuscan villa (Ep. 5.6.13):

Magnam capies uoluptatem, si hunc regionis situm ex monte prospexeris. Neque enim terras tibi sed formam aliquam ad eximiam pulchritudinem pictam uideberis cernere: ea uarietate, ea descriptione, quocumque inciderint oculi, reficientur.

You will take great pleasure if you should look down on the countryside from the mountain, for you will seem to see not the lands but some form painted for its exceeding beauty, and these with their variety and plan refresh the eyes wherever they turn.

Thus our sources present not the gardens per se but always some representation ad eximiam pulchritudinem, “for its exceeding beauty”; and these sources, whether literary or visual, are meaningful precisely because of the interplay between uarietas and descriptio, variety and plan, originality and tradition, invention and mimesis. So long as physical manifestations of ancient Roman gardens remain unrecoverable, the question of what Roman gardens are will always be accompanied by evidence for what Roman gardens mean.

Trends in Scholarship

The modern study of Roman gardens began in 1943 with the publication of Grimal’s Les Jardins Romains, revised in 1984 for the third and final time so as to take into account forty years’ worth of archaeological advances. Grimal’s method was chronological so as to examine in succession types of gardens and to deduce lines of evolution. So in Part One, special attention is paid to the places in which the art developed and how location influenced tendencies. Part Two catalogues known gardens in the city of Rome. Grimal divided gardens from the last century c.e. until the first half of the second century c.e. into three categories—private, imperial, and public— “all which put a bit of nature in the city” (Grimal 1984, 16). The third part of the book is devoted to analysis of the relationship of the garden to the architecture of the house, to the plastic arts, and to a sense of nature. Part Four turns to literary sources, again treated chronologically to comprehend garden art in Roman thought and the intimate reactions of writers, especially the poets, toward nature.

Between the first and third editions of Grimal’s seminal work, Jashemski carried out extensive field work in Campania, beginning in 1961 and resulting in the first volume of The Gardens of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius in 1979 and the second volume in 1993. She catalogued not only every garden excavated in the Vesuvian area with plans, photographs, and a bibliography (Jashemski 1993, 20–312) but also garden paintings in the Roman world (Jashemski 1993, 313–404). She then completed the catalogue with evidence of flora and fauna in the paintings of Vesuvian gardens and vineyards (Jashemski 1993, 405–407). Nearly every building had a garden, and many had more than one. Excavated looms and toys attest that gardens were places for work and play; bones indicate the types of meats eaten at meals (Jashemski 1992, 104–105). She even reports finding the bones of watchdogs in the large gardens.

Although excavations at Pompeii have disclosed marvelous details about the uses of gardens in Roman daily life, our knowledge of what a garden actually looked like in antiquity is still quite limited; plant remains are rare, and when discovered they must be handled immediately and with precision. When possible, Jashemski and her team would carefully empty root chambers of lapilli; then they reinforced the cavities with wire, filled them with plaster, and removed soil from around the cast to reveal ancient roots for identification by botanists. Their efforts sometimes yielded carbonized roots, ancient pollen, seeds, fruit, bacteria, and even insects (Jashemski 1992, 107). Such systematic analysis is only possible if the site is undisturbed, and a great deal of evidence has been forever lost because it was not recovered at the moment of excavation. Gardens present an unusual dilemma for archaeologists, because the soil that is the medium of preservation also contains the object of interest (Gleason and Miller 1994, 3). Therefore, garden archaeologists must also rely on earlier excavation reports and drawings that may contain clues (see Jashemski 1981, 36–37, for “a thorough search through all the excavation reports”).

After Grimal and Jashemski, Horti Romani is the third major publication to influence the course of modern scholarship on Roman gardens (Cima and La Rocca 1998). Twenty-one contributions from an international conference held in 1995 take the gardens in the city of Rome as starting points, and therefore they are successors to Grimal. However, the application of cultural, social, and gender methodologies reflects trends that were current at the time and significantly increase our understanding of these gardens in Roman society. Evidence from the provinces supplements the abundance of material from Rome and Campania. The extensive remains of gardens excavated at Conimbriga in Portugal and Fishbourne in Britain illuminate those features of Roman gardens that transcend location (see Cunliffe 1971; de Alarcão and Etienne 1981; Bowe 2004, 111–139). Continuities in conception and design are also elucidated by cross-cultural comparisons across the Mediterranean from the archaic period to late antiquity, as demonstrated by the contributions in Le jardin dans l’antiquité (Coleman 2014).

Grimal prefigured two major trends: scholarship that offers lucid and imaginative interpretations, even reconstructions when possible, of surviving archaeological findings or artistic representations (e.g., Ciarallo 2000; Hartswick 2004); and a second line of inquiry that draws more extensively on literature to reach conclusions about what gardens mean in Roman society (e.g., Henderson 2004; Pagán 2006; Spencer 2010; von Stackelberg 2013). Therefore von Stackelberg’s monograph is all the more compelling, for her attempt to recover how Romans experienced gardens relies on both material and literary records, which she analyzes via a theoretical approach that combines cognitive theory, Foucauldian heterotopias, and the notion of “Thirdspace” as developed by Soja (von Stackelberg 2009a, 50–54). The soundness of her methodology is confirmed by its applicability to gardens for which we have only material and no literary record (the Pompeian Houses of Octavius Quartio and of Menander) as well as to gardens for which we have only literary and no material record (the villas of Pliny the Younger, Ep. 2.17 and 5.6).

It would seem that with a finite number of literary sources and an archaeological record of limited possibility, the study of Roman gardens has reached a terminus; however, until our knowledge of Roman gardens can improve or at least complement our comprehension of gardens in contemporary society, there is work to be done.

New Approaches

Two areas beckon in the study of Roman gardens: reception and sustainability. The rapidly growing field of classical reception studies aims to explore the transmission, interpretation, rewriting, and rethinking of ancient Greek and Roman material as it is reworked in the contexts of other cultures. Such studies address the implications of these interactions for ancient and modern contexts. In his book The Afterlife of Gardens, Hunt seeks to recover how gardens are experienced and received—how they are visited, used, and absorbed. Rather than focus on historical origins and development, Hunt studies how gardens are changed and reformulated once the designer’s work is done. By carefully adapting the theoretical framework of reception studies pioneered by Wolfgang Iser, Hunt coins the term “implied visitor” (on the model of the implied reader), whose reports and representations constitute evidence of the afterlife (Hunt 2004, 16–17). This kind of second- or even third-hand documentation may be the only evidence of a garden when the physical site has long disappeared; for some gardens, reception is the only form of historic preservation available. Beyond empirical evidence, however, studies of the receptions of Roman gardens and, more importantly, their reformulations in later times have much to tell us about influence, attitudes, and ideologies. For example, the garden of Louise du Pont Crowninshield at Hagley in Delaware is unique in its marriage of industrial America with classical Rome (von Stackelberg 2015); in his garden “Little Sparta,” the Scottish artist and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay quotes Vergil fourteen times in conspicuous displays that engage with the original contexts of the Latin poetry (Pagán 2015); and the MuseoParc at Alesia transforms Julius Caesar’s historic defeat of the Gauls into a mythical illustration of patriotic resistance (Weltman-Aron 2015). These three examples from the United States, Scotland, and France in the twentieth century demonstrate the rich interpretive possibilities alive in the modern iterations of Roman forms (see also Bowe 2004, 141–161).

Embedded in the moralizing discourse that underwrites all of our sources on Roman horticulture is a pervasive awareness of the unequal distribution of wealth, which results in a perceptible disjunction between the social hierarchy as it was and as it ought to be (Edwards 1993 is the starting point for any discussion of Roman morality; see esp. 140). Three patterns of censure emerge. Most audible (and colorful) is the condemnation of the illicit behavior of women in gardens. In the Pro Caelio, Cicero describes Clodia lurking in gardens near the Tiber where she spies on young men who come to swim (habes hortos ad Tiberim, Cael. 36). In a contrafactual supposition, he paints a picture of a woman cuius in hortos, domum, Baias iure suo libidines omnium commearent, “into whose gardens, house, and place at Baiae the sexual passions of all could come and go of their own accord” (Cael. 38). His rampant invective reaches its peak with a vivid description of a woman who publicly leads the life of a meretrix, “courtesan,” in the habit of attending dinner parties si hoc in urbe, si in hortis, si in Baiarum illa celebritate faciat, “in the city, in her gardens, amid the crowd at Baiae” (Cael. 49; see Richlin 1992, 97 on rhetorical invective). Clodia’s debauched conduct in gardens prefigures the scandals of Messalina, who after ten years of marriage to the emperor Claudius contrived to marry Gaius Silius, who divorced his wife and allowed himself to be courted by the empress. Juvenal describes her waiting “with her bridal veil ready and a purple marriage couch set up in the gardens in full view” (dudum sedet illa parato / flammeolo Tyriusque palam genialis in hortis, 10.333–334); and Tacitus devotes the end of Annals Book 11 to this illegal marriage and her ultimate demise in the gardens of Lucullus (for an analysis see von Stackelberg 2009b). To be sure, women are a source of anxiety, and although gardens are not intrinsically evil, they readily host activities of all sorts. So when Pompey constructed his porticus in the Campus Martius in 55 b.c.e., complete with a theater, temple, basilica, and colonnade around a central garden, Cicero is diffident: theatra, porticus, noua templa uerecundius reprehendo propter Pompeium, sed doctissimi non probant, “theaters, porticoes, new temples I criticize more bashfully on account of Pompey, but the greatest philosophers do not approve” (Off. 2.60). Catullus provides a reason for disapproval; he looks for his missing friend Camerius among the women hanging around the porticus Pompeiana, who answer him by lasciviously baring their breasts (55.6–12). Propertius and Martial attest to the popularity of the porticus for assignations (Prop. 2.32.11–12; 4.8.75; Mart. 2.14; 11.47), and Ovid recommends prowling Pompeian shade to find lovers (Pompeia…sub umbra, Ars 1.67). So while Cicero might equivocate about the moral integrity of the gardens that Pompey built in the heart of Rome, the poets are frank about the sexual lure of the place (for an interpretation of the design of the Porticus Pompeiana, see Gleason 1994).

Yet Ovid, whose Ars Amatoria was banned from public libraries because of its explicit endorsement of adultery, invokes the garden to different ends in his exile poetry. In Ex Ponto 1.8, Ovid recalls a garden he used to tend and laments that he cannot garden in exile (Pont. 1.8.39–60). In Ex Ponto 3.4, he embellishes the unremitting passage of time in terms of the first and last blooms of a rose garden (Pont. 3.4.61–64). Ovid explains that these poems non haec in nostris, ut quondam, scripsimus hortis, “were not written, as once, in my garden” (Tr. 1.11.37), and in his old age he mourns that he cannot retire to the gardens he once had (sed modo, quos habui, uacuos secedere in hortos, Tr. 4.8.27). Gardens and gardening are not possible in exile; they belong to the civilized, Roman world. Thus across his poetic career, Ovid exploits the moral spectrum of gardens as sites of sexual profligacy, nostalgic probity, and Roman identity.

Second is literature passing judgment on the construction of gardens that is excessive or violates nature. In Ode 2.15, Horace decries the changing attitudes in land use that result in more luxury building at the expense of agriculture, and he pines for the good old days when Romulus and Cato the Elder upheld the interests of traditional farming. In Ode 2.18, the wealthy not only shift shorelines to accommodate large villas but even plough under boundary stones and drive out neighboring farmers. In the Neronian period, Seneca the Younger describes the damaging effects of luxury on the soul that desires to violate nature by moving earth, closing up the sea, rerouting rivers, and suspending groves (Ira 1.21.1). In Epistle 122 (“On Darkness as a Veil for Wickedness”), he bemoans the many ways nature is corrupted: roses in the winter, spring flowers in greenhouses, fruit trees planted on top of a wall, forests on rooftops (Ep. 122.8). In Flavian poetry, we find alongside moral condemnation for exceeding nature a sense of wonder at man’s abilities and technologies. In Silvae 2.2, Statius marvels at the construction of the villa of Pollius Felix, where “some spots nature has favored, in others she has been overcome and yielded to the developer, letting herself be taught new and gentler ways” (his fauit Natura locis, hic uicta colenti/cessit et ignotos docilis mansueuit in usus, 2.2.52–53). As with articulations of gender, so the rhetoric of dominating nature exhibits a range of apparently conflicting positions on the surface of these texts; however, the absence of internal consistency in the tropes results in more durable ideological structures.

Nowhere is the range of conflicting positions on morality more robustly displayed than in judgments about the economy of gardens, which are entirely dependent on slave labor. In the words of Varro, omnes agri coluntur hominibus seruis aut liberis aut utrisque, “all fields are cultivated by men, be they slaves, freedmen, or both” (R. 1.17.2). He devotes as much space to the character and treatment of slaves as to the number of slaves required, against the calculations of Cato the Elder (R. 1.17.3–1.18). Bradley has collated a list of thirty-seven different rural slave jobs from Columella’s treatise. Slave quarters are identifiable in the villas excavated in Campania (Bradley 1994, 60, 85), although these are surely not the ergastula Columella recommends for the chained slaves, the underground prisons with narrow windows so high from the ground that they cannot be reached by hand (Col. 1.6.3). Slavery underpinned Roman economy and society, and it did not need to be announced or denounced regularly in the sources; as Dewar observes of the Romans, “they rarely question—and do not question for long—the morality of slavery” (Dewar 2014, 61). While care must be taken so as not to impart modern attitudes toward slavery in the interpretation of Roman gardens, we must also resist reinscribing the literature that effaces this material reality. At best, a genuine acknowledgment of Roman slave labor raises awareness of how modern agricultural practice relies on sources of labor, which should also give us pause.

So while attitudes about slavery are uniform, judgments about the profitability of gardens are inconsistent. Pliny the Elder commences his discussion of gardens with extended paragraphs on the value of kitchen gardens for food, in the familiar terms of a bygone past when things were simpler; nowadays, however, gardeners cultivate newfangled varieties that exceed the limits of growth set by nature (e.g., asparagus that grew wild is now harvested weighing ternos libris, “three to a pound,” Nat. 19.54). The best garden (horti maxime placebant, Nat. 19.58) produced vegetables that did not require elaborate preparations or foreign ingredients. Contrary to this judgment, the rest of Book 19 is taken up with a catalogue of vegetables, their varieties (often non-Italic), and their preparation. Perhaps most egregious is the moral condemnation of turning profit, so ardently voiced by Cato the Elder in his preface to the De Agri Cultura, which contrasts with what we are told by Plutarch of Cato’s own practice concerning wealth (Cat. Ma. 21.5, 6):

Άπτόμενος δὲ συντονώτερον πορισμοῦ τὴν μὲν γεωργίαν μᾶλλον ἡγεῖτο διαγωγὴν ἢ πρόσοδον, εἰς δ᾽ἀσφαλῆ πράγματα καὶ βέβαια κατατιθέμενος τὰς ἀφορμὰς ἐκτᾶτο λίμνας, … ἐχρήσατο δὲ καὶ τῷ διαβεβλημένῳ μάλιστα τῶν δανεισμῶν ἐπὶ ναυτικοῖς …

However, as he applied himself more strenuously to money-getting, he came to regard agriculture as more entertaining than profitable, and invested his capital in business that was safe and sure. … He used to loan money also in the most disreputable of all ways, namely, on ships. (translation in Perrin 1914)

Such all-encompassing moral codes hedge any objections to attitudes (whether good, bad, or neutral) about the natural environment. Not much different from Cato the Elder’s paradox are the investments of the Sierra Club of the 1970s, which owned stocks and bonds in Exxon, General Motors, Tenneco, and other companies with records of degrading the environment (Berry 1977, 17). Inherent in the morally freighted garden rhetoric exemplified here are some of the most pressing questions about environmental sustainability.

But why should Roman gardens matter? In the preface to their edited collection, Earth Perfect? Nature, Utopia, and the Garden, Giesecke and Jacobs are succinct: “Since the garden and gardening practices define humanity’s relation to the natural environment, it is of utmost importance to retrace and re-examine the garden’s symbolism, history, and life-sustaining potency” (2012, 14). Such efforts might begin by dissecting the opposing arguments in the Roman literary sources about the earth’s generative capacities. According to Epicurean theory as expounded by Lucretius, the earth is worn out, past its prime, and unable to beget even small creatures (2.1150–1151); our labor is increased because of the earth’s decline (2.1161–1163); and everything is gradually decaying and approaching death (2.1173–1174). At the outset of the preface to his De Re Rustica, Columella rejects this teaching outright and attributes the present hardships of agriculture to the shift in workforce, in a sentiment that again should give us pause: qui rem rusticam pessimo cuique seruorum uelut carnifici noxae dedimus, quam maiorum nostrorum optimus quisque et optime tractauerat, “We have handed over farming, which the best of our ancestors had treated with the best of care, to the worst of our slaves as if to the hangman” (Col. 1 praef. 3).

Or such efforts to retrace and reexamine the garden’s symbolism, history, and life-sustaining potency might take as their starting point the observation of Pliny the Elder (Nat. 19.55–56):

hi niues, illi glaciem potant, poenasque montium in uoluptatem gulae uertunt. seruatur rigor aestibus excogitaturque ut alienis mensibus nix algeat. … [N]ihil utique homini sic quomodo rerum naturae placet.

Some drink snow, others ice, and they turn the hardship of mountains into pleasures for the appetite. Coldness is preserved for summer months and ideas devised to keep snow cold for the unseasonable months. … Mankind wants nothing to be as nature likes to have it.

The desire to conquer the discomforts of summer’s heat and winter’s cold is also preserved in an excerpt of a controversiae recorded by Seneca the Elder (Con. 5.5):

[S]cilicet ut domus ad caelum omne conuersae brumales aestus habeant, aestiua frigora, et non suis uicibus intra istorum penates agatur annus.

Indeed, it is so that houses facing every part of the sky may have a wintery summer, a summery winter, and not with its normal changes is a year passed within the homes of such men.

Seneca the Younger would call this “living backward” (retro uiuunt, Ep. 122.18); instead, he argues that the best character is cultivated by those who live in harmony with nature (Ep. 122.19):

Ideo, Lucili, tenenda nobis uia est, quam natura praescripsit, nec ab illa declinandum; illam sequentibus omnia facilia, expedita sunt, contra illam nitentibus non alia uita est quam contra aquam remigantibus.

And so, Lucilius, we should keep the course that nature has prescribed and not deviate from it; for when we follow nature everything is easy and unobstructed, but when we struggle against nature, we live in no other way than like those who row against the current.

The assumption is that gardens should work with nature, not against it. Lucullus, famous for his luxuriant lifestyle, which earned him the nickname “Xerxes in a Toga,” had country homes in Tusculum with extensive observatories, banquet halls, and peristyle gardens. When Pompey visited, he chided Lucullus for building a house that was well situated for the summer but uninhabitable in winter. Lucullus laughed and replied (Luc. 39.4):

Ἑἶτα,᾽ ἔφη, ῾σοὶ δοκῶ ἐλάττονα τῶν γεράνων νοῦν ἔχειν καὶ τῶν πελαργῶν, ὥστε ταῖς ὥραις μὴ συμμεταβάλλειν τὰς διαίτας;᾽

Do you think I have less sense than storks and cranes, and do not change residences according to the seasons?

Such compliance with nature (as sought by Pliny the Elder and Seneca the Younger) certainly did not dictate the construction of the horti Luculliani or Lucullus’s villas in Naples with hills suspended over vast tunnels and dwellings built into the sea. According to American environmentalist Wendell Berry, such contradictions as these are at the heart of the crisis of environmental sustainability: “The split between what we think and what we do is profound” (1977, 18). Alignment and misalignment of thought and action are an inescapable function of the human condition, their frequency a guage of ethos. The gap begins to close when consequences of actions are pursued to their conclusions, when results matter as much if not more than costs or benefits. “Then what?” is the most fundamental question we can ask of Roman gardens, kitchen or pleasure, and Cicero ventured an answer: If you have a library in your garden, nothing will be lacking.

Suggested Reading

Indispensable are Grimal (1984), Jashemski (1979, 1993), and Cima and La Rocca (1998). Gleason (2013) contains essays on design, types of gardens, plantings, use and reception, meaning, verbal representations, visual representations, and gardens and the larger landscape. For recent developments in archaeological methods, techniques, and analysis, see Malek (2013).

Scholarship beyond the field of the Classics is critical for assessing the cultural significance of Roman gardens. Pugh (1988) offers one of the earliest cultural interpretations of gardens, and his insights still resonate. Ross (1998) explores the landscape gardens of eighteenth-century England to document the various relations between gardens and the art of painting. St-Denis (2007) reviews the vexed problem of the definition of the garden and concludes that every new garden expands the limits of the typical, so that the concept of the garden does not conform to a standard but must be constantly reviewed. Harrison (2008) examines the importance of gardens to human thinking about mortality, order, and power.


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(1) All translations in the article are my own unless otherwise indicated.