Hortum Domus: The House Garden in Ancient Rome


Roman Ruins at Conimbriga, a house garden. / Photo by caffeine_obsessed, Flickr, Creative Commons

Roman gardens were built to suit a range of needs and activities.


Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
Public Historian
Brewminate


Overview

Roman gardens and ornamental horticulture became highly developed under Roman civilization. The Gardens of Lucullus (Horti Lucullani), on the Pincian Hill in Rome, introduced the Persian garden to Europe around 60 BC. It was seen as a place of peace and tranquillity, a refuge from urban life, and a place filled with religious and symbolic meaning. As Roman culture developed and became increasingly influenced by foreign civilizations, the use of gardens expanded.

Influences

Reconstruction of the garden of the House of the Painters in Pompeii. / Photo by sailko, Wikimedia Commons

Roman gardening was influenced by Egyptian and Persian gardening techniques, through acquaintance with Greek gardening. The gardens of Ancient Persia were organized around rills, known from Pasargadae and other sites. Although archaeological evidence of rills have yet to be found in classical Greek gardens, scholars believe that the Romans learned this technique from the Greeks.[1]

Persian gardens developed in accordance with an arid climate. Gardens were enclosed to protect them from drought, and became rich and fertile in contrast to the barren Persian terrain. When Alexander the Great conquered parts of Western Asia, he brought back with him new varieties of fruits and plants that prompted a renewed interest in horticulture.[2] Formal gardens had existed in Egypt as early as 2800 BC. At the time of the 18th dynasty of Egypt, gardening techniques, used to beautify the homes of the wealthy, were fully developed. Porticos (porches) served to connect the home with the outdoors, creating outdoor living spaces. Even before Alexander, Cimon of Athens is said to have torn down the walls of his garden to transform it into a public space.[3]

Roman pleasure gardens were adapted from the Grecian model, where such a garden also served the purpose of growing fruit, but while Greeks had “sacred grove” style gardens, they did not have much in the way of domestic gardens to influence the peristyle gardens of Roman homes. Open peristyle courts were designed to connect homes to the outside world. Athens did not adopt the Roman style that was used to beautify temple groves and create recreational spaces in the less traditional Grecian cities of Sparta, Corinth and Patras, which adopted the Western peristyle domestic gardens.[4]

Uses

Reconstruction of the garden of the House of the Vettii in Pompeii. / Photo by sailko, Wikimedia Commons

Roman gardens were built to suit a range of activities. Initially, lower class Romans used gardens as a source of food to provide for their families and mainly grew herbs and vegetables. In Ancient Latium, a garden was a part of every farm. According to Cato the Elder, every garden should be close to the house and should have flower beds and ornamental trees.

Later, the different influences of Egyptian, Persian, and Greek gardens became a part of Roman horticulture, producing villa and palatial pleasure gardens,[5] along with public parks and gardens meant for enjoyment or to exercise in. No type of garden was specifically reserved for wealthy Romans; all a civilian needed was to have their own land or home. Excavations in Pompeii show that gardens attached to residences were scaled down to meet the space constraints of the home of the average Roman.

Horace wrote that during his time, flower gardens became a national indulgence.[6] Augustus constructed the Porticus Liviae, a public garden on the Oppian Hill in Rome. Outside Rome, gardens tended to proliferate at centers of wealth. Modified versions of Roman garden designs were adopted in Roman settlements in Africa, Gaul and Britannia.

Places for a Garden

Museum model of Fishbourne Roman Palace with the gardens enclosed by buildings. Archaeologists have been able to recreate the layout and analyse the plants used in the garden. / Image by Immanuel Giel, Wikimedia Commons

Gardens were usually built in one of six structures:[7]

Domus (townhouse) – this free-standing structure was usually one story, containing multiple rooms for everyday activities and an atrium toward the front of the house to collect rainwater and illuminate the area surrounding it. Toward the back of the house was often a hortus or peristylium (an open courtyard).[8]

  • Roman villa (typically a country house for wealthy people)
  • Villa rustica (a villa set in the countryside, often as the hub of a large agricultural estate)
  • Palace villa – reserved for imperial families alone, very large and extravagant.
  • Non-residential gardens – these would be the public parks, pleasure gardens, temple gardens, tombs, etc.

Elements of a Roman Garden

Image by JFJP, courtesy World History Encyclopedia, Creative Commons

All Roman gardens were generally made up of the same basic elements. Depending on the style or type of garden, elements may be added or embellished more, or may be omitted altogether.[7] Even though an atrium is found inside the house, it is considered part of the garden because it has an opening that would allow Romans to collect rain water.

Pleasure gardens would incorporate different designs according to the taste of their builders. All gardens of this type have the same basic parts to them: a patio at the entrance, a terrace, an orchard or vineyard, several water features, a kitchen garden, shrines or grottoes and other garden features that would personalize the garden. The patio would normally be decorated with outside garden furniture, a water basin or fountain, and be the starting point of a walk that would show off all the features of the garden.[5]

Peristyle – from a Greek word, where “peri” means “around” and “style” means “column” – denotes a type of open courtyard,[9] which is surrounded by walls of columns supporting a portico (porch).[10]

The xystus (garden walk or terrace) was a core element of Roman gardens. The xystus often overlooked a lower garden, or ambulation. The ambulation bordered a variety of flowers, trees, and other foliage, and it served as an ideal place for a leisurely stroll after a meal, conversation, or other recreational activities.

The gestation was a shaded avenue where the master of the house could ride horseback or be carried by his slaves. It generally encircled the ambulation or was constructed as a separate oval-shaped space. Paths or walkways were often constructed through the garden. These were made with loose stone, gravel, sand, or packed earth. Gardens featured many ornamental objects, from sculpture to frescoes to sundials. These depicted nature scenes or were put in place as a shrine (aedicula) to the gods or otherworldly creatures.[11]

The plants that were grown ranged from flowering plants to herbs and vegetables for everyday use, as well as trees. The most popular plants found in a typical Roman family’s garden were roses, cypress, rosemary, and mulberry trees. Also possibly included were a variety of dwarf trees, tall trees, marigolds, hyacinths, narcissi, violets, saffron, cassia, and thyme.[5]

Appendix

Endnotes

  1. Bowe, Patrick. Gardens of the Roman World. J. Paul Getty Museum. p. 3.
  2. Semple, Ellen Churchill (1929-01-01). “Ancient Mediterranean Pleasure Gardens”. Geographical Review19 (3): 435. doi:10.2307/209149. JSTOR 209149.
  3. Semple, Ellen Churchill (1929-01-01). “Ancient Mediterranean Pleasure Gardens”. Geographical Review19 (3): 431. doi:10.2307/209149. JSTOR 209149.
  4. Beeson, Anthony. Roman Gardens. Amberley Publishing.
  5. “Elements of a Roman-Style Pleasure Garden | Italy”www.lifeinitaly.com. Retrieved 2015-11-11.
  6. Semple, Ellen Churchill (1929-01-01). “Ancient Mediterranean Pleasure Gardens”. Geographical Review19 (3): 436. doi:10.2307/209149. JSTOR 209149.
  7. Turner, Tom. Garden History Reference Encyclopedia: Historic books etc on garden design and landscape architecture. Gardenvisit.com.
  8. “Peristylium”www.vroma.org. Retrieved 2016-12-09.
  9. “The Roman House”www.roman-empire.net. Archived from the originalon 2016-11-19. Retrieved 2016-12-08.
  10. “What is a Peristyle? Definition of a Peristyle – Quatr.us”quatr.us. Retrieved 2015-11-12.
  11. “LacusCurtius • The Greek and Roman Garden (Smith’s Dictionary, 1875)”penelope.uchicago.edu. Retrieved 2016-12-09.

Further Reading

  • Bowe, Patrick (2004). Gardens of the Roman World. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum.
  • Ciarallo, Annamaria. Gardens of Pompeii. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001.
  • Gagarin, Michael, and Elaine Fantham. “Gardens.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Vol. 7. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. 271–76. Print.
  • Giesecke, Annette and Naomi Jacobs. Earth Perfect? : Nature, Utopia and the Garden. London: Black Dog Pub., 2012.
  • Henderson, John (2004). Roman Book of Gardening. New York: Routlage.
  • Jashemski, Wilhelmina F.; Kathryn L. Gleason; Kim J. Hartswick; Amina-Aïcha Malek, eds. (2018). Gardens of the Roman Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Jones, F. M. A. “Roman Gardens, Imagination, and Cognitive Structure.” Mnemosyne, vol. 67, no. 5, Dec. 2014, pp. 781–812.
  • MacDougall, Elisabeth Blair; Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, eds. (1981). Ancient Roman Gardens (Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium on the History of Landscape Architecture, VII). Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
  • MacDougall, Elisabeth B. Ancient Roman Villa Gardens. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1987. 200-06. Print.
  • Spencer, Diana. Roman Landscape: Culture and Identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010.
  • von Stackelberg, Katharine T. The Roman Garden: Space, Sense, and Society. London: Routledge, 2009.
  • Turner, Tom, and Marie Luise Schroeter Gothein. “Ancient Rome.” Garden History Reference Encyclopedia. London: Gardenvisit. Com, 2004. N. pag. Print.

Originally published by Wikipedia, 11.24.2005, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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