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Gardens of the Roman Empire

Gardens of the Roman Empire

Edited by Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, Kathryn L. Gleason, Kim J. Hartswick, and Amina-Aïcha Malek. Pp. xxxvi + 617. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2018. $275. ISBN 978-1-13903-302-2 (cloth). 

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that to excavate a site is also to destroy it, and perhaps nowhere has this been so true as in the case of ancient gardens, with their all too ephemeral botanical remains. The rescue of Roman garden sites was the driving force behind the work of Wilhelmina F. Jashemski (1910–2007), who in the 1950s began collecting material for a catalogue of Roman gardens, ultimately pioneering an entirely new field of garden studies and publishing numerous articles and books, including the monumental two-volume The Gardens of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius (New Rochelle, N.Y. 1979 and 1993). Jashemski had originally intended her research from the Bay of Naples to comprise only a single chapter of a much more comprehensive investigation of gardens from across the Roman empire. The present volume, her final scholarly endeavor, represents a realization of that goal, thanks to the efforts of a devoted group of colleagues, friends, and students in the 11 years since her death—a process movingly detailed by the editors in the acknowledgements and introduction.

The book is structured as a collection of essays, written by contributors based at institutions in North America, Britain, and France and representing many of the most established scholars in the field of garden studies today. The 18 chapters are arranged in three parts, beginning with “The Main Types of Gardens” (chs. 1–8), primarily concerned with the physical remains and documentary evidence for an extraordinarily wide range of sites. The literary and artistic representations of gardens—as well as the display of artworks in gardens or garden spaces—form the focus of “The Experience of Gardens as Revealed by Literature and Art” (chs. 9–13). Finally, “Making the Garden” (chs. 14–18) provides a more theoretical framework, first applying methods of contemporary landscape design to illuminate practices in antiquity, then turning to the current state of archaeobotanical research and suggestions for future work. As Jashemski envisioned, this volume will eventually be joined by an extensive online database of garden sites, which can be continually updated with new discoveries.

The term “empire” in the title is clearly intended more in a geographic than a strictly chronological sense (with several of the chapters adducing precedents from the Classical, Hellenistic, and Republican periods), and certainly the scope of this work is much broader than previous works on the subject of Roman gardens, including those proliferating within the last 10 years. Due in part to the fact that this volume is the product of several decades, and of so many different hands, certain chapters overlap, which can feel repetitive, especially when read consecutively (e.g., chs. 1 and 2). Most striking in this respect is how so many of the individual essays (esp. chs. 2, 3, 5, and 8) open by grappling with the interpretive problems of the terms for ancient gardens (hortus/horti, villa, and others), identified as being multivalent, constantly evolving, and both geographically and chronologically inflected. In fact, the editors begin their conclusion (ch. 18) with a call for future work on precisely this issue; but given how often it preoccupies the book’s various contributors, it seems that a discussion of garden terminology would have been suitable much earlier, such as in the introduction.

The volume begins with what is by far its longest and densest chapter, devoted to the garden in the domus (Morvillez), which assembles a vast array of archaeological evidence from across the empire (including Rome, Pompeii, Spain, Gaul, and North Africa), thus demonstrating the sheer diversity of domus garden types (illustrated with multiple plans), as well as the evolution of individual garden spaces over time, due to changes in ownership, increasing competition for space, and changing social norms. The next two chapters turn to the Roman villa garden. Relying primarily on the literary sources, Hartswick (ch. 2) discusses the emergence of villa garden ideology, its associations with public life and with concepts such as amoenitas and otium, and its interest in evoking “other” spaces, specifically through nomenclature (e.g., Cicero’s “Academy” and “Lyceum” at his Tusculan villa). The archaeological evidence for villa gardens is provided by Macaulay-Lewis (ch. 3), who neatly synthesizes a few select examples while also identifying trends and regional differences across the empire. Turning from these mainly “pleasure gardens” in the domus and villa to those that provided sustenance and economic benefits more directly, an essay by Jashemski (ch. 4) combines the literary and archaeological sources to discuss four distinct types: kitchen gardens, vineyards, orchards, and commercial flower gardens.

The next four chapters of part 1 provide some of the most interesting material of the volume, covering ground that is considerably less well traveled. Moving the discussion into the public sphere, Carroll surveys temple gardens and sacred groves (ch. 5), combining the evidence for plantings at Rome with new insights gleaned from excavations at Gabii, Pompeii, and Thuburbo Maius, before turning to the installation of gardens in gymnasia and schools (ch. 7), and tracing their appearance in Athens and the Hellenistic East to their reception by Roman intellectual elite. DeLaine (ch. 6) uses recent archaeological work to demonstrate that, contrary to popular opinion, there is little to suggest that gardens were ever an intrinsic part of Roman public baths; although the idea of the garden was certainly central to bath decoration (an association with the water features of villa gardens being an especially strong one), actual plantings were usually confined to shade trees, such as around the periphery of the palaestra. Finally, part 1 concludes with Bodel’s excellent and much-anticipated discussion of tomb gardens (ch. 8), using primarily epigraphic evidence to distinguish the economically productive kepotaphia (garden plots leased from the Necropolis) in Hellenistic and Roman Alexandria from the funerary gardens of Roman Italy. The latter, he concludes, were rarely large enough to generate much income but instead were created with an eye to both pleasure and memory and in keeping with the ideological value attached to family and productive land use. A fascinating narrative tour of tomb gardens, following the different roads radiating outward from Rome before heading out into the provinces, is provided in an appendix.

Part 2 opens with two chapters dealing exclusively with the literary representations of Roman gardens. Littlewood (ch. 9) provides a comprehensive survey of references to Roman gardens by Greek writers, extending all the way into the world of Christian Byzantium and including the only surviving Greek agricultural manual, the Geoponika, compiled in the mid tenth century CE but whose origins must be much earlier. On the Latin side, Myers (ch. 10) pursues a more thematic approach, tracing how literary gardens function as forms of self-representation, epitomizing the character, intellect, ethics, and power of a garden owner (for better or for worse) as well as functioning as a self-reflexive aesthetic model for poets like Vergil and Statius. The remaining three chapters turn to the visual and material evidence. Bergmann’s essay (ch. 11) explores the different types of painted gardens found in Roman houses, ranging from miniature plans to the immersive trompe l’oeil garden rooms. She then analyzes how other pictorial themes appearing on garden walls (esp. wild beast hunts and Venus scenes) were used in combination with their multisensory garden settings, thus creating a uniquely interactive experience for the viewer. A similar approach guides Malek in her sophisticated and thoroughly persuasive discussion of floor mosaics in the domus of North Africa (ch. 12), in which she demonstrates how depictions of the natural world, despite their ostensibly flat surface underfoot, could nonetheless immerse the viewer by evoking multiple layers of space and time. Hartswick (ch. 13) concludes this section with another, more general survey, this time of garden sculpture, focusing first on the finds from the horti around Rome and offering a useful rehearsal of the many interpretive problems surrounding the sculptural program at Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, combined with new evidence for sculptural collections from outside Italy, including an absorbing discussion of a set of herms from the fourth century CE villa at Welschbillig in Germany.

Part 3 continues the task of integrating Jashemski’s own work with current methodologies in the archaeology of gardens, beginning with an essay by Gleason and Palmer (ch. 14), who use a comparison with contemporary landscape design (and a highly effective set of SketchUp models) to trace the various steps by which a piece of land was translated into a formal garden in antiquity—from concept and design to land survey and surface grading to the installation of plants and their ongoing maintenance. Special attention to the use of water and water technology is provided by Jansen (ch. 15) in what is another of this volume’s highlights: the first systematic attempt to probe the water use question in detail. Jansen examines the different types of water harvesting, distribution, and drainage techniques utilized by gardens in five case studies from different parts of the empire and demonstrates how water usage in each case was specifically adapted to local conditions and could affect both the selection of plants and fountain types. Jashemski (ch. 16) explores the literary and archaeological evidence for gardening techniques and practices, breaking down the daily and seasonal cycle of work into its many constituent parts, including soil preparation, irrigation, fertilizing, sowing and planting, and pest control. Her voice also begins the following chapter, on plants from the Roman garden (ch. 17), with an account of her discoveries from different parts of the empire; to this is added a more up-to-date description of current archaeobotanical knowledge and its specific technologies (including the study of pollen, diatoms, mollusks, and genomes), capably summarized by Gleason and Herchenbach. The concluding short chapter by the editors (ch. 18) begins with the call for future work on garden terminology already mentioned before turning to highlight the unique contributions and future possibilities of garden archaeology, emphasizing, above all, the need for careful preservation, reconstruction, and interdisciplinary collaboration.

Beautifully illustrated with hundreds of photographs, plans, reconstructions, and models, in both color and black-and-white, this volume is an important addition to the scholarly literature on Roman gardens. As a whole, it provides an impressively wide-ranging overview of past and present work while offering many enticing glimpses of what the future may hold. At the same time, the individual chapters suggest a variety of uses: some will be valuable references for scholars; others may serve as stand-alone introductions to a particular topic, even for an undergraduate audience; and a few (most notably, those by Bodel, DeLaine, Malek, and Jansen) should become essential reading. Finally, the fact that this book’s publication is an act of pietas may also be one of its greatest strengths, leaving the reader with the indelible impression of a field both interdisciplinary and collaborative, committed to a vibrant, rigorous, and respectful intellectual exchange—qualities Wilhelmina Jashemski herself instantiated and inspired.

Nicole G. Brown
Williams College

Book Review of Gardens of the Roman Empire, edited by Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, Kathryn L. Gleason, Kim J. Hartswick, and Amina-Aïcha Malek
Reviewed by Nicole G. Brown
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 1 (January 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1241.Brown

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