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The Roman Garden: Space, Sense, and Society

The Roman Garden: Space, Sense, and Society

By Katharine T. von Stackelberg. Pp. ix + 182, figs. 16. Routledge, London and New York 2009. $100. ISBN 978-0-415-43823-0 (cloth).

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In this stimulating work, Stackelberg takes us on a journey through the literary and physical Roman garden, a subject that has been largely neglected. In doing so, she succeeds in offering us new insights into the multiplicity of meanings that gardens held for the Romans. This is a great strength of the book. Her scholarly erudition is impressive, particularly in the opening chapter in which she presents the literary and material evidence for the garden. I found this section dense, as she is trying to formulate the “conceptual and physical limits” within which the garden existed as a real and discursive entity in Roman culture (4). There are arguments here—for example, she critiques the view that the garden can be understood simply as a space for elite display—but key points do get lost in the wealth of detail.

She then attempts to provide a “critical framework to comprehend the social and cultural experiences promoted within the garden” (48). In formulating this framework, two concepts are essential: Michel Foucault’s “heterotopia” and Edward Soja’s “Thirdspace.” All societies require spaces in which conflict and deviation can be managed. Her positioning of the garden as a heterotopia is a rethinking of the Roman garden, and she is to be commended for such an imaginative leap. Her use of Soja’s Thirdspace also marks a shift in thinking. All too often in Roman studies, literary and physical materials are conceptualized naively as evidence that can simply be elided. She instead sees literary and material visions of garden spaces as existing in a dialectic where the truth is not embodied in either form but occupies a Thirdspace between the two.

Stackelberg also introduces the concept of the encounter as fundamental to society, and she rightly sees the physical garden as constructive of patterns of encounter and thus influential in shaping experience. To understand how different gardens may have shaped encounters, she deploys Hillier and Hanson’s access analysis, which is a topographic method for the representation and interpretation of bounded space (B. Hillier and J. Hanson, The Social Logic of Space [Cambridge and New York 1984]). I could find no fault with her description of the method or her application of it. It is stimulating to see classical scholars engaging with contemporary social theory, and she is to be applauded for doing so. However, the ideas she uses do not exist in isolation but are part of a wider theoretical discourse, and this discourse cannot be ransacked for interesting ideas because they happen to shed new light on old questions. Concepts need to be evaluated critically, and this kind of theoretical reflection is missing.

Next, Stackelberg shows how the garden was experienced using the concepts outlined in the previous chapter. What comes across is the liminal nature of garden space, as it was experienced in a variety of ways. These experiences could reinforce Roman norms of behavior, provided that social controls were strong and active. If not, the meaning of the garden could be subverted and transformed into a space of deviance and transgression. As a vehicle of cultural communication, the garden did not send one message but rather a multiplicity of messages that were understood in different ways by different individuals. This conclusion allows Stackelberg to consider three case studies of individual gardens.

In the first, she analyzes the House of Octavius Quartio and the House of Menander, applying access analysis to both dwellings as a means of understanding encounters within. In the House of Octavius Quartio, the garden was largely segregated from the rest of the house, while the peristyle of the House of Menander was at the heart of the circulatory system. She then analyzes the decorative programs of both houses in relation to the systems of encounter. In the case of the House of Octavius Quartio, she argues that the garden functioned as a space of social display where both space and experience combined to encourage social encounters while sustaining social rules. The peristyle of the House of Menander was, by contrast, a highly privileged space, and its decorative scheme suggests an “abstract intellectualism” (125). What she says about these two houses is intriguing when compared with more conventional narratives. However, there is a sense of disappointment. This stems from the absence of some of the themes raised in the previous chapter—for example, gender. The conventional wisdom is that the house was so male oriented that traces of femininity were expunged from it. She critiques this idea by associating the garden with femininity. It would have been interesting to see this insight translated to the case studies. Moreover, it seems that while encounters were between inhabitants and visitors, the garden must have played a role in the social dynamics of the household as well.

The case studies of Pliny’s letters about his Tuscan villa and Caligula’s reception of the Jewish embassy in the Horti Lamiani in 40 C.E. bring the concept of Thirdspace into play in a stimulating way (see E.W. Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places [Cambridge, Mass. 1996]). Stackelberg shows how Pliny uses the garden rhetorically to make himself indirectly the subject of the letters: the garden he describes is neither fictive nor real but exists within a Thirdspace of an “endless dialectic of nature, reflecting art, reflecting nature” (134). Her treatment of Philo’s account of Caligula’s reception of the embassy is similarly located in a Thirdspace, where Philo’s account is quasi-fictive to make the political point that garden space and tyrannical government are connected.

Through these case studies, Stackelberg makes her point well that Roman gardens had “polysemic potential” (142), but we are left wondering how that potential was realized in practice. What were the normative conventions that structured the practice and use of gardens? She has done a commendable job in demolishing the view that gardens had a universal meaning, but she has left us with the sense that they meant different things to different people, and that is also unsatisfactory. Resolving this problem requires more than just three case studies. For me, the book has an open-endedness that makes the journey more interesting than the destination. Nevertheless, it is a stimulating journey, and this book deserves to be read widely.

Mark Grahame
University of Southampton
Southampton SO17 1BJ
United Kingdom

Book Review of The Roman Garden: Space, Sense, and Society, by Katharine T. von Stackelberg

Reviewed by Mark Grahame

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 114, No. 4 (October 2010)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1144.Grahame

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