Roman gardens began as practical features. Large or small, they were sources of vegetables, herbs, and fruit for the household. However, by the imperial period, any garden of significant size could incorporated plants, water features, and statues to create a carefully designed haven for the garden’s owner.
Archaeological remains, interpreted with the help of ancient sources, can be used to identify and recreate the layout of the various types of Roman garden.
Favorite Roman Garden Plants
A whole range of flowers and plants were popular in Roman gardens. Herbs were a longstanding favorite, because of their use in cooking and medicine. Thyme, mint, savory, celery seed, basil, bay, and hyssop were some of the most popular. However, as we do today, the Romans liked some color in their gardens in the form of flowers. Favorite blooms in Roman gardens include roses, narcissi, oleanders, violets, crocus, narcissus, lily, gladioli, iris, poppy, amaranth, and wildflowers. Ivy, acanthus, myrtle, box, and yew usually appeared in more complex gardens, as did plane and Cyprus trees.
However, precisely what a Roman householder planted in their garden was determined by its size.
The Basic Hortus
In towns, space for plants and flowers was limited. Tenement dwellers would have to make do with a window box or plants on a roof. Only those with private dwellings had room for a garden.
Gardens in Roman towns began as a limited feature at the very back of the house known as a hortus, one example being the garden of the House of the Surgeon in Pompeii. Tucked away behind the house’s main rooms, these gardens essentially had a practical function and were used for growing vegetables and herbs for the household rather than as a place to relax or admire.
However, the garden’s function changed with the advent of the peristyle. Now it became an ornamental space, for relaxation and entertaining.
The Peristyle Garden
The peristyle garden rendered the idea of a back hortus obsolete in fashionable townhouses. The peristyle was a Hellenistic feature and had begun as a colonnaded courtyard in the center of Greek houses. However, the Romans innovatively took this concept and transformed this central courtyard into a garden.
Peristyle gardens consisted of a series of formal flower beds, edged with small shrubs or box hedges and surrounded by pathways. Water features and garden statues, as well as small shrines, mingled amongst the plants to form visual focal points which could be used to intrigue and entertain guests.
Favorite garden ornaments included statues or decorative hanging disks of depicting the gods. Priapus and Bacchus/Dionysus became popularly featured garden deities. Dionysus, in particular, had a significance to gardens. His association with vegetation, growth and the promise of life after death meant his inclusion in the garden alluded to it as an earthly paradise.
Many gardens were not merely private spaces for the owner of the house to relax in and enjoy but designed impress guests. Many were surrounded by small garden rooms or exedras which were used for entertaining and dining rooms. These rooms opened out onto the garden itself and were often painted with trees, plants, and birds to extend the garden theme indoors.
When space was at a premium, then frescos were used to extend the illusion of garden space in small peristyles. Painted on the walls running around the garden area,they commonly featured trees and fountains, favorite garden features that the available garden space was too small to accommodate, or, as in the case of the House of the Marine Venus in Pompeii, gave the impression of the garden overlooking the countryside or even the sea.
In large properties, the basic peristyle garden could be expanded and embellished. The House of Octavius Quartio in Pompeii is one such case. This garden, like the old horti, is situated at the back of the property. However, it is no afterthought as it takes up more ground space than the house itself. The garden opens out from the back terrace of the house and is overlooked by the house’s dining and reception rooms. Long and landscaped, its central features are two canals built to replicate the River Nile, flanked by statues and large trees. It is in fact, much like the garden of a country villa than a Roman town house.
Typically, country villas had not one garden but several, all varying regarding design and function. Some gardens were functional whereas others were ornamental or recreational.
Ornamental gardens were a larger version of the townhouse peristyle. Flower beds, elaborately arranged in different shapes or presented on raised terraces were contained in colonnades with hedges, trees, and water features.
Often, these gardens would have their own buildings separate from the rest of the house. Pliny the Younger describes a self-contained garden retreat at his country home. This design finds its echo in the pergola in the garden of The House of Diomedes, situated on the edge of Pompeii.
This garden illustrates the sheer scope of such large peristyle gardens. Trees, shrubs, and flowers surrounded a dining area that was accompanied not only by a fountain but also a fish pond. The internal viridarium was also a standard feature. It was an indoor garden sitting room; its walls decorated with frescos depicting plants and birds.
Country villas also showcased a form of garden art much loved by the Romans: topiary. Inherited from the Greeks, it was so popular that a subclass of gardener, the topiarius developed. Pliny describes box hedges of his Tuscan villa which were trimmed to resemble shapes and animals.
The gardens of extensive estates also accommodated more active exercise. Pliny describes the riding grounds of his Tuscan estate. This was essentially a landscaped area with tree-lined pathways where people could walk or be carried in a litter. These avenues or ambulationes were common in the grounds of large country houses and were edged with by hedges of yew and box or acanthus or trellises of vines or even trees such as Plane and Cyprus.
Similarly, gardens could provide the setting for exercise. The swimming pool of The Villa Poppaea was set in an area edged with trees and statues, leading onto a vast garden designed for walking.
But the country garden would also stay true to its roots in the simple hortus. Each garden maintained an oleraor or vegetable patch. But even these practical gardens evolved. By the first century AD, they were joined by hothouses for the forcing of grapes and melons.
Radice, Betty (trans) The Letters of Pliny the Younger (Book 5, 6). Penguin Books
Wilkinson, Paul, Pompeii: The Last Day.BBC books.
Sheldon, Natasha, Discovering Pompeii, Night Owl Imprints