Gardens are mentioned briefly by poets like Ovid, Propertius, and Martial. Mention of gardens is brief but can be found in works by Palladius (late 4th century CE), the Natural History of Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) and a few references to gardens in the Georgics of poet Virgil (70-19 BCE). Only Columella and Palladius provide extended commentary on gardens. With few physical remains of Roman gardens accounts of garden detail rely heavily on the few remaining wall frescoes and accounts written by the Romans themselves. Almost all this literature is devoted to agriculture the most notable being three major treatises called On Agriculture: Cato the Elder (234-149 BCE), Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BCE), and Junius Moderatus Columella (fl.60-65 CE) who lived in Cadiz (southern Spain). Writings including mention of gardens are by Palladius (late 4th century CE), the Natural History of Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) and in the Georgics of Virgil (70-19 BCE). However, it is only Columella and Palladius who provide extended commentary on gardens, while the letters of Pliny the Younger (c. 62-113 CE) provide some descriptions of famous parks and gardens in the introduction to Book 9 of his Naturalis Historia. In Columella’s 12 volume work On Agriculture it is only in book 10 that the subject turns to gardens (cultus hortorum) expressed as a poem conceived as a supplement to the Georgics of Virgil. Varro gives a list of over 50 Greek treatises on agriculture but no such treatises on gardening survive and, indeed, may never ave been written although there is no doubt that gardening was practised. It is to the Greeks that we must first turn to see how they influenced the Romans.
The letters of Pliny the Younger (c. 62-113 CE) provide some descriptions of famous parks and gardens in the introduction to Book 9 of his Naturalis Historia. Columella’s account of agriculture runs to 12 volumes but it is only in Book 10 that he turns to gardens (cultus hortorum) written as a poem conceived as a supplement to the Georgics of Virgil. Varro, in his work, cites over 50 Greek treatises on agriculture but none survive and it is possible they were never written.
Pliny the Elder devotes 16 of the 37 encyclopaedic books comprising the Naturalis Historia to plants, mostly their medicinal uses but with some advice on cultivation. Sadly Gargilias Martialis’s third century work De Hortis has not survived, a single remaining fragment on arboriculture suggesting an acute mind.
Greek bard Homer’s fictional garden of King Alcinous was probably the inspiration for Roman poet Virgil’s (70-19 BCE) poem Hortus in the Georgics. Here Virgil compares the simple pleasures of a country farmer to the luxury estates of kings, the prose evoking a Mediterranean vision of the satisfaction reaped by the honest toil of a man working in harmony with the seasons. We can hear Homer’s influence on the work of the English Romantic poets like Keats and their idealisations of pastoral bliss that were produced some two millennia later:
‘… I saw an old Corycian, who had a few acres of unclaimed land and this, a soil not rich enough for bullocks ploughing, unfitted for the flock and unkindly to the vine. Yet, as he planted herbs here and there among the bushes, with white lilies about, and vervain, and the slender poppy, he matched in contentment the wealth of kings, and returning home in the late evening, would load his boards with unbought dainties. He was the first to pick roses in spring and apples in autumn; and when sullen winter was still cracking rocks with cold, and curbing running waters with ice, he was already culling the soft hyacinth’s bloom, reproaching laggard summer and the loitering zephyrs. So he, too, was the first to be enriched by mother-bees and a plenteous swarm, the first to gather frothing honey from the squeezed comb. Luxuriant were his limes and wild laurels and all the fruits his bounteous tree donned in its early bloom, full as many it kept in the ripeness of autumn. He, too, planted out in rows elms far-grown, pear trees when quite hard, thorns even now bearing plums, and the plane already yielding to drinkers the service of its shade.
Virgil, Georgics 4.125-146
With few physical remains we must build up a picture of the Roman garden through the evidence of wall frescoes and accounts written by the Romans themselves. Respected politicial and commentator Cicero (106-43 BCE, also known as Tully), perhaps more than any other Latin writer, sets the scene for us, making general reference to gardens as desirable possessions and an appropriate vehicle for the demonstration of taste, learning or, when carried to excess, of dissipation and decadence. Indeed, disapproving chroniclers are not hard to find. Both the influential statesman and dramatist Seneca the Younger (4 BCE-65CE) and his literary father Seneca the Elder (54 BCE-39 CE) regarded large-scale villas and elaborate designs as excessive luxuria, Seneca the Younger deriding the opulent villa of the politician Vatia as an escape from the responsibilities of life. On occasion grumbling was assuaged when wealthy owners bequeathed their land to the people of Rome.
The classic description of an outstanding Roman garden appears in a letter of the younger Pliny, in which he describes his Tuscan villa (Plin. Epist.V.6). In front of the porticus there was a xystus, or flat piece of ground, divided into flower-beds of different shapes by borders of box. There were flower-beds elsewhere, sometimes raised to form terraces, their sides planted with evergreens or creepers. Most striking were the avenues of large trees, the plane being the most popular along walkways (ambulationes) formed by clipped hedges of box, yew, cypress, and other evergreens; beds of acanthus, rows of fruit-trees, especially of vines, with statues, pyramids, fountains, and summer-houses (diaetae). Structures were covered with ivy (Plin.l.c.; Cic. adQ.F.III.1, 2). Topiary (ars topiaria) was especially popular as indicated by the use of the word topiarius for the gardener. Cicero (Parad.V.2) regarded the topiarius among the higher class of slaves.
Prolific author, lawyer and civic dignitary Pliny the Younger (61-112 CE) lived at a time when great wealth was channelled into private estates where plants and structures were combined to form a vision of perfected nature: his own villas in the Apennine mountains (the Tusci) and his estate called Laurentinum of the coast near the port of Ostia outside Rome, give us insight into this period and descriptions of his magnificent villas (the Tusculan villa had two gymnasia called, following th Greeks, the Lyceum and Academy) would be a source of inspiration during the Italian Renaissance much later when the association of gardens with men of learning and sensitivity was continued through leading social figures like Lorenzo di Medici whose garden, called the Academy, was constructed in 1439 in Careggi just outside Florence. Pliny famosly connected gardens to landscape painting describing his Tuscan garden as ‘not a real, but some painted landscape, drawn with the most exquisite beauty and exactness’.
There is only one formal account of architecture and design in the Roman world, De Architectura Libri Decem (Ten Books of Architecture) by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (75-15 BCE). Better known simply as Vitruvius, this soldier in the army of Julius Caesar gives us the only insight into the architectural brilliance of the Romans and, sadly, his compendium contains little reference to gardens and designed landscapes. Even so, from this work can be gleaned the preferred Roman terminology for parks and gardens: hortus as a vegetable or market garden); paradeisos, for park; silvae, for a luxury plantation; topia, both topiary as we know it today, but especially landscape gardening; viridia, a formal display of plants, often exotic and skilfully pruned and curated (viridarium, a collection of viridia); within architectural elements were walkways known as ambulationes and xysti. By 100 CE the word viridia referred specifically to specially clipped evergreen trees and shrubs. Apellations herbularius and hortus medicus, denoting a herb garden (hortulanus was a later term), are probable Medieval additions.
Associated with the more extravagant gardens were places for exercise, the gestatio and hippodromus. The gestatio was a sort of avenue, shaded by trees, for the purpose of taking gentle exercise (Plin. Epist. V.6, II.17). The hippodromus was a place for horse exercise with several paths divided by hedges of box, ornamented with topiarian work, and surrounded by large trees (Plin.,l.c.; Martial, XII.50, LVII.23). An ornamental garden was also called viridarium, the gardener a topiarius or viridarius or, more commonly the villicus or cultor hortorum. The aquarius had charge of the fountains both in the garden and in the house (Becker, Gallus, vol.I p283, &c.; Böttiger, Racemationen zur Garten-Kunst der Alten).