Select Page

Greece

CONTEXT

For an account of the historical context of Greek gardens see Sustainability in ancient Greece
Although there are no unambiguous depictions of Greek gardens in art, and very little archaeological information, it is nevertheless clear from this little evidence that Greek ornamental horticulture did not flourish until the Hellenistic period when ornamental gardens first became part of an aristocratic villa tradition that would later influence the the Roman villa gardens that are generally accepted as the ancient forerunners of today’s Western gardens.

Scene of olive-gathering by young people. Attic black-figued neck-amphora, c. 520 BCE

Young people gathering olives by using sticks to thrash them down. Attic black-figured neck-amphora, ca. 520 BCE, from Vulci, Italy. British Museum. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Where exactly the influences on Greek gardens originated is difficult to say for sure. Garden historian Edward Hyams suggests that at the time of the various Greek city states it was probably only the Asiatic Greeks that practiced ornamental gardening based on Syrian traditions that had themselves been derived from Persia and, before that, Babylonia.[1] We cannot be sure.

Minoan civilisation c. 1800-1500 BCE

During the Bronze Age we know there was a Minoan civilization on Crete revealed in excavations of a palace complex at Knossos. Here proto-Greek accounting records have been found along with evidence of artistic craftsmanship and a redistributed economy that thrived from 1700 to 1400 BCE only to be destroyed for uncertain reasons in about 1300 BCE.

Frescoes from this Minoan civilisation on the islands of Thira (Santorini), Akrotiri, and Knossos on Crete depict lily, narcissus, rose, and myrtle along with the commercial barley, olive, fig, wheat, and saffron crocus.[48] It has even been suggested that the commonest source of saffron, Crocus sativus (used as a medicine, condiment, disinfectant and dye), may be derived from a mutated triploid plant with superior stigmatic branches that arose on the island of Thira.[49] One of the most important festivals within the Hittite empire which flourished around 1350–1295 BCE in the region of present-day Turkey and Cyprus was the Antahsum or saffron (Crocus) spring festival which lasted 38 days. Flowers are still eaten today raw or cooked.[53]

Mycenean civilisation and Dark Age c. 1500-1150 BCE

On the mainland there was the warrior culture of the Mycenaen civilization in southern Greece with dwellings built on defensible high ground, a culture that flourished from about 1600 BCE, also using the accounting script Linear B but again ending abruptly c. 1200-1150 BCE. Linear B tablets recovered from Mycenean palaces mention roses used for the production of perfume.[44] Following the end of Minoan and Mycenean civilizations there followed a Dark Age (c. 1150-800 BCE) when writing ceased leaving only an oral tradition of story-telling, some of which was eventually recalled in the epic stories written by the bard Homer in about 800 BCE at about the time when it is thought that the Phoenicean alphabet first arrived in Greece.

Archaic, classical and Hellenistic periods

The history of Ancient Greece is divided into three major periods: the Archaic period from about the 8th to 5th centuries BCE the Classical (Hellenic) period from the 5th through 4th centuries BCE, also known as the Golden Age of Athens; finally the Hellenistic period which is dated from the death of military hero Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, a period that ended with Roman ascendancy, notably the siege of Athens by Sulla in 146 BCE, the key sea Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, and the conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt in 30 BCE.

Classical period

The Classical era was a time of unprecedented intellectual activity when ancient thought excelled in a wide range of topics including the arts, science, mathematics, astronomy, politics, and philosophy. When combined with the practical engineering skill and economic power of the Roman Empire these two cultures would provide solid foundations for later Western civilization during the Axial Age, a period from c. 800-200 BCE when revolutionary thinkers appeared in China, India, Iran, the Near East, and Ancient Greece, all trying to address similar fundamental questions of existence.

Hellenistic period

During the Hellenistic period Macedonian power resulted in an erosion of the role of Greece proper as the Greek empire widened, with major centres now at Alexandria (in Ptolemaic Egypt) and Antioch (Seleucid Syria) with increase in trade and urbanisation across the Eastern Mediterranean, a network involving Egypt, Greece, Macedon, Asia and Arabia. Greek internal conflict between city-states (like the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta from 431-404 BC) diminished as Greek horizons broadened and young men travelled to the new boundaries of empire including present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan (Bactria and Indo-Greek cultures)as Hellenistic Greece took on a new cosmopolitan tone of wealth and luxury.

Information sources

We know about the parks and gardens of ancient Greece from only a few partial excavations, together with some archaeological artefacts such as ancient pottery and pictorial sources that include the decorated vases of the 6th and 5th centuries, as well as some reliefs. Most of our information comes from ancient writings of the Classical and Hellenistic periods including some inscriptions, records of real estate transactions, while the more extended descriptions date back ultimately to writings stored on papyri of Hellenistic Egypt. Interpretating these ancient Greek texts is complicated by the ambiguous use of the Greek word kepos which could refer to areas devoted to vegetables, fruit, flowers, vines, sacred groves, parks or burial grounds or, indeed, simply a plot of land.[20]

Landscapes were painted in Minoan buildings of the Aegean islands of Crete, Santorini (Thera) with its Bronze Age settlement of Akrotiri, and Milos as early as the second millennium BCE.

From the 8th century we have Homer’s (c. 700 BCE) fictional Iliad[43] and Odyssey together with the contemporary poet and ‘economist’ Hesiod’s (c. 750-650 BCE) Works and Days.[46] In these accounts we hear of gardeners and functional walled gardens associated with the houses and the cultivation of fruit trees and vegetables probably in the manner of a courtyard with a separate vineyard and vegetable area.[9]

Among the Classical authors were Xenophon and Theophrastus although details of Greek parks and gardens appear mostly in works of later Greek writers like Diodorus Siculus (fl. 60-30 BCE), Diogenes Laertius (fl. c.2 50 CE), and Pausanius (c. 110 – 180 CE) and even the Roman writers Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE), and Plutarch (c. 46-120 CE).

Xenophon (c. 430 – 354 BCE) was an aristocratic gentleman historian who lived in Attica, a key cultural and administrative region that surrounding Athens and including some offshore islands. He also served in the Persian army on Persian campaigns. Although we know that many treatises were written on agriculture most are now lost, the main exception being Xenophon’s Oekonomicus (c. 360 BCE) discussing the management of country estates and farms. This included a sections on the education of wives for the role of domestic management, and ways to deal with slaves and the political underclass. From Oekonomicus we know that there was already much known about manuring, crop rotation, and the improvement of plant varieties.

Landscape

Greece was a land of long coastlines and scattered islands (especially the Cyclades) and so many were seafarers. Inland there were arid mountainous landscapes where, throughout ancient history, in the valleys, farmers grew olives (a mythical gift from the goddess Athena that was used for cooking, eating, cosmetics and lamps)[47] grapes, and grain (mostly barley) although this was poor terrain with only about 30% being arable, the farmers struggling to grow cereals and complaining about the stony soil of their small subsistence plots. Separation of Greek society into city-states was likely influenced by the geography which tended to isolate regions.

Society

It was a male-dominated society and estates of wealthy men with daughters but no sons would pass (with the daughters as chattels) to the next male kin. Females lived in separate quarters in the house and even the aristocratic women were expected to be beautiful, intelligent, faithful (the men enjoyed relations with both sexes), good at weaving, and child-rearing, as well as supervising cooking, household operations and economics: they did not vote or attend political meetings and marriages were arranged by the men.

Xenophon’s treatise was a likely source of ideas and inspiration for the great Roman texts on agriculture that were to follow.Though much of the Italian peninsula consisted of verdant pasture. wine diluted with water was drunk by almost everyone.

In around 850 BCE the Greek alphabet was formed from Phoenician lettering and constitutes the basis of the English alphabet today.

Gardens

Even from limited evidence it is possible to discern a pattern of change in the Greek garden over the 700-800 years spanning the Archaic to Hellenistic periods.[24]

Archaic period (c. 800-500 BCE)

The Archaic Age[45] was a period of massive social change lasting 300 years from c. 800-500 BCE (the first Olympic Games took place in 776 BCE) involving economics, law, the military, agriculture and the arts (especially lyric poetry) a formative period for the social values of a uniquely Greek culture. It was a culture founded on the Homeric epics and the polis (pl. poleis) or city-state comprised of a king (ruler), council (a group of elders) and assembly (the army) the major public buildings being, as in ancient times, religious temples; it was a city and its surrounds with its citizens (defined as native-born, free, adult males) having equal responsibilities to their community and which possessed its own currency.

A more intensive agriculture was now practiced based on a wider range of crops, and with rising population (as well as political tensions, adventure, famine and other factors) after the Dark Age, among other factors, there followed a period of overseas colonisation of arable lands selected for being rich in resources and amenable to trade. Delphi, a centre for prophesy and purification was at this time a pan-Greek hub. Communities of 100 to 200 people, largely independent of their mother cities, set out mostly to the west around the foot of Italy where iron was a key attraction (founding the region called Magna Graeca) but elsewhere in the Mediterranean including France and Spain while others sailed to the north settling along the Black Sea coast. Communication was facilitated by the adoption of the 24-character Phoenician alphabet. Much simpler and more efficient than the former Linear B the new literacy produced a lyric poetry from poets like Sappho and Hesiod – more personal than the Homeric epics, tackling the issues and values of the day and delivered as a performance with music. The new writing also prompted the transference of law from privileged land owners (the aristoi whose power depended on their hereditable wealth) to a community-accepted law-giver who would write a Code of Law, much of it enshrining traditional custom.

Economically wealth had traditionally resided in heritable agricultural land and its produce but there now arose what was known a ‘moveable wealth’, exchange of goods and services for precious metal, often as tokens and eventually as coins, a practice that was copied from the merchants of the Middle East.

Greek writers tell us little of gardens in Archaic Greece although poets celebrated the wild plants of the countryside especially bulbous plants like the daffodil, hyacinth, gladiolus and cyclamen: the only clear reference to cultivated is to the rose, probably Rosa centifolia. Homeric Greece recognised three kinds of cultivated space: ampelos-vinyard, orchatos-orchard, chortos-an enclosed space for greens as fodder or food.[42] From the Archaic period Homer in the Odyssey (Bk 7:78-132) evokes an imaginary irrigated farm-like garden, enclosed by a hedge or wall, in the palace of imaginary Phaeacian king Alcinous of the semi-divine Scherians. This is a fictional garden but as the first documentation of an Aegean garden conjured up from the mind of one of the west’s greatest bards its description warrants presenting in full:

Outside the courtyard, fronting the high gates, a magnificent orchard stretches four acres deep with a strong fence running round it side-to-side. Here luxuriant trees are always in their prime, pomegranates and pears, and apples glowing red, succulent figs and olives swelling sleek and dark. And the yield of these trees will never flag or die, neither in winter notr in summer, a harvest all year round for the West Wind always breathing through will bring some fruits to bud and others warm to ripeness – pear mellowing ripe on pear, apple on apple, cluster of grapes on cluster, fig crowding fig. And here is a teeming vinyard planted for the kings, beyond it an open level bank where the vintage grapes lie basking to raisins in the sun while pickers gather others; some they trample down in vats, and here in the front rows bunches of unripe grapes have hardly shed their blooms while others under the sunlight slowly darken purple. And there by the last rows are beds of greens, bordered and plotted, greens of every kind, glistening fresh, year in, year out. And last, there are two springs, one rippling in channels over the whole orchard – the other, flanking it, rushes under the palace gates to bubble up in front of the lofty roofs where the city people come top draw their water.
Homer Odyssey 7:112-131, transl. Fagles[24]

Later, in Book 24, Homer refers to the farm of Laertes which consisted of: a house, slave quarters, stables, fields, together with rowed out vineyards and orchards.[10]

In spite of Homer’s mention of trim garden beds with flowering plants garden historian Hyams’s view, that ‘rich Greeks of the 7th century BC had kitchen gardens, orchards and vineyards attached to their country houses; … they had no ornamental gardens[11] appears regularly in the literature although it might be pointed out that the palaces of the sophisticated ancient Minoan civilization of Crete and Thira (2,600 to 1,400 BCE) almost certainlydisplayed some form of ornamental garden as cultivated trees and flowers are illustrated on vases and frescoes.[22]

It is from the Archaic period that we have the first named professional gardener in Western horticulture, Dolius, albeit a fictional one.[25] He was a slave of Penelope, given to her as a gift by her father Icarius when she married Odysseus.

Classical (Hellenic) period (500-300 BCE)

Clear physical evidence of gardening in Greece dates only from the inscriptions, art and architecture of the fourth century BCE and confined mostly to the region of Attica.[23]

Archaeological excavations show that the cities of this period had strong defensive walls. Housing for the general citizens was densely packed, averaging about 250 sq m, and fronting directly onto the street, and with a central courtyard (generally paved in some way) in the centre, also a cistern and house altar, but no room for any garden although potted plants probably because pots with drainage holes in the bottom have been excavated from such sites.[26]

The fourth century writers Aristophanes and Demosthenes refer to small domestic gardens associated with houses in the towns, probably containing fruit trees and ornamental flower pots are known from this period.[8] The only formal garden excavated around this time dates from the fifth century and is situated by a Doric temple and laid out with formal rows of trees or shrubs, formal flower beds, flower pots, and an irrigation aqueduct.[13]

The absence of private gardens in Athens was compensated by the presence of public sacred groves and temple gardens like those of Egypt and China this gathering momentum in the fifth century BCE under Cimon who, Hyams claims as the first planter of street tree avenues in Europe, his example being followed in Ptolemaic Egyptian Thebes and Greek Sparta (where the central plaza was called the Platanistas after the plane trees, Platanus orientalis that were grown there).[4]

In the third century BCE the private garden tradition was accepted in Greece itself, the houses being built around a courtyard with trees and plants in large terracotta pots. Though still formal there was a fashion for grottos possibly harking back to the naturalness of the Nymphaeum.

In the Classical era in about 450 BCE public parks and meeting places were softened with elms, aspens, yews, planes and myrtles. Pliny’s Natural History tells us that market gardens supplied Athens with flowers and vegetables and flowers were used in the garlands worn during community festivals and also for the wreaths were used for various festivals.

Hellenistic period (300-0 BCE)

Hellenistic culture is represented by the combined cultures of ancient Greece, Macedonia and Anatolia (Turkey). In the fourth century BCE Alexander’s army and generals had been impressed during their Persian conquest by the royal parks and gardens like those at the palaces of Susa, Pasargardae and Persepolis, admiring their skilful use of geometry, water and luxurious pavilions, and also in Mesopotamia’s Assyria where they encountered the palace gardens of Nineveh and Babylon and the ‘hanging gardens’ that were to become famous throughout the ancient world. Their experiences on this military campaign confirmed observations made a generation before by Greek generals who served in Persian wars and recorded by the historian Xenophon in his Anabasis and also Alcibiades, a Greek general and friend of philosopher Socrates.

These campaign experiences were to influence subsequent Greek garden design, especially that of parks and gardens in territory newly conquered by the Hellenistic Greeks especially those of Alexander’s palace gardens (known as the basilea and occupying a third of the city) created in the new Egyptian capital named after him and founded in 331 BCE. Alexandria would be later elaborated by the Greek Ptolemaic kings of Egypt a special feature being an artificial mound called the Paneion (dedicated to the god Pan) which commanded superb views across the city. Other noted features were the Lighthouse (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) and its Great Library. Alexandria reached its zenith from 330-23 BCE as a major cosmopolitan cultural, political, economic and intellectual Mediterranean centre meging Greek, Egyptian and later Roman ideas of garden and landscape design.

Alexander had been welcomed by the native Egyptians who greeted him as a liberator from Persian rule. On view in the basilea were collections of rare and exotic animals assembled by king Ptolemy II (and later we assume birds accumulated by Ptolemy VIII who wrote a treatise on them) and a new era of plant exchange began across empire.

Alexander it seems had not forgotten his early days of tuition by Aristotle and Theophrastus as he and his friends (like Harpalas who introduced plants to gardens in Babylon) distributed animal and plant spoils of war across the empire.[33] After the death of Alexander the creation of royal gardens continued, especially through the Seleucid dynasty: at Apamai in Syria, Ai Khanoum in Bactria, and Daphe a resort near Antiochia[32] which was a crucial city on coastal eastern Turkey, a hub for the spice trade, the Silk Road, and the Persian Royal Road that would eventually rival Alexandria as the pre-eminent city of the Near East. To which can be added teh palace gardens of Hiero II (c. 308 BC – 215 BC) a Greek Sicilian king of Syracuse who reigned from 270 to 215 BCE.

In the Hellenistic era grander gardens were sited on the outskirts of the cities and in rural areas. Vegetation in the cities seems to have been largely confined to public groves with a few gardens and, of course the shady trees of the agora or public square. Private housing was small with generally paved courtyards and it was only after Roman occupation that water pipes were used in housing. By the Hellenistic period gardens were increasing in popularity and where a space permitted were close to the houses as in Thebes, which was rebuilt in the third century and boasted more gardens than any other Greek city.[36]

During the Hellenistic period Macedonian power extended the Greek empire and major urban centres arose at Alexandria (in Ptolemaic Egypt) and Antioch (Seleucid Syria). It was a time of increasing trade and urbanisation across the Eastern Mediterranean. Conflicts between city-states (like the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta from 431-404 BC) diminished as Greek horizons broadened, the young men travelling to the new boundaries of empire including present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan (Bactria and Indo-Greek cultures).

Design features

There were two design features that typified this period: the sacred grove (alsos) of trees set either in the open or as part of a city precinct, and the hillside shrines or grottos with a stone basin, trees and an altar for offerings to the Nymphs, hence their name, Nymphaeum.

Sanctuaries & sacred groves

Sacred sanctuaries and groves were believed to be inhabited by gods (nature deities), some occurring in natural areas and dating back into the distant past; accordingly they were often found outside or on the periphery of the settlements. Groves were sanctuaries, public space containing either shade trees or fruits, the trees possibly having religious significance – like the bay which symbolised Apollo – but could include fields for crops and hills for hunting and relaxation.[12] Originally a simple shrine built by country streams the Nymphaeum of the city was, over time, embellished with statuary. The sacred groves in Greece were cultivated with special care. They contained ornamental and odoriferous plants and fruit trees, particularly olives and vines (Soph. Oed.Col. 16; Xen. Anab.V.3 §12). The only passage in the earlier Greek writers, in which flower-gardens appear to be mentioned, is one in Aristophanes, who speaks of κήπους εὐώδεις (Aves,V.1066). In Athens flowers, like violets and roses, were probably used for garlands.[56]

Adonis Garden

‘Adonis Garden’
Detail from Athenian red-figure lekythos, c. 425-375 BCE Karlsruhe, Badisches Landesmuseum B39. Photo. Mus. R8057 © Badisches Landesmuseum, Karlsruhe

Groves were places to pay respect to the gods and four in particular: Apollo, Athena, Aphrodite, and Adonis. Aphrodite and Adonis were associated with fertility, both having special dedicated sanctuary gardens and shrines generally associated with spring water. It is possible that the growing of plants in pots dates from the time when Greek women celebrated the festival Adoneia which commemorated the goddess Aphrodite’s mourning for her mortal lover Adonis (Adonis was the god of fertility and rebirth) by growing small ‘Adonis gardens’. In bowls, vases, baskets and pots they tended quick-growing edible plants like lettuce, fennel, wheat or barley that, like the young Adonis, lived only a brief time without bearing fruit.[7]

Public parks, temple gardens, the agora and tomb gardens

In spite of the absence of gardens, shade trees were used around markets, gymnasia, evidence also existing for the temple of Hephaistos in Athens, the temple of Asklepios in Corinth, [CS, p. 87] trees mentioned being the plane, elm, poplar, and ever-present olive which, being sacred, was protected from being either felled or moved.

Citizens of ancient Athens and other major Greek cities lived in very dense housing which was relieved somewhat by the large public square (Agora) which was surrounded by major civic buildings and a focal point for community activities like markets, festivals, religious ceremonies, and theatrical performances. It was mostly here and in the city’s gymnasia that people could relax under shady trees. Evidence for these trees comes not only from written sources but from pits dug in bedrock, irrigation channels, and broken clay plant pots with watering holes in the base.[20] Plutarch tells us that statesman and philanthropist Cimon was responsible for a planting program in the agora in Athens in the 5th century BCE the preferred tree being the oriental plane, Platanus orientalis, which was pruned regularly[17] – it has remained (as the hybrid Platanus x acerifolia) a favourite tree for urban sites to this day, although its cultivation dates back to at least the time of Mesopotamian King Sargon II and his ‘Botanic garden‘ near Nineveh in the 8th century BCE.[51]

After the 3rd century BCE a new formal layout was adopted for gymnasia consisting of a quadrangle enclosed by a covered portico or peristyle. Other public sites for tree plantings included sanctuaries (sacred buildings with statuary used for religious ceremonies) frequently planted with olives and cypress, and funerary mounds (also common in ancient Egypt) sometimes with elms on top or around. For entertainment there were the stadiums and hippodromes where horse-racing and athletic contests (like the Pan-Hellenic games) took place.[18] Xenophon tells us that Spartan General Lysander (d. 395 BCE) admired the Persian orchards for their geometric perfection.

Groves of trees were also a feature of the tombs, cemeteries and heroa (statuary and monuments to heroes and civic dignitaries of the past).

Water was always a precious commodity and this may account for the lack of small suburban gardens, and clearly the most suitable location in the absence of a major urban water supply would be outside the city by rivers and springs.[27]

Philosophers’ gardens

The other public parks used to refresh and challenge body and mind were the gymnasia (see Theophrastus), the one called the Academy also being laid out by Cimon, the trees scattered among the statues, altars, and the well-known shrine dedicated to the Muses (inspirational goddesses of literature, science and the arts). Plutarch in his Lives tells us that Cimon’s choice was again the plane trees together with the evergreen silvery-leaved olive, elms and poplars (Cim. 13.7. 467c). Aristotle and Theophrastus were to later move to another gymnasium called the Lyceum where Theophrastus noted a Plane tree growing by its watercourse. In his private garden which he used for teaching, and possibly part of the Lyceum, Theophrastus also had a museum (a temple dedicated to the muses and containing their statues) and in his will he made provision for the ongoing maintenance of his garden by two slaves and for a modest personal memorial.[19] As a garden for both relaxation and instruction, a ‘garden for learning’, the Lyceum was a forerunner of the modern botanic garden.

Mention of Greek gardens of the Classical era must include Epicurus (341 – 270 BCE) founder of the school of philosophy called Epicureanism. Most of his 300 philosophical treatises have been lost so what we know of him comes mostly from later commentators. When aged 35 he settled in Athens where he founded his school known as The Garden renowned for its great beauty and situated by the famous Dipylon Gate. This was where his students met: it was about halfway between two other schools of philosophy, the Stoa (home of the famous school of Stoics) and the Academy. His school was the first of the ancient Greek philosophical schools to freely admit women and slaves.[31] If, as Pliny later claimed, this was the first ornamental garden established in Athens, then it was of particular historical significance for horticulture.

Economic botany

Agriculture

Food was supplied to the cities by rural market gardens and farms irrigated from nearby rivers and streams.[15]

In the Hellenistic period vast agricultural estates in Hellenistic Egypt were managed on a grand and professional scale as the Ptolemaic kings who drained swamps, establishing plantations and paradeisoi managed by professional gardeners as commercial orchards, timber plantations, and fields of roses. It seems that in Greece dense living still precluded luxury gardens which were confined to these more spacious layouts in places like Egypt and Rhodes, Ptolemaic palace gardens of Alexandria designed along mostly traditional Egyptian lines but space allowed for shady groves, sanctuaries and even some suburban gardens too.[27]

Phoenician trade routes

Phoenician trade routes

Greece was an agrarian economy with mixed farming consisting three major crops: grain, oil and wine.

The Seleucid Empire which was created by the partition of land following the death of Alexander encompassed, at its height, Anatolia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Pamir and present day Pakistan a region of trade which would have included plants, while in Hellenised Ptolemaic Egypt new agricultural and gardening traditions thrived. In these Asian and African Hellenic arms to the empire private urban gardens emerged. Alexandria boasted gardens over a quarter of its area, Museum gardens, a Great Gymnasium garden, a mountain garden, royal and public gardens, garden suburbs, even cemetery gardens decorated with statuary, fountains and buildings, the planting essentially trees.] Professional Greek gardeners were in demand in the Hellenistic period, especially in the Egypt of the Ptolemies where they worked plantations and vineyards.

Market gardens

At the time of Classical and Hellenistic Greece the people were largely vegetarian. Utilitarian gardens of the market garden type stocked fruit and vegetables: figs, apples, pears, mulberries, nuts, herbs, melons and the vegetables leeks, beans, lentils, lettuce, cabbages, asparagus, onions and garlic, while farm gardens, apart from grain crops and other staples, cultivated olive groves and vineyards. Flowers were also grown here.[15][23]

Land tenure

During the late Iron Age and Archaic periods land that was the collective property of the sovereign city-state (polis) but it was divided up equally between citizens into plots (kepoi) with the king receiving his own special plot of arable land.[10] Greece was an agricultural community, vinyards and vegetable gardens were part of the farm or kleros which ranged in size from about 5-25 ha, even the grandest estates in Attica rarely exceeding 25 ha.[54] with specialist garden areas (kepoi).

Around the 8th century BCE the countryside in Greece would have been dotted with farms and villages but there also arose independent city-states like Corinth and Thebes. Here land was divided into city blocks, each private property identical in size and with no space allocated for a garden. During the Archaic period we see the distinction between the urban space of the town and the rural mostly agricultural surrounding land.[28]

Tribal and aristocratic land tenure was replaced by a process of buying and selling as the products of agriculture also became part of the economic system, some traded overseas. Most estates were relatively small, owned by gentlemen farmers, and worked by slaves. There was a social stigma attached to manual work because it was ‘… the sordid task of slaves and the poorest free-men’.[3]

Plant introduction

It seems probable that ornamental flowers were probably first introduced via the culinary and medicinal herb gardens, a primary example being the rose, commonplace by 500 BCE, probably introduced from Persia via Macedonia for the production of rose oil. He also notes the Greek word for rose and lily were derived from Iranian words, Persia being the most horticulturally active part of west Asia.[6]

Early gardens were not planted for amenity although formal plantings occurred as architectural adjuncts to buildings, temples, gymnasia and assembly areas. The peripatetic school of Aristotelian philosophy at the Lyceum academy in Athens that spawned western plant science under the leadership of Theophrastus who succeeded Aristotle, was a gymnasium of this kind but it included plant trophies brought back from overseas, notably those from the conquests of Alexander carving out the Hellenic Empire and these plants were used as part of the education program at the Lyceum. Alexander had experienced and admired the oriental gardens of the Persians. Though much admired the extent to which they were copied is uncertain.

Aerial layering (fastening an earthen pot of soil round a tree branch then shattering it after a couple of years) was practiced on plane trees, olives, fruit trees, bay, myrtle and vines.[55]

There are records of Attalos III of Pergamon (170-133 BC) who grew only drugs and herbs; gardens with sculptures of nymphs, satyrs etc.; cemetery plots or funerary gardens which were planted with acanthus, asphodel, cypresses (a symbol of mortality and eternity and found almost exclusively in cemeteries in Greece today), poplar and willow and in the Hellenistic period those outside Alexandria were used as orchards; they also contained wells, stone walls and dining pavilions.

In Hellenistic times the peach (Prunus persica) and Lemon (Citrus limon) were introduced to Greece.[53]

Plants

Roses receive special attention in Greek literature,[50] Theophrastus devoting considerable space to their discussion. Considering that the rose would play a central role in western horticulture, the Romans especially using them prolifically for festoons and garlands, his entry is worth quoting in full:

‘Among roses there are many differences, in the number of petals, in roughness, & in beauty of colour, and in sweetness of scent. Most have five petals, but some have twelve or twenty, and some a great many more than these for there are some, they say, which are even called ‘ hundred- petalled.’ Most of such roses grow near Philippi; for the people of that place get them on Mount Pangaeus, where they are abundant, and plant them. However the inner petals are very small, (the way in which they are produced being such that some are outside, some inside). Some kinds are not fragrant nor of large size. Among those which have large flowers those in which the part 5 below the flower is rough are the more fragrant. In general, as has been said, good colour and scent depend upon locality; for even bushes which are growing in the same soil shew some variation in the presence or absence of a sweet scent. Sweetest- scented of all are the roses of Gyrene, wherefore the perfume made from these is the sweetest. (Indeed it may be said generally that the scents of the gilliflowers & also and of the other flowers of that place are the purest, and especially the scent of the saffron-crocus, a plant which seems to vary in this respect more than any other). Roses can be grown from seed, which is to be found below the flower in the ‘apple’ and is like that of safflower or pine-thistle, 2 but it has a sort of fluff, so that it is not unlike the seeds which have a pappus. 3 As however the plant comes slowly from seed, they make cuttings of the stem, as has been said, and plant them. If the bush is burnt or cut over, it bears better flowers; for, if left to itself, it grows luxuriantly and makes too much wood. Also it has to be often transplanted; for then, they say, the roses are improved. The wild kinds are rougher both in stem and in leaf, and have also smaller flowers of a duller colour.
EP VI. vi. 2

Demosthenes notes that roses were grown in separate beds and enjoyed for their fragrance. In Greece there were at this time there were probably four species but already gardeners were collecting cultivars like a double-petalled form from Mt Panageus: Demosthenes, for example, grew them in separate beds.[35] A sixth-century Attic red-figure vase depicts a woman smelling what is clearly a rose. Herodotus (c. 484–425 BCE) refers to an ancient wild rose garden at the foot of Mount Bermion in Macedonia ‘the garden of Midas son of Gordias, where roses grow of themselves, each bearing sixty blossoms and of surpassing fragrance’.(Histories 8.138.1) From early fifth century BCE it is assumed that Rosa centifolia and R. canina were grown, dating from archaic times. By the end of the classical era roses were cultivated extensively on the island of Rhodes.[52] Other plants cultivated for perfume, medicinal properties or for wreaths include the iris, lavender and basil.

In the fifth century BCE travellers had returned from Persia (Iran) with peach and marjoram and were clearly impressed by Persian royal parks (Gk paradeisoi) which were large landscaped areas with fields and formal groves of trees and stocked with game for recreational hunting. Soldiers with Alexander had camped in these paradeisois or ‘oriental pleasure gardens’ with their grottos and fountains were copied by Greek aristocrats. Roses were also grown on the farms and sold for use in garlands, wreaths and other floral decoration at various religious and social festivals while wildflowers were also picked and sold.

Theophrastus mentions in his works about 550 plants, many of these being cultivated. Among the most frequently mentioned garden plants are: ornamental plants such as roses, lilies, dropwort, violets, iris, crocus, hyacinth, narcissus, dianthus, daisy, gillyflowers, wallflowers, rose campion, lavender, soapwort, poppy, and ivy. The herbs marjoram, rosemary, calamint, bergamot mint, rue, sage, thyme, mint, basil, coriander, dill, parsley, cress, and mustard – and all of these could well have been passed on to the Romans; vegetables included cucumber, beet, lettuce, rocket, celery, mustard, radish, gourd, monk’s rhubarb, blite, orach, turnip.[5] Trees used in public parks included elms, planes, aspens, yews and myrtles.[14] Popular trees in the sacred groves, sometimes associated with temples and orchards included olive, pine, cypress, oak, myrtle, bay, almond, mulberry, medlar cornel cherry, sorb, nut trees, and hazel and laurel while planted round the gymnasia and places for athletic activity, baths, and educational schools like Plato’s Lyceum, were planted with plane, elm, poplar and olive. Trees were cypresses, laurels, pines, and firs.[29] Flowers, Theophrastus tells us, added colour and scent to the garden.

As in Egypt and Mesopotamia many plants took on religious significance. Plane and ash trees were attributed with spiritual significance, the olive, it was said, had been given to athenians by Athena and was dedicated to her, the oak sacred to Zeus and also Pan while the myrtle was for Aphrodite. Trees planted around temples included: the olive, pine, oak, laurel, cypress and fruit trees. Early temple gardens consisted of naturally forested areas perhaps echoing the ancient sacred groves.

Plant commentary & sustainability analysis

Ancient pre-cursor civilizations of Crete and Mycenae were communities that shared a similar social structure, cultural beliefs and values, engaged in trade (a social system called ‘peer polity’). However, they had no central authority and, within a limited area, competed among themselves. They had redistributive economies in which resources were centrally stored and redistributed or used for barter. Records of transactions were kept on clay tablets using proto-Greek Linear B script but writing was lost during the Dark Age.

Deforestation might have already begun in antiquity as the Greek mountains were plundered for timber for shipping and house construction andd we know that timber was being imported from northern regions. Pigs, sheep and goats made up the majority of the donmesticated animals while the chicken had been introduced from the Near East by 650 BCE.

The earliest gardens of Archaic Greece were functional enclosed areas with an orchard, vineyard, small plots for vegetables and flowers (probably used for perfume and garlands), and a nearby water supply – what might be called ‘kitchen gardens’. In the Classical Hellenic period, though there was the same ground plan, gardens had gathered more aesthetic and recreational elements which were subsequently further extended in the Hellenistic period under the influence of Persian elements that had been admired on military campaigns. Garden historian Patrick Bowe concludes that ‘the ancient Greeks pioneered the Western approach to gardening and garden design. Their gardens may be said to represent the birth of the Western garden‘ as many aspects reappear in modified form in Roman gardens and the gardens of later periods of Western garden history.[37]

The population of fifth century Athens including slaves and other non-citizens, consisted of several hundred thousand people although most Greek city-states were relatively small. Such a large population could only be supported only by the regular importation of food from abroad, which had to be financed by trade and other revenues.[43]

In the Lyceum of Athens of the fourth century BCE under the leadership of Aristotle and Theophrastus we can see the origins of modern biology, plant science, the university, botanic garden, and public park. Theophrastus, more than any before him in the written record, looked critically at plant structure and function. Along with the philosophers of his day he observed closely the way that plants grew, noting that cultivated plants (cultivars) probably arose under human influence and, rather than simply accepting the current superstitious views on the medicinal uses of plants, he maintained that the medicinal properties of plants should be based on the rational process of observation and experiment.[16]

Bowe claims that tree plantings like those described in Athens were the first public plantings, all predecessors being related to royalty or other private areas: it is the direct forerunner of our present-day public parks and especially the plane trees, notably the London Plane P. xacerifolia, so intimately associated with western urban tree planting.

Whatever the sources of the Greek horticultural traditions it was this legacy that was handed on to the Romans who were able to elaborate their ideas using their wealth and technical expertise but, according to Hyams ‘Their gardens, like their architecture and sculpture and engineering, they owed to the Greeks.’[2] Greek traditions absorbed from the ancient world were taken up by the Romans and passed through Europe and into the horticulture of the British Empire that was part of the plant package handed to Australia at settlement.
‘… there is no evidence to suggest that the Greek garden in antiquity bore any resemblance to its Roman or modern counterpart[34]

Authority on ancient Greek gardens Maureen Carroll-Spillecke notes that the spatial distribution of property, Plato and Aristotle agreed, would ideally entail for each citizen: land for a house in the city; land in the suburbs (?for a garden); and one in the country (?for a farm). In practice cities were densely packed with domestic homes and public buildings. Gardens and farms and most sanctuaries and gymnasia were outside the city walls, the average city being quite small, about 700 m diameter.[40]

Garden historians emphasise that the close association of house and garden found in affluent Roman domestic villa architecture – the trees, shrubs, flowers, fountains and statuary, often with a vegetable garden at the back, the familiar private Western garden of today, originated in Italy during the Republican and Imperial ages. At the same time the Romans adopted the Greek peristyle courtyard but converted it into a garden area. The later Romans paid tribute to the traditions of Greeks by naming their gardens Lyceum (Emperor Hadrian) or Academy (Cicero) and through skilful engineering managed to bring water to their private homes for their pools, fountains, baths and gardens.[38] But it is through the Romans that we see gardens, as in Pompei, associated with private houses, shops, inns, schools, temples, even vegetable and flower gardens – and within the city walls.[30]

Key points

  • professional gardeners, the first written record being that of Homer’s fictional Dolios
  • walled gardens associated with private houses; courtyards; absence of ornamental gardens until; sacred groves and shrines; market gardens
  • terracotta plant pots; the Nymphaeum & grottoes; wells; dining pavilions; sculptures; funerary gardens (cemeteries)
  • possibly the first use of tree avenues in Breece by Cimon c. 450 BCE and wide use of plane trees in cities
  • Aqueducts. Peristyles. Porticos.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email