by Roderick Conway Morris

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Soprintendenza Archeologica, Pompeii
A mural, dating from the first century A.D. from Pompeii.

Early slices of paradise: Gardens in ancient times

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 13 July 2007


Gardens are as old as civilization and the origins and early development of them are the subject of 'The Ancient Garden from Babylon to Rome: Science, Art and Nature.' Spanning over 2,500 years, the exhibition - which contains nearly 150 reliefs, statues, mosaics, frescoes, antique gardening tools and models illustrating ingenious hydraulic devices - is at the restored 18th-century Lemon House in the Boboli Garden of the Pitti Palace and continues until Oct. 28.

The first earthly paradise was traditionally placed at the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates in southern Iraq. It is here that beginning at around 5000 B.C. irrigation made possible the transformation of the desert into a lush land of perennial plenty. In some ancient Semitic languages the word for 'palm' seems to have been synonymous with the word for 'garden,' but later terms for garden in many languages - from 'hortus' in Latin to 'jardin' in French and 'garden' in English - denoted an enclosed space. (Our word 'paradise' derives from the Persian for 'park,' also implying a circumscribed, protected area.)

But most famous of all Mesopotamian gardens were the 6th-century B.C. Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. They may have been laid out on the roof of the king's palace, or perhaps occupied a series of terraces on a giant ziggurat overlooking the Euphrates. Given the sparse rainfall, these could only be watered by lifting large quantities of water from wells or the river below by artificial means, such as the Archimedean Screw (which in fact long predated the eponymous Greek scientist). Also convenient was the availability of oil in the region, the tar from which could be used to seal the bricks on the terraces to retain the water.

Traditions dating back to the third millennium B.C. ascribe the honorific title 'gardener' to Mesopotamian kings. And a text describing the Moses-like adventures of the infant king Sargon in the 16th-century B.C. relates how his priestess mother launched him as a baby in a basket (sealed with tar) into the flow of the Euphrates. He was rescued downstream by a 'water carrier' (possibly an irrigator?), who raised the boy as a gardener before Sargon was divinely picked out for kingship.

Hanging gardens (the first was probably at Nineveh) were at once luxurious, labor-intensive amenities, fortified pleasure parks and potent symbols of power - and very impressive they must have appeared seen from miles away across the desert sands. They were also stocked with exotic plants and animals from the far corners of the empire, offering further proof of the vastness and variety of the sovereign's realms.

Ancient Greek gardens were far less ostentatious and more closely bound up with religion. They had their origins in sacred groves, springs and rivers believed to be inhabited by gods and spirits, the haunt of nymphs and satyrs. They were to be found not in towns, but in suburbs and in the countryside. The trees and plants in them were associated with particular deities: the oak with Zeus, the laurel with Apollo, the myrtle with Aphrodite, and so on. The goddess of love was a special protector of gardens, and her son Eros was sometimes represented as a gardener. The Graces had their gardens on the slopes of Mount Helicon.

Such groves were also where the celebrated schools of philosophy grew up and flourished, the most famous being Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum, on the outskirts of Athens. They gradually acquired buildings for teaching and gymnasiums for physical exercise. These settings, seen again much later as ideal for academic and athletic pursuits, gave rise to modern extra-urban schools and campus colleges.

The gardens of the modest house that Epicurus bought just outside the walls of Athens in 306 B.C., where he taught his followers (including, to the scandal of some, women and slaves), became so closely identified with his teachings that his school of philosophy became known as the Garden. The life recommended and lived there was in reality simple to the point of austerity. But his advocacy of a quiet existence and withdrawal from public life was misrepresented at the time and subsequently as a philosophy of pure pleasure and hedonistic self-indulgence. (The mud stuck, too, in the modern sense of 'Epicurean' to describe a person devoted to exquisite, if not decadent, enjoyments.)

Roman gardens were enormously influenced by Greek gardens, or at least the Roman perception of them, but evolved into much grander affairs and ultimately became quite distinct from them.

In the good old days, according to the first-century A.D. encyclopedist Pliny the Elder, there was a clear division between town and country. Gardens as they existed then were for growing useful things like onions and garlic. But now country houses with full-blown gardens had appeared within the city itself. 'This practice,' he writes, fingering the usual suspect, 'was introduced in Athens by that master of the leisured cultivation of one's own sensibility, Epicurus. Until his day country villas in town were unknown.'

Pliny's near-contemporary, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, condemned roof gardens (the descendants of the hanging gardens) for having roots where roofs ought to be, and even planting trees for no more serious purpose than enjoying their pleasant shade.

Yet urban private gardens became ever larger and more elaborate. Those that could afford it surrounded them with Greek-style colonnades, adorned them with bronze and marble statuary, furnished them with pools for ornament and swimming and installed complex piping systems to supply fountains, including ones with hydraulic devices that made bronze birds mimic real bird song. Architectural schemes came to combine ample gardens with vistas opening up onto surrounding land- and seascapes.

The choice of statuary substantially followed Greek thinking. Hercules was appropriate since one of his labors had been to steal the Golden Apples from the legendary Gardens of the Hesperides; Bacchus, because he was the master of rustic revels. Other favorites were satyrs, fauns, water- and wood-nymphs and centaurs, not to mention representations of birds and wild animals. Busts and statues of Greek philosophers, Epicurus among them - despite his ambiguous reputation - were also popular. Many features, such as herms (pillars with one or more sculpted heads) and oscilla (large mobiles in the form of masks suspended from arches and trees), which retained their religious significance in Greece, seem to have become simply decorative in the Roman context.

Those who could not afford extensive, well-appointed gardens could call in the fresco painters to provide trompe l'oeuil ones, by decorating walls of often modest yards and even the interiors of rooms. These creations contained all the necessary elements from Greek, Roman and Egyptian-style statuary and panels, herms, oscilla and fountains to vegetation, flowers, cane fences, fruit-laden trees and abundant bird life. Most of these virtual gardens beloved of the middle classes have been unearthed in and around Pompeii, and their discovery has immeasurably increased our knowledge of what real Roman gardens looked like.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023