Greek garden

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A distinction is made between Greek gardens, made in ancient Greece, and Hellenistic gardens, made under the influence of Greek culture in late classical times. Little is known about either.

Minoan gardens[edit]

Before the coming of Proto-Greeks into the Aegean, Minoan culture represented gardens, in the form of subtly tamed wild-seeming landscapes, shown in frescoes, notably in a stylised floral sacred landscape with some Egyptianising features represented in fragments of a Middle Minoan fresco at Amnisos, northeast of Knossos.[1] In the east wing of the palace at Phaistos, Maria Shaw believes, fissures and tool-trimmed holes may once have been planted. In the post-Minoan world, Mycenaean art concentrates on human interactions, where the natural world takes a lessened role,[2] and following the collapse of Mycenaean palace-culture and the loss of the literacy connected with it, pleasure gardens are unlikely to have been a feature of the Greek Dark Age.


In the eighth century BC, the works of Homer contain a reference to gardens, the Neverland of Alcinous, in the purely mythic Phaeacia, which stood as much apart from the known world of Homer's hearers as it did from the heroic world of Achaeans he was recreating, with much poetic license:[3] "We live far off", said Nausicaa, "surrounded by the stormy sea, the outermost of men, and no other mortals have dealing with us."[4]

Now, you'll find a splendid grove along the road—

poplars, sacred to Pallas—
a bubbling spring's inside and meadows run around it.
There lies my father's estate, his blossoming orchard too,
as far from town as a man's strong shout can carry.

Take a seat there.[5]

The gardens of the palace were possessed of an unearthly lushness, in the fenced orchard outside the courtyard, fronting the high gates:

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 all these trees will never flag or die,

neither in winter nor in summer, a harvest all year round.[6]

The description is beloved of writers on gardens, nevertheless.[7]

Poetic descriptions of the Greek landscape and flora are well known from early times: the tale of Narcissus, Daphne's transformation into a laurel, oaks inhabited by dryads and streams with nymphs, and Persephone eating pomegranate seeds, but it is not until the Hellenistic era that gardeners write treatises on their work, called kepourika.[8]

No such gardens were known to Homer's contemporaries, as far as archaeologists can discern, any more than palaces like Alcinous', whose very doors were of bronze. The gardens of Greek myth were untended gardens,[9] maintained in orderly fashion simply because order, themis, was in the nature of things, as in the garden of the Hesperides, which was an orchard.

Classical Greece[edit]

Archaeologists have not identified planted courtyards within the palaces of Mycenean culture nor in Greek houses of the Classical period. When the editors of a symposium on Roman gardens[10] included a contribution on the expected Greek precursors, Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway's article prompted a reviewer[11] to observe, "For all practical purposes there appear to have been no gardens of any sort in Greek city homes, beyond perhaps a few pots with plants." Aside from vegetable plots and orchards, Ridgway found some literary and a small amount of archaeological evidence for public, or semi-public gardens linked to sanctuaries. In fifth- and fourth-century Athens, some public places were planted with trees,[12] as Plato directed in his Laws, "The fountains of water, whether of rivers or springs, shall be ornamented with plantings and buildings for beauty", though he does not offer details.

Temple of Hephaestus, Athens, replanted with myrtle and pomegranates in the 3rd-century planting pits

In 1936, the surroundings of the Temple of Hephaestus at Athens were excavated to bare rock, in which rectangular planting pits were identified, which ran round three sides of the temple but not across its front and were lined up with the columns of the temple. In their bases were the shattered remains of flower pots in which layered stems had been rooted; however, associated coins show that the first of these plantings had been made not before the third century BC.[13] By that time, in mainland Greece and Ionia, the influence of Achaemenid Persia was paramount in humanly-tended gardens, but in the previous century, of Alexander the Great, Plutarch observed[14] that as a boy he would inquire of Persian visitors to his father's court in Macedon, about Persian roads and military organization, but never of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon; Herodotus, who probably visited Babylon in the mid-fifth century, does not mention the hanging gardens.[15] Xenophon, under Achaemenid Persian influence,[16] planted a grove upon his return to Athens. The myth, set in Macedon, of Silenus discovered drunken by Midas can be dated to the Hellenistic period simply from its setting, a rose garden.

In Athens, the first private pleasure gardens appear in literary sources in the fourth century.[17] The Academy had its site in an ancient grove of plane trees sacred to an obscure archaic hero, Akademos. Sacred groves were never actively planted, but simply existed from time immemorial and were "recognized" as sacred:[18] they have no place in the history of gardens, save as a resort for contemplation and, at Plato's Academy, for intellectual discourse. By contrast, the olive trees in the Academy, watered by the river Cephissus, were planted, grown, it was said, from slips taken of the sacred olive at the Erechtheum. The temenos, or sacred ground, of the Academy was walled round, for ritual reasons, as pleasure gardens would be, for practical ones; within its precincts were buildings: small temples, shrines and tombs, in addition to that of the presiding hero.

In 322 BC, Theophrastus, the father of botany, inherited Aristotle's garden, along with his scholars and his library; of the garden we know only that it had a walk, and that Theophrastus lectured there: it may have been in some respects a botanical garden with a scientific rather than recreational purpose. On his return to Athens in 306 BCE, the philosopher Epicurus founded The Garden, a school named for the garden he owned about halfway between the Stoa and the Academy that served as the school's meeting place; little is actually known of the ascetic philosopher's garden, though in cultural history it grew retrospectively in delight: of his garden at Geneva, Les Délices, Voltaire could exclaim, with more enthusiasm than history, "It is the palace of a philosopher with the gardens of Epicurus—it is a delicious retreat".[19] Gardens of Adonis, under Syrian influence, were simple plantings of herbal seedlings grown in saucers and pots, which, when they collapsed in the heat of summer, were the signal for mourning for Adonis among his female adherents: these were not gardens in any general sense.

Hellenistic gardens[edit]

Though Harpalus, Alexander's successor at Babylon, grew some Greek plants in the royal palace and walks,[20] mainland Greece, mother of democracy and Western cultural traditions, was not the mother of European gardens: the great Hellenistic garden was that of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Alexandria, a grand, walled paradise landscape that included the famous Library of Alexandria, part of the Musaeum. Water-powered automata and water organs featured in Hellenistic gardens, playthings devised by technicians such as Hero of Alexandria, who, not incidentally, also devised machinery for the stage. In late classical times the peristyle form became dominant in grand private houses. This was a paved courtyard, which came to be outfitted with potted plants, a Persian and Egyptian idea, surrounded by a roofed colonnade. It was used for palaces and gymnasia.

Roman decorative gardening first appeared after Roman encounters with gardening traditions of the Hellenized East.


  1. ^ Maria C. Shaw, "The Aegean Garden" American Journal of Archaeology 97.4 (October 1993:661-685); see also J. Schäfer, "The role of 'gardens' in Minoan civilisation", in V. Karageorghis, The Civilisations of the Aegean and their diffusion in Cyprus and the eastern Mediterranean 2000-600 B.C. (Larnaca, 1992:85-87).
  2. ^ "Mycenaean art of the later Bronze Age (Late Helladic III) plays a lesser role in my considerations, largely because it copies from earlier art and because its themes are concerned more with people and their actions than with nature" (Shaw 1993:662).
  3. ^ M.I. Finley, The World of Odysseus (1954, 1965) examines the created cultural world of the epic tradition, which Finley sees as neither authentically Mycenaean nor an accurate reflection of Homer's eighth century BCE.
  4. ^ Odyssey VI. 205.
  5. ^ Robert Fagles' translation; "town" is Fagles' license: no such settlement was known to Homer's hearers.
  6. ^ Robert Fagles' translation, p. 183.
  7. ^ It is quoted by Dorothy Burr Thompson and Ralph E. Griswold, Garden Lore of Ancient Athens (American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1963), p. 5: "In it flourish tall trees: pears and pomegranates and apples full of fruit, also sweet figs and bounteous olives...Here too a fertile vineyard has been planted...Beyond the last row of trees, well laid garden plots have been arranged, blooming all the year with flowers. And there are two springs; one leads through the garden while the other dives beneath the threshold of the great court to gush out beside the stately palace; from it the citizens draw their water"
  8. ^ Garden Lore of Ancient Athens. American School of Classical Studies. p. 5.
  9. ^ Noted by Thacker, p. 9.
  10. ^ Elizabeth B. Macdougall and h Wilhelmina Jashemski, eds. Ancient Roman Gardens (series Colloquia on the History of Landscape Architecture 7), Dumbarton Oaks, 1981).
  11. ^ Norman Neuerburg, in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 42.2 (May 1983:200); Neuerburg's summary: "To this reviewer even the Greek antecedents scarcely explain the subsequent Roman development of the art of the decorative garden."
  12. ^ Trees that were landmarks mentioned in inscriptions are briefly noted by Thompson and Griswold 1963, p. 9.
  13. ^ Thompson and Griswold 1963, p. 10 and illustrations. The planting was restored with myrtle and pomegranates.
  14. ^ Plutarch, Moralia, 342b, noted by Julian Reade, "Alexander the Great and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon", Iraq 62 (2000:195-217) p. 195
  15. ^ Herodotus and Xenophon (in his romanticised Cyropaedia) do give extensive accounts of Cyrus the Great's palatial city of Pasargadae and its gardens.
  16. ^ In his Anabasis, Xenophon introduced into Greek the Old Persian term for an enclosed royal hunting park, paradeisos.
  17. ^ Christopher Thacker, The History of Gardens p. 18, notes the Academy, the gardens of Theophrastus and of Epicurus.
  18. ^ Much later, in the first century CE, Nero included pseudo-sacred groves in his artificial landscaping of Domus Aurea.
  19. ^ Voltaire, letter of 23 January 1755, quoted by Thacker, p. 18.
  20. ^ τά βαςίλεια καὶ τους περιπάτους (Plutarch, Life of Alexander 35). His unsuccessful attempt to grow ivy in the withering heat of Mesopotamia, was probably for its associations with Dionysos rather than as a garden ground-cover.

Further reading[edit]

  • Birge, Darice Elizabeth (1982). Sacred Groves in the Ancient Greek World. PhD diss., Univ. of California at Berkeley.
  • Bonnechere, Pierre. (2007). "The Place of the Sacred Grove (Alsos) in the Mantic Rituals of Greece: The Example of the Alsos of Trophonios at Lebadeia (Boeotia)." In Sacred Gardens and Landscapes: Ritual and Agency. Edited by Michel Conan, 17–41. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
  • Bowe, Patrick. (2010). "The Evolution of the Ancient Greek Garden." Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes 30.3: 208–223.
  • Calame, Claude. (2007). "Gardens of Love and Meadows of the Beyond: Ritual Encounters with the Gods and Poetical Performances in Ancient Greece." In Sacred Gardens and Landscapes: Ritual and Agency. Edited by Michel Conan, 43–54. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
  • Carroll-Spillecke, Maureen. (1992). "The Gardens of Greece from Homeric to Roman Times." Journal of Garden History 12.2: 84–101.
  • Giesecke, Annette L. (2007). The Epic City: Urbanism, Utopia, and the Garden in Ancient Greece and Rome. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard Univ.
  • Gleason, Kathryn L. (2013). A Cultural History of Gardens in Antiquity. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Osborne, Robin. (1992). "Classical Greek Gardens: Between Farm and Paradise." In Garden History: Issues, Approaches, Methods. Edited by John Dixon Hunt, 373–391. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
  • Porter, Ray. (2000). "The Flora of the Theran Wall Paintings: Living Plants and Motifs—Sea Lily, Crocus, Iris and Ivy." In The Wall Paintings of Thera. Vol. 2. Edited by Susan Sherratt, 603–630. Athens, Greece: Thera Foundation.
  • Shaw, Maria C. (1993). "The Minoan Garden." American Journal of Archaeology 97.4: 661–685.

External links[edit]