Roman gardens and ornamental horticulture became highly developed under Roman civilization. The Gardens of Lucullus (Horti Lucullani), on the Pincian Hill at the edge of Rome, introduced the Persian garden to Europe around 60 BC. It was seen as a place of peace and tranquility, a refuge from urban life, and a place filled with religious and symbolic meaning. As Roman culture developed and became increasingly influenced by foreign civilizations, the use of gardens expanded.
Formal gardens had existed in Egypt as early as 2800 BC. At the time of the 18th dynasty of Egypt, gardening techniques, used to beautify the homes of the wealthy, were fully developed. Porticos (porches) served to connect the home with the outdoors, creating outdoor living spaces.
Persian gardens developed in accordance with an arid climate. Gardens were enclosed to protect them from drought, and became rich and fertile in contrast to the barren Persian terrain. When Alexander the Great conquered parts of Western Asia, he brought back with him new varieties of fruits and plants that prompted a renewed interest in horticulture.
Even before Alexander, Cimon of Athens is said to have torn down the walls of his garden to transform it into a public space. Roman Pleasure gardens were adapted from the Greek model, where such a garden also served the purpose of growing fruit. The Roman Peristyle garden, adapted from the Greeks, was used to beautify temple groves and create recreational spaces. Open peristyle courts were designed to connect homes to the outside world.
Roman gardens were built to suit a range of activities. Initially, lower class Romans used gardens as a source of food to provide for their families and mainly grew herbs and vegetables. In Ancient Latium, a garden was a part of every farm. According to Cato the Elder, every garden should be close to the house and should have flower beds and ornamental trees.
Later, the different influences of Egyptian, Persian, and Greek gardens became a part of Roman horticulture, producing villa and palatial pleasure gardens, along with public parks and gardens meant for enjoyment or to exercise in. No type of garden was specifically reserved for wealthy Romans; all a civilian needed was to have their own land or home. Excavations in Pompeii show that gardens attached to residences were scaled down to meet the space constraints of the home of the average Roman.
Horace wrote that during his time, flower gardens became a national indulgence. Augustus constructed the Porticus Liviae, a public garden on the Oppian Hill in Rome. Outside Rome, gardens tended to proliferate at centers of wealth. Modified versions of Roman garden designs were adopted in Roman settlements in Africa, Gaul and Britannia. As townhouses were replaced by tall insula (apartment buildings), these urban gardens were replaced by window boxes or roof gardens.
Places for a garden
Gardens were usually built in one of six structures:
Domus (townhouse)—This free-standing structure was usually one story, containing multiple rooms for everyday activities and an atrium toward the front of the house to collect rainwater and illuminate the area surrounding it. Toward the back of the house was often a hortus or peristylium (an open courtyard).
Villa suburbana (country house)—A Roman take on the country home, used specifically for recreational use.
Palace villa—Reserved for imperial families alone, very large and extravagant.
Non-residential gardens—These would be the public parks, pleasure gardens, temple gardens, tombs, etc.
Elements of a garden
All Roman gardens were generally made up of the same basic elements. Depending on the style or type of garden, elements may be added or embellished more, or may be omitted altogether. Even though an atrium is found inside the house, it is considered part of the garden because it is the opening that would allow Romans to collect rain water used to irrigate the plants and gardens located on the property.
Pleasure gardens would incorporate different designs according to the taste of their builders. All gardens of this type have the same basic parts to them: a patio at the entrance, a terrace, an orchard or vineyard, several water features, a kitchen garden, shrines or grottoes and other decorations that would personalize the garden tour. The patio would normally be decorated with outside garden furniture, a water basin or fountain, and be the starting point of a walk that would show off all the features of the garden.
The xystus (garden walk or terrace) was a core element of Roman gardens. The xystus often overlooked a lower garden, or ambulation. The ambulation bordered a variety of flowers, trees, and other foliage, and it served as an ideal place for a leisurely stroll after a meal, conversation, or other recreational activities.
The gestation was a shaded avenue where the master of the house could ride horseback or be carried by his slaves. It generally encircled the ambulation or was constructed as a separate oval-shaped space. Paths or walkways were often constructed through the garden. These were made with loose stone, gravel, sand, or packed earth. Gardens featured many ornamental objects, from sculpture to frescoes to sundials. These depicted nature scenes or were put in place as a shrine (aedicula) to the gods or otherworldly creatures.
The plants that were grown ranged from flowering plants to herbs and vegetables for everyday use, as well as trees. The most popular plants found in a typical Roman family's garden were roses, cypress, rosemary, and mulberry trees. Also possibly included were a variety of dwarf trees, tall trees, marigolds, hyacinths, narcissi, violets, saffron, cassia, and thyme.
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