Roman Gardens : Victoria Austen

Welcome to the fifth post in the ‘Let’s talk about Roman Gardens’ series. I hope that you will find it interesting and informative. Please feel free to ask any questions by using the comments box.

The ‘Let’s talk about …’ series is a collection of short blog posts in which I’ve asked people to answer a few questions on the subject of Roman gardens. I have posed my questions to individuals who have conducted research in this area. Although the questions I asked were intentionally broad in scope, the responses I’ve collected show just how significant gardens were and how they permeate many aspects of Roman life. I chose Roman gardens as the topic for ‘Let’s talk about …’ because I’m currently researching them myself. The focus of my research is on the relationship between gardens and the Roman perception of health and well-being.

You can catch up on the other posts in the ‘Let’s talk about … Roman Gardens’ series by clicking on the links below.

Let’s talk about Roman Gardens : Dr Jane Draycott

Let’s talk about Roman Gardens : Jessica Venner

Let’s talk about Roman Gardens : Dr Patty Baker

Let’s talk about Roman Gardens : Dr Andy Fox

Peristyle Garden – House of Menander, Pompeii, Italy

I would like to say a huge thank you to those who have contributed to the ‘Let’s talk about Roman gardens’ posts. Needless to say I couldn’t have done it without your willingness to spare the time and get back to me with answers to my questions. 

Let’s talk about … Roman Gardens with Dr Victoria Austen.

Q. Can you tell me a little bit about your research into Roman gardens?

My research focuses on the imaginative space of the Roman garden in the Late Republic and Early Empire. I am particularly interested in the notion of ‘the boundary’ as an essential characteristic of the Roman garden, and exploring different perceptions of the garden space in response to their limits. 

Using case studies from both literature and material and visual culture, my PhD thesis examined the status of different gardens as they relate to, or are framed by, their contexts. These case studies were formulated as three sets of comparative pairs, each representing a different ‘type’ of garden: Virgil Georgics 4.116-148 and Columella Book 10 (agricultural); the Ara Pacis and Livia’s Garden Room (sacred); and Pliny Ep. 2.17/5.6 and Villa A at Oplontis (elite villa). 

My research demonstrates how the Romans constructed garden boundaries specifically in order to open up or undermine the division between a number of oppositions, such as inside/outside, practical/aesthetic, sacred/profane, art/nature, and real/imagined. This, in turn, highlights how Roman gardens are always attached or supplementary in some way, either conceptually or literally; and how, despite their bounded presentation, they also remain transitional and permeable.

Q. Why do you think Roman gardens are worth studying?

I am personally fascinated by the ways in which boundaries operate within Roman gardens. In the most basic sense, gardens are defined as marked-off, often bounded, cultivated spaces. However, despite these two basic requirements of cultivation and enclosure, when we actually analyse individual garden sites, we find that the distinction between ‘garden’ and ‘not-garden’ is anything but straightforward. We define the space explicitly through the notion of separation and division, and yet, in many instances, we are unable to make sense of that divide. In Virgil and Columella’s agricultural texts, for example, it is never clear whether we should view gardens as a ‘real’ part of agriculture or not – discussions of gardens do generally feature in agricultural texts, but always in a fairly awkward or interesting way!

From my research, it appears that what is important is not so much a matter of what all the individual gardens have in common – in that they have some form of boundary – but how we use that particular characteristic as a standpoint from which to analyse them. When we examine the individual garden sites, it is clear that what is significant is not necessarily the boundary itself, but, rather, the delight in playing with concepts of boundedness and separation. To give an example of this, in Pliny the Younger’s villa letters we consistently find descriptions of ‘green architecture’ where horticulture and architecture are purposefully blurred to undermine the division between inside and outside space: Carystian (green) marble columns topped with ivy (5.6.36); ivy draped trees acting as ‘columns’ to an outdoor enclosure (5.6.32); and an ‘eye-deceiving’ fresco that transforms an interior space into an imaginary garden (5.6.20-3), to name a few.

Q. Why do you think that gardens are important sources of evidence for our understanding of the Roman world?

Trans-culturally, gardens are generally understood as material and symbolic spaces that constitute both universal and culturally specific ways of accommodating the natural world and expressing various human attitudes and values. For the ancient Romans of the Late Republic and Early Empire, the garden was, just as it is today, a recognisable and defined space that provided a backdrop for a whole range of different activities and practices.

For me, then, gardens are important because they are practical and ideological, physical and metaphysical – so, although a particular garden site may be marked out physically in an objectively fixed way, that does not mean that every individual person interprets its subjectively in the same way. It is the attempt to uncover this multiplicity of meaning that makes these sites so interesting to me.

Q. Do you think that there’s potential for further research on the subject of Roman gardens, and if so, what do you think this research might be?

One area that I am especially interested in is the intersection between garden space and sacred space, particularly in terms of the status of sacred groves in the Roman world. Boundaries are significant in defining both of these types of space, so this naturally interests me. 

We have plenty of evidence of planted temple enclosures in the archaeological record (for example, the Temple of Venus at Pompeii), as well as the literary motif of the sacred lucus, but there has yet to be a comprehensive cross-media study of sacred gardens/groves – in fact, scholars have yet to reach a consensus on whether we can even call a sacred grove a garden! 

I’m not sure I have any answers to this debate yet, but all I will say is… watch this space!

Dr Victoria Austen teaches in the Department of Classics at the University of Winnipeg, she teaches courses on Roman Art & Architecture, The Ancient World Through Film, Plebs & Politics in the Late Republic, Classical Mythology, Roman Britain, and Augustan Rome. 

Victoria received her PhD from King’s College London in the UK. Her doctoral research focused on the depiction of landscapes and gardens in Latin literature and Roman art; her broader interests include mythological narratives and their reception in modern media, and the topic of race and ethnicity in the ancient world.

You can find more information about Dr Victoria Austen by clicking here.

You can also read her interview for ‘Catching up with Classicists‘ by clicking here.

Social Media

You can follow Victoria on Twitter at: @Vicky_Austen


  1. Again, fascinating, I;m loving this series.

    As I was reading this I wondered about the merits of imposing any theories behind my interest of theatre, drama and reception (although this may have been done, I am not that ‘up’ on garden research). What I mean, is there any value in looking at how various modern gardens are designed and arranged to satisfy individual requirements with a reflection to ancient times? This could cover various concepts of garden designs such as Zen, Japanese, formal, wildflower, cottage gardens to name a few or even gardens based on holiday destinations. Included could be other techniques such as trompe l’oeil changing the perceived size, shape or even location of the garden.

    Liked by 1 person

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