Roman Gardens : Annalisa Marzano

Welcome to the 8th and final 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 or by getting in touch on Twitter – @classicalfix.

For those who are visiting for the first time then 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 all 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

Let’s talk about Roman Gardens : Dr Victoria Austen

Let’s talk about Roman Gardens : Samuli Simelius

Let’s talk about Roman Gardens : Kathryn Gleason

As this first round of interviews on Roman Gardens comes to a close I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has contributed. 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 Annalisa Marzano

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

I first became interested in Roman gardens when considering the issue of ‘botanical imperialism’, that is the appropriation of new plants and their importation into Italy from territories where Rome had been conducting military campaigns.  The connection between military triumphs and the display, during the military procession, of live trees that alluded to the conquered lands fascinated me. I was also struck by how Pliny the Elder humanises plants when discussing such examples: plants are equated to captives paraded in the triumph or become tribute-paying subjects . I then started to examine the ways in which the garden space and its plants were part of elite self-representation. Plants could be chosen because a specific meaning was attached to them, and because of what they could signify about the owner and his or her qualities. For instance, for some garden-owners, choosing plane trees for their peristyle garden was not simply a practical choice because the plane tree gives a nice shade in summer but sheds the leaves in autumn, allowing sunlight to reach the rooms around the peristyle. To some, the plane tree alluded to the famous Greek philosophical schools such as Plato’s Academy, and so it was a way of signalling the owner’s intellectual interests and culture.  In more recent research, I have focussed on elite interest in the selection of new fruit varieties and how such an activity is presented in very idealised terms in Pliny’s text. This led me to broaden my research to horticulture in general, exploring it from a dual perspective: the ‘idea’ of horticulture expressed in the literary works of the upper classes, which tells us much about how discourse on horticulture was used in the construction of elite identity, and the ‘reality’ of horticulture as revealed by archaeological and archaeobotanical data. One conclusion I draw from the material I have examined is that the Augustan period was a key moment for the emergence of large-scale horticulture. The results of this research, funded by a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship, are presented in my forthcoming book Grafting Glory: NewPlants, the Economy, and Elite Identity in AncientRome.

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

Gardens can reveal much about the individuals who created them and their society as a whole, and as such I think that gardens in general are always worth studying, regardless of epoch and cultural context. In the case of ancient Rome, the desire to have garden spaces – real or painted – that can be seen both in the case of elite houses and the dwellings of middling individuals makes gardens a window into a larger section of society than one may perhaps at first imagine. The multifaceted  nature of Roman gardens and the fact that they can be used as evidence to understand very diverse topics – they were a place for religious worship and ritual, for conviviality and intellectual pursuits,  where to grow useful plants, for food or medicine, to be used in the  household and so forth, makes them worth studying. The fact that these were both material and symbolic spaces and that their symbolism could mean different things to different people is fascinating. 

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

Roman gardens are a type of evidence that can be used to address a range of quite diverse question about antiquity and perhaps the fact that Roman gardens have been investigated from the perspective of a number of  disciplines – architectural studies, palaeobotany, landscape archaeology, social history, literature, etc. is part of their attraction. They can reveal people’s aspirations, how they lived, the interest in new plants and in importing plants from abroad, Roman tastes for taming nature, regularising and controlling the wild and at the same time also for artificially creating  garden spaces and planting that looked completely natural but were in fact the fruit of artefice. Gardens and the horticultural knowledge they displayed can also offer insights on horticultural production, even reveal something about what priorities a community had in the face of important changes induced by natural disasters. For example, the excavation project  I’m currently co-directing in Pompeii in the garden of the so-called Casa della Regina Carolina, together with Kathryn Gleason and Caitlín Barrett from Cornell University, has revealed that the unusually large garden associated with this house was apparently created immediately after the earthquake of AD 62 on the remains of a large, earlier elite house. In the Pompeian  ‘rebuilding effort’ after the earthquake, was creating a large garden space considered a priority? Was the destruction caused by a natural disaster simply offering an opportunity for more drastic remodelling of existing neighbourhoods and for buying up properties badly damaged or was there something about green spaces (for example health benefits) that made them more desirable after the earthquake?

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?

Thankfully, even in the case of scholarly disciplines that have been around for many, many years, there is still research that one can undertake, new research questions to answer and new angles to explore. In the case of Roman gardens, quite a lot has been done in terms of trying to reconstruct what plants were grown in them on the basis of literary and iconographic material – particularly from the wall paintings and how garden spaces were incorporated into domestic and public architecture. For gardens of elite houses and villas, their cultural role, either as the seat of specific behaviours and lifestyle (e.g, as places for philosophical conversation) or as settings conveying specific message about their owners through their plants and statuary, has also been examined. But to an extent, we still do not fully know how real Roman gardens looked like and whether there was an evolution over time in the type of planting schemes adopted. In the past, planting schemes in Roman gardens have been largely understood as having been very formal and some of the replanting and reconstructions done in Pompeii many years ago were based on these ideas. But, after the results fo the excavations in the garden of Villa Arianna in Stabiae, we now understand that planting tended to be very informal: the aim was to give the impression of a natural variety of plants growing freely; in reality, to have that many plants growing so close to each to each required regular care and pruning. I think that, with the most recent advancements in garden archaeology techniques, we’ll learn more about the real gardens of the Roman world also outside of Pompeii or the Bay of Naples area. For example, LiDAR can be used to reconstruct micro topography of garden surfaces, as pioneered by Kathryn Gleason in the study of the garden of Villa Arianna. This technique can pick up subtle levelling and contouring that helped surface water flow and the artificial irrigation of the garden. Refinement of scientific analytical  tools is allowing better precision in identifying what plants grew in a garden in the lack of macro-remains, as in the case of the novel technique to extract pollen from ancient plaster, developed by palaeobotanist Dafna Langgut, which we are also using in studying the garden of the Casa della Regina Carolina at Pompeii. Advances such as these in turn will help us understand better how gardens were used, how usage may have changed over time, and how the plant-human interaction varied according to the different ‘users’ of the garden. 

Dr A Marzano

Annalisa Marzano is Professor of Ancient History in the Classics department at the University of Reading in the UK. Her current research interests rest in the sphere of Roman social and economic history. You can find out more about Professor Marzano’s publications, research and projects by clicking here.

Click on this link to find out more about the Casa della Regina Carolina Project at Pompeii


    1. Indeed when thinking about plant transplantation in general and their symbolism as indicators of territorial expansion there are some interesting parallels from the modern era, and not limited to the British Empire!

      Liked by 3 people

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