Gardening Art In Ancient Rome

by Paola Tavoletti

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero

The contemplative and the intellectual dimension: a mix that helps us to live in harmony with ourselves and with the surrounding world. The ancient Romans were wise!  

For the Romans the garden was initially tied to the peasant society, to the cycles of seedling and harvesting , and it was already named in the 1st century BC “ Hortus” with the meaning of enclosed garden. This garden was primarily a practical garden, and only in the Republican era we find the ornamental gardens in the town of Rome.


In the Roman family the authority was represented by the father, and he would decide the arrangement of the garden in several parts, each of which intended for different tasks. In fact, in the garden there was one section used for the cultivation of fruit trees, another used for the evergreen plants, one intended solely for the cultivation of rose (considered flower of love and hope) and finally the part where the other flowers were cultivated, especially violet and carnations.

In the garden there were decorative elements like temples and verandas, but more important was the presence of water which also had a symbolic meaning: ancient Romans viewed water as a necessity of life and also as a thing of beauty. Water, as in all Mediterranean gardens, is essential: archaeological excavations have never brought to light gardens without an irrigation system. Water also becomes an important decorative element and the scene is embellished with statues, porticoed temples, nymphs and fountains.

We find still pools of water, simple bubbling basins, and elaborate tiered creations. Cato the Censor, Varro, and Columella wrote treatises on agriculture, recognizing the importance of water within the garden. In 160 BC, Cato the Elder, who wrote ‘De Agri Cultura’  recommended the right quality of land for the best farming: a place “on the foot of a mountain, looking to the South, in a healthy situation … well watered, near a good sized town, and either on the sea or a navigable river.” 

In the Imperial Rome the forms of hortus spaces create a contiguity between architecture and the environment, an integration between the house and the green place to walk in . The building and the open space are intimately tied and the garden becomes part of the architecture and composition. Art topiary is born, the art of shaping places to create new landscapes and to define pleasant surroundings for resting. One looks for the "inside and out" effect: landscapes that follow architectural patterns and rhythms. In doing so the landscapes articulate in pergolas, colonnades, hedges, canals, exedra, with enclosed spaces, backgrounds and perspectives.  

Architecture, botany and hydraulics become structural components of the garden, where vegetation becomes architecture itself and evergreen plants are of great importance. Dwarf species (cypress and platano) are cultivated . Also boxwood and ivy are a typical features in these gardens, where they are molded in many different shapes. The flowerbeds have laurel and oleander in the centre, they are circular and bordered with flowers and roses. A balanced mix of shapes and structures is obtained adding with umbrella trees, alder and fruit trees. A touch of sophistication is given by the cultivation of 12 varieties of roses.

The city's gardens consisted of terraces, staircases and peristyle. The Romans were keen art collectors, and showed their art pieces just in the peristyle, large courtyards delimited by porches with a pool in the center. Next to the private gardens there are public parks: tree walks and parks around the thermal and gymnasium buildings. Even in the domus there is always a wide and extensive nature, and abundance of olm, violets, and myrtle.  

In the ancient Roman gardens one could enjoy many varieties of narcissus and purples, shrubs and evergreen plants: myrtle, laurel, ivy, oleander and rosemary. Among the deciduous plants were cultivated  acanthus, roses and vines. The garden structure was geometric and consisted of a rectangular area bordered by a wall column portico used for walks. The garden was crossed by paths, with a central tub in the centre, and sculptures, fountains or temples. The Roman garden model continued to be applied and realized in the Middle Ages, in the cloisters of colleges and monasteries. The relationship with nature had an intellectual and contemplative dimension, mixed with the nostalgia for peasants' origins.

Many Roman citizens of today have peasant origins. My great- grandfather was a peasant, who worked hard and succeeded in buying his first piece of land! I feel inside myself the power of these origins , and love spending  time  outside in the nature. Only  just contemplating a landscape is an enriching experience.  I also  feel that it is in the soil of my native country that my all life is rooted.