Ancient Roman Gardens

The ancient Persian and Greek Empires created some of the earliest known designed gardens, and these were all in royal residences or other hallowed grounds. With the advent of the Roman Empire, we started to see gardens in more modest residential homes.

Ancient Roman Gardens
Photo by Hester Qiang / Unsplash

The ancient Persian and Greek Empires created some of the earliest known designed gardens, and these were all in royal residences or other hallowed grounds. With the advent of the Roman Empire, we started to see gardens in more modest residential homes. Roman houses were built around a peristyle courtyard that contained a planted garden. This courtyard home design was popular in ancient Greece but would normally be decorated with pots, not a manicured landscape. Unlike the previous great civilizations of the western world that were mostly centered in or near the middle east, the roman empire stretched across a broad range of climates and the Roman style of garden design was not regional which led to plants being introduced to areas where they were not native. Colonists in ancient Britain created their Roman villas using popular plants from their home such as Roses and Rosemary, both of which are common sights in modern English Gardens.

Reconstruction of a Peristyle Garden, Pompeii

Romans invented Concrete, which allowed them to really shape their landscapes in imaginative ways, however this type of material choice and the exporting of plants from Rome to far reaches of the empire is also the start of unsustainable garden design practices. As unwanted concrete patios are demolished and sent to landfills in the modern age, so too were old materials in the Roman era. Rome is said to be formed of 8 hills, one of which is completely artificial as ancient Romans used the site of Monte Testaccio as a dumping ground for used pots to create a hill over 100 feet in height.

In ancient times, villas were often self-sustaining with the use of kitchen gardens. A roman villa usually included an Herb Garden (Hortus) to supply the household kitchen with herbs and vegetables. Fruit Trees were planted for their produce, as well as a source of shade for respite from the Mediterranean sun. The Horus was often designed in a similar from to the peristyle courtyards, with bilateral symmetry the main diving force of the layout. The beneficial plants grown in the Hortus would be arranged as much by their colour, structure and fragrance as well as their medicinal/gastronomical qualities.

Getty Villa garden

Gardening in the Roman age established many other practices in modern horticulture, such as topiary, planting in rows and growing plants in hothouses (greenhouses). The "Outer Peristyle" garden at the Getty Villa in California is a good representation of the grand villa gardens enjoyed by the nobles of Rome, and it does not look out of place even in the modern age. Unfortunately, after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D., much of the knowledge was lost as the Western World entered the Dark Ages. For a more detailed look at Roman home gardens, check out this classic history blog: https://historyandarchaeologyonline.com/ancient-roman-gardens/