Abstract: Roman Green: Ancient Roman Gardens and the Green Ideal


Mention of ancient Roman gardens conjures images of lavish suburban estates with far-reaching views and outfitted with sprawling gardens containing specimen plantings from around the world, aviaries and fishponds, pergolas for outdoor dining, and sculpture-lined swimming pools such as those described by the younger Pliny in his letters or evidenced by the remains of Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli. Such gardens would influence Byzantine, Islamic, and monastic gardens as well as gardens of Renaissance Europe; they would resonate in gardens from the seventeenth century onwards, their underlying presence felt to the present day.

These Roman estates and their gardens are generally viewed as resulting directly from a desire to emulate the palaces of Hellenistic nobles, experienced first-hand by Romans when they became masters of the Mediterranean in the second century BCE. It is said, in turn, that Romans of lesser means replaced kitchen gardens with decorative plantings and, in the absence of space for planting, even covered their walls with garden murals, all out of a desire to live as luxuriously as the elite. This, however, is just part of the picture; fashionability is hardly enough to explain the extent and longevity of the garden movement in the Roman world.

This lecture addresses the origins and underlying principles of the Roman Green Movement as manifested in Roman domestic gardens of the mid second century BCE and thereafter. The movement had its origins at a most volatile point in Roman history, a time ripe for utopian reverie.  It was a time when citizens worried deeply about the effects of Roman conquests and of extravagant building efforts on an increasingly depleted Earth—and when it appeared most desirable to “return” to simpler times, to the imagined comforts of a hallowed agricultural past idealized by tradition. 

Combining a full range of paradisiacal associations, sacred and profane, Roman domestic gardens and their painted counterparts came to express an ideal of living harmoniously with nature.

Short bibliography on lecture topic:


Bergmann, B. 2008. “Staging the Supernatural: Interior Gardens of Pompeiian Houses.” In Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples, ed. C. Mattusch, 53-69. Washington DC: The National Gallery.

Clarke, J.R. 1991. The Houses of Roman Italy 100BC-AD250: Ritual, Space, and Decoration. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and  London: The University of California Press.

D’Arms, J. 1970. Romans on the Bay of Naples: A Social and Cultural Study of the Villas and Their Owners from 150 B.C. to A.D. 400. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Hobhouse, P. 2004. The Gardens of Persia. London: Kales Press.

Jashemski, W.F. 1979. The Gardens of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius. Caratzas: New York.

Jashemski, W.F. 1993. The Gardens of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius. Volume II: Appendixes. Caratzas: New York.

Khansari, M., M.R. Moghtader, and M. Yavari. 2004. The Persian Garden: Echoes of Paradise. Mage Publishers, Washington DC.

McKay, A.G. 1975. Houses, Villas, and Palaces in the Roman World. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Wilkinson, A. 1998. The Garden in Ancient Egypt. The Rubicon Press: London.

Zanker, P. 1998. Pompeii: Public and Private Life, trans. D. Schneider. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass. and London.




Dig Deeper

Email the AIA Facebook Instagram YouTube Twitter
Subscribe to the AIA e-Update

Sign Up!