Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.07.56

Katharine T. von Stackelberg, The Roman Garden: Space, Sense, and Society. Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies.   London/New York:  Routledge, 2009.  Pp. ix, 182.  ISBN 9780415438230.  $100.00.  

Reviewed by Gillian McIntosh, San Francisco State University (

Katharine von Stackelberg’s book on Roman gardens offers an engaging and welcome contribution to an emerging interest in cultivated ancient landscapes. Gardens have tended to be overlooked, but recent publications by Patrick Bowe, Victoria Pagán, and now Katharine von Stackelberg have shown that such spaces are in fact worth our attention, particularly for the cultural information they convey.1 While Bowe emphasized the history and visual aspects of gardens, and Pagán the literature, Stackelberg engages both the material and literary records, as well as contemporary space theory in an attempt to approach the challenging task of discovering the Roman experience of gardens.

In the first two chapters, Stackelberg explores the ways to recover experience: in chapter 1, she presents the conceptual and physical terminology of gardens. In 2, the author sets up a theoretical framework, using Hillier and Hansons’ access analysis theory, as well as theories of LeFebvre, Foucault, and Soja so as to investigate the social and spatial logic of gardens. Chapters 3 and 4 are concerned with experiential perspectives; in 3, Stackelberg explores the experiences generated by and occurring in gardens. In the final full chapter, Stackelberg applies the theory from 2 and the experiences from 3 to three case studies, and looks at the receptions to the garden spaces by viewers and readers. Stackelberg synthesizes everything in a concise conclusion.

In chapter 1, Stackelberg presents the representational and physical “spatial categories” of the garden. She first examines the evolution of hortus as its own concept, and then reads it in terms of its relation to other spaces. In Latin literature, whether the hortus demarcated inherited legitimacy (heredium), or signified social prestige, whether it was for productivity or display, was idyllic and nostalgic or for isolation and degeneracy, Stackelberg shows that hortus signified multivalent space and had a complex conceptual evolution. Add to this the various relational terminology which, Stackelberg argues, falls into one of two groups: one for nouns that signify cultivation of plants, and one for the “cognitive features” embedded in garden descriptions. Architectural features and context are important. The most common architectural contexts were the villa and the urban house, but others included shops and inns, planted porticos, planted temple enclosures, and tombs. In terms of the garden’s architectural features, Stackelberg identifies three degrees of “architectural structuration”: macro, median, and micro. The macro entailed freestanding architectural structures. The median architecture directed the focus of viewers to the garden. At the micro level, sculpture, carvings, paintings and mosaics “set an associative mood” for the garden (27) whereby viewers realized the interplay between interior and exterior space. All levels of structuration as well as the modification of soil, water, light, air, and horticultural design should not be overlooked; the overall effect would have an impact on the viewer.

Registering the impact on an occupant is a process which Stackelberg investigates in chapter 2, but the process is difficult because of evidence (lacking or incongruent), and because there was such variety in Roman gardens. Accordingly Stackelberg turns to space theory as a conceptual framework that has spatial logic. Stackelberg starts with “territory theory” which argues that lying behind the production, utilization and experience of space are the rules of society, but which cannot alone suffice since it rests upon a firm boundary between urban and rural spaces that does not work for the Roman garden and its “dual spatiality” (50). Cognitive theory posits a “fluid perception of space” (51); it recasts space as subjective and lived experience, and is thus appropriate for analyzing gardens since gardens make “synaesthetic demands on the body” (51) while being steeped also in a temporally specific context. This aspect of a historically-situated space is key also to Foucauldian theories of space, particularly to heterotopias since they are real spaces that have also a mythic element to them, and as such, they can include Roman gardens. In addition, Stackelberg turns to Soja’s concept of “thirdspace,” which considers “reality as it is lived and practiced” (52). Here, space is perceived as a dialectic wherein space and society interact.

In addition, following Hillier and Hanson, Stackelberg presents spatial syntax analysis which recognizes spatial division and enables analysis of how each space and the lived experiences in them worked within the architectural context. Stackelberg’s original contribution here is to apply this analysis to garden spaces. From a smattering of examples, the author shows that garden spaces have certain shared structural features, yet they vary greatly in terms of size, accessibility, composition, and decoration. These differences are tied inextricably to social status. And since social rank changed, access to all spaces was likewise mutable. Gardens and their continuous de- and re-construction mirrored the fluid relationships between space and social status.

Roman political self-fashioning and presentation required much face-time: the aspiring politician had to be greatly visible as did his house. The permeability of the domus was key in the presentation and preservation of rank. Stackelberg turns to gardens within domestic space to see if they too were permeable, and in what way they affected social exchanges between inhabitants and visitors. From a swath of examples, and astute consideration of a Vitruvian passage, Stackelberg suggests that the garden’s “dual spatiality” permitted it to be both a private garden and a public space. Gardens, then, like houses, were (re)producers of social status and of gender. For instance, slaves occupied gardens, but invisibly, and for upkeep; conversely, free men were likely to occupy the garden around dining hours, visibly, and for leisure. In terms of gender, gardens were perceived generally as “a woman’s space” (71).

Having established that gardens were places of social encounter, Stackelberg turns in the third chapter to the lived experience of the Roman garden. Here, the author argues that garden experiences can be “categorized as power, awe and pleasure” (73), each of which categories is addressed in turn in this chapter. In the late republic, gardens were used increasingly to evidence social power. The land crises of the 2nd century contributed to this by enabling the wealthy elite to invest in large-scale estates on which they built villas and cultivated gardens. The aesthetic appeal of such cultivation found replication in the city in the form of vast horti. Horti, then, constituted a show of power, as Stackelberg demonstrates via the horti of Pompey, Caesar, Lucullus, and Augustus.

Gardens also presented the opportunity for their owners to construct and share an image of awe. Stackelberg illustrates the relationship between gardens and awe by way of Pompey’s Porticus Pompeiana as well as by Agrippa’s buildings in the Campus Martius. As performative spaces, gardens could also be transformative where transgressive activities such as “murders, marriages, plots, poison, war, riots, fire, madness, and incest” could find a setting (84). Nero, of course, occupies center stage in this part of Stackelberg’s discussion. ‘Performance’ often also conjures up Roman religion. Literary evidence points to the practice of augury in urban gardens, though more common was the practice of making offerings to the lares, penates, and sometimes to the Olympic pantheon. Statuary, shrines, sacral objects and decoration were part of a “staged representation of sanctuary,” and the gardens can be seen again as a liminal space, between hortus and temenos (87). This relation between religio and garden spaces is evident also in public contexts: Pompey, Caesar, and Augustus all capitalized on this politico-religious aspect of garden spaces.

Yet there appears to have been a sort of barometer of appropriate cultivation in Rome: while some manipulation of nature and some artifice were acceptable, excessive manipulation was regarded as morally abhorrent. It was too unnatural. Per Stackelberg, pleasure, when achieved by transgressive manipulation of nature, marks a switch from healthful otium to self-indulgent luxuria. Amongst such activities was, perhaps unsurprisingly, sex. Stackelberg argues that the common inclusion of a nude Venus or a Priapus in garden spaces may have contributed to the eroticization of such spaces. By my lights this claim has little purchase; however, that the garden was perceived as an erotic space more generally is supported by plenty of references in extant literature. Other transgressive experiences represented include rape, executions, crucifixions, violence, Bacchic celebrations, conspiracies, and the use of magic. Stackelberg states, “As heterotopias of crisis and deviation, gardens were accepted as spaces of transition or subversion as long as exterior social controls were strong and active” (100).

Stackelberg’s final chapter involves the application of what has preceded to three case studies. The first involves the Pompeian Houses of Octavius Quartio, and of the Menander, both with an archaeological but no literary record. Stackelberg applies access analysis to the gardens so as to offer a “better understanding of their spatial and experiential impact” (101). These houses have been studied, and yet there remains no comprehensive analysis of the gardens and what their social function and experiential potential were. This is where Stackelberg makes her contribution. She first presents the history and appearance of each house before exploring the spatial logic and social value of both. The analysis reveals that despite the fact that in both houses garden space was of high social value, the experiences in each must have been different: property size, tree size, visibility, access to water, as well as décor all demonstrate the degree of social complexity, intentionality of design, and extent of control of the viewer by the owner.

In Case Study 2, Stackelberg provides a perceptive reading of Pliny’s Epistula 5.6 describing his Tuscan property. Though no material evidence of the villa remains, the letter is nonetheless valuable. Stackelberg applies Soja’s thirdspace framework to the letter, turning first to Pliny’s presentation of garden space, then considering how this presentation influenced a reader’s perception, before exploring the issue of practice. Stackelberg shows that while it is possible to identify three distinct garden spaces in the letter, the specifics in terms of location and of relation to architectural spaces cannot be determined: via notable ellipses as well as what Stackelberg calls a “diffusion of perspective”, Stackelberg argues that Pliny deliberately manipulates the reader in such a way that “rhetoric and reality converge” in the garden. Furthermore, Pliny replaces the apparent subject of his letter (the villa) with the “true subject,” himself (132). Stackelberg argues that it is in the garden that this transubstantiation occurs: the garden, like the villa, is art. And Pliny is the artist. This is the garden’s thirdspace of practice: “By losing the reader in the garden, by its mise-en-âbime from a letter about a garden to a garden of letters, only the figure of Pliny is left” (134).

In her final case study, Stackelberg shows that ‘place’ in the presentation of history can carry significant social, political and religious weight. Emplacement) is not vague but specific. With this in mind, Stackelberg examines Philo’s narrative on the Alexandrian embassy to Caligula which ends in the Horti Lamiani. Having presented the Horti’s topography and history, and having contextualized the history behind Philo’s narrative as well as why the specific locus of these Horti was chosen, Stackelberg shows that Philo’s account evidences an imperial garden that “becomes the medium for a contentious encounter between imperial persona and resistant subject” (134). Consideration of Caligula’s use of the gardens and of Philo’s presentation is, then, a must.

This is an engaging and stimulating book, incorporating a broad (if not occasionally overwhelming) spectrum of approaches. I would posit first that the book is not intended for a general audience, and second that any classicist studying gardens, landscapes, and even the Roman domus will find Stackelberg’s contribution a must-read, even if the reader is not (yet) versed in cognitive or space theory. Stackelberg well demonstrates the multivalency, complexity, and critical social role of Roman garden spaces and the experience of them. In a sense, then, and in so doing, Stackelberg brings Roman gardens back to life.


1.   V.E. Pagán Rome and the Literature of Gardens Classical Inter/faces Series. London: Duckworth, 2006; P. Bowe Gardens of the Roman World Getty Publications, 2004.

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