Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.11.42 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.11.42

Kathryn Gleason (ed.), A Cultural History of Gardens in Antiquity. Bloomsbury Cultural History of Gardens, vol. 1.   London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney:  Bloomsbury, Pp. xiii, 287.  ISBN 9780857850294.  

Reviewed by Eva Rystedt, Lund University (


Bloomsbury’s series of sets of books on cultural history includes the topic of gardens. Following Bloomsbury’s editorial scheme, the set embraces six volumes, each covering a major historical period. All the volumes of a set are built around the same recurring themes in order to facilitate crosswise reading and historical comparison. The books thus appeal to historians as well as garden specialists—including of course those endorsing the perspectives of cultural history, the expressed target of Bloomsbury’s undertaking. The present review will consider the first volume of the garden set, on gardens in antiquity. My perspective is that of a reader specializing in classical archaeology and ancient history who hoped to enlarge her knowledge of antiquity by a deeper acquaintance with gardens and gardening.

Let it be said at once: the book successfully addresses the three large questions that the general editors of the garden set, John Dixon Hunt and Michael Leslie, have devised: “...why were gardens created? How were they used or visited… And how does their representation in different arts express the position and value of the garden within its culture...” (xii). It is thus not a book that deals in breadth with single gardens and their perceptible physical shapes, or single sections or points in classical texts on gardens; such material rather forms the presupposition for the large, contextual perspectives. The introduction by the editor, Kathryn Gleason, raises points that are helpful in setting the gardens of antiquity in relief against those of other periods and in marking special characteristics of the research that they have attracted. The design described as ‘the quadripartite garden’ forms the start of the discussion—the first chapter of the first book in the garden series is certainly the right place for evoking this famous archetype with its nostalgic associations with paradise and Eastern environments. Gleason makes clear that it has no bearing on actual, Greek and Roman gardens, although it has sometimes been associated with them as a result of a misguided scholarly tradition. Turning then to actual physical remains of gardens, in particular Roman ones, Gleason gives a quick view into how archaeology is able, finally, to modify and add to the textual evidence that has reigned remarkably sovereign in scholarship on gardens in antiquity up to quite recently. The section concludes with a reference to the great achievements in landscaping and palatial garden building that were due to the Persians, Egyptians and Anatolians before both the Greeks and Romans. With this indication of the earliest traditions in the Mediterranean and the possibility, even probability, of long lines of cultural transference, much of the scene is set, despite the brevity of the text. What follows is an indication of important dialectics relevant to Western garden culture as a whole—“pleasure versus utility, public versus private, and informal versus formal”—probing them from the perspective of antiquity. A few illustrating examples are given, just enough to flash initial insights. Gleason ends with a report on the methods of modern archaeological investigations of gardens, drawing in part on her own experience as a field archaeologist. She exposes the profits that have already accrued, and will continue to accrue as methods for recovering information from the soil become steadily more refined. “These new discoveries are revealing the framework of garden designs: terraces, walks, planting beds, tree pits, planting pots, root cavities, statue bases, water features, and environmental evidence of the degree of shade/sun” (p. 13).1

The remaining chapters have the following titles: Design, Types of gardens, Plantings, Use and reception, Meaning, Verbal representations, Visual representations, and Gardens and the larger landscape.

Gleason herself, writing on design, presents a useful survey of terms met with in Vitruvius that, if correctly understood, are able to increase our knowledge of Roman gardens.2 The relevance of many of these terms to gardens has rarely been appreciated, but new research on Vitruvius' text has demonstrated their reference to new forms of design and to the reshaping of the traditional garden in the last decades B.C. The actual design process of such gardens is likewise dependent on the fruition of new scholarly work on Vitruvius’ specifications for architectural building projects. The possible stages of garden construction, from initial surveying and levelling to the final work of planting in imported topsoil and setting up of statues etc., can now be grasped and set out graphically (note the image of Fig. 1:3 on p. 26). These results are to some extent secured by archaeological findings, yet it is remarkable that so much knowledge could be retrieved from recent close analysis of a classical text that is not as explicit as one could wish. The latter part of the chapter dwells on three particular types of garden design that Vitruvius’ work helps to illuminate, and where he himself is more explicit: gardens on large substructures (‘hanging gardens’), promenades, and viridia (formally arranged assemblages of plants). The combination of walkways and plantings is stressed. It reflects the cultural feature of walking in green surroundings, important for both Greece and Rome in antiquity, whether for philosophical discussions or for recreation and amusement.

I have described Gleason’s introduction and chapter on design rather fully, since they reflect much of the most interesting new research on gardens in antiquity. Lena Landgren’s text on the plants of Roman gardens, contributing supplementary knowledge of viridia, horticultural practises, and gardeners, should be read alongside Gleason’s. The rest of the book presents material that fills out the picture. Some contributions have a wide scope, assuming the character of surveys. The substantial chapter by Inge Nielsen on types of gardens in antiquity is the clearest example. It covers gardens and garden construction all the way from the early paradeisoi of Egypt and the Near East (2nd–1st millennia B.C.) to gardens in private houses in Athens dating from Late Antiquity (5th century A.D.). This huge, unwieldy body of material is kept under strict control by divisions into types according to the relationship of the garden to the non-garden environment, and by subdivisions into function, public/private character, etc. Despite being a relatively tough read, this chapter, with its notably well worked-out footnotes and lavish bibliographical references, will be a rich source for those seeking a wide knowledge of gardens in antiquity. Another survey, by Catherine Kearns, of visual representations of gardens, has a similarly wide chronological and geographical coverage. Here, the presentation is sketchier, and this reader would have liked to be at least minimally introduced into the diverse cultural settings of the pictorial creations. The sibling chapter on verbal representations, by Anthony Littlewood and Katharine von Stackelberg, is more successful owing in part to the possibility of assembling the material according to literary genres, Greek and Roman, and thereby disclosing the cultural pattern that resides in the combinations of particular concepts of gardens and gardening with particular genres.

The text by Littlewood and von Stackelberg moves between descriptive survey and analysis. The remaining subjects receive similar treatments. These include “Gardens and the Larger Landscape” by Kelly Cook and Rachel Foulk, “Use and reception” by Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis and “Meaning” by Katharine von Stackelberg. The first is motivated by the assumption that distinct practises and attitudes in relation to the management of land and to agriculture will have influenced gardens and gardening. The second explains “the intersection between design and use”, concentrating in effect on use, as the precise original designs are often lost. Some interesting themes such as political activity receive attention here in connection with villa or palace gardens or with public parks. The third, “Meaning”, takes up a set of general concepts and the ways in which these were expressed by classical gardens: separation, security, alien territory, sacredness, fecundity, government, gratification. The entire range of ancient gardens is invoked, starting with Sumer. The chapter serves the volume well by not placing its matter too high above the empirical foundations but still high enough to be of general interest to garden specialists.

Let us finally touch on the possible diversity of reader expectations that I brought up at the beginning. The garden specialists will probably find that the book under review serves them well in presenting both designs and ideas in a rich assortment. For the period specialists, the situation may be less clear-cut. Gleason’s introduction and opening chapter on design strike a good balance between gardens and antiquity. On the whole, however, the various historical backgrounds as presented in the book are not always made as apparent as the present reader would have wished. Some good and relevant historical questions are thereby forgone. Among those are, for instance, the following: How does it come about that the new forms of luxury garden appeared at the time that they did, around 30-20 B.C.? What structural factors of society promoted them? Why, on the whole, did they appear in Rome rather than (earlier) in Greece? Perhaps we should wait for the Roman historians to take over here, once the garden specialists have had their say. Admittedly, the more general contexts of Greek and Roman gardens come out reasonably well, at least after the perusal of a couple of chapters. Still, any survey of a chronological range of more than two thousand years and of radically different geopolitical systems is bound to run into a problem. A short (two- or three-page) guide to the civilizations discussed in the book, with a graphic timeline, would have helped readers with little knowledge of antiquity. So also would a map of the Mediterranean regions. There is a bibliography and a good index. The supply of photographs is reasonable, but since all except the ones on the cover are black-and-white they are deficient when it comes to pictorial representations of gardens and their combined effects of form, colour and light. The Roman wall paintings of gardens at Pompeii and Oplontis, rightly famous, are particularly disadvantaged. They come out as shadows of themselves, the brilliant atmospheric qualities all but deadened. Colour photos are, after all, becoming commonplace in scholarly publications. Moreover, the decision against them, surely taken on the highest editorial level, appears not only strange in view of the boastful online blurb of the publishing house --“Superbly illustrated…”3—but also ungenerous for a book that is otherwise as generous as the present one.


1.   The recent book on garden archaeology (with Gleason herself as one of the contributors), Amina-Aichna Malek, Sourcebook for Garden Archaeology. Methods, Techniques, Interpretations and Field Examples, Parcs et Jardins 1, Bern 2013, provides a detailed demonstration of the remarkable progress of the new ‘soil archaeology’.
2.   List given on pp. 16-17.
3.   See the publisher's web page (url above) where the phrase ”superbly illustrated” is used for this set.

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