This handsomely illustrated book does—to borrow a phrase from advertising—“exactly what it says on the tin” in that it gives a comprehensive overview of gardens and gardeners of the ancient world. Admittedly, Farrar has extended her definition of “ancient world” to include evidence from later periods—namely Byzantium, Medieval and Islamic—but this is understandable given the continuity of horticultural traditions. The development of a rich garden culture firmly rooted in ancient practice is more fully appreciated from this later historical perspective. Farrar, already the author of a book on the ancient Roman garden and a BAR study on the gardens of Roman Italy and the western provinces, contextualizes these spaces within the wider framework of the Mediterranean (with reference towards later European adaptations).1 Following a chronological sequence, nine chapters provide horticultural evidence from the earliest periods of ancient Mesopotamian, Mycenaean and Minoan cultures, through to Classical and Hellenistic Greek, Etruscan and Roman, and concluding with Byzantine, Medieval and Islamic gardens. The conclusion includes a brief survey of reconstructions of ancient gardens currently open to the public. Readers wishing to learn more about a specific period will find that the select bibliography for each section lists publications that are for the most part easily obtained and currently in print.
The book is geared towards the general reader, written in accessible language, with a user-friendly layout. Particularly helpful are the tables appended to each chapter, itemizing plants typical of gardens of the period and culture in question. Practical gardeners and plantsmen will refer to them for horticultural inspiration, while the more academically minded can mine the tables for data, since Farrar has been careful to ensure that they are organized by source of evidence (visual, textual, botanical). For example, a random trawl through one table reveals that, even taking into account the fragmentary nature of the evidence, the ancient Egyptians valued the humble onion enough to attest to its use in all three categories, but clearly did not feel the same about beets, for which we have only botanical remains.
Newcomers to the subject will find this book especially helpful with respect to interpreting visual information. Farrar provides readers with useful tips on how to tell a date palm from a doum palm, how to distinguish between different fig types, and which plants are represented among the stylized flora of Greek coinage and Minoan pottery. She also notes how the variety of climatic zones in the Mediterranean provided a wide range of planting options. This is significant because the dominance of the olive, fig, laurel, palm, lily and rose throughout these regions can obscure distinct regional and local variations produced by environmental and cultural preferences. Most importantly, Farrar gives due attention to the role of garden labour. The crucial figure of the gardener is erased all too often from garden writing. Yet the elevated status of gardeners in society is documented as early as the Code of Hammurabi, where their specialized knowledge distinguishes them from workers who are categorized as slaves (42). We are introduced to figures such as Nakht, the court florist of 18th-dynasty Egypt (27-28) and Phocis, the market gardener and martyr of the 4th century CE (185-186). Each chapter only provides a brief glimpse of gardens of a specific age, but taken together they point to the continuous transmission of knowledge through a profession that took care of an essential part of the ancient economy (the vast flower industry of Egypt alone produced plants for home use and export for over a millennium).
Overall the book provides an accurate overview of the garden’s role in the ancient Mediterranean. The botanic tables appended to each chapter, plus the firm clarity with which Farrar notes the correct usage of singular and plural forms of Latin and Greek nouns, make it a potentially useful introductory work for senior undergraduates interested in this area. However, some caveats apply. The first is that although there is some effort to incorporate more recent research (e.g., Langgut’s identification of fossil pollen from Jerusalem (2013)2), it is not consistently applied (for example, there is no reference to Maguire’s excellent 2012 study, currently the definitive word on the subject of Byzantine representations of nature3). The second (which may derive in part from the first) is that Farrar’s enthusiasm and love for her subject occasionally lead to the conflation of form and substance. The idea that the entrances to sacred caves were planted as gardens is attractive (101) but conflates evidence for sacred groves near settlements, which were consistently tended by human hands (e.g., the garden of the temple of Hephaistos in Athens or the managed landscape of the shrine to Aphrodite described by Sappho), with places of periodic or episodic cult practice where the management of unruly vegetation was far more likely to be left to grazing animals (clearly depicted in Fig. 68, a sacro-idyllic relief, but identified in the text as an evocation of a sacred cave garden). Similarly, in a domestic context, the presence of a peristyle court alone cannot document a garden, given the existence of evidence for unplanted peristyles (or peristyles where planting cannot be proved).
Finally, although the volume is plentifully illustrated and supported by primary sources, these are for the most part presented uncritically as evidence to support the appearance of gardens, and important nuances are overlooked. So, for example, the Pantheon at Stourhead is described as recreating “the ambience of a Greek sacred garden” (Fig. 67) and Pliny’s description of his Tuscan garden is said to invoke “the true spirit of a Roman garden” (168), comments that vastly underplay the complex reception of these places. However, this approach could conceivably be used as a teaching tool in itself, prompting students and readers to ask harder questions based on the evidence at hand.
1. Linda Farrar, Ancient Roman Gardens. Sutton Publishing: Stroud, 1998; —, Gardens of Italy and the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire: From the fourth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D.. BAR International Series 650, Archaeopress: Oxford, 1996.
2. Dafna Langutt, et al. “Fossil pollen reveals the secrets of the royal Persian garden at Ramat Rahel, Jerusalem.” Palynology 37.1 (2013): 115-129.
3. Henry Maguire, Nectar and Illusion. Nature in Byzantine Art and Literature. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2012.