BMCR 2004.03.30

Earthly Paradises. Ancient Gardens in History and Archaeology

Carroll, Maureen., Earthly paradises : ancient gardens in history and archaeology. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003. 144 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 22 cm. ISBN 0892367210 $35.00.

This is a delightful book. Maureen Carroll (C.) has produced a broad but concise overview of what we know of ancient gardens in the Mediterranean and ancient Near East using primarily archaeological evidence, judiciously supported by the occasional text. As one would expect from a Getty publication, it is beautifully produced, with 92 crisp, clear, and for the most part colour illustrations. It is also a timely book. As garden history expands from the restrictions of teleology, landscape archaeologists develop better techniques to discover and excavate abandoned gardens, and as historians recognise the cultural importance of environment, gardens are increasingly moving into the mainstream as a topic of academic interest. This an excellent introduction to the subject, highlighting most of the major excavations and research that have contributed to our understanding of ancient gardens, particularly over the last decade.

The very appeal of C.’s work — its broad inclusiveness — is also occasionally its weakness. Since this is a short book C. sensibly does not belabour her points, preferring to indicate an area of research and move on, but her easy style could cause a reader new to the subject to miss significant aspects of certain gardens. For example, in Chapter 3 the role of Assyrian royal gardens as vehicles of cultural supremacy is not as clear as it could be. When C. mentions the gardens that Sargon II created at Dur-Sharrukin, planted according to his inscription with ‘all the spices of the land of the Hittites’, there is no mention that this occurs after Sargon’s campaign against the Hittites, thus making the garden a physical symbol of his victory (pp. 43-44). Nor does C. directly relate Sargon’s merging of expansionist claims and garden space to a later relief showing his descendant Ashurbanipal dining in his gardens while the head of a defeated Elamite hangs from a branch (p. 27, fig. 16). The campaign that this relief probably alluded to, Ashurbanipal’s destruction of Elamite Susa in 639 BC, is only mentioned in the final chapter (pp. 124-125). The inference can be drawn, but in an introductory work the importance of these royal gardens as symbols of temporal power (and, more generally, the garden as acculturating medium) could be a little more obvious.

C. presents the evidence for the ancient gardens over the course of nine short chapters, each of which follows the same diachronic presentation (‘ancient’ here is used rather loosely since the inclusion of Islamic gardens means that the evidence presented ranges from Egyptian gardens of the 15th century BC to Persian gardens of the 16th century AD). Thus within each chapter the subject discussed starts with the evidence from Egypt, the oldest reliable source of information on ancient gardens, before moving on to Mesopotamian (Assyrian and Persian), Greek, and Roman gardens (both Italian and provincial). Despite (or perhaps because of) this wide chronological and geographic scope C.’s writing is admirably succinct. The first chapter opens with a short discussion of the social and agricultural importance of gardens, their labour-intensive creation and maintenance, and the types of evidence for their existence: pictorial, archaeological and literary.

Chapter 2 is concerned with defining the content and appearance of utilitarian and ornamental house gardens. Defining when a garden is utilitarian, as opposed to ornamental, is the Achilles’ heel of ancient garden studies. There is very little indication that such a distinction existed since most of the terms applied to ancient gardens do not differentiate between their productive or ornamental functions. For example, the most common Latin word for garden, hortus, was used with equal frequency for market gardens and imperial grounds.1 Applying what are essentially modern distinctions to ancient gardens can result in egregious oversimplification since many of the plants that we would now consider ornamental were in fact valued for medicinal purposes or had other useful by-products. The doum palm, for example provided leaves for mats and baskets as well as fruit (p. 45).

On the whole C. avoids the major pitfalls of applying this kind of binary thinking. She emphasises the fact that ancient gardens as a whole preferred mixed planting of what modern gardens would consider productive and ornamental plants and that the activities conducted within a garden setting, rather than the content of the garden per se, were what characterised the garden as a garden rather than simply a vegetable patch, fruit orchard or stand of timber. Particularly welcome is C.’s emphasis on the Roman peristyle garden being necessarily neither formal nor ornamental (p. 32). While this has been recognised by garden historians ever since Wilhelmina Jashemski’s excavation of the gardens of Pompeii and Herculaneum,2 it is one of those statements that cannot be repeated too many times since a quick web search on ‘Roman gardens’ shows a consistent misrepresentation of peristyle gardens as being purely ornamental. Nevertheless, C. is occasionally over-literal in her assessment of what is utilitarian and what is ornamental, as in her statement that the gardens of Alcinoos described by Homer (Od. 7.112-131) ‘were not royal pleasure gardens, but rather well-ordered utilitarian gardens’ (p. 28). Granted, Homer does not describe the sensual scenes of eating, drinking and love-making that are present in Egyptian and Assyrian gardens, but given the ambiguous, semi-divine status of the Phaeacians in the Odyssey, there is more to that passage than meets the eye.3

Chapter 3, ‘Orchards, Groves and Parks’, is primarily concerned with the role of trees in gardens, both as a design element and as a signifier of the spiritual or expansionist association of gardens, as exemplified by Hatshepsut’s importation of incense trees from Punt for her temple at Deir el-Bahari. The dual role of gardens as places representing both spiritual and temporal power is reflected in the creation of royal parks by Assyrian and Persian kings known as pairidaeza, which the Greeks rendered as paradeisos and from which we derive ‘paradise’ (p. 45). This is related to Cyrus’ creation of a quadripartite palace garden at Pasargadae, a form that is thought to have inspired the template for the later Persian chahar bagh (lit. ‘four-garden’). In both Islamic and Christian art, paradise is characterised as being a heavenly garden from which the four rivers of the earth flow.4 These sacred associations are explored in more detail in chapters 4 and 5 which deal with temple gardens and tomb gardens respectively.

The following two chapters ‘Gardeners and Gardening’ and ‘Plants of the Ancient World’ cover the materials and skills involved in both creating and recovering ancient gardens. C.’s handling in Chapter 6 of the role of gardeners in ancient gardens is particularly readable. In addition to information on irrigation techniques, plant propagation, tool use, and the emergence of the professional landscape gardener ( topiarius). C. presents some valuable literary evidence in the form of contractual correspondence between employers and employees (pp. 83-84). This is especially welcome since the wider issues of labour in ancient gardens are often glossed over. The fact is that gardening was and still is hard work and that the gardens themselves are the embodiment of unequal social relations between garden owner and garden labourer. C.’s inclusion of the contract of the 3rd century AD Egyptian gardener Peftumot, which stipulated that he present his faeces for inspection to ensure that he ate none of the produce that he raised, highlights this fact nicely.

Of all the book, chapter 8, concerning gardens in ancient poetry, is perhaps the weakest. The range of texts varies widely from Sumerian hymn to Roman epigram to Persian epic. C. makes some attempt to link these together thematically as examples of love poetry where the beloved is in some way represented by the garden. However, for all their superficial similarity, the impact of each is profoundly different (reflecting perhaps their cultural differences), and lacking a deeper exploration of these differences, the chapter amounts to no more than a collection of pretty texts. C. concludes the book with a short account of how Islamic dynasts such as Timur and Babur encouraged the spread of Persian chahar bagh gardens throughout Sicily, Spain, and Mughal India and how these gardens related to the tradition of Persian pairidaeza gardens and later Islamic and Christian concepts of paradise. Following the endnotes, C. has included a list of Roman gardens that one can visit in Europe.

Overall, C.’s work is an very good basic introduction to the subject of ancient gardens from an archaeological and to a slightly lesser extent, cultural perspective. The reader here is introduced to Stephanie Dalley’s and David Stronach’s work on Assyrian and Persian gardens, Nigel Hepper’s botanical studies of Egypt and Wilhelmina Jashemski’s inestimable contribution to Roman gardens, as well as C.’s own work. The true joy of this book lies in its illustrations, particularly the excellent reproductions of Assyrian reliefs and illustrated herbals.

However, while the text of the book is aimed at introducing the reader to ancient gardens, the research material in the endnotes and bibliography is subject to some surprising editorial decisions and omissions that lessen its usefulness in this regard. For example, on the Delian lease of garden estates on Rheneia, C. directs the reader to an article by John Kent from 1948, while ignoring Robin Osborne’s more recent work on the same subject.5 Similarly, Alex Wilkinson’s work on Egyptian gardens is under-represented by one citation in the endnotes (usually the first port of call for interested students), which does not reflect the fact that it is the most recent and comprehensive book available. In contrast, C.’s own work is cited 21 times, which out of 198 notes works out as just over 10%. Although one cannot deny the right of authors to promote their work, this is perhaps a little excessive, especially when one considers what has been omitted. For example, there is no inclusion of a reference work for Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, in spite of the fact that this garden provided the template for the Villa d’Este, the most influential Italian garden of the Renaissance.6 Finally, two recent and very important works on the archaeology of ancient Roman gardens are omitted altogether.7 Although none of this affects one’s enjoyment of the book (which is considerable) the omission of such germane research is not helpful to the student who wants to know more.

Other quibbles are minor. Unsurprisingly, as an archaeologist C. is sparing with literary evidence and on the whole uses it to good effect. But the garden that Martial describes in Ep. 11.18 (p. 9) is not being grown in a window box, it is being compared, in terms of size, to a window box. And the reconstructed plan of Cyrus’ garden at Pasargadae on p. 49 would better in either a larger size or perhaps in colour as is too small to be readily intelligible to someone unfamiliar with the site.

To recap, C.’s work looks good, reads well, and covers a great deal of information gracefully. It is somewhat limited as introductory research tool, but it is a welcome addition to expanding body of work on ancient gardens.


1. See Beard, M. (1998) ‘Imaginary horti: or up the garden path’, in Cima, M. and La Rocca, E. (eds) (1998) Horti Romani. Atti del Convegno Internazionale Roma, 4-6 Maggio 1995. Bulletino della Commissione Archeologica Communale di Roma. Supplementi 6, Rome, 24.

2. In particular the House of Polybius (9.13.1-3) as described in Jashemski, W. F. (1979) The Gardens of Pompeii: Herculaneum and the Villas destroyed by Vesuvius, La Rochelle, New York, 25-29.

3. Ferriolo, M. V. (1989) ‘Homer’s garden’, in Journal of Garden History 9, 86-94.

4. Schama, S. (1995) Landscape and Memory, New York, 256-306. A sumptuous study of Persian gardens both real and ideal can be found in Hobhouse, P. (2003) Gardens of Persia, London.

5. Osborne, R. (1987) Classical Landscape with Figures. The Ancient Greek City and its Countryside, London, 46-48.

6. Masson, G. (1961) Italian Gardens, New York, 136-139

7. Key recent works are Cima and La Rocca (see note 1) and Villedieu, F. (ed.) (2001) Il Giardino dei Cesari. Dai pallazi antichi alla Vigna Barberini sul Monte Palatino. Scavi dell’École française de Rome, 1985-1999, Ministero per I Beni e le Attivà Culturali Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma.