BMCR 2005.05.22

Hortus: The Roman Book of Gardening

, The Roman book of gardening. London/New York: Routledge, 2004. 1 online resource (ix, 152 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 0203356993 $31.95 (pb).

In a field where exacting reverence towards the text is prized, John Henderson’s approach is to play with the text, tease it, romance it, and stand it on its head to shake it and see what falls out. The results can be exciting, entertaining, or aggravating, but are always informative. His current interest is Roman horticulture, a subject that has the unfortunate reputation of producing some of the dullest didactic writing available. The treatises of Columella and Palladius did not always have this reputation. A gentleman of the 17th and 18th centuries was expected to be familiar with Columella’s advice and glean ideas from it for the management of his own country estate.1 Eventually, as modern farming methods supplanted the wisdom of the ancients, these texts retained their interest primarily among historians specializing in ancient agricultural practice.

Henderson (H.) has opted to revitalize and broaden interest in the subject by presenting texts that not only describe the process of Roman gardening but also illustrate how deeply entrenched gardening was in Roman culture. In chronological and sequential order these texts are: Virgil’s description of the Corycian gardener in Georgics 4.116-148, Columella Books 10 and 11, Book 19 from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, and those chapters from Palladius that are concerned with gardening. The book has six sections: a lengthy preface, followed by an introduction and four chapters that present each work in translation. While the book is primarily directed at the non-Latin reading audience, H. is careful to point out in his notes those important instances where the Latin of the original text carries a pun or special meaning (e.g. p.125 n.2, Columella’s address to P. Silvinus, suggests the woodland ( silva) that exists before the farm).

It is necessary to emphasize what the book is not. It is not a detailed criticism of the authors’ works; for that H. directs the reader to a very comprehensive section on Further Reading. Nor is it an analysis of the complex interrelation between man, gardens and nature. H.’s interest lies in producing a book that raises these questions for the reader to think about. Nor is it a study of the role of gardens in Roman society. Instead, H.’s focus lies not in the Garden as a place but Gardening as a process. This is an important distinction: the act of gardening is a laborious process of creation and maintenance that is often eclipsed by the material object. Recent scholarship on ancient garden space has tended to concentrate on the Horti of the Roman elite.2 By concentrating on the experience of process, rather than the experience of place, H.’s work provides a valuable counterbalance by introducing the reader to the prosaic hortus.

Most of H.’s analysis can be found in the preface. This presents a broad outline of the historical and cultural background of Roman gardening, along with a brief (potted?) account of each author. Unusually, this section opens with Palladius (the omega of Roman garden writers) before turning to Virgil (the alpha), inverting the usual chronology. By turning the reader’s initial attention to Palladius, H. spotlights a writer whose work is often overlooked. Palladius makes no claims to literary greatness (his work is essentially an epitome of previous didactic gardeners), but by placing him first H. gives Palladius a rare chance to make an impression as a writer in his own right. Noting the calendrical nature of Palladius’ work, H. points out that Palladius’ catalogue of seasonally-appropriate garden tasks invests the ancient garden with the experience of motion; this is a critical feature of garden experience that is only beginning to be fully explored.3 H. then comments briefly on Virgil’s description of the Corycian gardener in the Georgics (presented as the Introduction) before moving on to Columella, whose work is the main focus of the book.

It is with his treatment of Columella that H. really does what he does best, which is breathe new life into texts that have become hackneyed over time. The fussy, painstaking Columella of the Loeb translations becomes, in H.’s matey, muscular prose, an easier, more approachable figure. H.’s Columella emerges a real gardener, filled with enthusiasm for his subject and eager to share it with us (reading Chapters 1 and 2 the voice of Monty Don from the BBC’s ‘Gardener’s World’ springs uncontrollably to mind). H. reverses the normal order of Columella’s work, leading the reader through his translation of Book 11 (Chapter 1) before introducing them to the gardening poem of Book 10 (Chapter 2). Book 11 is essentially Book 10 recapped in prose, and for that reason it makes very dull reading if one is reading Columella from cover to cover. By reversing the order, readers unfamiliar with Latin poetry are given a run through the subject matter in plain English before they face Columella’s gardening epyllion. The no-nonsense tone of Book 11 gives H. little scope for verbal pyrotechnics but it gives the first-time reader a solid introduction into the fascinating mixture of old wives’ tales and common sense that was ancient gardening. For example, Columella tells us that gardeners should wear gloves while weeding rue (good advice, its juice is an irritant), and also that the touch of a menstruating woman will kill it (Col. 11.38). It’s a combination the reader will meet again with Pliny the Elder. This kind of foreshadowing is paralleled by H.’s use of Virgil in the Introduction, since Columella’s garden poem owes its existence to this episode.

H. allows himself more scope in Book 10. He may self-deprecate his ‘rotten translationese’ (p.128 n.15) but he coveys Columella’s exhilarating tour around his year in the hortus wonderfully (Look! Flowers! Look! Fifteen types of cabbage!). H. contextualizes the subject matter by alerting the reader to the fact that all this produce represents the Empire in miniature, the lettuces alone range from Anatolia, Cyprus and Spain (Col. 10.179-188). More importantly, he brings out the fervid sensuality of the ancient garden. Book 10 is awash with sex. Columella opens with the penetration/rape of the earth in winter, moves on to the erotics of fertilization and germination, an orgy of growth, a seduction of flowers, vermicide through menstruation, and an erect and burgeoning harvest that climaxes with Bacchus’ autumn festival. This highly sexualized aspect of Roman garden space is rarely commented upon, although the sexuality of garden space in Greek poetry is well recognized.4 H. also highlights the textual parallels between Book 10 and the Virgilian corpus, not only Georgics 4.116-148.

Moving on to Pliny the Elder, and his cornucopia of garden facts, H. presents the reader with a brisk translation of Book 19. H. acknowledges the Roman debt to Hellenism (much of Book 19 is lifted from Theophrastus), while noting how deeply the subject of garden care was embedded in Roman society. The number of Latin authors who wrote about gardening easily outstrips the Greek (p.24), and even though many of these Latin writers were paraphrasing Greek works, the imbalance raises questions about what it was about gardening that made it such a recurring topic of fascination. This is one of those moments when the reader longs for a little more systematic analysis, but such is the pace of H.’s writing that we are carried past it and on to other garden matters.

Finally, we arrive at Palladius, whose gardening almanac presents the reader with much the same information as the previous three chapters. Having read the book, one is tempted to skim over these passages. Fortunately, H.’s introduction of Palladius in the preface allows him to make more of an impression than he would otherwise. As the latest of the garden writers, Palladius is in a position to give some indication of how Roman gardening has changed. The stone walls condemned by Democritus as being too expensive for garden enclosures (Col. 11.3.2) have, over time, become routinely affordable (Pall. 1.34.4). Yet, on the whole, H. seems a little worn out by his subject, and his notes mostly guide the reader to similar passages from Columella. The year in the garden is over, and from this point the reader is directed to H.’s notes, an excellent section on Further Reading, and a date chart for the Greek and Latin horticultural writers. This is followed by an index of plant names in both English-Latin and Latin-English (with Linnaean names identified) and a general index.

The book also includes eight black and white illustrations, comprising an eclectic range of objects and images from 1st century BCE Campania to modern Britain. While H. makes little overt mention of these images and their place in the overall scheme of the book, it is refreshing to see an awareness that gardening literature did/does not exist in a vacuum of text and text alone.

Overall, H. has produced a book that illustrates an essential aspect of ancient Roman gardens and provides highly readable translations for students without Latin. It is clearly laid out and its indexing makes it useful and reasonably priced reference tool (it is also available as an ebook). Although H.’s dedication to playing with language can occasionally devolve into obscure allusions, the book is a valuable addition to ancient garden studies and to the study of the interaction between Roman culture and environment.


1. Castell, R. (1728) The Villas of the Ancients Illustrated, London.

2. Cima, M. and La Rocca, E. (eds) (1998) Horti Romani. Atti del Convegno Internazionale Roma, 4-6 Maggio 1995. BCAR supp.6, Rome, and Hartswick, K. J. (2004) The Gardens of Sallust. A Changing Landscape, Austin.

3. Conan, M. (ed.) (2003) Landscape Design and the Experience of Motion. Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium on the History of Landscape Architecture XXIV, Washington D.C.

4. Calame, C. (1999) The Poetics of Eros in Ancient Greece, trans. J. Lloyd, Princeton, pp.165-174.