BMCR 2024.05.14

Trees in ancient Rome: growing an empire in the late Republic and early Principate

, Trees in ancient Rome: growing an empire in the late Republic and early Principate. Ancient environments. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2023. Pp. 208. ISBN 9781350237803.



Andrew Fox’s Trees in Ancient Rome joins a scholarly landscape already flush with trees. Ailsa Hunt, Rebecca Armstrong, Christopher Hallett, and others,[1] have outlined an arboreal subject that transcends an older emphasis on trees as resources.[2] Across Latin literature, archaeology, and monuments, Fox presents the Roman interaction with trees in atomistic fashion, rejecting an all-encompassing category of tree. Fox argues that Romans display an appreciation of trees that attends to an individual tree’s qualities, from its timber to its fruit, or to the distinct ways that certain trees enable action, such as the plane tree’s shade. Pompey’s Portico, for example, featured plane trees which cast their famous shadow, enabling a leisurely stroll that is so often celebrated with portico architecture. Across four chapters, Fox raises the question of the future of the ancient tree. What did trees help the Romans achieve? How can our histories illuminate this ever-present, and often elusive, vegetal subject?

Fox begins with the ficus Ruminalis, Rome’s first monumental tree. The Ruminal fig enjoyed a curious life, and an evolving appreciation. Moving from the Lupercal to the Comitium, the tree’s import evolved alongside the Roman Empire. It underwent multiple deaths and portentous rebirths. On the shift from Augustan to Neronian understandings of this tree, Fox writes, “The Ruminal, in its position in the Comitium, stands at the beating heart of Rome’s political and cultural life, surrounded by icons of Rome’s noble and glorious past (…) and yet here it is isolated, alone and abandoned. This serves only to highlight the utter desertion of the Roman moral compass in Nero’s reign, with the heart of Rome withering away” (p. 4). The Ruminal’s withering in the Comitium becomes, for Tacitus especially (Annales 13.58), a dire portent that signals the end of Rome’s preeminence. Yet, in a prior age, the tree’s death elicited little response from Augustan writers. Clearly the tree had a mutable identity, reflecting distinct social and cultural attitudes across time. Fox compellingly asserts the arboreal actor back into its rightful place, at the heart of Rome, as a living monument to its fortunes and perils.

Fox’s articulation of the Romans and their trees should be read in tandem with Hunt’s trees in Reviving Roman Religion, perhaps more than any other interlocutor. It was Hunt who stressed arboreal individuality, modeling a fine-grained reading that Fox would adopt. Hunt argued that Romans paid careful attention to individual trees, to the extent that they noticed distinct physical or material features in their arboreal discourses and representations. Fox not only attends to a tree’s individuality, but even organizes the book as a series of case studies. Fox also created a remarkable online database (, making each tree species searchable across classical literature. Fox’s case study approach, however, has its limits. Granting individuality to Roman trees emerges from a scholarly practice of suspicion towards “animism,” or a vitalism beyond the human. Like Hunt before him, Fox takes issues with scholars of the 18th and 19th century, who place all classical authors into a pre-Christian animist cohort. The specter of animism becomes a profoundly motivating force here. What is missing in scholarship on Roman trees is a more thorough attention to recent scholarship on animism, which articulates the phenomenon beyond the sine qua non of irrationality. Animism, for some, is a profound and relational (not epistemological) mode of encountering the nonhuman.[3] Fox’s relation to animism will lay the foundation for a reading of trees in ancient life through a determinative lens that frames the tree in terms of social or political concern.

Fox’s introduction argues for the “social role of trees in the ancient world” (p. 26). Here we find a method of “compilation of all available evidence on a given tree” (p. 27). The Trojan Horse, made of abies (fir), showcases Fox’s approach. Fox explores the descriptions and uses of fir across Greek and Latin literature to think through the wood of the horse, making the argument that the horse was likely made of “old warships no longer needed to transport dead Greeks home from Troy” (p. 27). Here Fox transitions to a general statement on method, claiming that “there was no universal approach to trees as expected by the early comparativists, animistic religious scholars” (p. 27).

Chapter 1 (“Memory and Trees”) deals with trees and provenance, opening with Vergil’s famous account of the sylvan origins of Rome. The chapter includes discussions of place names and case studies on groves. Fox argues that the city of Rome is bound up with the memory of its trees. Groves communicate the power and fragility of dynasty, transcending time in the process.

Chapter 2 is entitled “Bringing Trees to Rome,” which by and large treats Pliny’s Natural History, along with three case studies on the utility of trees. Fox excels in presenting a diversity of scholarship on Pliny, from traditional to recent readings, from Wallace-Hadrill to Lao (p. 60). The case studies (fruit, timber, and shade) are well-chosen sites to explore how the Natural History thinks through Roman supremacy over nature and the world. The wood of the citrus, a North African tree, became a status symbol in the ornately wrought tables of the elite. It also became an object of derision for both Cato the Elder and Pliny, the latter of whom designates citrus wood as a sign of over-indulgence (p. 58). Fox concludes this chapter with a section on the structure of the Natural History, and its relation to Roman imperialism, focusing on the well-known tension of utility and luxury in the work.

Chapter 3 (“Trees in Triumph”) traces the trees on display in triumphal processions, as spolia, and in crowns and tropaia. Here the tree’s parts, rather than their totality, play a decisive role across triumphal imagery. Fox shows which trees were displayed, such as Lucullus’s cherry tree, never before seen in Rome, or Pompey’s plane trees, likely imported from his eastern victories. These trees represented conquered lands and even outlived other spoils of war, therefore influencing interactions within these Roman spaces for years to come (p. 74). However, the reader is left to imagine the kinds of interactions that Romans had with these triumphal trees, since Fox transitions to a case study on Dacia and Trajan’s Column, a subject that he has written on elsewhere.[4] In Fox’s discussion of crowns and tropaia, or wooden stakes that displayed armor, we see how Roman interactions with trees are quite individual, as Fox highlights the role of fruits and their color as complements in ceremony, or the myrtle’s purchase on purification in crowns.

Chapter 4 (“Keeping Trees in the City”) studies Rome’s “ideal spaces,” and how trees impact activities within them. Fox discusses Porticus Europae, Porticus Vispania, Adonaea, and the Porticus Philippi. With each place, Fox marshals the available evidence, sometimes scant, for how the trees provide ample opportunity to walk, rest, or take cover. Although the organization of this chapter is difficult to follow, as conclusions are followed by more case studies, Fox demonstrates the merit of his reading when he shows how different trees could result in different activities. Pompey’s shaded walk, for example, needed a certain kind of tree (p. 122).

Overall, Fox’s Trees in Ancient Rome persuasively articulates the tree as a site of social encounter and therefore advances an ecocritical appreciation of Roman antiquity. Trees can no longer reside in the background, as blurry members of a green mass. However, questions remain regarding Fox’s intervention with respect to others who have written on trees, space, and power—especially Katherine von Stackelberg. Although Fox engages with Stackelberg, it is still an open question how Fox’s emphasis on social interaction with trees relates to Stackelberg’s writing on gardens and trees as “never finished” and “constantly evolving.”[5] Both trees and gardens, after all, appear to perform similar labor for the Roman cultural imagination. In addition, Fox’s exclusion of religion from his study of trees, which departs from Stackelberg and Hunt’s, prompts more questions. Do we lose something vital about the Roman relation to trees when we see them from an exclusively social perspective?



[1] Ailsa Hunt, Reviving Roman Religion: Sacred Trees in the Roman World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Rebecca Armstrong, Vergil’s Green Thoughts: Plants, Humans, and the Divine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); Christopher H. Hallett, “The Wood Comes to the City: Ancient Trees, Sacred Groves, and the ‘Greening’ of Early Augustan Rome,” Religion in the Roman Empire 7 (2021), 221–274.

[2] Russell Meiggs, Trees and Timber in the Ancient Mediterranean World (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982).

[3] Lisa Landoe Hedrick, “The ontological turn’s New Animists and the concept of belief,” Journal of Religion 103 (2023), 257–282.

[4] Andrew Fox, “Trajanic Trees: The Dacian Forest on Trajan’s Column,” Papers of the British School at Rome 87 (2019), 47–69.

[5] Katharine T. von Stackelberg, The Roman Garden: Space, Sense, and Society (London: Routledge, 2009, 63.