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Recreating a Roman Garden: Experiencing a Healthy Space


I am fortunate to be writing this blog while I am sitting on a quiet garden patio. The day is sunny and warm with a light breeze, and every so often there is a light whiff of desert sage; or I can hear the breeze blowing through the olive tree. It is perfectly conducive to focusing on my thoughts.

My current situation reminds me of a letter written by the first century AD Roman lawyer, Pliny the Younger, who explained to his friend that his mountain villa benefitted his well-being (Letter V.6. 45). He said that his mental and physical health were restored at his villa after being in the city of Rome because the air was pure, the views were lovely, and it was quiet and calm.

As someone who has always found that my mental and physical wellbeing improve when I am in the natural environment, Pliny’s letter has interested me for a long time. When I first came across it, I was excited to find that even in the ancient world, people recognized a healthful connection with nature and gardens. Yet, it was not until after a very stressful work experience—when I found myself staring at a first century Roman fresco painting of a lush garden filled with trees, flowers, and vines—that my interest in the archaeology of gardens developed. The image also had jetting fountains and was filled with birds flying in the sky and perching on branches. Although the depiction was idealized, when I was looking at it, the only thing I could think of was how wonderful it must have been for an ancient Roman to experience such a beautiful place. That thought was also the instigating factor for combining my research on ancient health and medicine with gardens.

This led to a separate project with the Trust for Thanet Archaeology* where I was invited to help re-create an ancient Roman garden this past summer. To help with this, I applied for and was awarded generous funding from the Institute of Classical Studies Public Engagement Grant.+

When we created the garden, many different questions were raised about Roman techniques of construction, how they sourced their plants and flowers, and how seasonal changes would have informed the use of the gardens. Although, I enjoyed every aspect of working on the garden, for me, I was most interested in questioning how a Roman might have experienced a space they thought was healthy.

The Re-creation

Before I answer the question of health, I will briefly say something about the project. Further information about the construction can be found on the websites listed at the bottom of this blog.

The design of the garden was based on Roman house gardens found in Pompeii and Herculaneum, sites located on the Bay of Naples, Italy, which were covered by volcanic mud and ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. The archeological remains give us an idea of how the gardens were structured, what features were regularly included, such as fountains and triclinia (dining couches), and the common plants grown in them.

Like a Roman garden, the reconstruction was enclosed with walls (in our case, the walls of two buildings and a fence). We had four raised flower beds, two on each end of the garden, with a fountain located in the center of them. On one side of the garden, we imitated a Roman peristyle walkway by constructing a pergola with jasmine growing over it.

The plants we incorporated were local to the area, though many are also common to the Italian peninsula. The plants were already growing in the Trust’s garden and do well in the British climate. These included wild iris (Iris foetidissima), sage (Salvia verbenaca), acanthus (Acanthus mollis), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and lavender (Lavandula angustafolia).

The Experience

When the Romans described their healthy spaces, they always mention the sensory experiences they had in them. They discussed the mild scents of trees and flowers, the peaceful sounds of bird songs, and beautiful views of mountains, seascapes, and greenery. Their understanding of how the senses worked, is significant for why they thought healthy spaces were beneficial to the body and mind.

The Greeks and Romans had several theories on how the senses worked, but ultimately, they believed that the objects that people saw, smelt, tasted, heard, and touched were physically taken into the body by their different sensory organs. Once in the body, it was believed that the different smells, flavors, sounds, and views directly influenced the humoral balance, which affected both physical health and mental temperament. Thus, a pleasant environment, as opposed to one that was cacophonous, foul smelling, and visually disturbing, was deemed beneficial for wellbeing because it was thought to have a direct effect on the body and mind. Gardens were spaces that mimicked the natural world, and provided an outdoor experience when people could not or did not have the means to leave the city.

It is impossible to entirely re-create an ancient Roman experience, given differences in plant species, air quality, sounds of modern transportation, like airplanes, and construction style. Moreover, in my attempts to understand how a Roman might have experienced the garden, I also had to recognize that my own biases and expectations informed my interpretations. Nonetheless, it is still worthy of experimentation.

The garden at the Trust is located at a distance from the road and is quiet, with only the sounds of birds to be heard on occasion. It is also a sun trap, so the temperature was hot during the middle of the day, giving it a Mediterranean feel. I would often arrive about an hour earlier than the others to work on it to try to simulate a Roman morning in the garden. Sitting in the garden—focusing on the greenery or the bright blue sky, and hearing the breeze through the trees and bird songs—was soporific. I was always calm, had little stress, and felt physically well. It made me appreciate why gardens were popular in Roman houses as well as in public spaces. My senses were stimulated in many ways that the Romans described.

Although scientific understanding is very different today than in the ancient world, environmental psychologists are demonstrating in their studies what the Greeks and Romans already knew. People are healthier and happier after they spend some time in nature; and the sensory experiences play a significant role in this.

Thus, given the multitude of stressful situations in which we find ourselves, spending time or even working in a quiet garden of any size will likely have many benefits. So, perhaps, if you need a space to read, write, or draw, why not try it in a garden (weather depending), a calming space where, as Pliny the Younger said, he could focus on his work.

* The Trust is located at the Antoinette Centre, a building with a drive and a rectangular garden located inside Quex Park, Birchington-on-Sea, Kent. http://www.trustforthanetarchaeoygy.org.uk + I am awaiting publication of the blog I wrote for the ICS that explains how we built the garden. It should appear here in the near future https://ics.blogs.sas.ac.uk There are two further blogs on this site that explain a floral design project for which the ICS also awarded me funding.


* The Trust is located at the Antoinette Centre, a building with a drive and a rectangular garden located inside Quex Park, Birchington-on-Sea, Kent. http://www.trustforthanetarchaeoygy.org.uk +I am awaiting publication of the blog I wrote for the ICS that explains how we built the garden. It should appear here in the near future https://ics.blogs.sas.ac.uk There are two further blogs on this site that explain a floral design project for which the ICS also awarded me funding.