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Gardens and gardening in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Getty Villa - a unique antique museum
Garden at Getty Villa | Photo: Bobak Ha'Eri / CC-By-SA-3.0

Development of Roman gardens (horti) was greatly influenced by Greek culture. The impact of the Greek style was first due to the gardens of Magna Graecia and Sicily. Then the East began to play a role, along with conquests and numerous contacts. Territorial gains under the Republic led to the accumulation of wealth in the hands of an influential elite who developed their great estates, including gardens.

Romans took from the conquered nations (Greeks, Sicilians or Egyptians) gardening techniques and the skills of setting up gardens. It is worth noting that these acquired skills perfectly complemented the traditional agricultural approach to life of the Romans.

Reconstruction of the garden at the Vettii house in Pompeii. It was a small but richly decorated residential house, owned by two merchants: Aulus Vettius Restitutus and Aulus Vettius Conviva.
By: sailko | Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

The greatest bloom of vegetation, both at home and in public space, can be noted during the reign of the emperor Octavian Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE). At that time, the importance and role of Roman garden assumptions were consolidated. These assumptions manifest themselves in private life, associated with residential houses and villas outside the city, as well as in public life: temples, and public places for education and recreation.

A great source of information about Roman gardening is the remains of the city of Pompeii, which was destroyed and “preserved” for centuries as a result of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. Quite an important help in discovering the assumptions of Roman gardening is wall paintings and mosaics. A large portion of information about Roman gardens was also left by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder in his work “Natural History”. Thanks to this position, we know, for example, that in Roman times the plane tree was especially worshipped when planting public locations. Also valued were pine, cypress, laurel and myrtle (its leaves were used for wreaths). Mention is also made of boxwood, oleander and many varieties of roses. Among the flowers, the following were popular: irises, hyacinths, violets, narcissi, anemones, poppies, crocuses, verbena, evening flowers, and ferns. Most of the plants bloomed in the spring, due to the hot climate of Italy. Of the green plants, it is worth mentioning ivy and periwinkle.

What made Roman gardens stand out?

Roman gardens were characterized by a love of the landscape surrounding vast residences. The main inspiration was the religious cult of nature – a world inhabited by deities and filled with their statues. Tombs, chapels and sanctuaries were located in the gardens.

The set of plants consisted of: platon, poplar, oak, date palm, Spanish pines, cypresses, hornbeams, mimosa, acacia, citrus, laurel, fig, rhododendron, juniper, vine, boxwood and myrtle trees. Some of them were cut, giving them the most sophisticated shapes. Flowers of anemones, lion horses and carnations were planted in abundance. Hydraulic devices played a large role – in addition to numerous channels, water began to be used to move automatons. Pliny the Younger had water organs in his gardens.

Private gardens

Reconstruction of the garden in Pompeii.
By: sailko | Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

The gardens were closely related to the peristyle and atrium of the dwelling house. It was in Pompeii that a number of houses were discovered that took into account such a spatial arrangement. The garden is enclosed in architectural frames of walls and colonnades, which constitute a compositional whole. A typical Roman dwelling house has an atrium – a small rectangular square, usually with a swimming pool (impluvium) in the centre – which is surrounded by living rooms. These rooms are well-lit and have access to an outdoor space. Opposite the street entrance, the middle room behind the atrium (the tablinum) was used as a guest and social room. Behind it was a small, fenced garden with ornamental, medicinal and spice plants grown for personal use.

Along with the larger dimensions of the house, the garden, which was surrounded by a colonnade, grew in size – thus it was transformed into a peristyle. It is worth mentioning that the rich Romans allowed themselves as many as three open spaces: the atrium, the garden and the peristyle. They had different functions, locations and sizes, and in practice, such a house plan can be found in Pompeii (Pansa’s house). The individual elements of the building are arranged in a particular chronology: from the entrance from the street, a small vestibule leads to the atrium, from which you can get to the garden peristyle, behind which we found the proper garden. Each successive square was separated by passage rooms. The atrium was separated from the peristyle by the aforementioned tablinum, which marked the boundary between the social and intimate spheres of the apartment. Between the peristyle and the cultivated garden, there was a room like a living room open to the garden, accentuated from the garden side by a portico or sometimes an exedra.

The atrium contains the fewest garden elements. It was a small interior, open at the top and surrounded by an arcade of the house, with a pond in the middle, decorated with a sculpture or a fountain. Due to the small space in the atrium, there were only plants in pots and buckets.
The peristyle, in turn, was a garden interior, surrounded by a cloister colonnade, which connected the rooms with the garden. With time, the habit of using the colonnade was adopted also in the proper garden, such as in Fauna’s house. The gardens in the peristyle formed a sort of parterre filled with a variety of small trees, shrubs, and flowers. Planted: laurels, figs, rhododendrons, vines, ivy, myrtle, roses, anemones, lilies, narcissi, hyacinths, violets, carnations, daisies, rose hips, marigolds, gladioli, pansies, foxglove, cyclamen, periwinkle, irises and others. In addition, shapes were given to plants, e.g. boxwoods, yews and cypresses were sheared. The author of this idea is considered to be a friend of Emperor Augustus – Mattius.

Swimming pools, ponds and fountains, as well as sculptural elements (vases, bronze and marble figures) were of great importance in the privacy of the home. An example of such a house is the Vetti house. The garden was relatively small: without column arcades it was about 10×20 meters, while in Fauna’s house it was about 22×25 meters. Water jets or water grading were also used, which required specialist care – such a person was aquarius.
Planting these types of gardens required great skill, and the gardener who oversaw them was called topiarius. His task was to lay out the garden, and shape the plants (cut them into appropriate figures, sometimes playful). The area of activity of such a gardener was gardens in small peristyles, as well as huge gardens in the suburban villas of the rich.

Horti Sallustiani were gardens established by the Roman historian of the 1st century BCE, Sallust. The garden covered large areas of the north-western regions of Rome.
By: Lalupa | Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

The crush in Rome itself meant that the richer Romans were forced to arrange larger gardens in country residences. Usually, the higher-class had to be content with “sparse” gardens in the city. The exception was Lucullus (117 – 56 BCE), a supporter of Sulla, famous for his victories in the war with the ruler of Pontus Mithridates VI. At his seat, he established a garden in which he planted cherries (brought from Asia to Europe for the first time). Gardens of artists were also known: Propertius, Martial, Virgil. The hortus Sallustiani was also admired on the Quirinal.

As mentioned, the richer Romans, wanting to establish larger gardens, had to decide to build their residences in the provinces. Instead of a small atrium, a spacious entrance peristyle with a garden was used, surrounded by a complex of living rooms, some of which were located on the upper floors were connected to the garden behind the house. An example of such a building plan is the Diomedes house discovered in Pompeii. Horace’s house has a similar character, whose villa was located in the area of today’s Tivoli. The interior of the garden was filled with flower beds, trees and a swimming pool. Open porticoes at the end of the gardens allowed observation of the surrounding landscapes, which was also an indicator of the trend of combining a residential house with the surrounding nature. For this reason, we know that the Romans were looking for attractive and dominant areas for their villas outside the city, which allowed to maintain harmony and perspective. This is mentioned by Pliny the Younger, thanks to whom we know the detailed layout of such residences.

Public gardens

Public gardens, intended for rest and recreation, had a similar form to the home peristyle. In terms of shape, they referred to the Greek gymnasium. Compared to the Roman household peristyle, however, they were definitely larger and resulted from the need for a densely built-up capital – Rome. A great example of a typical public garden was Porticus Liviae, founded by Octavian Augustus in the very centre of the city on the site of demolished old houses. It was a rectangle measuring 75×115 meters, surrounded on all sides by a columned portico. In the middle of the garden, in front of the wide entrance stairs located on its short side, there was a large water pool. The rest of the space was occupied by various types of trees, flower beds and walkways. It was also full of sculptures, and the portico was decorated with paintings.

Garden painting is dominated by the landscape as a background for genre scenes, or as the landscape itself: groves, woods, hills, ponds, etc. This motif resulted from the fact that it was an extension of the garden, and in smaller household peristyles it allowed to obtain the effect of deepened perspective and enlarged space. The preserved gardens of Pompeii are a good example.

The first public garden was Pompey’s garden, created around 51 BCE. It was surrounded by a portico on the Greek model, it included laurel and platinum sticks, and avenues lined with boxwood. The garden also had a theatre. This garden was later modelled many times.
Other equally popular gardens in Roman times were: the Portico of Livia, Portico of Vipsania, Portico of Octavia and Pompey’s Portico.

Gardens were also established near thermal baths, intended for rest, games and bathing. The baths together with the surrounding gardens became meeting and resting places for many citizens of the city (modeled on the Greek gymnasium). The large scale and magnificence as well as rich buildings made public gardens one of the most characteristic types of monumental buildings in Rome.

The Imperial Gardens

Part of the garden in Hadrian’s villa.
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

The most splendid garden layouts spread on Palatine hill and in its vicinity. The Hippodrome of Domitian is especially worth mentioning. It occupies a large garden space surrounded by a wall with numerous niches and a colonnade, with a large exedra in the middle of the side wall. The interior of the garden was filled with bosquets, alleys and flowerbeds. There were also richly decorated wells and sculptures.

Another large imperial garden was the one surrounding Nero’s Golden House. There were a lot of magnificent trees, vineyards, an aviary, and even a zoo and an artificial lake. Domitian’s palace, erected later in this area, is an example of a characteristic spatial arrangement, the centre of which is an internal garden in a large peristyle, located between the great throne room and the triclinium. Similarly, the great gardens of Caesar, Nero, and Domitian covered the Ianiculum Hills.

It should be noted that some emperors’ gardens were transferred to the public domain. This is what Julius Caesar did before his death, for example, who gave his garden for the use of the inhabitants. His adopted son – Octavian Augustus – did the same, giving away the garden erected in 28 BCE on the Field of Mars, around his mausoleum. It is worth mentioning the Field of Mars itself a bit here. In the times of the Republic, it was a meadow (called Prata Flaminia), which, towards the end of the Republican period, was gradually filled with other public buildings (temples, porticos, Agrippa’s baths, or Pompey’s Theatre). The resulting structures, together with the surrounding gardens, made the place extremely prestigious and representative. Sea battles also took place on the aforementioned lake (naumachiae).

Mention should be made of the monumental residence of Emperor Hadrian, which combined Greek, Roman and Egyptian culture. It was the most extensive palace building of antiquity. Its area is comparable to the area occupied by Pompeii, which explains the length of construction works (118-134 CE). The buildings of this summer residence consisted of a complex of buildings located in an artificially enriched landscape in order to expose this landscape.

  • Carcopino Jeorome, Życie codzienne w Rzymie w okresie rozkwitu cesarstwa, 1966
  • Majdecki Longin, Historia ogrodów, Warszawa 1978

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