Welcome to the first post in the ‘Let’s talk about Roman gardens’ series. I hope that you will find it interesting and informative.
The ‘Let’s talk about …’ series is a collection of short blog posts in which I’ve asked people to answer a few questions on the subject of Roman gardens. I have posed my questions to individuals who have conducted research in this area. Although the questions I asked were intentionally broad in scope, the responses I’ve collected really show just how significant gardens were and how they permeate many aspects of Roman life. I chose Roman gardens as the topic for ‘Let’s talk about …’ because I’m currently researching them myself. The focus of my research is on the relationship between gardens and the Roman perception of health and well-being.
Reconstruction of a peristyle Garden at the Getty Villa, Los Angeles, USA.
Before we dive right in and talk about Roman gardens though, I would like to say a huge thank you to those who have contributed to the upcoming ‘Let’s talk about Roman gardens posts. Needless to say I couldn’t have done it without your willingness to spare the time and get back to me with answers to my questions.
Let’s talk about … Roman Gardens with Dr Jane Draycott.
Q. Can you tell me a little bit about your research into Roman gardens?
I first became interested in Roman gardens while I was doing my PhD, which focused on approaches to healing in Roman Egypt. I read a lot of documentary papyri and ostraca, looking for information about how the inhabitants of Roman Egypt managed their health and well-being, and came across a lot of references to plants and gardens (e.g. requests for certain plants, contracts about renting gardens or parts of gardens, references to people involved in gardening etc.), and that got me thinking about gardens across the Roman Empire more broadly.
Q. Why do you think Roman gardens are worth studying?
Roman gardens give us an insight into ordinary people living their ordinary lives. The Roman Empire was a predominantly rural society consisting of villages and towns inhabited by middle and working-class people, and this is often forgotten in the sustained focus on the lives lived by members of the imperial family, senatorial and equestrian elite in cities, essentially the super-rich 1%. A lot of the literary evidence that we have for rural living and agriculture was written by people who were very far removed from it, although they liked to pretend otherwise, much as certain members of the royal family like to present themselves as totally normal despite being anything but. Documentary evidence, archaeological evidence, and archaeobotanical evidence, on the other hand is a different matter. Gardens are also a relatively recent scholarly enthusiasm, and new excavation and scientific techniques are being developed all the time, so there’s a lot of potential for future study.
Q. Why do you think that gardens are important sources of evidence for our understanding of the Roman world?
Gardens allow us to see and explore so many aspects of ancient Roman life because they were ubiquitous. People all the way across the social hierarchy had them or had access to them. They provided sources of items that could be used in food, medicine, cosmetics, interior decoration and religious rituals. Roman gardens were also used as locations for working (both mental the physical types), eating, socialising and exercising, they also appear in both literature and art.
Q. Do you think that there’s potential for further research on the subject of Roman gardens, and if so, what do you think this research might be?
I think that there’re many more gardens waiting to be excavated at sites all around the Roman Empire, both public and private, that belonged to both the living and dead members of ancient society. I also think that the documentary evidence such as papyri and ostraca has been underutilised. There’s been lots of attention on the obvious sources of information such as canonical literature, but there’s a lot of non-canonical literature that could provide alternative perspectives on Roman gardens. I’d also like to see much more crossover, collaboration and integration between Classics and Ancient History research that uses literature and art to try and understand gardens, and the archaeological research that uncovers and analyses the remains of gardens.
Q. Finally … Any other thoughts on Roman gardens or the current state of garden research / scholarship.
I would really like to see much more inclusivity among those who work in the field of ancient garden research. At the moment this isn’t always the case and it can be rather off-putting to those of us on the outside.
Dr Jane Draycott is Lecturer in Ancient History at the University of Glasgow & Co-Director of the University of Glasgow Games and Gaming Lab.
You can find more information about Dr Draycott including her research interests and publications by clicking here.
You can follow her on Twitter at: @JLDraycott