Let’s Talk About … Roman Gardens : With Jessica Venner

Welcome to the second post in the ‘Let’s talk about Roman gardens’ series. I hope that you will find it interesting and informative. Please feel free to ask any questions by using the comments box.


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 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. 

You can catch up on the first post of the series with Dr Jane Draycott by clicking here.

I would like to say a huge thank you to those who have contributed to the ‘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 Jessica Venner.

Q. Can you tell me a little bit about your research into Roman gardens?

My research investigates the proliferation of market gardening in ancient Pompeii, specifically in the final years of its life in the first century AD. My research is interdisciplinary and uses a combination of literary, pictorial, archaeological, archaeobotanical and spatial analyses. I’m particularly excited about my work in spatial syntax, a mathematical approach which allows us to understand movement in architectural spaces where we have no other information (e.g. literary evidence) about them or how they were used. To date I have also identified 38 market gardens in Pompeii, some of which I have found were created after the earthquake of AD 62. I hope to publish my findings on this soon.

Q. Why do you think Roman gardens are worth studying?

The garden is a window into the lives of the Romans. It was not only a reflection of the Empire, but also a reflection of the self. Roman gardens reveal individual priorities about the uses and articulation of space, what the Romans thought was important to show off about and ultimately who would also be viewing / using it. The gardens that I study, market gardens, reveal lots about what the Romans ate and any local market trends that may have been arising.

Q. Why do you think that gardens are important sources of evidence for our understanding of the Roman world?

Much of the work by Wilhelmina Jashemski changed the way that we look at Roman gardens and what we could discover about them. Jashemski pioneered root cavity work, filing cavities with Plaster of Paris. These cavities had been created by the roots of plants which decayed after the eruption of Vesuvius (having been buried by pumice and ash which filled the cavities post-decay). Other work, such as that by Frederic D Meyer, revealed the seeds and other organic remains which had been carbonised. A lot of work has been done in this area since, including in drains to look at faecal matter! Many of the seeds etc. that have been excavated were found in gardens, but also in shops and other locations. Ultimately, gardens tell us a lot about how the Romans used them recreationally, walking in them, eating in them, and so on, but also about the trading opportunities such as wine or garland making.

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?

Definitely. It’s a very new area, particularly market garden research. Eschebach before me, attempted to count and map out market gardens in the city but I have found that a few of these were mis-identified spaces. This ultimately comes down to the fact that these spaces have never been properly categorised, even by Jashemski. Her work was mainly conducted in the 1960’s and 1970’s and we know so much more about Pompeian space and have new technologies which will enable us to reinterpret garden space more efficiently in the future. I’m hoping that my work is the start of this.


Jessica Venner is a Doctoral Researcher in the Department of Classics, Ancient History & Archaeology at the University of Birmingham.

Jessica’s research is funded by the Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership.

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Thesis: Subsistence and commercial production in the private gardens of the Roman Empire

My research project looks at subsistence and commercial gardening in first century AD Pompeii, up to the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. It aims to investigate the impact of urban productive gardens on local communities in Pompeii during this period, with the aim to reveal their symbolic and economic role in local monetary and non-monetary economies. The mapping of productive gardens already identified in previous excavations, as well as the identification of as yet unidentified sites, will form a part of this analysis, as will an overview of the symbolic and monetary value attached to garden produce in the region of Campania at this time.

You can find more information about Jessica by clicking here.

You can follow her on Twitter at: @missjlvenner?

6 comments

  1. I am loving the garden themes.
    This is probably obvious but I am assuming that mapping gardens is only possible in Pompeii and possibly Hurculaneum (although most is under the later town) specifically because of the instant destruction and preservation under the ash. Is it therefore an impossibility to extrapolate to other areas within Italy and further afield?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really enjoy when modern theories are used to give insights into the ancient world. I have not heard of spacial syntax but, Googling, it looks fascinating. Whilst very different it reminds me of a presentation at a sensory studies workshop a couple of years ago by NIcky Garland of Newcastle “The sensory analysis of military structures in Britannia – The Commanding Officers’ House, Arbeia, Hadrian’s Wall’”. This was an autoethnographic approach, using an online App called Rescaper which digitally plotted his movement as he naturally walked around which he could then reference to his changing sensory experiences. It stikes me that a combination of the two around the gardens within Pompeii would be interesting..For instance, when I was walking around a peristyle in Pompeii it was scorching, 38 degrees, when I went past a gap in the outside wall and the rushing chimney effect of a fairly stiff breeze, which felt cooling, was pronounced. I thought then it would be a good and natural place to stop, survey the garden and converse..

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wow, that’s really interesting, Colin. I’d never thought much about spatial syntax myself but that a very intriguing way of applying it to sensory studies. Could there be a research question buried in that, I wonder?

        Liked by 1 person

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