Welcome to the fourth 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 other posts in the ‘Let’s talk about … Roman Gardens’ series by clicking on the links below.
Let’s talk about Roman Gardens : Dr Jane Draycott
Let’s talk about Roman Gardens : Jessica Venner
Let’s talk about Roman Gardens : Dr Patty Baker
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 Dr Andy Fox.
Q. Can you tell me a little bit about your research into Roman gardens?
My past research has focused on trees, and their role in the city of Rome, which dipped into the planting of trees, and then the wider world of gardens. There are, of course, some very important trees in some very important gardens, like the laurel grove in Livia’s Villa, Ad Gallinas Albas, which I have spent a good deal of time exploring. The way the garden would have overlooked the Via Flaminia, and the statement of unattainable power, displaying the trees from which the Julio-Claudian laurel crowns were made, out of reach at the top of a cliff, is fascinating. My current research examines environmental pollution in Roman cities, and gardens pop up there as well, as green firebreaks from the noise of the city. Much like today’s green walls, ancient trees filtered out the particulate matter created by Rome’s industry, and offered oases of calm in a bustling metropolis.
Q. Why do you think Roman gardens are worth studying?
Gardens, and the environment more generally, are such a universal concept in the ancient world. Pliny talks about the urban plebeian population as having imago hortorum (the image of gardens) in their windows. The precise nature of this, whether it is a painting of a garden or a window box or something else entirely, has been debated over the past few decades, but what is clear is that there is a genuine connection between the different strata of society and their gardens/parks/h(H)ortus. Unlike literature, gardens could be enjoyed by the illiterate, and are a simple form of communication that bridges subcultures within Rome, and this continues into the modern day. A simple plant can communicate so much, and to so many different people.
Q. Why do you think that gardens are important sources of evidence for our understanding of the Roman world?
Without the greenery of Rome, the city becomes a desolate marble wasteland. Historically, the greenery has been included, but as homogenous blocks. Recent work has gone some way to address that, and I am always conscious to identify, and to stress the different types of trees and plants when I write about them. In fact, the database I put together during my thesis really showed me how alive Romans were to the sheer variety of trees in their city. It really helped me build up this new idea of Rome as an area not just littered with buildings, but with trees and groves, and green spaces. Without them, we lose something from our mental image of Rome, and with them that image becomes enriched.
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?
Absolutely! There’s enormous scope in gardens, from archaeological examinations to literary depictions to artworks displayed within them (like in Pompey’s portico garden). We can also start to explore gardens outside of ancient evidence, there’s work being done on the reception of ancient gardens in renaissance planting, I’d love to see someone with more knowledge about video games than me to dissect the gardens in, for example, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, the amount of potential in this area is boundless. Gardens are not static spaces, and that’s one of the many great things about them. They’re planted, they grow, they die, and they can leave echoes on the landscape. There are so many important things that they do, and that are done to them within that lifespan.
Dr Andy Fox completed his PhD on the use of trees as natural monuments in the city of Rome and its environs in 2018 at the University of Nottingham. In the course of his PhD, he began to compile the Roman Trees Database, cataloguing references to specific species of tree in Latin literature, he published the work-in-progress database as an online open access resource at the end of his doctoral studies.
Andy’s work on the (over 200) trees on Trajan’s Column was published in Papers of the British School at Rome in 2019, and he has an article forthcoming in a special edition of New Classicists examining Roman efforts to mitigate the effects of air pollution, and comparing these efforts to modern ones.
Andy is currently taking a year’s break from paid employment to be a stay-at-home father to his one year old daughter, and is making the most of her naps to adapt his doctoral research into a book.
You can find more information about Andy by checking out his blog & ACADEMIA page.
The Roman Trees Database
You can follow him on Twitter at: @_ACFox