Roman Gardens : Samuli Simelius

Welcome to the sixth 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

Let’s talk about Roman Gardens : Dr Andy Fox

Let’s talk about Roman Gardens : Dr Victoria Austen

Opolontis, Italy – Villa di Poppea – Peristyle and Garden | Arthur Taussig
Villa di Poppea – Peristyle & Garden

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 Samuli Simelius.

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

My research on Roman gardens focuses on Pompeii and particularly on peristyle gardens. My PhD thesis – Pompeian peristyle gardens as a means of socioeconomic representation is available online at – https://helda.helsinki.fi/handle/10138/238264. I’m currently writing a book based on my dissertation, and it will be published (hopefully) next year in the series Studies in Roman Space and Urbanism (Routledge).

https://www.routledge.com/Studies-in-Roman-Space-and-Urbanism/book-series/SRSU.

My work relates particularly to the context of the gardens – Pompeian houses, and the concept of the Roman house in general. I have done a lot of quantitative analyzes of the material, but also qualitative, as quantitative method itself requires at least a basic qualitative evaluation. The main focus, as the title indicates is on the question, how did the peristyle garden reflect the economic and social status of the house owner/inhabitant.

In addition, I have participated in several archaeological projects examining the gardens in the area of Vesuvius. I have done fieldwork with Finnish, Italian and American projects. At the moment I’m working with The Casa della Regina Carolina Project at Pompeii (CRC) http://blogs.cornell.edu/crcpompeii/ with Cornell University. The project excavates the large garden of the Casa della Regina Carolina.

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

I often joke that I’m not a typical garden scholar, as I don’t do any gardening myself. This is obviously based on the assumption that people studying ancient gardens are interested in gardening and plants in general, and they have started studying gardens because of that! I think this is often the case, but evidently there are several different reasons why people study ancient gardens.

As a student I was mainly interested in ancient societies and their people, and I kind of accidentally drifted into the study of Roman gardens. For me, the reason why I study gardens has always been to find out more about the people, and what gardens tell us about ancient life. Of course the more I study gardens the more interested I become in them!

On another level (and I think this is really important) studying ancient Roman gardens helps us to come to terms with the fact that there’s lot’s of information that we don’t know – or only have a vague idea about it. For example, reconstructing an ancient garden on the basis of archaeological remains teaches us very quickly that it is difficult: there aren’t many sources and it is hard to draw out any definitive conclusions. This demonstrates just how much information we have about the ancient world and that there is still so much we don’t know about it, and this makes us think differently about our view of antiquity. 

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

As I mentioned previously, we don’t have a vast amount of literary references to gardens, but they are mentioned quite often in passing. For example, if we compare how often gardens are mentioned with other art forms, such as sculpture and paintings, then I suppose that the difference is not that big, which perhaps indicates that Romans considered gardens quite important. 

A Roman garden might have been more important to the people who were living and visiting a house/building/space than the architectural features themselves. By this I mean that a garden is seasonal and it is planed and replanted again and again – at least partly, but the architectural features, likely, were not changed so often. Therefore, we can probably think more about what people experienced, thought and talked about in reference to gardens more often than, let’s say, a wall painting that had been there for years.

Another aspect is what the gardens can tell us about the life of the sub elites. Our view of the ancient world is based a lot on the literary sources, which inevitably communicates information about the world of ancient elites. Gardens on the other hand are a part of something that is often called ‘everyday life.’ Different groups of people were connected with gardens and at least experienced them – positively or negatively. This includes the groups that were not elite. Gardens affected the lives of many people. This way gardens help to complete our view of the Roman World as a whole.

Additionally, ancient culture has influenced later Western societies enormously. We all know this, but the extent might be even larger than we realize. This has become very obvious to me because of the current project I’m working on. The project studies Roman republicanism and its later influence (https://www.helsinki.fi/en/researchgroups/law-governance-and-space). Also, Roman gardens have had a significant influence throughout history in many ways that we don’t even know about yet.

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?

Yes, there is a lot. For example, garden archaeology is a relatively young branch of research, so there is a lot to study. There is also a lot of source material that has been barely used before, and let’s not forget that new material is coming to light all the time, as the methods of field work and documentation advance. The main problem is that some of this material is hidden away somewhere in archives, libraries, or warehouses, so it is not so easily accessible, but there is a lot of material that is almost completely unstudied.

If I think about Roman gardens generally, I would suggest that we need to start looking more at the material from the point of view of the lower classes, meaning basically everybody else other than the top political and social male elite of the Roman World. I don’t mean that the elite should be ignored at all, but there is much less research done on the other groups.

Also because garden archaeology and history is still a relatively young field (or not that extensively covered as some other parts of the Roman World) I see that there is a lot of potential for the development of new methodologies and theories. These areas of research might be difficult at the beginning, but as the research progresses people will come up with new ideas and approaches to the study of Roman gardens. I also think we could take the study of Roman gardens further by using it to help us understand the long term developments of the Roman World. I don’t say that this is not done at the moment, I know it is, but I think there is still lots more to do.


About Samuli

Samuli Simelius is a post-doctoral researcher in the project –  Law, Governance and Space: Questioning the Foundations of the Republican Tradition. The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 771874).

https://cordis.europa.eu/project/id/771874

Social Media

You can follow Samuli on Twitter at: @simelius

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6 comments

  1. Thank you so much. I loved the admission you are not a gardener and not a typical garden researcher, it is refreshing as it seems to be standard that you have to have a passion for your subject from the get go, That is not to say you can’t grow to love it of course and, to me, gardens can be one of those subjects that lure you in – beauty, tranquility, style, sensory, what’s not to like?
    Once again, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Samuli’s admission that he’s not a gardener made me think, because neither am I. When I think about what drew me to Roman Gardens in the first place I suppose it’s more about how they intersect so many different aspects of life, so really there’s something for everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are right – maybe I am mis-remembering but I am sure that I have been advised that, going to the next research step, it should be something I have a passion for. On the other hand there are essays I have written where I started off as meh but the subject grew on me as I delved more into it. Food for thought (now there’s a strapline for a Roman Garden essay)

      Like

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