Roman Gardens : Kathryn Gleason

Welcome to the seventh 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

Let’s talk about Roman Gardens : Samuli Simelius

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. 

Standing architecture at the Casa della Regina Carolina, Pompeii (VIII 3.14), showing the atrium in the foreground. Photograph by Pasquale Sorrentino.
Standing architecture at the Casa della Regina Carolina, Pompeii (VIII 3.14), showing the atrium in the foreground (Photo: Pasquale Sorrentino) http://blogs.cornell.edu/crcpompeii/

Let’s talk about … Roman Gardens with Kathryn Gleason.

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

My scholarly interests have drawn on my background in landscape architecture.  My work explores the design and construction of public parks and other large landscapes, as well as smaller gardens.  Archaeological remains provide the three dimensional spatial framework that texts cannot reveal, as well as preserving the methods of construction. In the absence of a treatise on ars topiaria, my goal has been to interpret all forms of evidence to reconstruct how a garden was designed to meet the vision and needs of the client, whether for a public or a palatial project. Few people know what a landscape architect does today, but in Roman times, the topiarius, like the architect and engineer, was a slave and thus largely invisible in the historical record. 

Over the course of the past 40 years, I have overseen about 21 garden excavations, all in collaboration with a team of other archaeologists and specialists. My publications have focused on techniques of documenting and excavating the remains of Roman gardens, mainly those outside of the Vesuvian region, as Prof. Jashemski was still working there with her husband when I began my career. Drawing on my dissertation, I have been developing and publishing an interdisciplinary methodology for garden archaeology, which I first published as as part of a larger book project, The Sourcebook for Garden Archaeology, edited by Amina-Aicha Malek (2013). Of course, it continues to develop. I am excited to be excavating a large urban garden, the Casa della Regina Carolina, at Pompeii (link to more info is at the bottom of this page) with Caitlin Barrett, Annalisa Marzano and Kaja Tally Schumacher.

For many years I have been involved with Wilhelmina Jashemski’s Gardens of the Roman Empire.  The print volume came out in 2018, and now we are working with the Institute for Study of the Ancient World at NYU to make available an open-access, searchable compendium of over 1000 garden sites across the Empire that Jashemski and the editorial team assembled with the assistance of over a dozen author/contributors. This part of the project is an independent website dedicated to bringing together known evidence for Roman gardens. Anyone working on Roman gardens can contact me now to see the website in progress and we will share it publicly in April 2021.

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

The range of interviews you have done to date on your blog suggests the wide range of topics that can be explored through the study of gardens, whether as settings for elite performance, displays of art and water, religious ritual, commodity crops, or as cultivated places for non-elite peoples around the empire, including slaves.

Given my background, I am especially interested in the designer. The largest of the parks and gardens required the knowledge of someone who could coordinate the efforts of architects and engineers with the creative expression and skill of an ornamental gardener to create beautiful, meaningful living systems on built terraces. Thanks to the work of Lena Langren, Nicholas Purcell and others, the term topiarius is emerging as equivalent to a landscape architect or ornamental gardener, someone who designs and oversees rather than a gardener who clips shrubs into shapes or does the daily manual labor. We know from inscriptions that everyone involved in the creation and maintenance of landscape designs was either a slave or freeman, but there were varied levels of training and status. Landscape architects today, much like architects, study for 4-6 years, then enter a three year apprenticeship period before an exam that gives them the full credentials call themselves landscape architects. It takes that long to fully understand how to transform a piece of land into the kind of monumental imperial gardens and parks we are finding archaeologically. These designs needed to provide the settings for the complex and varied activities of Roman life, integrating civic, religious, business, and social activities, requiring an understanding of circulation, art curation, security, irrigation, water displays, as well as horticulture.  

As an archaeologist, the remains I recover help me “find design”. For many years it was not usually possible to know the specific plants at an ancient Roman garden site, which explains the lack of incentive to dig them. However, from a design perspective, archaeological investigation can reveal the process of design and construction. Like buildings, major gardens would have required design to develop the concept for the garden, followed by carefully planning to organise the acquisition of plants, materials, and slave labor. Archaeological investigation can reveal how a design on papyrus or stone may have surveyed onto a prepared site, and how the irrigation, pools, walks, were laid out and constructed. We can assess the garden soil, detect the pits into which the trees were planted and sometimes the cavities left by the roots of the trees. Roman gardens were rarely “landscaping” in the sense of arranging plants in the natural ground. They were highly constructed sites, built on leveled terraces with imported construction fills and soils, then finished with plants brought in from nurseries, curated art collections, and elaborate water displays. All elements held meaning as well as visual beauty. Once installed, gardens immediately began their “afterlife”, both as settings for human events, but also as ecologies for non-human life. Knowledge of these garden ecologies was very much part of a skilled gardener’s experience, and managing the life of the garden entailed discouraging some wildlife, such as destructive pests, while encouraging others, such as songbirds, landsnails, turtles, and lizards.

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

Gardens are difficult topics for the individual student or scholar. An individual can understand the basic materiality of a pot, a coin, a building, or a sculpture and seek out comparative examples. Working across other disciplines enriches that knowledge by adding analysis of what was in the pot, how the coin was made, why the building collapsed. To understand the basic materiality of a garden, however, it is necessary to reach across disciplines to work out the soils, the construction, the plants, and the cultural associations that will tell us if it is a garden and what basic kind. This collaborative process is enlightening not only in identifying the garden but in raising new questions about the landscape within individual disciplines. 

Gardens are highly complex expressions of appropriation, conquest, not only for the elite to express their status and desires, but for educating all Roman citizens about their place in an empire reaching far beyond the limits of their imagination. Roman gardens, parks, temple groves, and other large designed landscapes were multi-media settings that required great wealth and resources to create and maintain. There is terrific new work being done on religion, daily life across the classes, labor, horticulture, and the ways that gardens encapsulate the wide cultural landscapes of the Roman world. 

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?

We once spoke of “the Roman garden” but clearly there was a great diversity of Roman gardens that evolved in popularity over the centuries of the empire.  There is much to do to explore this history. When I first began work, gardens were seen as a niche area and a dubious topic for serious scholarly research. It was difficult to meet others working on Roman gardens. Today the subject is burgeoning. There is much to do to better organize networks that could lead to new directions in scholarship. Years ago I set up a Facebook group, “Gardens of the Roman Empire“, to help people make contact with one another. Another group set up  “Ancient Gardens and Landscape Studies”, with the same goal.  Both are active if you or your readers would like to join in.

To answer your question more specifically, as we begin to build a significant corpus of knowledge about gardens from archaeological excavations, we are reviewing the well-known art historical and textual evidence, and the results have been terrific!  This is leading us to link the finds with terms in the texts, such as nemora tonsilia, or barbered groves.  It now appears, from multiple sources of evidence, that Romans liked to miniaturise their garden plants by skilful pruning! Romans had a very sophisticated garden culture, so there many topics of this nature to explore.

Another great advancement has been new techniques of studying pollen, phytoliths, and other plant microremains.  The results are revolutionizing our knowledge of the garden plants.  Palynologist Dafna Langgut, for example, has developed a method of recovering pollen from plastered walls around gardens. Not only are her results giving a more accurate picture of the garden plants, they are also consistently astonishing us with the range of large tree species that Romans liked to pack into even the smallest of peristyles. Knowing the plants of a garden opens up new lines of inquiry and interpretation. Archaeobotany in the Roman world is opening up the topic of horticultural practices discussed in ancient texts.

I was struck by a passing line in the TV series Britannia, that historians “whisper to the future”.  Major new issues are facing our society and perhaps unpacking the condensed landscapes of Roman gardens and parks may help us confront their legacy and  move forward. 

More about Kathryn

Kathryn Gleason

Kathryn Gleason is Professor of Landscape Architecture and a specialist on the archaeology of ancient Roman designed landscapes and landscape architectural history. Her scholarship explores how ancient gardens and parks (virid[i]aria) can be recovered archaeologically.  Her particular focus is on how archaeological remains preserve traces of the work of the original designer, reconstructing not just the garden’s original appearance, but the practices by which lands were transformed into gardens that choreographed practices of political power, fealty, resistance, and daily life around the Roman Empire.

You can read more about Kathryn’s research at – https://classics.cornell.edu/kathryn-gleason

The Casa della Regina Carolina (CRC) Project – https://archaeology.cornell.edu/casa-della-regina-carolina-crc-project & http://blogs.cornell.edu/crcpompeii/

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