Wednesday, September 9, 2015


Kathleen Coleman, Pascale Derron (ed.), Le jardin dans l'antiquité: introduction et huit exposés suivis de discussions. Entretiens sur l'antiquite classique, 60. Vandɶuvres: Fondation Hardt pour l'étude de l'Antiquité classique, 2014. Pp. ix, 467. ISBN 9782600007603. CHF 75.00.

Reviewed by Jane Draycott, University of Wales Trinity Saint David (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Anyone who has been lucky enough to spend time at the Fondation Hardt pour l'Étude de l'Antiquité Classique will have enjoyed the Foundation's beautiful grounds, which include a garden, a greenhouse, an orangery, woods, and even the tomb of the Fondation's founder, Baron Kurd von Hardt. It is fitting, therefore, that the landmark sixtieth volume in the Foundation's Entretiens sur l'Antiquité Classique series should focus on ancient gardens, publishing papers presented during the Entretiens at the Foundation in 2013. While a number of conferences and workshops have taken the gardens of antiquity as their theme in recent years, the topic is far from exhausted.1

As stated clearly in its introduction, the volume under review does not seek to offer a comprehensive overview of the subject, or even to represent all the ways in which the topic of ancient gardens can be approached, 'rather, the individual contributions focus on specific moments and locations within those three millennia of ancient Mediterranean history, taking up the evidence for specific themes and employing inter-disciplinary approaches to interpret it' (p. 2). Thus the ensuing eight essays serve as neat examples of the range of approaches it is possible to take when studying the ancient garden, although neither the essays nor their bibliographies are exhaustive. Additionally, after each essay there is an account of the discussions that arose following the original presentation, which is helpful as it not only facilitates making connections between them but also identifies potentially fruitful avenues for further research, and it is this that ensures a certain amount of cohesion between what are essentially eight very different contributions.

Kathleen Coleman's introduction, 'Melior's plane tree: an introduction to the ancient garden', uses Atedius Melior's garden and its plane tree, as described for us by Statius, as a means of highlighting a variety of themes explored in the following contributions. Christian E. Loeben's essay, 'Der Garten im und am Grab – Götter in Gärten und Gärten für Götter: reale und dargestellte Gärten im Alten Ägypten', focuses on gardens in Pharaonic Egypt, and investigates the extent to which it is possible to understand the gardens of this period by comparing the visual evidence provided by tomb paintings with the archaeological evidence provided by the site of Tell el-Dab'a. He argues that as far as the tomb paintings are concerned, it is not easy to differentiate between realistic and idealising representations, and that ancient Egyptian gardens themselves had multiple functions. Like Loeben's, Stephanie Dalley's essay, 'From Mesopotamian temples as sacred groves to the date-palm motif in Greek art and architecture', takes us as far back as the second millennium BC and utilises a combination of visual and archaeological evidence, but Dalley's aim is to trace the use of the palm-tree motif from temple façades in Babylonian, Assyrian, and Syrian cities to Hellenistic and Roman ones. Dalley argues that the palm-tree was symbolically important in ancient Mesopotamian epic literature, particularly the Epic of Creation and the Epic of Gilgamesh, and that this importance ensured that the motif survived in art in the region at least until the second century AD.

Évelyne Prioux's essay, 'Parler de jardins pour parler de créations littéraires', moves away from visual and archaeological evidence, and from actual gardens, to focus on the image of the garden in the stylistic discourse of classical literature, and argues that both the art of poetry and the poems created as a result were metaphorically equated with horticultural activity, and that this in turn affected the ways in which gardens were described by authors, and what these descriptions signified. The main section of the essay deals with the Second Sophistic authors Longus, Philostratus, and Achilles Tatius as case studies.

The next two chapters explore the role of the garden in elite self-representation, Rabun Taylor's essay, 'Movement, vision, and quotation in the gardens of Herod the Great', focusing on one particular individual, and Annalisa Marzano's essay, 'Roman gardens, military conquests, and elite self-representation', on the senatorial class. Taylor utilises the Third Winter Palace at Jericho and the Summer Palace at Herodium as case studies, building on the findings of recent archaeological excavations, and argues that not only was Herod influenced and inspired by his Roman contemporaries, but also, intriguingly, that he in turn influenced and inspired them. Marzano discusses 'botanical imperialism' with specific reference to the plane tree, arguing that newly imported plant species were not only symbols of military conquest, but also reflected a practical interest in horticulture on the part of the Roman elite.

Bettina Bergmann and Giulia Caneva examine specific components of artistic representations of Roman gardens, both building on their previous work in this area. Bergmann's essay, 'The concept of the boundary in the Roman garden', focuses on a previously unexplored element of ancient Roman garden painting, the miniature gardens depicted from above in an axiomatic plan, and consequently makes a significant contribution to the study of Roman art in general and garden painting in particular. Caneva's essay, 'Il giardino come espressione del divino nelle rappresentazioni dell'antica Roma' explores the religious symbolism of the plants depicted in the garden painting of Pompeii and in sculpture, particularly that of the Augustan Principate, and argues that around two hundred species of plants were utilised for their symbolic power, although their meanings could vary depending upon the combination in which they were depicted.

In the final essay, 'Early Christians and the garden: image and reality', Robin Lane Fox explores the ambiguous status of the garden in the eyes of the early Christians, noting that the pagan garden, whether in literature, art or actuality, was a place of temptation and transgression, and that this was potentially problematic for early Christians, for whom the garden was supposed to be a spiritual retreat, as garden spaces significant to early Christians included Eden and Paradise, but also the Church itself.

The volume is beautifully produced, with 36 pages of full colour illustrations, and a comprehensive set of indices incorporating ancient authors and texts, inscriptions and papyri, artefacts, archaeological sites, names of individuals and deities, and subjects. Its main contribution to current scholarship is that it successfully showcases the sheer diversity not only of the garden in antiquity, but also of possible scholarly approaches to it.


1.   Recent publications include Bodin, H. and Hedlund, R. (2013) Byzantine Gardens and Beyond (Uppsala), not cited by any of the contributors, although it would have been extremely useful for the discussions of Prioux, Caneva and Fox in particular; Gleason, K. and Macaulay-Lewis, E. (2010) The Gardens of the Ancient Mediterranean: Cultural exchange through horticultural design, technology, and plants. In Dalla Riva, M. (ed.), Meetings between Cultures in the Ancient Mediterranean. Proceedings of the 17th International Congress of Classical Archaeology, Rome 22-26 Sept. 2008; Littlewood, A. R., Maguire, H., and Wolschke-Buhlmahn, J. (2002) Byzantine Garden Culture (Washington, DC).

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