Thursday, August 30, 2018


Wilhelmina Feemster Jashemski, Kathryn L. Gleason, Kim J. Hartswick, Amina-Aïcha​ Malek (ed.), Gardens of the Roman Empire. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xxxvi, 617. ISBN 9780521821612. £220.00​.

Reviewed by Jane Draycott, University of Glasgow (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and chapter titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The late Professor Wilhemina F. Jashemski (1910-2007) pioneered the interdisciplinary study of ancient Roman gardens, utilising ancient literary, documentary, archaeological, and archaeobotanical evidence over the course of some six decades, during which she investigated the gardens of Pompeii and Herculaneum, excavated sites around the Bay of Naples and in North Africa, and took the lead in publishing a series of comprehensive guides to various aspects of ancient Roman garden culture that are now, though still very useful for the information, discussion and analysis that they do contain, sadly rather out of date.1 Gardens of the Roman Empire, her final scholarly endeavour, completed by her colleagues and published now, eleven years after her death in 2007, serves two purposes. The first is to update and build upon the fruits of Jashemski's original labours to establish a baseline for research on ancient Roman gardens going forward; the second is to serve as a memorial not just to Jashemski, but also to her husband Stanley Jashemski and a number of other long-time collaborators who died during the volume's protracted period of preparation, all of whom made significant contributions to the field of ancient garden studies as we know it today.

Like Jashemski's earlier opus The Gardens of Pompeii, Gardens of the Roman Empire is a two-volume work. It differs in how it presents its material, however, with the first volume taking the form of a collection of essays covering the ancient Roman garden from all angles in varying levels of detail (it is much broader in scope than previous monographs or edited collections on this subject), and the second, originally intended as a CD or DVD but eventually taking the form of extensive online resources that can be accessed on the Cambridge University Press website from August 2018 (see here). Consequently, it is only the first volume, the collection of essays, that is under review here. The volume was decades in the making, a process described and detailed in both the Acknowledgements and Introduction (jointly authored by Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, Kathryn L. Gleason, Kim Hartswick, and Amina-Aïcha Malek), and perhaps unsurprisingly, given the many hands through which the project passed over the years, and the continuous development of the field of garden archaeology, it seems to have gone through numerous stages of development and separate incarnations. The final version is the result of extensive collaboration between Jashemski and a variety of different contributors over a long period of time. This accounts for the variety and a certain amount of unevenness from chapter to chapter.

Volume 1 is composed of three parts: The Main Types of Garden; The Experience of Gardens as Revealed by Literature and Arts; and Making the Garden. There is a degree of overlap between the sections, although the reappearance of specific subjects tends to be complementary rather than repetitive (e.g. the description of water features and their fundamental role in the ancient Roman garden in Part 1 and the discussion of the ancient Roman water supply in Part 3).

The first part proceeds methodically through the many different types of ancient Roman garden with the archaeological evidence privileged over other types (attention is paid to the latter in Part 2). The sheer diversity of ancient Roman gardens is frequently noted. It covers those found in private contexts such as the domus (Eric Morvillez), the villa (Kim J. Hartswick; Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis), the produce garden (Wilhelmina Jashemski), and the tomb (John Bodel). It also covers those found in public contexts such as the temple and the sacred grove (Maureen Carroll), the bath-house and the palaestra (Janet DeLaine), the gymnasium, the school and the schola (Maureen Carroll). Each chapter presents a general survey of the location in question punctuated with specific representative examples from around the empire. The chapters are of varying lengths, as there is considerably more evidence for some types of garden: hence the extreme length of the first chapter, which deals with the domus in considerable depth, and the eighth, which deals with the tomb, and the much richer discussion and analysis that is found in these places. Collectively, however, this section provides much more extensive and varied coverage of the ancient Roman garden than has been achieved previously, even in extended treatments on the subject.2

The second part presents five surveys of the different types of literary and artistic evidence for ancient Roman gardens. Two focus on literature, one Latin (K. Sara Myers), the other Greek (Anthony R. Littlewood), and they offer broadly chronological overviews of their subjects. Littlewood's coverage of gardens in Greek literature extends beyond the classical world to the Byzantine empire and the Geoponika in the tenth century, and in view of this it is a shame that Myers' coverage of gardens in Latin literature is much narrower, restricted to the canon.3 The other three chapters focus on different types of artistic evidence, frescoes in gardens and frescoes depicting gardens (Bettina Bergmann), mosaics (Amina-Aïcha Malek), and sculpture (Kim J. Hartswick). In one sense, this seems something of an arbitrary separation considering that all three media frequently worked together in coherent decorative schemes, but the approach taken in each chapter is to consider the deeper significance of that particular medium and how it was used to immerse the viewer (for example, Bergmann covers not just garden paintings but also those depicting beast hunts, while Malek covers not just mosaics with nature motifs but also those that depict the gods, but both argue persuasively for connections between them). With the exception of Littlewood's chapter on Greek literature, none of the subject coverage is comprehensive but rather presents edited highlights that encourage further investigation.4

The third part explores the physical components of the ancient garden and the process by which one was made, and it is here that the most new material and new approaches to ancient Roman gardens are present. Methodologies from other academic disciplines are utilised to elucidate the process of constructing a garden, since we lack the perspective of the ancient gardener (Kathryn L. Gleason and Michele A. Palmer), and recent advances in the understanding of ancient sanitation are utilised to assess the role of water and water technology in making an ancient garden viable (Gemma C. M. Jansen). Two more chapters recount the ways in which gardening was actually done, looking at the techniques and the plants involved (Wilhelmina F. Jashemski).5 This section, and the volume, concludes with a chapter proposing new perspectives that have been offered by the volume as a whole (Kathryn L. Gleason, Kim J. Hartswick, Amina-Aïcha Malek, and Michele A. Palmer).

The entire volume is lavishly illustrated, with hundreds of extremely high quality black-and-white and colour photographs, illustrations, and plans. It is an absolute pleasure to peruse.

While much of the volume does not offer anything new or innovative, it does scholars interested in ancient gardens a service in bringing together a huge amount of material, and it serves as a comprehensive update of Jashemski's scholarship, thereby finally superseding in many respects The Gardens of Pompeii, and providing a platform from which scholarship on ancient Roman gardens can continue to develop. Once the companion volume is available, its open access and constantly updated online resources will undoubtedly ensure its continuing relevance for years to come.

Authors and titles

Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, Kathryn L. Gleason, Kim. J. Hartswich, and Amina- Aïcha Malek, 'Introduction'
Part 1: The Main Types of Garden
Eric Morvillez, 'The Garden in the Domus'
Kim J. Hartswich, 'The Roman Villa Garden'
Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis, 'The Archaeology of Gardens in the Roman Empire'
Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, 'Produce Gardens'
Maureen Carroll, 'Temple Gardens and Sacred Groves'
Janet DeLaine, 'Gardens in Baths and Palaestras'
Maureen Carroll, 'Gardens in Gymnasia, Schools, and Scholae'
John Bodel, 'Roman Tomb Gardens'
Part 2: The Experience of Gardens as Revealed by Literature and Art
Anthony R. Littlewood, 'Greek Literary Evidence for Roman Gardens'
K. Sara Myers, 'Representations of Gardens in Roman Literature'
Bettina Bergmann, 'Frescoes in Roman Gardens'
Amina- Aïcha Malek, 'Mosaics and Nature in the Roman Domus'
Kim J. Hartswick, 'Sculpture in Ancient Roman Gardens'
Part 3: Making the Garden
Kathryn L. Gleason, 'Constructing the Ancient Roman Garden'
Gemma C. M. Jansen, 'Water and Water Technology in Roman Gardens'
Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, 'Gardening Practices and Techniques'
Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, Kathryn L. Gleason, and Michael Herchenbach, 'Plants of the Roman Garden'
Kathryn L. Gleason, Kim J. Hartswick, Amina- Aïcha Malek, and Michele A. Palmer, 'Conclusions: New Perspectives on the Roman Garden'


1.   Jashemski, W. F. (1979) The Gardens of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius: Volume 1 (New Rochelle, NY: Caratzas Brothers); Jashemski, W. F. (1993) The Gardens of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius: Volume 2 (New Rochelle, NY: Aristide Caratzas).
2.   See for example Farrar, L. (1998) Ancient Roman Gardens (Stroud: Sutton Publishing); Gleason, K. (ed.) A Cultural History of Gardens in Antiquity (London: Bloomsbury); Farrar, L. (2016) Gardens and Gardeners of the Ancient World: History, Myth and Archaeology (Oxford: Oxbow).
3.   That is not to say that Littlewood's contribution is particularly innovative in and of itself, see for example his other work on Byzantine garden culture such as Littlewood, A. R., Maguire, H., and Wolschke-Bulmahn, J. (edd.) (2002) Byzantine Garden Culture (Washington D. C.: Dumbarton Oaks).
4.   See for example Bergmann's other publications on ancient Roman garden paintings, (2002) 'Art and Nature in the Villa at Oplontis', in McGinn, T. A. (ed.) Pompeian Brothels, Pompeii's Ancient History, Mirrors and Mysteries, Art and Nature at Oplontis & the Herculaneum "Basilica" (Portsmouth, RI: JRA Supplement 47), pp. 87‒121; (2008) 'Staging the Supernatural: Interior Gardens of Pompeian Houses', in Mattusch, C. C. (ed.) Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples (New York, NY: Binocular), pp. 53–69; (2014) 'The Concept of the Boundary in the Roman Garden', in Coleman, K. (ed.) Le jardin dans l'Antiquité (Vandoeuvres: Fondation Hardt pour l'étude de l'antiquité classique), pp. 245-289.
5.   The second chapter follows the successful approach of Jashemski, W. F. and Meyer, F. G. (edd.) (2002) The Natural History of Pompeii (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). ​

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