Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Gardens of Pompeii

Welcome back to yet another blog on Roman Gardens! This weeks blog is interesting and different from previous ones in that it focuses on the gardens of the Roman city of Pompeii.  The source I used this week was Wilhemina F. Jeshemski's The Gardens of Pompeii: Herculaneum and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius.  What makes Jeshemski's book special is that it is based on archaeological studies of the horticultural and agricultural life of Roman Pompeii.  Pompeii is perhaps one of the best preserved cities of the Roman Empire and I will discuss why below.

Legend has it that Pompeii (and Herculaneum) were founded by Hercules (Greek hero) when he was returning from Spain.  Pompeii was attacked by the Romans in 89 BC by General Sulla and in 80 BC it became a Roman colony.  A year later the city was covered by lapilli (also known as tephra or volcanic ash) after the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius.  The Greek geographer Strabo, who lived during Christ's Existence, claims Pompeii to have been previously occupied by Oscans, Etruscans, Pelasgians, Samnites, and finally the Romans.  Since the site is preserved by lapilli, the earliest remains that were recovered date back to the 6th c. and are Greek. (1)

The volcanic eruption may have destroyed much of the city and killed many people, but as mentioned before it preserved much of the city and it also provided the city with fertile soil!  The preservation of the city allows us to look at every aspect of the city's layout.  The majority of the gardens recovered at Pompeii are located inside homes and public buildings.  What makes Pompeii unique is that its plan directly used the environment that surrounded it.  For example it used the volcanic hill as it boundary on its west, south, and east sides.  The city was also planned out well because of the way its streets and sidewalks were set up.  Streets varied in width and sidewalks were well above ground to make it easier for transportation when the streets flooded.  The city was filled with food and wine shops, restaurants, inns, hotels, and stables; the last three were usually located near public areas, like the city gates, forum, and amphitheater to accommodate visitors. (2)


Roman shop: Facade of the House of Trebius Valens from The Gardens of Pompeii by Wilhemina F. Jeshemski.

When it comes to homes and gardens the preservation of Pompeii makes this very interesting.  From the outside all the homes looked alike, but inside they varied.  All the homes were built so close together that all that separated them was a wall in which they shared.  City blocks that were divided by a street were referred to as insulae.  The orientation of Pompeian homes was inward.  In other words, the home was built around the garden to protect it.  The windows of homes that faced the street were small and high, some even had bars, to protect the home from strangers.  As I mentioned in earlier blogs, the Roman word for the garden was the hortus.  During the Roman period, the hortus was very important to the heredum, or family estate.  The Italic house was also the most popular type of house used during this time.  The best preserved is the House of the Surgeon (4th-3th c. BC), called this because of all of the preserved surgical tools found inside.  Its rooms were oriented around the atrium, or central court, as illustrated below. (3)


Atrium during rain, House of the Silver Wedding from The Gardens of Pompeii by Wilhemina F. Jeshemski.

In my starting paragraph I mentioned that Jeshemski looks at Pompeii in an archaeological sense and because of this she explains the actual process of recovering a site and figuring out which plants, flowers, etc. were planted there.  The first step archaeologists took was to carefully remove the lapilli until they reached the level of earth that dated to 79 BC (Vesuvius' eruption).  The next step was to careful empty out the root cavity with specialized tools, reinforce it with heavy wire, and fill it with cement. They then allowed the cement to sit for about three days until it hardened.  The final step was to remove the soil around the cast and thus the shape of the ancient root would be revealed.  This allowed archaeologist to figure out what was planted in the Pompeian gardens, which then allowed for more details about Roman gardening.  The process is depicted below. (4)


Garden excavations at Pompeii from The Gardens of Pompeii by Wilhemina F. Jeshemski.

As for the life in the Pompeian garden, it is pretty much the same as it would've been in other Roman cities.  People ate while reclining on triclinia, or dining couches, and only children, slaves, and travelers were allowed to eat sitting.  The Romans adopted this tradition of reclining during meals from the Greeks.  I have mentioned in earlier blogs that triclinia were shaped like the letter "u" and were composed of three couches, each of which could have seated three people.  The kitchens in Pompeian homes were small, and in larger homes they were located far from the garden.  The reason for this being the assumption that if you afford a big house, you could afford servants to run around for you. The actual cooking was done on a small hearth, with a fire of charcoal built beneath the cooking pot and which rested on a tripod.  Since most Romans had gardens, all the supplies needed for cooking were readily available. The Romans main meal was called the cena and it was three-part.  First came the gestus, or appetizers.  Then was the mensa prima (cena proper), and lastly the mensa secunda (dessert).  In terms of actual cook books, only one survives that dates back to the 4th or early 5th c. by M. Gavius Apicius. (5)

In Pompeii music played a big role while dining. The music was of course a form of entertainment that included instruments and a chorus.  Jeshemski says, "Romans, unlike Greeks, did not have a tradition of music, and at first they depended on slaves or professional musicians."  Wall paintings, mosaics, and preserved instruments provide us with detailed information on the use of music in gardens.  For one, paintings and mosaics depict cupids playing instruments, while they also show how certain instruments were associated with specifics gods.  For example, the cithara was associated with Apollo and pipes were associated with the cult of Dionysus. (6)

In many paintings women are depicted as doing work in the garden like spinning wool.  Children are shown playing, but usually only in certain parts of the gardens.  Dogs are shown guarding the entrances of gardens, while birds roam freely and fish swim in the fish ponds. (7)


Wall painting of a dog from a caupona on the Via dell' Abbondanza from The Gardens of Pompeii by Wilhemina F. Jeshemski.

The inns, restaurants and hotels of Pompeii are noteworthy to discuss.  Inns were usually located near the city walls to accommodate visitors.  They had gardens with cushioned triclinium and a pergola covered by vines to provide shade.  The most popular Pompeian hotel was the House of Sallust which was later converted to commercial uses.  It had a shop at the left of its entrance that sold food and drinks.  Its garden could be viewed from the outside through the windows.  It was easy to view it from the outside because it was three steps higher than the rest of the house.  It was fairly small which only left room for flowers.  It contained a painted wall in the background in order to make it look bigger.  The painting depicted three fountains with a fence surrounded by trees and shrubs. (8)


Wall painting from the House of Sallust from The Gardens of Pompeii by Wilhemina F. Jeshemski.

One of the areas Jeshemski excavated at Pompeii was the Caupona of Euxinus (a food shop) because it was covered with a thick growth of vegetation.  On this site Jeshemski and others found many cavities filled with lapilli.  They emptied the cavities and discovered the diameter of each to be 14 inches.  All together they found 34 cavities, 32 of which ended up being those from grapevines and 2 were from trees.  This vineyard and many like it were important in supplying wine to the city, and in this particular case to the Caupona of Euxinus.  Other areas of the city were also excavated and revealed other vineyards which shows the importance of them in Roman culture.  Some of the best literary evidence for viticulture (the science, production, and study of grapes) come from the following authors:  Pliny the Elder's encyclopedia; Cato's De agri-cultura (234-149 BC) which contains comments and directions for administration of a farm; Varro's (116-27 BC) De re rustica which he wrote at 80 years old to serve as a manual to his wife; Columella's De re rustica, three of the twelve books discuss viticulture; and Virgil's Georgics, a poem that discusses agriculture. (9)

The flower industry in Pompeii seemed to be one of great importance.  Pompeii itself was the center for flower cultivation because of how fertile the soil was.  There was high demand for flowers for festivals, birthdays, weddings, games, and funerals.  Garlands were most commonly used for honoring gods, as gifts to dinner guests, and flowers were used to decorate altars during a sacrifice.  According to Pliny the Elder there were three different kinds of flowers that were used for garlands, the rose, the lily, and the violet (same order as importance).  Wall paintings provide us with evidence that there were flower shops in Pompeii.  Wood did not survive the eruption of Vesuvius which makes it difficult to identify these flower shops.  Flowers were used for other purposes as well.  One was to make perfumes where the rose was the most popular scent.  They were also used to make honey, the natural sweetener for Romans, and medicine.  The main ingredient for the latter was the rose, but other important plants were salvia, portulaca, and aster. (10)


Salvia grown at Pompeii from The Gardens of Pompeii by Wilhemina F. Jeshemski.

Jeshemski's book is a very good example of Roman horticulture, and even agriculture, because of all the hard evidence it provides.  Pompeii is in my opinion the best Roman city to look at for evidence of Roman gardens because of how well preserved the city is.  The Gardens of Pompeii differed from other sources I have used because of its archaeological discussion of Roman gardens and its focus on Pompeii.  I enjoyed that Jeshemski, like many other authors, referred to the works of Roman gardeners to support her information.  I also enjoyed all the pictures she provides in her book.  Her discussion of the flower industry was also unique because it has not been discussed in any of the other sources I have looked at.  

In terms of my overall project everything seems to be going smoothly.  I am actually looking forward to the next couple of weeks because I have gotten a hold books that contain recipes of Roman cooking.  Perhaps I can cook something up and blog about it!

1. Wilhemina F. Jeshemski, The Gardens of Pompeii: Herculaneum and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius (New York: Caratzas Brothers, 1979), 1-4.
2. Ibid., 4-15.
3. Ibid., 15-17.
4. Ibid., 23.
5. Ibid., 89-92.
6. Ibid., 97-99.
7. Ibid., 101-108.
8. Ibid., 168-169.
9. Ibid., 202-203.
10. Ibid., 267-279.

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