The Epic City: Urbanism, Utopia, and the Garden in Ancient Greece and Rome

  Giesecke, Annette. 2007. The Epic City: Urbanism, Utopia, and the Garden in Ancient Greece and Rome. Hellenic Studies Series 21. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Prologue: An Afternoon Walk

One fine afternoon in Athens, Cicero, together with his friends Marcus Piso and Titus Pomponius, his brother Quintus, and his first cousin Lucius Cicero, set off on foot through the imposing Dipylon Gate and beyond the city’s circuit wall. Their destination was the nearby Academy where they intended to take a relaxing stroll to unwind from a morning spent listening to the philosophical discourse of Antiochus. [1] Upon their arrival, they declared this tranquil spot ideal, its shaded, fragrant walks deservedly famous. Indeed, centuries earlier, Aristophanes had extolled the Academy’s plantings of olive, plane, yew, and poplar. [2] The shaded walks and groves of the obscure hero Hekademos had remained an oasis, a pleasant place in which to escape the bustle of inner city life. Here, to their delight, the friends vividly conjured the memory of Plato, who had set up shop in these pleasant, hallowed groves.

However idyllic the Academy may have been, Epicurus, whose Garden the friends passed along the way, eschewed it as a location for his school, taking the radical step of creating a garden oasis for his pupils within the city itself. Just how significant a step it was that Epicurus established his horti ‘garden(s)’ within the city versus in its outlying suburbium can be recognized if one recalls that in its prime—as even to this day—Athens was not a garden city. Indeed, the suburban gymnasia provided the closest thing to pleasure gardens, and within the city’s walls, gardens of any variety were few and far between. Classical Athens, with scattered intra-mural plantings limited to public spaces such as sanctuaries and the Agora, was testimony of the triumph of humankind over wild Nature. Girt by the raw beauty of the sea, which was harvested for its wealth of fish, and the mountain triad of Penteli, Parnes, and Hymettos, which yielded marble, game, and pasturage, Athens was secured by its circuit walls against human and animal foe alike. Meanwhile, marking the “urban center,” a massive temple dedicated to the city’s patron goddess rose from and unabashedly appropriated a colossal rock in the midst of the Attic plain. The message of Athena’s temple was unambiguous: the city protected by this goddess had fought against and prevailed over the bestial, the monstrous, the barbarian—in short, every potential threat to a perfect, civilized, anthropocentric order.

Athens’ exclusion of “menacing” Nature from the city’s heart was a phenomenon mirrored by the dwelling house. Closely clustered along narrow, labyrinthine roads, Athenian houses presented a blank, fortress-like façade to the outside world. Their source of light and air was an interior courtyard, which served as a space for work, play, and worship, but not as a place to test one’s green thumb. Inner city, domestic gardens were limited, in the main, to ephemeral container plantings perched on rooftops and displayed in honor of Aphrodite’s beloved Adonis. In Classical Athens, the ideal garden was extra-mural and utilitarian. Outside the fortified urban center lay market gardens in which fruit, vegetables, herbs, and flowers were grown. Here too were orchards, vineyards, and fields of grain, and, beyond them, pasturelands.

Beginning with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the pages that follow will examine the impulse underlying the development of the particular and carefully designed anthropocentric order that would become pivotal in the ideological self-fashioning of the Athenians and the Hellenes more generally. These pages will also address the causes underlying the “retreat” into the garden—first into groves that lay beyond the city walls and then into inner city gardens—as a vantage point from which to reflect on the optimal ordering of society. Why did Epicurus subvert the age-old order by bringing Nature within the city’s walls, and why had Plato before him established his school in the groves of the Academy? Why, in turn, was the Roman sensibility towards Nature that emerged as the Republic set out to dominate the world so very different from that of Classical Greece? It is true that early Roman houses had garden spaces at their rear, evidence of an innate affinity for, or acknowledged dependence on, Nature, but the garden would eventually become a key feature fully integrated into the fabric of the Roman house. Exposure to the Hellenized East in the last centuries before the Common Era was attended by the assimilation of peristyle courts, but unlike their Greek counterparts, these peristyles were lushly planted. Outfitted with statuary and splashing fountains, the peristyle garden became the focal point of the Roman house. Now Nature was center stage. Planted gardens were “expanded” by paintings that mimicked their ornate hedges and bright blooms, and garden scenes, illusionistically painted, even appeared on the walls of interior living spaces. In short, the garden became a ubiquitous presence in the Roman house.

As for the city of Rome itself, peri-urban market gardens gave way to luxurious and expansive estates. These villas and their grounds, together with the “urbane” villas in outlying hills or in coveted coastal regions, set the precedent for the domestication of Nature evidenced on a smaller scale by “peristyle” houses as well as by apartments that boasted diminutive gardens in their window boxes. Both from “within” and from “without,” Rome gradually became a garden city, its defensive walls breached by garden estates such as those of the illustrious Maecenas, whose Esquiline gardens spilled over, and thus appropriated, the Servian Wall. [3] By the age of Augustus, such blurring of distinctions between country and city, the intra- and extra-mural, manifested itself not only in and through the private gardens of villas and smaller dwellings but also through the proliferation of public parks, the first of which was established by none other than Pompey the Great, Caesar’s foremost rival. The Porticus Pompeiana, as this park was called, featured a theater as well as shady walks, fountains, a sculpture collection, and a museum gallery displaying paintings by Greek masters. In close proximity to the Porticus Pompeiana were the Horti of Agrippa, an estate with lavish gardens, baths, and stunning water features, all bequeathed upon his passing to the Roman people. Also nearby were the gardens of Augustus’ mausoleum, which were closely associated with the Ara Pacis, the stately “altar” commemorating peace in the Empire and adorned with a profusion of sculpted plant and animal life, the earthly bounty of the new Golden Age.

It has been said of Pompey’s porticus that it was above all a “strategic display of political as well as military power,” “a place both of dedication to Venus and a display of the manubiae, or booty, acquired under her protection.” [4] Similarly, the Augustan Ara Pacis is certainly a memorial to the Princeps’ military conquests, as a result of which peace in the Empire could be achieved. Domestic gardens, both the planted and the illusionistically painted, have likewise been characterized as a means of publicizing their owners’ wealth, power, taste, and ingenuity, all evidence of Roman world dominion. Certainly, the grandest gardens evoked the pleasure parks, paradeisoi, of Persian and Hellenistic monarchs in their lives of absolute, godlike luxury. They evoked too the sanctuaries and gymnasia of Greece, public places drawn into the private sphere. Was Nature just another vanquished enemy? Were ornamental plants and exotic animals merely trophies uprooted from native habitats and proudly displayed by their new Roman masters and commanders? The Elder Pliny, for his part, reports that trees from the far reaches of the Empire were led as captives in triumphal processions, subsequently becoming tribute-paying subjects of Rome. [5] Was it the not-so-secret aim of every garden-owning Roman to be a togate Xerxes, their founts and pools a reflection of the tamed Hellespont? [6] Or did the Roman garden impulse stem from a deep-seated desire to recapture the “primitive” lifestyle of virtuous Cincinnatus, recalled from the plow to serve his country, or of the herdsman Romulus? [7] Was the garden a sanctuary from the cacophony of smithies, bakers, peddlers, money-changers, and beggars who swarmed the streets of Rome even before Martial bewailed their insalubrious presence? [8] Was immersing oneself in the garden’s delights a means by which to experience first hand, free from inhibitions occasioned by a sense of superiority or fear, the primal unity of life? Was it an expression of humanity’s utopian propensity? [9] On all of these questions the works of Homer and Virgil, the “national epics” of Classical Greece and Rome, must reasonably shed light. Fundamental to the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid alike are “the city,” whether “cities” generally or a particular city, and, consequently, the dialectic between Nature and culture that urbanism engenders.


[ back ] 1. De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (On the Ends of Good and Evil) 5.1.1–3.

[ back ] 2. Clouds 1005–1008.

[ back ] 3. Purcell 2001:553 notes this “breach” of the city’s first stone circuit-wall.

[ back ] 4. Gleason 1994:13, 19.

[ back ] 5. Natural History 12.54.111–112 (… a Pompeio Magno in triumpho arbores quoque duximus. servit nunc haec ac tributa pendit cum sua gente …), where reference is made specifically to the balsam tree. The text is from Mayhoff’s 1909 Teubner edition. Unless otherwise specified (as in the case of the Natural History), Oxford Classical Texts furnished the editions upon which quotations in this text are based. For the sake of internal consistency, “v” appears for “u-consonant” in quotations of all Latin texts.

[ back ] 6. This is a reference to the extravagant Lucullus and his massive earthworks on the shore near Naples that earned him the nickname of “Xerxes.” Here, as reported by Plutarch, he carved tunnels through the hills to fill his fish ponds, surrounded parts of his villa with zones of salt and fresh water, and set suites of rooms afloat in the sea (Plutarch Life of Lucullus 39.3).

[ back ] 7. See Percival 1996:65–66.

[ back ] 8. Epigrams 12.57.

[ back ] 9. See Finley 1967:3, who observes that it is characteristic of humankind to “yearn for a better life and a better world.”