The Landscape Guide

Flowers and Adonis gardens

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But, however this may be, there were still only a few kinds of flowers known to the Greeks The old folk-song that Athenæus has preserved,  “Where shall I find the rose, the violet, and the lovely parsley?" gives nearly all the flowers known in these early days, if we add poppy, lily, crocus, and hyacinth. Perhaps the rose was known as a garden flower soon after Homer’s time. At the foot of the Bermion Hills in Macedonia there lay in the days of Herodotus the fruitful garden of Midas, the son of Gordias, where sixty-petalled roses grew with surpassingly sweet scent. Maybe the Greeks owed their rose-culture to the Macedonians. It increased rapidly: Demosthenes knew rose-gardens where many different kinds were grown.

As to the peculiarities of these gardens, Greek literature leaves us in the dark. The author of the pseudo-Platonic dialogue Minos only excites curiosity when he mentions "Writings about Gardens, compiled by Gardeners,” of which no trace remains. And the odd word περικηποι for beds is some sort of argument for the existence of gardens with beds of flowers in them.

When the demand for flowers increased, it brought about a special trade for gardeners. But for the needs of a house no doubt the ordinary men- servants attended to the flowers and vegetables together.

How far the culture with a view to medicinal use had proceeded in Greece (which is so plain to see in the Middle Ages), is not made clear from our sources of knowledge.

Aristophanes calls the gardens sweet-smelling; and they liked to have odorous plants on graves, because their sweet smell signified the purification of the dead, And since graves form so often a part of the garden, we must needs find that herein was a stimulus to the culture of flowers, They are also grown in the groves of female divinities. At the mouth of the Alphæus there are flowery groves sacred to Artemis and the nymphs. Aphrodite above all others was a patroness of flowers and gardens: she was called “violet-crowned.”

In the cult of Aphrodite at a later time—already naturalised in Greece in the sixth century and perhaps derived from Syria with the cult of Adonis—we believe that we may find the germs of a later garden-craft in the so-called Adonis gardens. At the Festival of Adonis, celebrated at midsummer by the Athenian women, who sang dirges over the death of Aphrodite’s lover, they used to set up on the roof a figure of Adonis, Round this they placed earthen pots filled with soil wherein were sown fennel and lettuce, and also wheat and barley. The plants sprang up soon, and withered as quickly, and this signified the fate of all vegetation, which after its great beauty in springtime fades early, dried up in the hot summer of a Southern land. This is symbolised in the mourning for the early violent death of the beautiful youth Adonis.

Women kept the festival (which was not officially recognised) and grew attached to it as an old popular custom, such as is our own May Day. And so the lesser art of vase-painting took kindly to this subject. An Aryballos at Karlsruhe depicts the scene (Fig. 49) with a

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graceful naïveté. Aphrodite herself appears, and being a goddess is naked. She stands on the lowest rung of a ladder, and this shows that she is climbing up to the roof to carry there a pot for flowers (one of the halves of a jar that has been broken in two) which Eros is handing to her. The other half of the jar and another pot are still standing on the floor. To the right and left are Athenian women making gestures of surprise at this apparition. On another vase we see Aphrodite and Eros pouring the water from the jars before the festival, to make the seed germinate quickly (Fig. 50). Later on, in Alexandrine times, these shows were grander and had a more official character. 

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When the wife of Ptolemy II. celebrated the festival, Aphrodite and Adonis were carried out in a pompous procession, seated upon a silver couch under a flowery canopy decked with fruits and blossoms, But by now the old simple custom was far away in the background and had become a children’s game. Boys sowed quick-growing seeds in great pots, delighted when the green began to show.

The reason why Adonis gardens are so often mentioned, even by Plato, is that the name came to be applied to things of small importance that produced only short-lived pleasures. But in this cult and in the childish games we do get the beginnings of gardening in pots. Everybody who had to do without a garden and yet wanted to adorn the home, found a substitute in these pots, and Theophrastus bears witness to the fact that in his day pot-gardening was carried on for other purposes.

The Adonis garden was known even in imperial Rome. When Apollonius of Tyana, the worker of miracles, was the guest of Dornitian at the Palatine in Rome, he found the emperor in the court of Adonis: “ This court was adorned with flowers just as the Assyrians plant them on the roofs in honour of Adonis,” The narrator had accurate knowledge of the cult, all the more because he had gone to Greece at one time from Syria, the native home of the Adonis cult. In the palace of Domitian tubs were set as a decoration all round the roof of the pillared court, and later on we shall find traces of a similar custom at Pompeii.

At first it was only in the short period of a festival that the Greek women adorned their flat roofs with flower-pots ; but later on they kept this pretty custom - the whole year through, till at last there came about the decoration of balconies and roofs in Rome at all seasons. Pliny’s account of the Adonis gardens is somewhat exaggerated when he finds them like the gardens of the Hesperides, the garden of Alcinous, and the hanging gardens of Semiramis, grouping them all together as exceedingly wonderful.

At the beginning of the Peloponnesian War there came about a great change in the homes of the Attic town-dwellers. In consequence of the persuasive eloquence of Pericles and partly through dire necessity, those who lived on the land, peasants and gentry alike, moved into the town with all their portable property. The flat country was laid waste by Aristodemus. With much murmuring and with many delays they gave up their pleasant country life and left their fair estates to grow wild. But necessity compelled, and the days of old returned to Attic lands no more. Soon men were looking back as on a happy past upon those days when Attica was so safe that her lands were covered with country houses fairer than any in a town.

It was only the people of Elis who “according to old custom still lived on the land: they loved their country life, so that there were well-to-do families among them who for generations had never come into the town.” Their early conditions were never destroyed, for the peace of God protected their lands; ay, they could even enjoy their own jurisdiction - an ideal which for long enough floated before the eyes of Attic gentlemen, even to the days of Theophrastus, as we can see by his jeers at the Aristocrat.

It was the ever-growing, hated democracy, far more than the disturbance of wars, that forced the country gentlemen of Athens to abandon their lands for ever. It is obvious that such a change would be far from propitious to the development of the art of private gardening.

The effect was of course restricted to the mother country. In Asia Minor the close connection with the East may well have brought about a garden culture adapted to an Eastern country, though we are not in a position to prove that it did. In the gardens of Macedonia, already mentioned, we can perhaps see an early direct influence of Asia Minor at work, With favourable social conditions a love of parks and gardens could extend on Greek soil where certainly Oriental influence had not been present. The powerful tyrant Gelon owned in the land of the Bruttii in the year 500 B.C. a park which excelled in beauty and was splendidly watered : in it was a site called the Horn of Amaithea, after the goat that gave milk to the child Zeus.

We can only take this to be a nymphæum such as Homer described, one of those sanctuaries that included well-arranged trees, artfully enclosed water, and perhaps a grotto as well. What kind of water system was in Gelon’s park we can only conjecture, but possibly the name Horn of Amaithea points to a fine waterfall, or possibly it only refers to the unusual fecundity of the place. At a later time these nymph sanctuaries

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were very common in gardens. There is a relief in the Lateran Museum (Fig. 51) which (though clearly Hellenistic) relates to the earlier Amalthæum, and gives a charming picture of that type of grotto. Similarly, too, the sanctuaries to the Muses are found in a great many places. In Sicily the elder Dionysius owned a garden wherein he planted plane-trees, of which he was very proud, although they did not attain to a great height. In the time of Theophrastus these trees adorned a gymnasium which was established on the same territory.

But in Greece proper, the very same democratic conditions that robbed the private person of the means of making gardens on a large scale were clearly favourable to the cultivation of public grounds. Indeed it is here that we must seek the path that leads us to an art of very wide scope.

The sacred groves, which in Homer’s time had still for the most part only a wall round the altar, grew to be more and more akin to the garden-like surroundings of a temple, and the grove became as important as the temple itself, and remained so. At Delphi was a laurel hedge close beside the temple of the god, probably over the treasury, which in the south must have been above the deep subterranean cellars of the temple. Euripides in the Ion makes Hermes at the end of his prologue step aside into the laurel grove. The fact that at the sanctuary of Æsculapius in Epidaurus there was a grove, is proved by an inscription wherein it is said that curious persons climb up a tree to see the people who are asleep in the sanctuary. Even excavators are beginning to glance at the groves in the temple precincts. At Miletus there is round the temple of Apollo a bare tract of earth sixty to a hundred metres in circumference, and this is rightly supposed to point to a sacred grove.

There were some holy places without groves, and the latest authorities would have us be prudent in dealing with the evidence that trees supply. A curious example shows the risk we run in accepting an old tradition: when Strabo went to the temple of Poseidon at Onchestos, he had been led by Homer’s account to expect to find a grove of wonderful beauty, praised in the Iliad and also in the Hymn to Hermes. Instead of this he found a place bare of trees and any sort of greenery, and in his vexation he blamed the poet who calls every sacred place a grove just for the sake of embellishing his verse. About 180 years later, however, Pausanias goes the same way and finds a grove, for a century and a half had been a long enough time for the trees to grow to a fine height, and possibly Strabo’s annoyance had given occasion for a fresh plantation. Pausanias was greatly surprised, and formed the opinion that this was the same grove that Homer had praised so warmly in the past.

It was only at a later date—and then probably for the benefit of the servants of the temple—that fruit groves were planted round temples and nymph sanctuaries, delightful in the springtime with sweet-smelling blossom. But for the most part the Greek was deeply concerned that his sacred trees, dedicated to the gods, should never be touched. As in Mycenæan times so, on Greek vessels in the sixth and fifth centuries, we get pictures of sacred trees with votive tablets hanging on them. More in number as well as in closer detail are the pictures on Hellenistic reliefs, where at the side of the semicircular shrine which encloses the tree, there is also a door and very often a pillar. Above is a tent-like roof, which betokens a resting-place, and in the surrounding space, open at one side, there may have been a seat (Fig. 52).

In addition to these sacred groves and trees dedicated to the high gods, we have in post-Homeric times hero sanctuaries. The grave of the ancestor of the race, of the founder of a town, demanded a cult to itself, and was nearly always surrounded by trees, which were deemed so sacred and inviolable that the Athenians punished with death anyone who cut down even the smallest of them. Most towns possessed such a hero, venerated with awe, Ancient oaks, olive-trees whose fruit had never once been gathered, cypresses called maidens because of their slender growth—everywhere, even up to a late period, these shed the profound shadow of very old trees over the grave of the ancestor. Terribly, moreover, did a hero punish any crime committed at his grove, as is shown by the revenge Anagyrus took upon the country- man who cut down his sacred trees.