The Landscape Guide

Gardens in the Roman Provinces

In the first centuries of imperial rule in Rome, the art of gardening reached  a height which it could never surpass. To the master of the world-kingdom nothing seemed un-attainable. Naturally this feeling was not confined to the limits of Italy; on the contrary, the farther the borders of Roman territory extended, and the more rich men had to live during one part at least of their lives outside Italy or in the provinces, so much the more did their luxurious nature increase and develop at their magnificent country seats. It was precisely in the provinces, where they could not indulge the desire to spend the best part of the year in Rome, and where they were compelled to live almost exclusively in the country, that the Romans sought compensation in the size and magnificence of their surroundings. 

The riches that were piled up in private hands grew to be something enormous. It is said that in Northern Africa half the Roman territory was in the ownership of six men, and it is no wonder if such a state of things excited the envy and greed of powerful persons at home. We hear of a certain Julius Calidus, whose name was put on the proscription list on account of his vast possessions in Africa.

It is easy to understand that such mighty lords built themselves very extravagant country houses. First in their esteem was the large park for hunting, and after the chase came the training of horses, and racing, but of all this we know very little. Up to the present time no villa has been entirely excavated, and our knowledge of country life among Romans in Africa is, as a fact, limited to what we get from a series of mosaics. Their favourite subject is the chase, and the villa is often represented as in the middle of the park, as, for instance, in the great hunting mosaic found at the Baths of Pompeianus (Fig. 91).

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 The house shown in that piece looks more like a villa of the early Renaissance than a Roman villa with its scattered buildings. There is a great group of trees flanked by lofty towers, and the park is indicated by trees of various kinds. As was said before, we have to do here with the different relations of the parts. In Africa the villa is the centre of a large piece of land, and must often have served as a refuge for the visitor and his retinue against the wild and savage Berber races around.

In houses like these, which are enclosed from without, and often provided with battlements and towers, one is obliged to think of the different parts and their relations, just as they were once brought to completion in Italy, at Scipio’s Villa. No doubt the wealth and display became greater indoors, and we have the cheerful colonnade with its accompanying xystus, as in Italy. The arrangement of the garden is the same in all the other mosaics, which in African villas take the place of the frescoes at Pompeii. As a rule, they show a pleasure-garden in front of the façade of the colonnade, which generally has side-wings. Behind the villa is the kitchen-garden with vines tied up (Fig. 92), and also fruit-trees planted in rows. 

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We have another mosaic scene that is curious and comes also from the Baths of Pompeianu. Among trees, grow flowers and low shrubs. On the left stands an erection which was perhaps meant for a door. or window into the garden-house. As accessories to this scene there is a lady with a fan, sitting down, and standing in front a man holding a sunshade over her with his left hand, and with his right leading a small dog on a string: he may be a slave, or possibly a lover (Fig. 93). 

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Above their heads is written “ FILOSO FILOLOCUS,” and perhaps the inscription makes some distant allusion to philosophers’ gardens, or possibly the owner uses the diminutive out of modesty.

The great bath sites, in which many of the mosaics were found, show what a rich man the owner was. This bath is for the time left exposed and quite isolated, with no connection with a villa. There is a whole array of living-rooms close by the actual bathing-rooms, which themselves could be used to live in; so it is possible that this is a small ordinary house belonging to a great landowner, who would live there at a favourable time of year. Here, as at Hadrian’s Villa, we notice a fancy for the exedra, and for semicircular sites. Especially attractive is the so-called atrium—an uncovered, or perhaps half-covered space, which has one of its ends made in a half-circle, and has short colonnades running down either side, At the other end there are three steep steps leading to a large exedra, within which is a basin. Possibly these steps were to let the water down, as in the so- called nymphæum at Hadrian’s Villa. Round the exedra is a semicircular space, filled in with a swimming-bath, which can also be reached by steps from the spaces at the side, Outside, again, there is a large semicircular colonnade, and here we may suppose there were gardens, as there is plenty of room according to the plan. South of this bathing- place, which is ornamented with fine mosaics, there are the living-rooms. A dining-room opens, through a passage with columns, on a front room probably unroofed, which opens into a garden again on the opposite side, also through pillars, that stand on a little plinth, and this garden lies alongside the set of rooms.

Very different are the villas that Roman colonists built in the north European provinces, wherever they set foot. No doubt the province of Gaul had at an early date been influenced by the purely Hellenistic style of villa, especially in the districts near the Mediterranean, when Marseilles was Greek. The nobles, inclined as they were to culture and civilisation, and very sensitive to the refinements of manners and customs, had certainly not held aloof from Greek and Roman life, whenever their homes were safe enough to allow of it. But unfortunately it is just in these territories that excavations have given so little that bears upon our study. It is not in these early times, but only much later, actually on the threshold of the Middle Ages, that we get indications of any important development. 

Roman gardens in Germany

It is easy to see how rapidly the regions about the Moselle and the Rhine were covered with fine villas when the Romans were masters. Ausonius, as an eyewitness, is the first to describe (in his poem Mosella) the state of things that existed towards the end of the fourth century. But he, like other writers of the time, employs the rhetorical expressions of a far earlier age: he praises the lovely banks of the Moselle, the heights covered with villas and high towers, enjoying the fine views of river and valley, and enclosed in their own gardens, thickets and meadows. But careful excavation has proved that a proud and wealthy race settled here, and founded villas in no way inferior to those of their great Mother Country, so far as their ground-plan shows the extent of their properties, and the beauty of the sites they selected. As a fact, these plans are a help towards understanding much that is said in the literature of classical times, It is, for instance, now known when a number of great villas—unearthed where Metz is to-day—were originally built. The plans are so reminiscent of Italy in the early days of the empire—a period which here also enjoyed comparative peace—that (unless other proofs were at hand) it might be imagined that they were built in the first and second centuries after Christ.

Nearly all the villas found both here and farther up the Rhine are constructed with three wings, the middle one for the guest-rooms, one of the sides for private living-rooms, the other for baths. Whenever it was possible, a hill was chosen that faced south; and it appears, from a row of separated buildings which are often placed round the chief one, that in the north there was no objection to the scattered plan. But there is a preference for having the villa rustica at a distance from the master’s house. One example of this, the villa at Ruhiing (Fig. 94), shows its colonnade opening to the south-east of the middle building, which is bounded by bath-rooms and living-rooms placed at an obtuse angle on either side, and no doubt there was a xystus in front. These main buildings are greater in breadth than in depth, and grouped around them are several dependencies, which are naturally connected by park grounds, just as they are in Pliny’s Laurentinum.

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The villa at Ulrich has a peculiar ground-plan, and the features remind one rather of a villa suburbana than of a real country house. According to excavations, it is apparent that the chief entrance to the villa (which stretches from east to west on a flat part of the hill) is on the eastern side, beside a court that has no colonnade. But one gets the best view of the place from the northern valley, where there was a long colonnade on the flat ground, whence there is an enjoyable prospect. The bath-wing is on a terrace lower down. Outside the court, behind this colonnade, there is a large peristyle which we may suppose to be a pleasure-garden, and in the house on the mountain side is a pillared hail. The gardens proper will have extended east and west of peristyle and court. In its whole plan this villa shows some resemblance to the Villa Madama on Monte Mario, near Rome. An unattached building, probably the villa rustica, has also been found here. But the most remarkable of the villas in the Moselle district is the one found at Teting (Fig. 95).
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 It is one of the largest on this side of the Alps, certainly a seat of which none of the greatest men in Rome need have been ashamed, The imposing façade with its three wings is towards the south-east, and in a splendid situation. In front is a wide court, eighty-eight metres in length by sixty metres in depth; and from the house there would be a full view of its beauty, planted as a fine garden, whose extent it is not possible to determine. The central building forms a large broad exedra (forty-four metres), a size which would be imposing even for Italy: on both sides this is flanked by two semicircular rooms, in the so-called Cyzicene style. The exedra was formed by a pillared hail, in front of which lay a kind of terrace two and a half metres broad, probably a double colonnade, and farther back a large room with an apse. It would appear from excavations up to date that there are only a few rooms behind the exedra, and the living-rooms proper are in the east wing, which also has a pillared hail extending to the narrow end of this wing. 

In the western part are the baths; and quite disconnected to the north, there is a diæta which contains several rooms; stretching still farther is a colonnade ending in the form of a cross. Turning off at a right angle there is again a colonnade, fifty-three metres long, with another small diæta at the end of it. At once we call to mind the descriptions of Pliny, especially of the colonnade in his Laurentinum, with the garden in front smelling of violets, and the charming summer-house at the end. So far the excavators at this sort of villa have had no time or inclination for exploring the garden land round the buildings, but the ground-plan of this particular large villa may serve as a means whereby with the help of Pliny’s words we can reconstruct the beauties of the original garden.

None of the villas dug up on the Rhine is so large as this one. There is, however, one lately excavated at Wittlich, not three-winged as they mostly are, but with a light colonnade following the hillside and answering to a second one running parallel to it (Fig. 96). 

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These two colonnades unite the three familiar features of baths, reception rooms, and living-rooms, which are grouped around two intermediate courts, whose water arrangements point to some kind of plantation. The river has now shifted its bed, and runs close up to the façade, and this makes it impossible to know whether there was a xystus or not.

A lucky chance has preserved a piece of real garden architecture in the great pond at Welschbillig, one of the villas on the Rhine (Fig. 97).

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This piscina is fifty-eight metres long, and eighteen metres wide, and lies in a park, which, from the elegance of this single feature, must have been an important one. The pond was meant for boating, and a wall with fountains at each end (of course partly covered by the water) shows the extent of the course. On the edge of the oblong basin there are six bays built out, and the whole tank is bordered with a graceful balustrade, But for its chief decoration there stood at equal distances 112 Hermes pillars, set up so as to face the water: they should be looked at from that side, and would show up well against the green hedge, which would no doubt  be planted at the back.

Everything that the Romans did in these provinces, in the way of gardening and cultivation, was destined to perish when they were compelled to remove their troops under the German onslaughts. The open villas and gardens were the first victims, and these Northern lands had to wait for hundreds of years before they could make a humble begin- fling with a new garden art. In the North the thread was broken, and only after wild, stormy years can we discover a new trace, again starting from the South. Of the original homes of ancient culture we can scarcely say in the same sense that all continuity was checked and wiped out, but in particular districts, and especially in Western Italy, where so many people had crowded back home, there does seem to have been complete darkness for a long stretch of time. These countries have no history, not only as to the art of gardening, but as to every kind of art.


Roman gardens in Britain

The Romans carried their habit of building villas even into Britain. Faustinus, a Roman who owned a villa at Naples, built a castle in Suffolk, and this shows the three-winged type. A good example is a villa at Spoonley, near Winchcombe, unearthed about 1890. The threefold colonnade has become a veranda; and the fourth side, generally open, is shut in by a high wall. A paved way leads from the entrance gate to the middle building, and on both sides of the path there would be a front garden. The open Roman villa has developed into the secluded home of Northern lands, suited to a Northern climate. A Roman garden has been excavated and restored at Fishbourne in the South of England.


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Model, by English Heritage, of the Roman villa at Fishbourne in the south of England.