The Landscape Guide

Greek contact with Eastern gardens

But sometimes a mighty impulse came from outside. The raids of Alexander the Great opened to the Greeks the whole of Asia and all its elaborate garden culture. Before then individual persons had extolled the marvels of Oriental parks, and the Greeks of Asia Minor, living so near to Persians and other Oriental peoples, were far ahead of the Mother Country in the love and care of gardens. Darius I. had praised a satrap for transplanting fruits into Asia Minor from the other side of the Euphrates. After the Persian wars there arose a lively interest in parks, even in Greece itself. If it is true (as Plutarch alleges) that the satrap Tissaphernes laid out a very lovely park in honour of Alcibiades and gave it his name, he could obviously get no result from his courtly flattery unless he could assume that Alcibiades would feel an interest in the park and an affection for it. Xenophon, too, describes the Persian paradises that he saw on his march, with the confessed intention that his fellow-countrymen should have a pattern before them which they could and must imitate.

Alexander himself brought his passionate love of hunting from his wild forest-home to the countries he conquered. In India he found groves and woods shut in by walls, well watered, with plenty of big game, but he shot his lions from a raised platform. The paradise of Bazisda was so rich in game that four thousand head could be brought down to serve as a feast for the whole army. On his return from India Alexander crowned his men with ivy, and as this plant did not grow in the parks of Babylon, he ordered it to be transplanted. Harpalus, to whom he had entrusted the care of the park, had no success with ivy, though he did wonderfully well with the acclimatisation of Greek plants, making the lime, and after much trouble even the box, at home there.

Alexander throughout took pains that the parks should be well looked after, and when he found at Pasargadae on his way back that the tomb of Cyrus in the royal paradise had been neglected and robbed, he punished severely the Magi, the hereditary guardians. With the wish to see the gardens of Semiramis, at the foot of the mountain of Bahgistan, he made a detour on his march from Celonæ to the Crack Willows of Nyasa. The king loved, as Oriental princes did, to do his business in the paradise. He received his generals there, he sat on a golden throne with his counsellors on silver-footed stools. And when he came sick to Babylon, he had himself carried to the great park on the far side of the Euphrates that he might die there.

The successors of Alexander always felt that they were the heirs of great princes of the East, and loved to cultivate the luxury of gardens and fine parks. They tried for the joys of acclimatising foreign plants on a large scale. The Seleucids planted the cinnamon in Syria, the anemone and spikenard in Arabia. Finally Egypt, being now just as accessible to Greece as Western Asia was, contributed a new splendour to the wide parks and gardens with her own experience of flowers, now some thousands of years old. The Greeks were astonished to find fresh flowers growing the whole year through, and under the Ptolemies cultivation was encouraged by the extravagant demand for flowers at their festivities. No longer were people content to have them for head or breast, but the hall itself had to be dressed out with flowers in the Egyptian style. At a great feast which Ptolemy Philadelphus gave in the winter he had flowers spread over the floor of his tent in such glorious abundance that it really looked like a heavenly meadow.

Besides the Oriental influence, there was another thing that encouraged the gardening art—the development of large towns in the Hellenic world. It was difficult for the inhabitants, with the ground walled round and thickly built over, to get to any open land. So, as they became richer, they were impelled to seek Nature, who had become more and more of a stranger, by bringing her into the towns and making town gardens handsome and large. It was not really a new thing for the Greeks; but it was carried out now on a large scale.

In Alexandria the public gardens and royal gardens together occupied one-fourth of the whole area of the town ; they were all connected with each other, and situated both inside and outside the walls. Especially do we hear of the garden of the Museum, where scholars were wont to walk, of the Great Gymnasium, and of the grove of the Dicasterion which was in the middle of the town. South of it was the Paneion, a curious place : there was an artificial hill with corkscrew paths to go up by, and from the top one enjoyed a panorama of the town. Nothing is said about trees there, but the pleasant walk is an argument for them, since similar places of a later time and even in our own day are always provided with shade on the slope whereby we climb to see the view.

In the suburbs and the outer parts of the towns abundance of the most beautiful gardens lay. Strabo saw near the Necropolis many gardens in which family tombs were to be found.

In another way also the Oriental fashion affected and extended Greek usage. At one time the Greeks set up a grove round the specially honoured graves only, in order to protect a sacred spot from desecration, and in the classical period such graves were in the gymnasiums or the parks, or other places where the Greek games were held. Also the resting-place of Athenian victors, the Ceramicos, which Cimon moved from the Dipylon to the Academy, was planted with avenues of trees. Although it is stated that Herodes Atticus lies buried in the stadium, we must not look for his grave in the racecourse itself, but in the park grounds on the hill which belonged to the stadium, inasmuch as people named the whole estate after the game-place, as in the case of gymnasiums.; and in the Academy at Athens a monument was set up to Philiscus the sophist. It is even uncertain whether Plato is buried in the gymnasium : it is far more likely that by Academy, where the grave was found. Diogenes Laertius meant Plato’s own garden. The pupils who later paid Heroic honours to their great master will have kept the grave in the garden of the school. About the grave of  Theophrastus this is quite certain, for (as was mentioned before) he enjoined on his friends to keep a suitable place in the garden for his own tomb. Thus we see how the philosophers set an example for family graves.

No wonder that in Hellenistic times the rich devoted some specially-cared-for bit of their lovely parks to the purpose of a family burying-ground, or else made themselves graves in their own separate plot. Later on—but there is no proof of it till the fifth century A.D.—a word was coined for graves that had gardens round them, the word Cerotaphion.

Antioch was even more renowned for lovely gardens than Alexandria. The town had a wonderful site. The main street was a long continuous portico, with houses on one side, and on the other side gardens that extended right to the foot of the mountain : they contained all manner of summer-houses, baths and fountains, which, however, did not appear on the hill, “so as not to destroy the impression of regularity.” A second street reaches to the Orontes. In front of the West Gate the road passes through a wonderful suburb called Heraclea; farther on one gets to the famous park called Daphne after 7.5 kilometres of vines and roses on the south of Antioch. From this park the whole great estate took the extra name of Epidaphne. This too was originally a sacred grove which enclosed the Τερτνος the asylum with the temple of Apollo and Artemis. The great shady park had a circumference of eighty stadia. The springs here were more abundant than the earth had ever beheld, and the wonderful cypresses, three hundred in number, were, according to tradition, planted by the Seleucids.

Later generations could not say enough of the beauty of the baths, the portico, the places of amusement. The crowds found excellent hostels where vines grew even in the rooms, while in the gardens were wafted to them the aromatic odours of the flower-beds. Daphne is praised as the fairest spot on earth.

Syria is reported to have developed the art of gardening with special success. Pliny, too, reports that the Syrian gardens are the most perfect. Next to Daphne the park most admired was that at Batnæ: the Emperor Julian visited it, but found only a useful fruit-garden, and in the middle of it flower-beds and vegetables. Round about there were other trees planted in regular order, and the emperor specially praises a fine cypress-grove full of well-formed trees.

But it was not only the Greeks in Asia who thought it important to adorn their towns with gardens : in the much smaller places in the Mother Country there was an attempt to follow their example. In descriptions of Greek cities which we get from Heracleides in the third century much is said of gardens, and he especially praises Thebes, which is the best of all. In summer-time the quantity of water and the greenness of the hills made a wonderful impression.

In Hellenistic times the private house seems to have been a very modest affair in comparison with public places. It is true that Demosthenes grumbles that private buildings are better than public, but this is only in relation to past times. There may no doubt have been certain individual gardens on a larger scale, such as those of Plato and Epicurus: in the fourth century a man of means made himself a garden when his neighbour gave up his ground, but this would be an exception. One need only look at the plan of a town like Priene, that was newly founded in the fourth century, to see how incredibly small were the Greek dwelling-houses ; but all the same it is to these that we must look for the chance of developing fine court gardens at a later time.

The Greek house is really a court-house, i.e. the living-rooms face on the open court, on one side of which is a hail supported by pillars. Out of this originated the peristyle found later on in all the good houses, a court with a portico all round it. In most private dwellings that have as yet been dug up this court is paved, so that it cannot have been planted with flowers, although the Homeric Age did know garden courts. But what was possible for a royal palace was for a long time to come beyond the possibilities of the modest dwellings of private citizens.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
Greek houses in Priene

In Priene itself all the courts are paved. The statues discovered in the courts of certain well-to-do houses, especially in that house in the Theatre street where a bearded Hermes and a lion in terra-cotta were found in what seems to be their old place, lead us to believe that there were also pot plants between the statues, put there to make the court a pleasant place in which to stay. Another house at Priene may possibly have had a strip of garden, for there is a pretty portico opening on to a narrow strip which most likely was planted as a garden terrace. And the so-called House of the Priest at Olympia distinctly proves that in rather larger places the court was planted, for here traces are shown by excavation. It is obvious that as the affluence of the upper class and their love of private life increased, the peristyle (expansible at need as it had no roof like that of the Roman atrium to limit its size) would be made use of for plants. We can see this development and also its contrast with the Italian atrium house which entirely forbids the possibility of such gardens, and can really understand it when we study Pompeii ; but this is to stray too far into the days of the Roman Empire. Still, as we might expect, Hellenism had already converted the peristyle into a fine garden court, and what excavations cannot yet tell us we must get from literature.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


In the time of the Diadochi, when the great influence of the East was again making itself felt, these court gardens on which the state rooms opened were set up very luxuriously. Even a temporary erection (apparently put up just for a feast), as for example the Great Tent of Ptolemy Philadelphus, erected by him outside the city of Alexandria, was supplemented with fine garden courts. The huge dining-room, arranged with all imaginable expense for three hundred guests, opened out on the peristyle. The walls of the portico were hung round with rugs and choice skins, but the open space in the middle was planted with box and myrtle and other shrubs, and flowers bloomed gaily between. Up to the tent marched a procession, with various chariots representing the triumph of Bacchus. On one of these Semele the mother of the god was carried. She lay in a wonderfully devised grotto overgrown with ivy and other creepers, with doves fluttering around her. In the actual grotto were two streams flowing with milk and honey. Then above the colossal statue of Bacchus was a canopy of vine and ivy and autumn fruits.

Grottoes of every sort and kind were made. Pliny tells of a plane, a tree which liked to have its roots near a spring, that it grew in Lycia to such a huge circumference that a grotto was made in the hollow trunk, decked out with pumice and moss, so large that eighteen people could dine in it. And in a park such artificial grottoes were often made, Even in a modest park (described by Alciphron) in the neighbourhood of a Greek town, possibly Corinth, there stood an ivy-clad rock grown over with laurel and planes and encompassed with myrtle. At intervals nymphs were stationed, and behind them stood Pan gazing at the nymphs. With all this ornament one may safely guess at grottoes inside the rock. The rest of the garden arrangements at this villa are quite modest—only groups of cypress, myrtle and a small flower-garden.

To what an imposing park may we fly in fancy if we would behold a grotto-hill in the lands of a wealthy Rhodian, on whose summit there stands a work of art like the Farnese Bull (Fig. 56)! Only when one tries to imagine it thus is it possible to see how this work (which in the Museum appears in spite of its huge size to be capricious, unrestful and even bewildering) acquires life and significance, for here the grotto-like plinth is shown by the artist as it emerges from the greenery around it. All the outside detail—herdsmen, animals—can be understood in the proper natural surroundings, where, though the eye sees them not, the central group is strikingly exalted beneath the open sky.

Such gardens, of which this is only one type, were used by the rich as a background and theatre for their gluttonous feasts as well as for their daily life. They had become indispensable to Hiero II., who probably links up with an unbroken tradition of princely gardens in Sicily. Like most Eastern monarchs, he conducted all State business in the garden, nor would he part with it even on the water. He had had built a gigantic pleasure- ship that was to exhibit to the eye both his magnificence and his glory as a warrior, and on this ship he put a garden. The vessel was built by Archias of Corinth, and Archimedes contributed very remarkable devices to it, On the upper deck a gymnasium and walks proportionate to the dimensions of the ship were arranged. Here were beds containing all sorts of plants confined by strips of lead. The walks were shaded by ivy and vines, their roots getting nourishment from pots of earth, which were watered in the same way as the beds. In addition to all this there was an Aphrodision, its floor interlaid with precious stones and agate. It was profusely decorated with pictures and statues, but it had only room for three chairs, Another equally elegant garden house had a small select library. Where the two basins, of which we are also told, were placed, cannot be determined. One that was filled with sea-water and contained fish must be supposed to be open and on the upper deck, probably in connection with the garden. 

It is quite evident that Hiero made in the scanty space of a ship’s deck a little garden of costly workmanship. The Greek architect has made use of all the constituents of the garden as we know it. And incomparably the greatest are gymnasiums and promenade paths. These “peripatoi “ again show the connection, not of the paths alone, but of all that portion of the garden designed for pleasure-walks. The beds in their leaden frames can have held only flowers and such plants as have short roots ; ivy and vines, whose roots strike deeper, were put into tall pots. The pergolas made by these give the shade required, which otherwise, in the lack of lofty trees, the ship could not have enjoyed. Two fine pavilions and a fish-pond complete the whole, showing once more the intimate alliance between gymnasium and pleasure-garden. The first must be thought of as a small place, perhaps surrounded by a light portico and lying among the flower-beds.

In this manner we obtain a picture of the way in which the private gardens and parks of princes and other great men in the wide tracts of country now open to them were laid out. Unfortunately we have no definite description of a villa garden extant at that time; here, too, we have to reach our conclusions by working backward from the days of Roman emperors, where the streams flow more abundantly, and so we arrive at the Greek culture which was the mistress of Rome.

It is only in very late Greek authors that we find in a natural return to the past a description of gardens, that is to say in the love-stories of the rhetorical sophists and romancers, who flourished from about the second to the sixth century A.D. But though these tales come from so late a time, they are really imitations of a kind of poetry that began in the Alexandrine Age with the Idyll. Just as the idyll takes the open country for its background, so does the romancer love to take the garden. The constant repetitions and stereotyped phrases of such descriptions point to prototypes from a much earlier art, and from another side lead us to look at later imitations in the Byzantine epoch, indicating that garden culture, with its unbroken tradition from the antique world, has been further preserved in the Byzantine Middle Age. To be sure, the garden in Greek love-stories presents an unusual scene. It is not the public park, neither is it the seat of a magnificent prince ; it is the rural farm-garden, and only now and then can we see the rare traces of a larger scope of interest. Such farm-gardens did as a fact always exist in Greece : the classical example being the garden of Alcinous.

As conditions must always be determined by reasons of utility, there has been little change at any period. Longus* does certainly call that garden a paradise which Daphnis made with the aid of his foster-father Lamon, watering it and getting it ready with all possible care and pains for the visit of their landlord ; and the word paradise generally implies at this date an ornamental garden rather than a garden for useful products - in other words a park. In the story it is “after the fashion of kings,” one stadium in length [185 metres], with a lovely view over the plain, whence one can look down on travellers and on the sea and the ships as they go by, and so the view is really a feature of the garden.

Longus knows very well that such a site as this is demanded in a Hellenistic garden, and even in Homer the garden of the Phæacians stands high or else on the slope of the hill. In the middle rises a temple, and beside it an ivy-clad altar to Dionysus, and this gives an artistic unity to the picture which is absent from the garden of Alcinous. The greater part of it is naturally occupied with fruit-trees, in kinds not much more numerous than Homer's, and between the trees are vines. The garden is enclosed by rows of cypresses, laurels, firs and planes, all planted at equal distances and entangling their higher branches one with another, with ivy also growing like the vines between the other trees. Flowers, too, are not forgotten : there are always the same kinds : roses, violets, hyacinths, narcissi. Like Homer, Longus requires of his garden that it shall bring forth flowers at every time of the year. In spite of the insistence on park-like surroundings, this is distinctly a garden for use of the same nature as that other one which Longus thus describes : “ I have called my own a garden, wherein I may rest in the leisure of old age; it yields a harvest according to the season of the year: in spring roses, lilies, hyacinths, and both kinds of violets ; in summer pears, and all the apples ; and now the vine, the fig, the pomegranate, and the green myrtle. One might fancy it was a sacred grove.”

And just as it appears in the story, so is it described by the theoretic writers of that day, whose works are collected in the Geoponica. Close by the house, we learn from this, is the proper place for a garden, not only for the enjoyment of its beauty, but that its sweet smell may fill the air and make the home healthy; for, as we learn elsewhere, the neighbourhood of a garden is most necessary for health, as it helps a convalescent to recover.

Plants must not be mixed up or put in without order as though the differences added to their beauty, as some say, but the individual ones must be carefully separated from one another, in order that the larger kinds may not rob the smaller of their nourishment. Between trees may be set lilies, roses, violets and crocuses ; these by their look, their scent, and their uses, are most pleasing; moreover, they increase the revenues of the place and supply food for bees. So order in arrangement is the first requisite, that same order displayed by Egyptian gardens thousands of years ago, and in Homer’s sterner pictures. The garden of Alcinous is the pattern for the romances ; with passion they cry, “ Blest were the Phæacians, not because they sprang from gods, but in that before all else they prized their gardens.” Thus begins one description, and the phrase, “ I feel as if I were in the garden of Alcinous,” often occurs.

Most of the stories show a kind of architectural unanimity in laying special emphasis on the middle part. In Longus this is a temple and an altar, and in most of the others there is water set up in different ways. Sometimes it is a fountain splashing into a square basin of clever design appearing among the flowers. This water acts like a mirror, showing us two gardens, the real one and its reflection. A portico runs all round the garden, and between the flowering and shady trees are set ivy and vines trained on sticks : the flowers, here again the same kinds, in their loveliness vie with the songs of the birds.

Though the gardens are described as very much alike, the water shows a pleasing variety : first we get a foaming brook, swifter than the wind, then perhaps a crystal bath wherein the lovers bathe ; forth from this dance from shell to shell tiny cascades with flower-petals floating on their waters—a constant scene of beauty.

From this type of romance, which for centuries to come was to reach deep down into the Byzantine Middle Ages, there is nothing to be gained in the way of garden tradition. We learn nothing new, only that the Byzantine gardens developed in the same direction as the Hellenistic. And in particular features we may trace the recurring strong influence on Byzantium of the East, and particularly of Persia and Mesopotamia. In all the earlier accounts we notice simplicity and moderation, something of the imperishable Greek feeling for the golden mean,  appearing in climes far distant. But after that the love for the glories of Asia presses to the front ever more insistently, to find its satisfaction in the multiplication of ideas, the glittering pomp of costly possessions and the creation of elaborate masterpieces.


Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
A reconstruction of the Acropolis, by Bohn. Like all Greek religious sanctuaries
it had a precise boundary. Here, the boundary was a wall. The start of the
Panatheniac Way, which led to the Delphi, can be seen.

* Longus was a Greek author who, in the 2nd or 3rd century BC wrote Daphnis and Chloe 'the first pastoral romance and one of the most popular of the greek erotic prose romances... his descriptions of gardens and landscapes and the alternating seasons show a notable feeling for nature' [Encyclopedia Britanica, 15th edition]