The Landscape Guide

Pompeii and the domestic garden

The old Italian house had not really any convenience for the provision of gardens  inside. The atrium, which was the heart of the whole, and around which the various buildings were grouped, was a roofed and floored court with a good light above the piscina—the impluvium—meant to let in the rain-water. A proper garden was out of the question, but flower-boxes were used, either round the impluvium, or forming a kind of wall, as is seen in the atrium at an African house (Timgad, Fig. 81). The boxes forming the wall are set in a curving line, and are filled with soil and flowers and creeping plants. But this atrium is only one example; moreover, it stands on the border-line between peristyle and atrium. As we can see in some of the older houses at Pompeii, they kept a little strip of ground for plants against the back wall out of which a portico opened.


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[Note: Pliny's account of the eruption of Pompeii is on the CD]

At the house of Sallust at Pompeii, where later a little peristyle house was added to the atrium house, the garden was granted two strips of ground next to the high wall at the back. An almost equally wide portico opened on this garden, which was only planted in two narrow borders. It was made to look wider by paintings on the wall, in the fashion we know. The corner was shut off by a delightful arbour, a triclinium under a pergola (Fig. 82), which mingled its living creepers  with the paintings, so that the whole produced a pleasing picture (Fig. 83), in spite of the drawback of the small space. 

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


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


Of course this does not suit an atrium house. We find much the same at Priene, the Greek colony in Asia Minor. It was only through the influence of Greek peristyle houses in Italy, with open court and unlimited power of extension, that the garden was able to penetrate into the town house as an attractive spot with shrubs, flower-beds, and other beauties and luxuries.

At Pompeii the eruption of Vesuvius preserved a town where it is easy to follow garden development with the utmost clearness, For here, in this early Hellenised town, the old Italian house is closely connected with the Greek peristyle, especially in the way that the atrium remained as a paved court, and the peristyle behind was turned into a garden, about which the living-rooms were grouped, Sometimes these peristyle houses are actual extensions, which in Italy joined on to neighbouring houses that had been pulled down, In the grander places there might be two peristyles, and the second one was the larger; there were only a few living-rooms in it, so that a great piece was won for the garden.

Unfortunately the excavations of gardens have been carelessly made, so that there is seldom anything to say about their sites. On the whole, then, we shall do well to call in the help of the peristyles that lie around living-rooms to be our examples of flower-gardens, seeing that the larger places (seldom to be found in the narrow spaces of the town) were probably used for the practical purposes of a vegetable-garden. This was certainly the case in the house of Epidius Rufus (Fig. 84), and probably in that of Pansa and of the Silver Wedding (Fig. 85) [Ed note: the House of the Silver Wedding was named to commemorate a nineteenth century royal wedding and was not a wedding venue for Roman marriages]

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


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


 At the first of these there is a small terrace, which was obviously laid out prettily with flowers, behind the kitchen-garden. These little raised terraces were liked as a suitable ending, and in addition to the flower-beds, fountains were set up with mosaic, and also statues. Most of them were so made that one could not quite reach up to them. The garden of Lucretius (Fig. 86) at Pompeii is peculiar; it ascends a little towards an alcove for flowers, wherein stands a Silenus, pouring water out of a vessel over a little stairway. 

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The water is caught in a channel or gutter, and flows thence into a small round fountain, Standing around are little animals in marble, a small row of other statuettes, and four figures of Hermes. The whole thing, now that flowers have been replanted there, makes a pleasing picture, if somewhat bizarre. Peristyles generally ought to be regarded as part of the dwelling-house, simply rooms in the open air. The furniture and decoration are not intrinsically different, for indoors one walks through rooms that (by pictures) have been converted into gardens. 

We find this at Pompeii, whichever way we turn, for walls are all painted with garden pictures—atrium, peristyle, and terrace background alike. From these we can easily make out what the real gardens were like, the delicate climbing roses of the pergola (Fig. 87), the pretty lattice, the lovely fountains, the ivy tied up in little knots.

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[Ed. Note: Gothein gives the source for this image as Comparetti, Le Pitture di Ercolano. This may be Le Pitture ed i bronzi d'Ercolano, 8 vols., 1757]

The peristyle in the house of the Vettii (Fig. 88) which has the ground-plan preserved in a sketch, and is now restored and planted out, belongs to the last times of Pompeii, and gives a striking example of an antique domestic garden in the first century A.D. The open
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space is bordered by eighteen white pillars with coloured capitals, but the size of the whole is only eighteen by ten metres. On the edges of eight basins, four-sided but with rounded corners, stand twelve statues pouring out water, and in the middle of the garden there are two more basins with fountains. There are also marble tables, shells, and little pillars with a Hermes on them. The wavy flower-beds, fashionable at the timer are bordered with box; and there are knots of ivy, bushes and flowers, thus repeating the ideas that are depicted on the walls of the surrounding portico. One remarkable type remains in the only suburban villa found at Pompeii, that of Diomedes (Fig. 89).
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 This villa suburbana is something between a house in town and a villa urbana in the country. Vitruvius insists, in his short notes appended to his account of the town house, that in the villa suburbana one must riot go straight into the atrium, for the peristyle has to be next to the entrance. The atrium comes second, and then the portico, which will look out on the garden. In the villa of Diomedes we do as a fact step straight into a great peristyle from the street, and this actually has one corner on the Street front. The ground-plan, a group, connected as in a town house, forms an isosceles triangle, with the Street for hypotenuse. From the entrance a stairway leads to the peristyle, which may be pictured as a small garden with a basin in the middle. Beside one of the sides of the triangle there is a garden on the level of the street, unfortunately not excavated, into which a bedroom in the Cyzicene style protrudes at an acute angle. Rooms like this were a Greek invention, and Vitruvius says they were not used in Italy; in this age, however, they belong to the general luxury of Roman houses, and Pliny mentions them in his letters. The garden would probably be a tree-garden, which would give shade and quietude to the bedroom, At the other side of the triangle the ground drops sharply; so there is another story, where perhaps the slaves lived. One steps down into a lower garden with a colonnade round it, the roof of which can be reached from the top of the terrace. In the garden remains of trees were dug up, but unhappily these were set aside without examination. 

Opposite the terrace is a raised pergola, and a large basin in front with a fine brim and a fountain. Before the left side of the portico is a broad terrace which also opened on a garden not yet dug up. At the end of each portico is a rooms perhaps made for the view, or as a pergola, such as we see on the pictures at Boscoreale and in many Pompeian frescoes, The atriums, demanded by Vitruvius for a villa suburbana, are not here, and at that time they were very old-fashioned. Indeed the small tasteful villa at Boscoreale, which is before all things a villa rustica with rooms for the owners, has no atrium, but the rooms are grouped round a great peristyle, which, judging by its paintings and the four little fountains in the corners, will have also had a bright garden. Pliny speaks of an atrium in his Tusci as “ in the fashion of our fathers.” In the suburbs it was really a half-open room built for pleasure, like the one at the African villa at Uthina, where a very large peristyle had five atriums, each the centre of a group of rooms. At that time far more light was needed than an atrium could give, and the first intention of an atrium, to supply water, was nothing now to the Romans; for wherever there were villa centres in imperial times, irrigation was one of the chief features, and the gardens were enlivened with fountains, water-stairways, and all sorts of devices. How far water-organs, so beloved in Renaissance days, were used to adorn and enliven the gardens in ancient times, we cannot say, but that they were known and very much liked we can tell from a host of authorities.

In imperial times the great contrast between divers ways of living was always be- coming more marked. While the circle of suburban villas was getting more and more extended, and the public places grander, the homes inside the town were contracted and narrow. The barracks, of a height that has never been exceeded except in the modern towns of America, were surrounded by streets on all four sides, and the courts must have dwindled into mere shafts of light. Even in the town palaces a court with plants seems to have been a rare thing. Crassus had a court in his, and its six lotus-trees [EDITOR’S NOTE : Probably Diospyros Lotus,the date plum] were very famous, and only perished in the fire in Nero’s reign ; to the older Pliny this possession inside the city seemed a marvellous luxury. But when it was weilnigh impossible to secure a patch of garden ground, there was indoor gardening, such as we have nowadays in large towns, Little flower- gardens were made in front of the windows, very probably on wide balconies, which were attached to each story, “ so that every day the eyes might feast on this copy of a garden, as though it were the work of nature.” One of the frescoes at Boscoreale shows a house with balcony and open galleries with flowers (Fig. 90). 

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In the smaller towns they very likely used the roofs of a peristyle in a similar way; and at Pompeii, at the house of Sallust, one can climb up on the roof of a peristyle, laid out on two sides as a real garden on the house-top. Such balcony-gardens must have been of a fair size, for Martial, no doubt in fun, acknowledges the receipt of a bit of land, with thanks to the donor for a place no bigger than the garden in front of his window. Naturally these balconies were a fine opportunity for thieves; and Pliny says that daring burglaries compelled many people to do away with their balcony-gardens. The flat roofs of the large town houses as well as their balconies and colonnade roofs were used in the same way, and had an under-structure made to protect them from damp. On the top, boxes were laid, or fixed, so that tall plants could grow there, flowers, shrubs, vines, and even trees. Seneca says that on “ high towers they planted fruit-trees and shrubberies, with roots where their tops ought to be.” Even fish-ponds were there, and one might climb up to a balcony like this by a stairway of two hundred steps.

In later days Rome exhibited great art and luxury in the culture of flowers, and with the aid of artificial heating both roses and lilies were made to bloom in winter. No importations from Egypt were wanted now, for Rome had surpassed the Nile with her winter roses. In the forcing-houses, protected by mica in the windows, very fine bunches of grapes were artificially produced. Still more important, there were great nurseries in the Campagna, especially for growing flowers to be sold in the town. At Pompeii a small nursery was discovered with a whole array of painted pots, presumably for raising seed or cuttings.

Wonderful gardens were flowering on town roofs, the markets were supplying fine flowers in winter, and so it is not surprising that the emperors were envious of Hellenistic display, and tried to force gardens to grow on the poor ground by the sea. Like Hiero, Caligula built a ship with ten rows of oars, one above the other, and studded with precious stones. From the masts waved sails of divers colours, on the deck were pillared halls and dining-rooms, and many vines and fruit-trees. Under this canopy lay the monarch, borne along the coast of Campania to the strains of music.