Rome's gardens in the age of Augustus
Chief of all, Rome herself in the early days of the Empire was not only surrounded by. a circle of flowering gardens and villas, but also within her walls looked like a city of gardens with so many public and private grounds. It sounds poverty-stricken and fussy when Vitruvius asks, in his book, on behalf of the health of the town, that garden sites should be made near theatres and other places of assembly; for one has to remember what an abundance of public gardens the first emperors had already made, enclosing the town as in one lovely girdle. Augustus in particular, who was naturally prudent and disliked luxurious private villas, had a very extravagant villa destroyed that belonged to his grand-daughter Julia; he did not care solely for the rich and great, but also, and far more, for the welfare of the people. When Vedius Poilio bequeathed to him his great showy house, he had this razed to the ground, and in its place, north of where later on were the Baths of Trajan, he made the beautiful Portico of Livia for a public garden.
In the town plan (Fig. 58) there is still to be seen the outline of this famous place. There was a sunk lawn, 115 metres by 75, into which a stairway 20 metres wide led down on the narrower side. In the encircling walls there were niches, alternately rectangular and semicircular, and in the middle of the space was a great tank, and a portico round the lawn, This simple ground-plan was laid out with plantations of different kinds of trees, and with flower-beds; the paths were shaded with pergolas. Pliny mentions one marvellous vine, which, growing in the open, serves as a shady pergola.
In Strabo’s description of Rome he makes a great deal of the fine works of art, and all the sites which he tells of seem to be very much alike. The whole form of the place follows pure Greek examples; in the same way the town markets were adorned, also theatres and gymnasiums. In Hellenistic towns they no doubt had developed in the same fashion, and with a similar object—to conduce to public enjoyment and recreation. Here the people bustled about, and here the men of the city had their rendezvous. Ovid says that one of the most favoured walks for gilded youth was the Portico of Vipsanius, near the Portico of Livia, which had been made by Agrippa’s sister in the Via Lata, now the Corso, inside the great Campus, which had been designed for gymnastic exercises. Two others, loved by the rich people, were the Portico of Octavia and the Pompeian Portico, to the south-east of the Campus Martius. But there were grounds laid out in the temple precincts also.
Beside the colonnade, Ovid says, is the sacred grove of Apollo, which Augustus had set on the Palatine, and which was also used as a rendezvous of no very holy kind. During his lifetime he had his own tomb built on the north-west of the town, between the Via Flaminia, northern continuation of the Via Lata, and the Tiber. The under-structure was of white stone, and the inner part of the wall is still to be seen (Fig. 59).
FIG 59. THE TOMB OF AUGUSTUS IN THE TIME OF THE RENAISSANCE
Perhaps the grave-chambers were here. Above rose a mound, which ran up to a point, and on the top supported the standing figure of the emperor. As this mound was grown over with evergreen trees, it must have had a wall round it, and have been made either with steps or in a spiral, for only so could it support the statue from below. Round the tomb Augustus made a fine park with attractive walks. The place where his corpse was burned was an artificial mound, in the same way surrounded with white marble and cut off by an iron grating. But during his lifetime the whole place was devoted to the people as a public park.
To such public places as these, rivals could be found in the private gardens of the emperors and of rich men, who were for ever adding to the unsurpassed beauties of Rome. The term "Hortus" was applied only to the villas of the town and its suburbs. The garden was and remained avowedly the chief feature, but in all gardens there was at least one palace to live in, so constructed that even the emperor and his suite could stay there for a time.
If one came by sea, and approached by the Via Portuensis, one came upon Caesar's gardens. There in the time of his dictatorship he once entertained Cleopatra when the young Egyptian queen visited him in Rome, an episode mentioned by Cicero with some bitterness. When he was emperor, Julius Caesar had these gardens turned into a public park, and left them by will to the people. In his play Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare wrote
Moreover, he hath left you all his walks,
From valuable remains, we see how wonderful the place was with its statues and its marbles. Judging by a sanctuary to Hercules that has been dug up, we may guess at an arena for gymnastic games. Close by were the gardens of Antony, and the whole tract of land on the western bank of the Tiber, dominated by the Janiculan Hill, must have been especially full of gardens on the north.
Of first importance was a public place given by Augustus. In the year 2 B.C. he proposed to present to the people the spectacle of a sea-fight, and with this object had a wide oval basin dug out, 250 metres long and 350 metres broad, with an island in the middle. This remarkable Naumachia site had gardens round it (nemus Cæsarum) enclosing the mirror of water. The mimic sea-fight was transferred later from the Campus Martius to the region between the Villa Lante and the Lungara.
Not far to the north is the Vatican territory, and here Caligula’s mother, the elder Agrippina, had gardens reaching to the Tiber, and there was a xystus separated from the river by a colonnade. Caligula had a circus made where St. Peter’s now stands, and an Egyptian obelisk was set up, which stood in its place till the year 1586, south of the old church of St. Peter, when it was moved into the middle of the new Piazza di San Pietro. This circus became terribly notorious in Nero’s time, for it was the theatre of the first Christian persecution, which Tacitus describes so realistically, when Christians were butchered as the supposed instigators of the great fire, Nero liked to practise his music here, and made use of the living victims as torches on his nightly excursions.
If we stroll towards the north-east along the river, we arrive at the gardens of the Domitian family, which also were imperial property, and had some connection with those of Agrippina. Later on Hadrian built his tomb here, much in the same style as that of Augustus on the other side of the river, though there does not seem to have been a mound with cypresses on the top. The great building must have made a strong impression, with its marble and bronze surround, 120 metres in length, and all about it avenues, old trees, colonnades and other garden works. The palace was probably a very fine one, for it was Aurelian’s favourite residence. These gardens were still in existence in the fifth century, possibly because they were over the imperial tomb.
On the other side of the river was the Field of Mars with its innumerable gardens and buildings. In the Villa Pubblica, where the State Bailiff lived, and where foreign ambassadors were received, a garden was kept up later on, in memory of past times. Here Pompey chose magnificent sites for public gardens. The first real theatre that he built had pillared halls, no doubt for people to wait in. He laid out gardens. But he also owned private gardens, and the southern part of the Field of Mars in the last years of the Republic was a quarter for elegant villas; the elder Scipio had one, and the Gens Æmilia had extensive possessions. Had not Cæsar’s vast building plans been put a stop to by his death, this part of Rome would have been entirely metamorphosed by diverting the course of the Tiber. But Agrippa had at least a certain part of his plans carried out, and the buildings of the Pantheon, in particular the baths, were not without beautiful gardens. There was a large pond in a grove, and Nero would row about on it, after his disgraceful orgies, on a boat made of ebony and gold. Once more we hear of a Euripus! On the other side of the Via Lata we find the Campus before mentioned, with its colonnades, and between them thickets of laurel.
Rome's garden hill, which went by the name of Collis Hortorum all through the time of antiquity, lay at the north of the town, and the good air and fine view naturally enticed rich people to build. Lucullus had one of his famous gardens there, which later on passed into the possession of Valerius Asiaticus. But their beauty attracted the greed of Messalina, and by her wiles she persuaded her weak husband, the Emperor Claudius, to condemn Valerius to death. The lot decided that he was to kill himself, so he went back into his garden and opened his veins; but while he was dying he tried to find a place for his funeral pile, so that the flames should not spoil any of his old trees. Messalina did not enjoy the property very long, for she was put to death by order of Claudius.
These gardens seem to have covered most of the southern shoulder of the hill. On the north-west were the gardens and tomb of the Domitian family, where the ashes of Nero were laid beside those of his mistress Acte and some of his freedmen. Still farther north, probably where we now find the Passeggiata Pubblica and the Villa Medici (now the Academie Francaise), were the gardens of the Acilians. It is not certain whether the little octangonal building, hidden under the hill of cypresses at the Villa Medici, is part of this garden or not; and there is the same uncertainty about an imposing exedra, of which there are traces found in the garden of the cloister at Sacré Coeur; both erections showed important remains even in the sixteenth century, as Bufalino’s plan demonstrates. Perhaps the exedra is the end of a colonnade, which here overlooked the valley. It was only at the end of the fourth century that the Gens Pincia possessed this hill, and gave it the name it still bears, Monte Pincio.
The gardens that were laid out by Sallust the historian in the valley between the Pincio and the Quirinal near the Porta Salaria, paid for with the treasure that he had extorted in Numidia, must have been wonderfully large and extensive. Cæsar seems to have owned a place previously which Sallust bought and greatly enlarged, spending much money on adorning it. It remained in his family till the year 20 A.D. and then was added to the emperor’s possessions. With Vespasian this place was a special favourite. Nerva died there. Aurelian preferred it to the Palatine to stay in. He either built or decorated a colonnade there, which was a thousand feet in length. This served as a riding-course for the emperor, and every day he rode on it till he and his horse were both worn out. Probably these colonnades, being the centre of the valley gardens, were planted with avenues, such as we shall find later in places of the kind. Terraces, perhaps with buildings on them, mounted to the top of the Quirinal, and an octagonal one with a dome has been brought to light. On the north side also there would be the same sort of terraces with pillars and houses in groups; one obelisk which stood here is now set up in the piazza in front of the church called Santissima Trinità del Monte.
On the Quirinal Atticus had a house described as beautiful “ not so much for its gardens as for the way they were placed,” South of the Quirinal, we come to the great Esquilme estates, which were probably covered with villas and gardens, especially alongside, and on the other side of, the Servian Wall. Mæcenas was one of the first to build here, attracted by the view from the hill towards where now is Santa Maria Maggiore. Horace praises this high, airy spot, the fine views of the Sabine and Alban mountains, and the walks on the high Servian Wall. There was also a tall building, reaching, it seemed, to the skies— possibly that very tower where Nero, according to Suetonius, stood to watch Rome burning, declaiming the Fall of Troy—and a large swimming-basin, of which traces can still be seen.
There is another building which may or may not have been part of these gardens, called the Auditorium of Mæcenas, which was unearthed south of the Porta Esquilina: it is one of those half-underground garden-rooms of which we shall learn more later on. On the narrow side to the north there is a semicircular exedra, with seven marble steps. The walls are ornamented in their lower part with pictures of gardens. People have been inclined to think it was a forcing-house, but it was one of the cool rooms for use in the hottest hours of the summer.
In the time of Mæcenas the Esquilne was Rome's poets’ hill; in the shade of their great patron, Virgil and Propertius also built, and later on Martial, and the younger Pliny. Mæcenas left his house and garden to Augustus, and Tiberius lived there after his return from banishment. Nero, moreover, made of this estate the boundary point in his monstrous building scheme for the Golden House, wherein he would unite the Palatine with these gardens. Even before the fire he had entertained the idea, and begun new buildings, making use of old sites, and calling the whole complicated creation his Domus transitoria. But this was still all in the air, and it was only after the great catastrophe which laid this quarter of Rome in dust and ashes that his ideas really began to take shape. With the aid of his two architects, Celer and Severus, he proposed to cover with gardens and buildings a space of about fifty hectares. Concerning the luxury of this place the later writers are wont to speak with a sort of inward shudder. The chief palace, known as the Golden House of Nero, faced towards the Forum. Where the ruins of the Venus Temple and the Temple of Rome now are, there stood a large three-storied colonnade called Miliaria, and in the middle of it (perhaps in an exedra) the colossal statue of Nero; and again magnificent showrooms.
The gardens extended down the hillside to the valley of the Colosseum. Where the amphitheatre is, there was an immense oval pond, in which were reflected other palace buildings, so that it all looked like an actual town. One main wing, excavated under the Baths of Trajan, has a colonnade in the middle in a trapezium shape, in which there was probably a xystus, with pillared courts to right and left containing chambers which were completely cut off at the back, ending in a covered portico that was carved out of the solid hill. Fishponds and the remains of other constructions are found scattered over the whole neighbourhood. But brilliant as this was, “the real luxury was not in gold and jewels, which were common by this time, but in having country meadows and parks in the middle of the town, where one found, in complete seclusion, first shady thicket, then open lawns, vineyards, pasture lands, or hunting grounds.”
This place of Nero’s, which with the utmost refinement of skill brought the country into the heart of Rome, must certainly have stretched from above the Baths of Trajan, south of the Portico of Livia, to the gardens of Mæcenas. It was no doubt the crazy want of proportion in Nero that made him design this monstrous estate, for it placed a barrier across the town, and so checked trade. He himself said he could now “ at last live like a man,” and told his architects that what Nature denied, Art must compel. No wonder that Nero did not long enjoy this pride in its completeness, and the later emperors thought it was better to “give Rome back to herself.” The Flavian Amphitheatre was built over the pond, and Titus put up his baths on the site of the Eastern Palace.
Nero was only fulfilling in an exaggerated way the insatiable desire of all Romans, who were for ever striving after some new attraction. To them a palace in the town would seem a very cramped dwelling, if it did not cover more than four acres. Martial describes a villa belonging to his patron and friend Petilius, on the Janiculan Hill, and calls it a regal estate. The house was at the very top, and so enjoyed the best view; the real country had been brought into the town; there was a better harvest of grapes than on the Falernian Hill; there was space enough to take drives within the walls; it was absolutely quiet, so that a sleeper was never disturbed by noises from the town. Private villas like this competed on a smaller scale with the emperor’s, but they lay on the outskirts and did not press into the densest parts of the traffic.
Nero could not be content with the proper home of the emperors, which had been on the Palatine since the time of Augustus, for that was in the moderate taste of the first of his line. Although the Temple of Apollo had, as we have seen, fine garden surroundings, the actual palace had only small gardens. Ovid praises a pleasant shrubbery with laurels in front of the gates. The extensive garden which stretched to the westward from the palace, with its large lofty exedra, was one of the great outside erections put up by Domitian.
South of the Capitol lay the Plebeian Quarter, so crowded that no garden ground was possible. It was only at a later time that a fine place appeared there, the Baths of Caracalla. Directly to the south and actually on the circumference there is yet another villa quarter to be found. At any rate, the Servilian Gardens must have been on the Via Ostiensis, and these were adorned with works of art in Vespasiants time. Suetonius says that Nero went there in the course of his last flight to Ostia.
Sallust says that not only did they try to make country houses in the town, but the real country villas were also like small towns; and this remark points (with some disapproval of their vast size) to the fact that all the Roman villas with their scattered buildings had a townish look if seen from a distance. The Roman loved to change his home continually, and he shows this not only by keeping up a great many villas in different localities, but also by moving about, here and there, in the same one, according to the time of year, and even to the time of day. And so Lucullus was able to fly "like a crane" to another home. The dwelling-house proper, the villa urbana, was mapped out into different kinds of separated pavilions that could be lived in. We cannot be certain how far the Roman villa was taking the Hellenistic as a model, and this can only be positively known when the whole of some Hellenistic villa has been excavated. Still one may say with some confidence that the Romans adopted a style that was already fully formed.