We Have Ancient Greece to Thank For Contemporary Gardens
Penelope Hobhouse on the Long-Ago Roots of Naturalistic Wonder
It could be argued that 21st-century naturalistic gardening has its roots in ancient Greece, for unlike the Egyptians, who were obliged to protect their gardens from the destructive forces of nature behind high walls, the Greeks could readily believe, like those who studied them centuries later, that “all nature was a garden.” For although the mountainous terrain and lack of water render Greece unsuitable for sustained horticulture, with much of the land deforested by man and goats long before Homer described it in his 8th-century BCE poetry, nevertheless its flora is extremely rich. Greece has more than 6,000 species of flowering plants and ferns—more than any other European country. These provided the first herbalists with specimens for medicinal use, and later enriched the gardening palette of other countries.
The second great contribution of the Greeks is the science of botany. Indeed, the study of plants begun in the Greek classical period formed a core of botanical knowledge that was not superseded for the best part of 2,000 years. Aristotle (384–322 BCE) was the first to study plants scientifically in the 4th century BCE, followed by his pupil Theophrastus (ca. 370–ca. 287 BCE)—studies that culminated in Dioscorides’s De materia medica in the 1st century CE. This was translated into Arabic before the first millennium CE, and well into the 16th and 17th centuries, botanists and collectors from Northern Europe were still struggling to identify the herbs Dioscorides (ca. 40–90 CE) had described growing in the Eastern Mediterranean. It remained a key text for people like John Sibthorp, who botanized in Greece at the end of the 18th century, by which time both botanists and gardeners had become as interested in ornamental plants as in useful ones.
While archaeology has revealed some traces of gardening on the islands of Crete and Thira (modern Santorini) before the first millennium, and there is solid evidence of tree-planting at sites of religious and civic importance, the ornamental domestic garden seems to have played no part in early Greek life. And yet the Greeks were clearly alive to the beauty of plants: they spoke of Athens as “crowned with violets” (by which they meant the violet-colored native anemone, A. coronaria), and while Homer (active in the late 8th or early 9th century BCE) described only useful plants, he was not immune to their beauty, which shines through his poetry.
“Ungardenable” mainland Greece was so arid and mountainous that green and shady places, especially where water flowed, became imbued with a rich mythology. These magical landscapes, inhabited by gods and heroes, were revealed in the works of Homer, who wrote about sanctuary gardens dedicated to Apollo, Athena, and Aphrodite, and of idyllic scenes of groves and meadows watered by streams. In Book V of The Odyssey, the cave of the nymph Calypso, where Odysseus was held captive, was deep inside a copse of poplars, willows, alders, and tall cypresses, with a vine that “ran riot with great bunches of ripe grapes” trailing around the cavern’s entrance. There were four springs “with four crystal rivulets, trained to run this way or that.” This must be the first description of a grotto or nymphaeum.
Also in Homer’s poetry, trees and bushes personify gods; caves, grottoes, and springs are the dwelling places of nymphs and dryads; and herbs with magical powers make regular appearances in both The Iliad and the travels in The Odyssey. The “silver trickle” of water over a cliff, the “black wind” on the sea, and “the meadow of asphodels, which is the dwelling place of souls, the disembodied wraiths of men,” all convey something of the drama of the Greek mountains and herb-scented valleys.
Two descriptions of gardens can be found in The Odyssey—those of Alcinous’s luxuriant enclosed garden of fruit trees (Book VII) and the carefully tended garden of Odysseus’s father, Laertes (Book XXIV). Between them we find all the elements of garden topography, with abundant fruit trees for sustenance and shade, neat vegetable beds, vineyards, and channeled water supplies—all already standard in contemporary Middle Eastern and Egyptian gardens.
Shards of Evidence from Crete and Santorini
Concrete evidence of the Greeks’ enjoyment of plant forms is first revealed in the decoration of pots, vases, and frescoes, executed the best part of 4,000 years ago. Flowers, including irises, lilies, and the autumn-flowering sea daffodil (Pancratium maritimum), which grows on the shores of many Mediterranean islands, are depicted in frescoes in the Minoan palace at Knossos. The date palm and papyrus from Egypt also appear, suggesting strong trade links with that country. These early 2nd-millennium CBE frescoes also give us the earliest known representation of a rose—perhaps the Holy rose of Abyssinia (Rosa × richardii) from the Upper Nile regions, brought by trade with the Egyptians, the single dog rose (R. canina), or the cabbage rose (R. × centifolia) from Macedonia. By the end of the classical period, roses were cultivated intensively on the island of Rhodes, which became legendary for the scent of their petals.
Lilies feature in Minoan sculpture as well as in frescoes; a vase in black soapstone (ca. 2000–1800 BCE) shaped like reflexed lily petals was probably used in funerary rites. Red lilies—probably Lilium chalcedonicum—were beautifully depicted in bud and in flower slightly later in a fresco found on the island of Santorini. Another fresco shows women collecting the stamens of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), a bulb native to northeast Iran, clearly a crop rather than an ornamental plant.
As surviving artifacts become less rare, hard proof of the ancient Greeks’ aesthetic pleasure in plants becomes increasingly evident. Wreaths of ivy, swags of myrtle, and friezes of grapevine and periwinkle were all painted on pottery. Plant forms also ornamented architecture. The acanthus characterized Corinthian capitals, while fluted columns were modeled on wild angelica stems. Yet archaeological evidence does not reveal any gardens. The siting of the palace at Knossos, on the side of a valley, cool in summer and sheltered from wind, must have been ideal for gardening, but there is no indication of any garden layouts.
We do know though that the Minoans grew plants in containers, in much the same way as we do today. Excavations have found the remains there of lines of terra-cotta plant pots watered by irrigation channels. They may have been planted with pomegranates or myrtles, or with roses, lilies, or irises from Asia Minor. A similar arrangement, made some 1,000 years later, was discovered alongside the 3rd-century BCE Temple of Hephaistos in Athens, where fragments of terra-cotta pots were found in square root-pits cut into the bedrock. They were probably planted with laurel and pomegranate. Branches would have been layered straight into the pots for rooting and the pots broken up at planting time—a practice described by Cato (234–149 BCE) a century later in his De re rustica.As surviving artifacts become less rare, hard proof of the ancient Greeks’ aesthetic pleasure in plants becomes increasingly evident.
Archaeology also confirms that trees and shrubs were planted around the sacred places of the Archaic (8th century BCE to 480 BCE) and classical (480–323 BCE) Greeks. Black poplars, cypresses, planes, and arbutus would provide shelter and shade for the sanctuaries of the gods. Today, visiting the ancient temples and theaters, we still find trees, and the sites, carefully fenced against goats and sheep, have become a haven for wild flowers.
But in mainland Greece, land suitable for farming was scarce enough to preclude any ornamental planting; land outside the city was reserved for agriculture. Market gardens including orchards, vegetables, and useful herbs, sited by springs or streams, formed a green belt; the gardens were worked on, like the field crops, during the day, owners and slaves returning to the city in the evening. They did not have to go far, as the average city
in classical times measured only 2,300 ft (700 m) across. Within, both water and space were at a premium. Small plots of land (averaging just 800 ft2/250 m2) were allocated equally among the citizens, each house taking up the entire plot. A central paved courtyard served as light well, washhouse, and kitchen, housing a cistern, an altar, and sometimes domestic animals: there was simply no room for a garden, though there may have been herbs in pots. Gardening was confined to significant public spaces.
By classical times, groves of trees could be found in city sanctuaries and in the agora, the central meeting place of the city. In one corner of the Athenian agora, a small grove of olives and bay laurel sheltered the Altar of the Twelve Gods. These may have been replanted in the 5th century BCE when, according to Plutarch (45–127 CE), the Athenian statesman Cimon provided the plane trees planted along the drain lines to shade the agora, borrowing both the species (Platanus orientalis from Asia Minor—the chenar of Persia) and the idea of the avenue from Persia, and offering perhaps the world’s first example of planting for civic amenity. He planted yet more plane trees at Plato’s Academy in the valley of the river Cephissus outside the western walls of Athens, turning it into a “well-watered grove with trim avenues and shady walks.” Cimon also provided an irrigation system for the Academy, allowing elms, poplars, and olive trees to grow with the planes.
Aristophanes (450–ca. 388 CBE) described the valley as: “All fragrant with woodbine and peaceful content and the leaf which the lime blossoms fling / When the plane whispers love to the elm in the grove in the beautiful season of spring.” Pupils in Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, walking among the peripatoi—the shaded avenues of plane and poplar, olive and laurel—became known as the “peripatetic” philosophers.
Even out in the green, well-watered suburbs, there are virtually no records of houses with gardens attached. The exception is the small garden where Epicurus (341–270 BCE) taught his followers (including, controversially, women and slaves). Contrary to his modern reputation for hedonistic self-indulgence, he advocated a retired and austere life, free from troubling desires or physical pain, and rich in the joys of friendship. Growing his own food to supply a simple vegetarian diet was a practical expression of his philosophy.
The Beginnings of Botany
By the 4th century BCE, Aristotle (384–322 BCE) was turning Homer’s mythic appreciation of plants into the more precise study of botany, based on reflection, observation, and research. On the island of Cos, Hippocrates (460–370 BCE) developed the practice of medicine, liberating it from religious ritual, while a few decades later the naturalist Theophrastus (ca. 371–ca. 287 BCE) succeeded Aristotle as teacher at the Lyceum. Until this point, herbal lore had been passed on by word of mouth: now, in his Enquiry into Plants, Theophrastus gave a systematic written account, dispensing with the mystery of the “miracles of nature” to classify plants according to their sap, roots, leaves, buds, flowers, and fruits. He described over 450 plants, assessing contributions from country people engaged in activities such as woodcutting, beekeeping, and collecting medicinal plants. Although most of those included are useful, he does list flowers cultivated to make crowns or garlands, including rose, carnation, sweet marjoram, lily, thyme, bergamot, calamint, and southernwood.
Theophrastus was especially interested in exotics, including in his herbal various descriptions of plants seen abroad by the campaigns of Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE). Alexander arranged for the seeds and roots of some exotic trees, such as peach (Prunus persica) and lemon (Citrus × limon), to be sent to Theophrastus from Asia, the first recorded attempt to grow these plants in Europe. Theophrastus also mentioned plants from Egypt, especially those from “rivers, marshes and lakes,” and “plants special to northern regions” from Macedonia and beyond, deserving study for their different habitats. In this, he anticipated the interest in ecology shown by modern botanists and gardeners.
The Greeks evidently responded with pleasure to the idea of the garden as an amenity. Before Alexander the Great’s time, Greeks had brought home descriptions of the great paradeisoi, parks of the Persian kings. The Spartan King Lysander (d. 395 BCE) visited Cyrus the Younger’s (d. 401 BCE) garden at Sardis in Lydia (in western Turkey) 70 years before Alexander’s conquest. He described its geometric layout to the Greek general Xenophon (d. 354 BCE), who recorded it in his Oeconomicus on his return to Greece in 394 BCE, expressing, incidentally, Lysander’s surprise at finding the king gardening, germinating seeds, and putting in plants with his own hands. In the slave society of mainland Greece, such manual labor by a member of the ruling classes was anathema.
The year 334 BCE marked the end of the ancient Persian empire, when Alexander defeated Darius III (ca. 380–ca. 330 BCE) and they inherited the well-maintained network of roads that had bound the vast empire together. As the troops journeyed east they discovered the far-flung oasis gardens in which groves of trees were laid out in formal order with aromatic shrubs and well-watered gardens. Plants traveled back to Aristotle and Theophrastus from as far afield as India.
After Alexander’s death, the lands he had conquered were divided into several large kingdoms ruled by Hellenistic aristocrats who took up Persian ideas. In the Nile delta, the Ptolemaic kings established large, productive estates consisting of a network of fields and gardens looked after primarily by agricultural laborers. However, they also incorporated pleasure gardens, and here these Hellenistic Ptolemies rivaled the eastern potentates in splendor. Courtyards were often paved with elaborate mosaics, precluding the planting of flowers. In Thebes and Alexandria, and in Italy and Sicily, cities began to boast public parks with fountains and grottoes.
Tomb gardens—already a feature in classical times—became popular not only in Greece but also in Asia Minor and Egypt. Important citizens could be honored in cemeteries outside the city walls, their graves marked by groves of trees—normally cypresses, still widely used in churchyards today. Gardens around tombs in the suburbs of Alexandria were rented out for five-year periods and planted with fruit trees and vegetables, the tenants growing melons, lettuces, figs, cabbages, asparagus, leeks, grapes, and dates. These garden spaces are reminiscent of the allotment plots that still flourish on the fringes of towns and cities all over Europe today.
The gardening prowess of the Alexandrians was specially commended by Walafrid Strabo, a medieval monk writing in the 9th century. They were particularly skilled in the use of water, harnessing it to power fountains and to play organs. Aristotle had first toyed with similar inventions but it was left to two Alexandrians, Ctesibius and Hero, to turn his abstractions into reality. Hero describes the construction of a fountain with singing birds, which were silenced by the appearance of a mechanical owl, a contrivance repeated in the late 16th-century Villa d’Este at Tivoli. On Rhodes one garden had rock-cut steps, benches, and grottoes—a prototype for the Romantic landscapes of the 18th century.
The tyrant Dionysius (430–367 BCE), ruler of Syracuse, is said to have made a Persian-style pleasure park in the Greek colony. Another expatriate, Hieron (269–221 BCE), more like an Oriental potentate than a Greek, laid out a sumptuous garden on his boat in Syracuse, with flower beds watered by an ingenious system of invisible lead pipes. Ivy and grapevines, their roots in casks of earth, provided shade. On the island of Delos, villas with “peristyle” gardens—designed as inner spaces surrounded by columns in the interior of each house—were constructed in the 2nd century BCE. These predated the characteristic peristyle gardens made by the Romans at Pompeii and in the Campania by the 1st century CE, and later found in many regions of the Roman Empire.
Excerpted from The Story of Gardening by Penelope Hobhouse and Ambra Edwards. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press.