Academic journal article Akroterion

Horticulture in Antiquity, with Emphasis on the Graeco-Roman Era

Academic journal article Akroterion

Horticulture in Antiquity, with Emphasis on the Graeco-Roman Era

Article excerpt


Gardening and a respect for nature, often associated with supernatural beings and divine forces, go back to the dawn of civilization. Garden myths from the Middle East must be the earliest recorded manifestations of this culture; of these the Babylonian story of Gilgamesh (2nd millennium BC) and its sacred wood is best known. The Greek gods on Mount Olympus lived in sacred groves around caves, springs and streams. The Biblical creation story also terminates in the establishment of a Garden of Eden, dwelling place of the first human beings.

This study covers the evolution of horticulture (the art of the cultivation of a garden) in the Mediterranean area of antiquity, and the Graeco-Roman era in particular. Hortus, Latin for "garden", was used for all sizes of garden. Horticulture is distinguished from agriculture (agronomy, large-scale soil management in order to raise crops) and the discipline of forestry.

Pre-Classical era

In antiquity Egypt's economy was based on large-scale gardening and crop raising in the alluvial soil deposited by annual flooding of the Nile. This should be classified as agriculture, not horticulture, but there is also limited evidence on wall paintings of personal gardens at homes of the wealthy, showing gardeners tilling flowers, shrubs and trees, often associated with pools. Palaces and temples sported gardens, and the temple tomb of Queen Hatshepsut had a prominent garden. It is very probable that the Assyrians and Greeks acquired their subsequent interest in horticulture from these Egyptian gardens (Farrar 1998:1-3).


The ancient civilization of Sumer, between the Tigris and Euphrates, made use of irrigation from these rivers to plant gardens. In addition to large-scale agriculture there is also evidence of the planting of shady trees, and small vegetable gardens. No visual depictions of this have survived though.

The Assyrians (10th to 7th centuries BC) left documentary evidence of the planting of trees, and on relief sculptures pictures of gardens and probable fruit trees appear; one illustration seems to depict the manual pollination of fruit tree flowers. The nobility showed great interest in trees, for palace gardens in particular. Trees were even listed as items of plunder after warring raids. Senacherib brought trees from the Hittite country (Turkey), Tiglath Pileser mentioned conquered trees, and Ashurbanipal showed a special interest in botanical specimens of fruit trees and scented shrubs.

Babylon under Nebuchadnezar (604-562 BC) constructed its famous Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of Antiquity. It almost certainly consisted of extensive gardening on the terraces of stepped ziggurats, watered by means of screw pumps (Farrar 1998:3-5; Diodorus Siculus 2.10).

From the 6th century BC onwards the Persians planted large luxurious parks which so impressed the Greeks that the indigenous name, paradeisos, was taken over as the origin of the word, paradise (Farrar 1998:9-10). These walled parks were often large enough to accommodate wild animals for hunting purposes; others were smaller and contained flowers (Xenophon commented on the sweet aromas, Oec. 4.21), orchards, vegetable plots and gardens with trees only (Olck 1910:769-770).


Early Greece

Little is known about gardening in the Greek Bronze Age (Minoan and Mycenaean cultures), but engravings show evidence of sacred trees, usually associated with shrines. Palace frescoes depict floral motives, especially of crocus and lily but also Egyptian Nile plants. These appear to depict landscape scenes rather than gardens, although there is some evidence of potted flowers at Knossos. There is no clear indication of gardens in homes. Cypress trees were apparently imported from Semitic countries (Farrar 1998:4-5).


During the Greek Dark Ages (1200--800 BC) there is evidence of increasing but still limited gardening in the fortified cities. …

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