The Garden in Ancient Rome

Since Rome’s earliest beginnings, it has had a strong connection with agriculture. From the legends of the city’s founder marking out the boundaries with a brazen plough to the esteem awarded to the farmer Cincinnatus in Roman literature, agriculture was a part of the Rome’s ideal; the image of a citizen living off the land, the food on his table grown on his own estate. In direct connection with this idealization was the importance of the Roman garden. Pliny the Elder tells us that the “kings of Rome cultivated their gardens with their own hands.”[1] Excavations at Pompeii tell us that most of the water flowing from the main aqueduct was piped to Pompeii’s multitude of private gardens.

Gardens in Rome came in many forms and could serve many functions. They ranged from pleasure palaces to tiny window boxes. They could provide a home with beautiful landscaping and decorative flowers, as well as vegetables, seasonings, and medicines. The following pages and components of this project deal with the herbs and seasonings that ancient Romans grew in their kitchen gardens and would have been easily available to their cooks on a daily bases. Many of these herbs are still used today, including parsley, sage, cumin, anise, mint, bay, fennel, mustard, oregano, and many others. This exhibit focuses on basil, coriander, and rosemary.

Note on the sources for this section:

The principal source material for this section of the project comes from Pliny the Elder’s Natrual History. In one of his most monumental works, he dedicates nine books to plants, herbs, gardens, and remedies gained from them, making his work one of the most definitive primary sources on the subject. To better facilitate further research, the footnotes for these citations are set up to link to the exact book, chapter, and page of Natural History as found on the Perseus Digital Library.

[1] Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, trans. John Bostock (London: Taylor and Francis, 1855,) 19.19.


The Garden in Ancient Rome