Garden and Landscapes / History / Roman Empire / Uncategorized

Reflecting on the Importance of Water in Ancient Roman Gardens

Hadrian's Villa Canopus

The Canopus at Hadrian’s Villa

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero

In the dictionary, importance is an adjective describing something as having great significance. Water was of great significance to Roman Gardens. Ancient Romans viewed water not only as a necessity of life, but also as a thing of beauty. It’s no wonder that the ancient gardens found in remnants of the Roman Empire are filled with water features. Roman-style water features run the gamut from still pools of water, simple bubbling basins, and elaborate tiered creations. Although there are few examples of the ancient Roman garden through the republic era, there were many gardens created during the Roman empire era. These gardens’ influences can be seen in more contemporary garden designs today.

Hadrian's Villa Birds Eye

A Bird’s Eye View of Hadrian’s Villa in relation to the City of Tivoli

As the Romans began to develop the advances that the Greeks had previously made in education of horticultural themes, philosophers and writers of the era began to come forth with their own instructions of how they saw the most successful forms of cultivation. Cato the Censor, Varro, and Columella all left behind their own treatise on agriculture, and all were able to recognize the importance of water within the garden. In 160 BC, Cato the Elder’s latin prose, De Agri Cultura was distributed. It was an up-to-date treaty of catering to a farm with information by his personal knowledge and observation. When recommending the right quality of land for the best farming, he suggests a place “on the foot of a mountain, looking to the South, in a healthy situation … well watered, near a good sized town, and either on the sea or a navigable river.” Columella also shared similar views on selected the appropriate plot of land.

The most difficult aspect to understand about water use within the Roman realm was the issue surrounding the privatization of water supply. While the introduction of the aqueducts alleviated some of the tensions to obtain water, water rights were consistently thought of as a valuable asset. Any type of natural water source on privately owned property, such as a spring or well, belonged to the landowner according to Roman law.  Since natural resources were so sporadically located throughout the land, competition arose between neighbors to secure agreements with whomever controlled the nearest water source. With these agreements, roman citizens could provide for the cultivation of their crops and the care of their livestock and achieve some sort of self-sufficiency. Further tensions arose for landowners that perhaps wished to create lavish displays of water in their homes, following the fashion of the time. However without control over their own water supply this was near impossible. All Roman landowners knew the importance of acquiring a steady supply of water on their own land where it was naturally plentiful. According to Varro, the main water supply for any type of estate should be within the walls of the house or certainly near at hand. “First choice is water that rises there [on the land]; second best is water that flows in all year round.” This was a high priority aspect of any sort of investment in land for the Romans. Pliny the Younger spoke passionately about the natural well located on his Laurentum estate and kept his eyes on another land purchase near Tifernum that had fields that were “rich, fertile and watered.”

Hadrian Villa Excavation

Diagram of Plaza d’Oro Excavation

Hadrian Villa Excavation

Water Trenches found in Plaza d’Oro

After the Sack of Corinth in 146 BC, the Romans reveled not only in the joy of their victory but in absorbing Greek land and their philosophies, architecture advances and overall culture. Many aspects of the Roman gardens in fact had some origin to Greek culture. As water was important to the Greeks, it would also be important to the Romans. The Nile River served as both a means of transportation and a source of water supply, helping the Greeks create their very intricate irrigation system designs. The Romans were very impressed by these intricacies and began to mold their landscape designs to the new techniques they gathered. This is evident especially in the excavation of the Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy. The richly ornamented Piazza d’Oro was a peristyle garden within the Villa and was enclosed by a double portico. During its excavation archeologists dug into the ground near the shallow euripus, a channel of water named after the Euripus Strait in Greece, and located planting beds on either side of the body of water. Further exploration uncovered the same type of intricate irrigation systems that were so popular in Greece. These trenches redirected water that was collected within the nymphaeum in the Great Hall and provided hydration to the plants along the walls of the garden. The developments in the systems for collecting water lead to the appropriate care of not only plants but also other important aspects to the Roman rustic life, like livestock. Livestock kept in Roman types also depended upon water. Cattle, sheep and boars all took part in both drinking and bathing in the waters provided by the farmer. Water would also attract all different types of birds to the gardens. Nightingales, blackbirds, turtledoves and pigeons would come to revel in the water basins, and these birds were very attractive to the Romans. Most important of all the creatures that were tended to in the Roman Garden with the assistance of a good water supply were fish. Romans kept both fresh and salt water fish on their farms. Fishermen were able to catch fish from fresh water streams and store them within their man-made ponds.

Ancient Roman Fresco Depicting a Bird Bath

Even the smallest creatures could be essential to the health of the garden and have a large dependence on water, like the honeybee. In Varro’s third book on agriculture he discusses the importance of keeping water fresh to promote the making of “good honey.” Otherwise, the bees will survive on their own honey leaving little to be cultivated and utilized by the farmer himself. It is however peculiar that this type of reasoning for the importance of water seems more likely to be stressed in the earliest designed Roman gardens, due to the shift of the garden’s role from a place to cultivate the natural bounties of the earth to a statement of political power and wealth. Like the natural progression of the shift of roman garden from functional to ornamental, water too became a popular element for designing elaborate formal gardens rather than just stored for survival.

Again Hadrian’s Villa is a perfect example demonstrating the ornamental utilization of water. One of the large pools extending outward from the estate was known as the Canopus named after the river in Egypt. Although there is only some remains left of the caryatids surrounding the Canopus, it is evident that Hadrian and his various guests admired the reflective quality of the water. There is a sort of tranquility associated with the presence of calm waters. There lays the underlining reasoning of the change in attitude towards water. It was understood as a natural and crucial resource, but if you give anyone power, they are tempted to wield it. Water became such a popular ornamental element within ancient Roman gardens because the elite had control over it. This is evident even in the Renaissance recreations of Roman gardens. Many gardens throughout the world have had roots originating in that of the Roman Garden aesthetics. The Italian Renaissance during the sixteenth century in particular had numerous gardens that blatantly referenced their Roman ancestry. Some landscape design created over dramatic features that they believe to be significant aspects to any ancient Roman Garden.

Oval Fountain at Villa d'Este in Tivoli, Italy

Oval Fountain at Villa d’Este in Tivoli, Italy

By examining the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, located not too far from Hadrian’s Villa, it is plain to see that centuries later the Italians had identified water to be an important feature of the Roman Garden. The lavish fountains and water features exhibited throughout this renaissance garden were demonstrations not only to the fact that the Italians felt connected to their Roman ancestry, but more importantly they were able to take their technological advancements and better them. This could be perceived as another moment where the elite wield their power. The various pools, fountains and grottoes all made the Villa d’Este a worldwide sensation and one of the greatest testaments to Ancient Roman garden influence.

Contemporary gardens today still reference back to Roman gardens of the first and second centuries. The Getty Villa in California for example is a mix-match of different aspects of the ancient Roman garden. In the center of the large peristyle garden is a recreation of the Villa de Papyri. It long canal of water is a key feature and the smaller fountains found throughout the recreated villa all mimic that of an ancient Roman garden. While this neo-roman revival is a mixed work of art of different features that were popular at different times throughout Roman history. The message is still delivered to people today of how important the containment and manipulation of water was to the Romans. Throughout Roman garden history there were many fashions that came and went, but the importance of water has always remained consistent. For all these reasons water was very important to the Romans in all aspects of life. Studies still need to be conducted to further the information of how certain villas maintained all their beautiful horticultural aspects, but there is a general understanding of how the Roman people were able to absorb and improve upon the manipulation of water and display their success to the world.

The Getty Villa, a Representation of Villa Papyri

The Getty Villa, a Representation of Villa Papyri



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