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p618 Hortus

Article by Philip Smith, B.A., of the University of London
on pp618‑619 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

HORTUS (κῆπος), garden. 1. Greek. Our knowledge of the horticulture of the Greeks is very limited. We must not look for information respecting their gardens to the accounts which we find in Greek writers of the gardens of Alcinoüs, filled with all manner of trees and fruit and flowers, and adorned with fountains (Odyss. VII.112‑130), or of those of the Hesperides (Hesiod. Theog. 25), or of the paradises of the Persian satraps, which resembled our parks (Xen. Anab. 1.2 § 7, Oeconom. IV.26, 27; Plut. Alcib. 24); for the former gardens are only imaginary, and the manner in which the paradises are spoken of by Greek writers shows that they were not familiar with anything of the kind in their own country. In fact the Greeks seem to have had no great taste for landscape beauties, and the small number of flowers with which they were acquainted afforded but little inducement to ornamental horticulture.

The sacred groves were cultivated with special care. They contained ornamental and odoriferous plants and fruit trees, particularly olives and vines (Soph. Oed. Col. 16; Xen. Anab. V.3 § 12). Sometimes they were without fruit trees (Paus. I.21 § 9).

The only passage in the earlier Greek writers, in which flower-gardens appear to be mentioned, is one in Aristophanes, who speaks of κήπους εὐώδεις (AvesV.1066). At Athens the flowers most cultivated were probably those used for making garlands, such as violets and roses. In the time of the Ptolemies the art of gardening seems to have advanced in the favourable climate of Egypt so far, that a succession of flowers was obtained all the year round (Callixenus, ap. Ath. V p196). Longus (Past. II p36) describes a garden containing every production of each season, "in spring, roses, lilies, hyacinths, and violets; in summer, poppies, wild pears (ἀχράδες), and all fruit; in autumn, vines and figs, and pomegranates and myrtles." That the Greek idea of horticultural beauty was not quite the same as ours, may be inferred from a passage in Plutarch, where he speaks of the practice of setting off the beauties of roses and violets, by planting them side by side with leeks and onions (De capienda ex inimicis utilitate, c10). Becker considers this passage a proof that flowers were cultivated more to be used for garlands than to beautify the garden (Becker, Charikles, vol. II p403‑405).

2. Roman. The Romans, like the Greeks, laboured under the disadvantage of a very limited flora. This disadvantage they endeavoured to overcome, by arranging the materials they did possess in such a way as to produce a striking effect. We have a very full description of a Roman garden in a letter of the younger Pliny, in which he describes his Tuscan villa (Plin. Epist. V.6). In front of the porticus there was generally a xystus, or flat piece of ground, divided into flower-beds of different shapes by borders of box.a There were also such flower-beds in other parts of the garden. Sometimes they were raised so as to form terraces, and their sloping sides planted with evergreens or creepers. The most striking features of a Roman garden were lines of large trees, among which the plane appears to have been a great favourite, planted in regular order; alleys or walks (ambulationes) formed by closely clipt hedges of box, yew, cypress, and other evergreens; beds of acanthus, rows of fruit-trees, especially of vines, with statues, pyramids, fountains, and summer-houses (diaetae). The trunks of the trees and the parts of the house or any other buildings which were visible from the garden, were often covered with ivy (Plin. l.c.; Cic. ad Q. F. III.1, 2). In one respect the Roman taste differed most materially from that of the present day, namely, in their fondness for the ars topiaria, which consisted in tying, twisting, or cutting trees and shrubs (especially the box) into the figures of animals, ships, letters, &c. The importance p619attached to this part of horticulture is proved not only by the description of Pliny, and the notices of other writers (Plin. H. N. XVI.33 s60, XXI.11 s39, XXII.22 s34; Martial, III.19), but also by the fact that topiarius is the only name used in good Latin writers for the ornamental gardener. Cicero (Parad. V.2) mentions the topiarius among the higher class of slaves.

Attached to the garden were places for exercise, the gestatio and hippodromus. The gestatio was a sort of avenue, shaded by trees, for the purpose of taking gentle exercise, such as riding in a litter (Plin. Epist. V.6, II.17). The hippodromus (not, as one reading gives the word in Pliny, hypodromus) was a place for running or horse exercise, in the form of a circus, consisting of several paths divided by hedges of box, ornamented with topiarian work, and surrounded by large trees (Plin., l.c.; Martial, XII.50, LVII.23º).

The flowers which the Romans possessed, though few in comparison with the species known to us, were more numerous than some writers have represented; but the subject still requires investigation. Their principal garden-flowers seem to have been violets and roses, and they also had the crocus, narcissus, lily, gladiolus, iris, poppy, amaranth, and others.

Conservatories and hot-houses are not mentioned by any writer earlier than the first century of our era. They are frequently referred to by Martial (VIII.14, 68, IV.19, XIII.127). They were used both to preserve foreign plants and to produce flowers and fruit out of season. Columella (XI.3 §§51, 52) and Pliny (H. N. XIX.5 s23) speak of forcing-houses for grapes, melons, &c. in every garden there was a space set apart for vegetables (olera).

Flowers and plants were also kept in the central space of the peristyle [Domus], on the roofs, and in the windows of the houses. Sometimes, in a town, where the garden was very small, its walls were painted in imitation of a real garden, with trees, fountains, birds, &c., and the small area was ornamented with flowers in vases. A beautiful example of such a garden was found at Pompeii (Gell's Pompeiana, II.4).

An ornamental garden was also called viridarium (Dig. 33 tit. 7 s8), and the gardener topiarius or viridarius. The common name for a gardener is villicus or cultor hortorum. We find also the special names vinitor, olitor. The word hortulanus is only of late formation. The aquarius had charge of the fountains both in the garden and in the house (Becker, Gallus, vol. I p283, &c.; Böttiger, Racemationen zur Garten-Kunst der Alten).

Thayer's Note:

a In modern terms, it was a French garden; what the French themselves call a parterre.

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Page updated: 9 May 07