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The Small Gardens of Pompeii

Wilhelmina F. Jashemski visists the heart of the Pompeian house: the garden. While some gardens were splendid and spacious, others were crammed into minute courtyards “no larger than a professor's desk,” but rich with flowers and enclosed by painted walls.

Among the peoples of history known for their love of gardens the ancient Romans have an important place. From earliest times the garden played a basic role in Roman life, for the hortus, or kitchen garden, formed a significant part of the primitive heredium, or family estate. As Rome grew, it eventually became a city famed for beautiful pleasure gardens—luxurious estates that were referred to as horti.

Lucullus, the conqueror of Mithridates, decorated the gardens he laid out on the Pincian hill with statues that he had collected during his campaigns. The victorious general, Pompey, after his return from the Orient, built elaborate gardens on the Campus Martius. Caesar entertained Cleopatra in his famous gardens on the right bank of the Tiber, and in his will bequeathed them to the Roman people. With the establishment of the Empire, such gardens became the prized possessions of the ruling monarch. By the end of the first century of the Christian era, Rome was encircled with pleasure gardens.

The garden played an important role in the development of the Roman house. It is not at Rome, however, but at Pompeii that we can best study this development. Only there can we trace the evolution of domestic architecture from the Italic dwellings of the fourth and third centuries B.C. to the Roman house of the first century after Christ. The hundreds of homes that have been excavated at this site offer valuable evidence on the life and humanity of the ancient world. The heart of the Pompeian house was the garden.

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