From a letter by Pliny the Younger: “Many paths are separated by box ( a type of shrub). In one place you have a little
meadow. In another place the box is interposed in groups, and cut into a thousand different forms. Sometimes the letters
express the name of the master, or that of the designer. Here and there little obelisks rise, mixed alternately with apple
trees…Opposite this is a fountain which is incessantly emptying and filling, for the water which it throws up to a great
height falling back again into it, is by means of connected openings returned as fast as it is received.”
The gardens of ancient Rome were both literally and figuratively the center of the Roman house. A significant amount of attention was
placed on this section of the home known as the peristylium or peristyle. To the Romans, the peristyle was a ‘mini-paradise.’ It was a garden
court that was surrounded by a covered, colonnaded walkway. It was actually developed from Greek architecture, but whereas the Greek
courtyard was no more than an open space with a paved or beaten court, the Roman version was a beautiful garden haven. Found in the inner
part of the home, the peristyle garden provided fresh air for the rooms of the house that were grouped around it.
The layout of the Roman home was very symmetrical. Upon entering the front door, one had a clear view through the atrium and tablinum to the garden, giving the appearance of a space that opened out to the nature beyond. As the atrium was located in the front of the house and was the hub around which several rooms were located, the peristyle garden was the center of the back portion of the house, being surrounded on all sides by dining rooms, bedrooms, and other spaces.
Although the most beautiful gardens are seen in the wealthiest of homes, nearly every house, no matter how humble, had a peristyle garden of some sort. The largest homes would have contained elaborate gardens ornamented with fountains, statues, obelisks, decorative vases and trellises in a mostly symmetrical layout and surrounded by a wide and highly decorated walkway. Modest dwellings may have had a simple opening to the sky with just enough room for a few pots of herbs or flowers.
A remarkable aspect of the peristyle garden was the use of pools and fountains. Many of the larger Pompeiian homes were found to have beautiful fountain statuettes and elaborate jet systems, setting the pool apart as the focal point of the garden space. Mosaic
fountains, in which water would pour forth from a mask or statuette in the semicircular niche of the fountain, were also prevalent. They were placed at the rear wall of the garden so that a visitor entering from the street would get a clear view of the dazzling design of glass paste and shells that composed the mosaic fountain. The lead pipes that provided the water for these fountains were in such good condition upon excavation that archaeologists needed to do little to restore them to working order.
Romans loved to collect sculpture, and they especially loved works that were imported from Greece or that replicated the Greek style. These pieces were constructed mainly of white marble, and sometimes bronze or colored marble. Those who could afford it adorned their peristyle gardens with beautiful renditions of gods and goddesses, legendary figures, or depictions of animals like dogs, cats, or rabbits.
Statues of deities such as Mars, Venus, Bacchus, and Hercules adorned with flower or laurel wreaths were displayed in Roman gardens. Venus was especially popular with the citizens of Pompeii who dubbed her the custodian of the garden, entrusting her with the guardianship of all flora and fauna that called the peristyle garden their home. Her presence there was demonstrated through statuary as well as through her sacred plant, myrtle. Hercules came to be recognized as the patron deity of merchants and his image is also quite prevalent in Pompeii, a place many a wealthy Roman merchant called home. Overall, it seems that the Romans did not differentiate between statues of these deities that were meant for religious worship and those that were mainly for decorative purposes. For them, religion permeated all areas of daily life, and adornment of the garden was no exception.
As we can see from archaeological remains such as those at Pompeii and from the writings of ancient authors, the peristyle garden was not only an essential part of the home, but a small “paradise” for their owners as well. Much time was spent working, playing, relaxing, and enjoying life amid the bit of nature that the garden supplied. Whether it was an elaborate courtyard full of graceful statuary and glistening fountains, or just a simple place of sunshine for a few pots of flowers, the garden was truly the “heart and center” of the Roman home.
Red-figured column-krater attributed to the Amykos Painter: youth pursuing a woman