(Re)framing the Hortus
: an analysis of the boundaries of the Roman garden in the Late Republic and Early Empire

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Transculturally, the garden is understood as a marked-off, often bounded, and cultivated space. Distinct from other surroundings, gardens are material and symbolic spaces that constitute both universal and culturally specific ways of accommodating the natural world and expressing human attitudes and values. For the ancient Romans of the Late Republic and Early Empire (c.100BC – AD150), the garden was, just as it is today, a recognisable and defined space that provided a setting for, and a backdrop to, a whole range of horticultural, artistic, social, and even political activities and practices. However, despite the two basic requirements of cultivation and enclosure, when we actually analyse individual garden sites, we find that the distinction between ‘garden’ and ‘not-garden’ is anything but straightforward. We define the space explicitly through the notion of separation and division, and yet, in many instances, we are unable to make sense of that divide. 
In response to this ambiguity, this thesis interrogates the notion of the ‘boundary’ as an essential characteristic of the Roman garden, and explores the perception of the space in response to its limits. Using case studies from both literature and material and visual culture, my cross-disciplinary study examines the status of different gardens as they relate to, or are framed by, their contexts. These case studies are formulated as three sets of comparative pairs, each representing a different ‘type’ of garden: Virgil Georgics 4.116-148 and Columella Book 10 (agricultural); the Ara Pacis and Livia’s Garden Room (sacred); and Pliny Ep. 2.17/5.6 and Villa A at Oplontis (elite villa). My analysis demonstrates how the Romans of the Late Republic and Early Empire constructed garden boundaries specifically in order to open up or undermine the division between a number of oppositions, such as inside/outside, practical/aesthetic, sacred/profane, art/nature, and real/imagined. This, in turn, highlights how Roman gardens of this period are always attached or supplementary, either conceptually or literally; and how, despite their bounded presentation, they also remain transitional and permeable. 
By examining the ambiguities of Roman gardens across a number of different registers, this thesis thus highlights the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to garden space whilst still maintaining nuanced critical analysis of individual garden sites. By following this approach, I demonstrate that what is important is not so much a matter of what all the individual gardens have in common – in that they have some form of boundary – but how we use that particular characteristic as a standpoint from which to analyse them. In this way, it becomes clear that what is significant is not necessarily the boundary itself, but, rather, the delight in playing with concepts of boundedness and separation.
Date of Award1 Apr 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorWilliam Fitzgerald (Supervisor) & Michael Squire (Supervisor)

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