Roman Gardens and Wellbeing

A central blockwork path lined either side by ruined pillars, mostly only a few inches high, and adjacent lawned areas with a variety of borders
Figure 1: The Roman Garden in Chester

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Much like many of our modern gardens, Roman gardens were also designed to be a place of relaxation, that encouraged wildlife, as well as providing food, herbs, and medicine.

Private gardens were popular with the Romans producing fruit, vegetables and herbs plus, on occasion, honey and wine. A wide range of plants were also available to the Romans, and Pliny the Elder lists 70 cultivated for food or cooking, 39 used for making wines or cordials and 16 grown to encourage bees. In addition, he mentions 101 items with medicinal properties such as lettuce to help with sleep.

Pliny also wrote how his work had been ‘aided by Antonius Castor, who in our time enjoyed the highest reputation for an intimate acquaintance with this branch of knowledge. I had the opportunity of visiting his garden, in which, though he had passed his hundredth year, he cultivated vast numbers of plants with the greatest care. Though he had reached this great age, he had never experienced any bodily ailment, and neither his memory nor his natural vigour had been the least impaired by the lapse of time‘.

A large lawned area surrounded by broad, well kept, low level, topairy hedging and broad gravelled paths - There are also other styles of garden on each side
Figure 2: The Roman Garden at Fishbourne

There is obviously an overlap between the different purposes of plants (and plant-related products) with some, such as bay laurel or honey, having both culinary and medical uses. However, aside from providing medicinal plants and herbs, Roman gardens probably had a much broader health role in encouraging movement and enabling access to ‘pure air’ (incorporating elements such as air movement, natural sounds, aromas, sunlight and vistas) in addition to enhancing psychological wellbeing. All these elements are still relevant today.

Significant physical work is involved in establishing and maintaining a Roman garden and, in his list of exercises, the Roman physician Galen specifically advocated ‘digging, bearing burdens, pruning vines and reaping‘. But it is also clear that Roman gardens were designed to encourage movement both around the perimeter and in between the individual beds. Pliny the Younger describes tree-lined pathways and avenues edged by box hedges at his villa in Tuscany. Garden paths have also been identified archeologically from a number of villa sites including Frocester Court in Gloucestershire . The Roman architect Vitruvius even provided details on the construction of sand-covered walkways or ambulationes incorporating drains and a charcoal base to ensure the surface remained dry. Pergolas were often included in Roman gardens to provide shaded walkways.

An enclosed courtyard area, with a high columned veranda on all sides - adjacent to these columns are a large number of fountains and statues - within this courtyard there is a broad cross-shaped pathway with formal planting in each quarter
Figure 3: A Roman garden in Pompeii

In relation to wholesome ‘pure air’ Pliny the Younger emphasised the views, breezes and smells at his garden villas, including commenting on a ‘terrace scented with violets‘. Other aromatic plants that would have been found in Roman gardens include camomile, lavender, rosemary and roses.

Enabling psychological wellbeing and developing tranquillity were an important focus for the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his physician Galen during the course of their Antonine Plague. Today, as we continue to cope with the after-effects of COVID-19, it is worth bearing in mind that there is good evidence for the positive effects of any gardening in reducing anxiety, depression, stress and rumination (brooding) in addition to enhancing self-esteem. There are also the associated mental health benefits of being exposed to natural light.

An autumnal scene showing ruined columns, grass banks, and a lawned area with two small trees - fallen leaves are scttered across this scene
Figure 4: The Roman Garden being developed at Aldborough

Gardening is about being in contact with nature and, as well as the flora, the Romans encouraged birds into their gardens as evidenced by bird baths and feeders. Fishponds and, occasionally, aviaries have been identified at a several sites and some Roman gardens were adorned with fresco paintings showing greenery, flowers, birds and blue sky. Again, there is a wealth of modern research evidence for the benefits of natural settings in their own right for enhancing psychological wellbeing.

The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the significant adverse impacts on many people’s mental health as a result of social isolation and I am sure this must have been the case for some of our predecessors too during the time of their plague. Today gardens and gardening are an excellent way to connect with others in a safe space outdoors, especially if it is combined with some immersion in the past. Roman gardens are being reconstructed at various sites including Aldborough, Chester, Fishbourne, Pompeii and many more – well worth a trip!

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Figure 1: The Roman Garden in Chester. ©Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 2: The Roman Garden at Fishbourne. ©David Spender, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 3: A Roman Garden in Pompeii: ©I Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 4: The Roman Garden being developed at Aldborough ©Nick Summerton

Petillius Cerialis and the Brigantes

A photo showing a gatehouse structure with extensive wooden defensive walls either side
Figure 2 – Reconstruction that can be seen at Lunt, nr Coventry

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When Petillius Cerialis arrived in Britain as the new governor it was not his first trip to the island. Ten years earlier, as commander of the legio IX Hispania, he had been badly mauled by Boudica and, according to the Roman author Tacitus, while trying to assist the citizens of Colchester, he ‘was stopped by the victorious Britons and routed. The entire infantry force was massacred, while Petillius Cerialis escaped to the camp with his cavalry and sheltered behind its defences’.

In his new posting he also knew that one of his first jobs was to deal with the Brigantes tribe in the North: a task that had also fallen to his elder brother, Caesius Nascica, a few years previously. In relation to this earlier engagement Tacitus makes the ‘helpful’ comment that ‘a battle fought by a regular brigade under Caesius Nasica had a satisfactory ending‘. Cerialis would certainly have appreciated that he had quite a hill to climb when he stepped ashore in AD 71!

At the time, the territory of the Brigantes was extensive, covering North Yorkshire, Lancashire and parts of the Lake district. It was most likely an amalgam of several tribes that had been brought together into a slightly shaky confederation. In the early years after the Roman invasion of Britain it was ruled by the powerful Queen Cartimandua.

An engraving, showinga group of Romans and Caratus and his followers standing either side of Queen Cartmandua as she negotiates with the Romans
Figure 1 – Queen Cartimandua handing over Caratacus to the Romans,

The relationship between the Brigantes and the Romans had wavered over the years. At the start all appeared quite rosy with the Brigantes adopting a pro-Roman stance, importing luxury Roman goods from the continent and even handing over the rebel Catuvellauni tribal leader Caratacus to the occupying forces (Figure 1).

But there were also some internal tensions between the different Brigantian factions that surfaced from time-to-time. The most serious arose from the estrangement of Cartimandua and her husband Venutius. Tacitus takes up the story: “Venutius, who, quite apart from a violent character and a hatred of all things Roman, was goaded to fury by a personal feud with Queen Cartimandua… She tired of Venutius, who was her consort, and gave her hand and the kingdom to his armour-bearer, one Vellocatus. This scandal immediately shook the royal house to its foundations. The discarded husband could rely on the support of the Brigantian people, the lover upon the infatuation of the queen and her ruthless cruelty. So Venutius summoned help from outside, and a simultaneous revolt on the part of the Brigantes themselves reduced Cartimandua to a position of extreme danger, in which she appealed for Roman assistance. In the event, our cohorts and cavalry regiments did succeed, at the cost of desperate fighting, in rescuing the queen from a tight corner. Venutius inherited the throne, and we the fighting“.

A photo showing a gatehouse structure with extensive wooden defensive walls either side
Figure 2 – Reconstruction that can be seen at Lunt, nr Coventry

Cerialis arrived in Britain with a newly raised legion (II Adiutrix) and headed up to Lincoln to join the IX Hispania. Leaving the II Adiutrix to settle in at Lincoln he then advanced to York and Malton with his former command, crossing the Humber at Brough. The arrival of Cerialis in Yorkshire marked the start of the Roman association with Malton. The location for the fort on slightly raised ground overlooking the River Derwent would certainly have helped to control an important route along the Vale of Pickering and the eastern approaches to York (Figure 2).

A photo taken from the top of a ramparts, with some immature trees scattered upon it, and looking towards a defensive ditch
Figure 3 – The ramparts of the stronghold of the Brigantes at Stanwick, North Yorks

Cerialis’ subsequent three years of campaigning into Brigantia from the East with the legio IX Hispania were supported by the legio XX Valeria Victrix based at Chester and commanded by Julius Agricola, marching up the Western side of the Pennines. The two forces might have eventually met in the Carlisle area and even advanced a short way into Southern Scotland too. But it seems very unlikely that the campaign ever climaxed in a single decisive confrontation. Tacitus describes: “a series of battles – some of them by no means bloodless”.

A photo showing an 'L' shaped base of a sustantial stone wall, with grass banks on either side, and tree cover to the left hand side
Figure 4 – The remains of the Roman walls at Aldborough

Venutius and Cartimandua disappear from history and the former stronghold of the Brigantes at Stanwick (Figure 3) was replaced by a new civitas at Isurium Brigantum (Aldborough) (Figure 4). Cerialis left Britain in AD 74 with Agricola becoming governor three years later. Agricola’s daughter, Julia, married the author Tacitus.

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Figure 1: Queen Cartimandua handing over Caratacus to the Romans, as illustrated on at 18th Century engraving by F. Bartolozzi © Wikimedia Commons

Find out more about Queen Cartimandua on Wikipedia

Find out more about Caratacus on Wikipedia

Figure 2: The first fort at Malton would have looked very similar to the reconstruction that can be seen at Lunt, nr Coventry © Nick Summerton.

Find out more about Lunt Roman Fort

Figure 3: The ramparts of the stronghold of the Brigantes at Stanwick, North Yorks © Nick Summerton.

Find out more about Stanwick from English Heritage

Figure 4: The remains of the Roman walls at Aldborough (Isurium Brigantum) © Nick Summerton.

Find out more about Roman Alborough from English Heritage

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