Sensory experiences in Roman Gardens and their Influence on Bodily Health

This month’s post is by Dr Patty Baker, Senior Lecturer in Classical & Archaeological Studies at the University of Kent.,

Roman physicians wrote about healthy activities in terms of exercise and diet, but a factor that has been overlooked in modern scholarship is how health was shaped by a person’s interaction with their surrounding landscapes. The connection between spaces and health was discussed in ancient medical literature, such as the Hippocratic work Airs Waters Places and Galen’s On Hygiene. These texts maintained that environmental factors were fundamental causes of certain diseases and bodily conditions –healthy or ill. Yet, with the rare exception, they did not explain how landscapes influenced health. Roman writers sometimes described their gardens as being beneficial to their body and mind, and in conjunction with these statements they mentioned the soothing sounds they heard, the smells they inhaled and the sights they saw in them (e.g. Ovid Tristia 1.37; Pliny the Younger Letters 5.6). In particular, calming sounds were thought to ease the mind and induce sleep (e.g. Censorinus 12.4; Cicero Tusculans 5. 113; Horace Epodes 2.23-8; Seneca de Providentia; 3.10; 61-2), thus pointing to an association between gardens and health. Private gardens were common features in houses in the Italian Peninsula, and public gardens were placed around baths and gymnasia, which were spaces associated with well-being. Yet, the question arises: how did the Romans understand gardens to be beneficial for their health?

The Hippocratic writer of Affections (1) said that humours could change according to smell, taste and sound, but for the most part, it is the passing comments made in Roman literature that indicate that sensory experiences were the link between the environment and the body and mind. Two questions arise from these limited statements: first, why were sensory experiences conducive to health, and second, what experiences were thought to be salubrious? These questions are addressed through an interdisciplinary analysis of literature, art, and archaeological remains of gardens from Pompeii dating from c. 150 B.C. to the mid-first century A.D. with interpretations informed by sensory studies in history and archaeology.

It can be ascertained from ancient medical texts, such as 5th century BC Hippocratic works on Regimen and Galen’s 2nd century AD work on Hygiene that a healthy person had a balance of bodily fluids (humours) and a stable mind. Illness was caused by an imbalance of the humours. The causes for the imbalance tended to be from outside of the body, in particular poor air and water quality. For example, Vitruvius (1st BC/AD) in his work On Architecture and Celsus (1st AD) in his work On Medicine argued that a healthy location had air that was clear with little to no scent and was untainted by marshes and mist. Similar sentiments are found in private letters, especially those of Pliny the Younger (AD 61/2-c. 112). In some of his letters, he described the villas he owned: Como, Laurentium (on the coast near Ostia) and one at Tusculum (Tifurnum on the Tiber). His letters mentioned how his senses were stimulated when seeing beautiful landscapes, hearing gentle breezes and the sounds of the sea, smelling the sea air and garden flowers and feeling the cool or warm breeze on his skin. He noted these were beneficial for his physical health and a source of inspiration for his mental condition. Thus, there existed for him, at least, a perceived link between his encounters with specific environments and his well-being. In particular, he concluded his letter to Domitius Apollinaris (V. 6) about his villa at Tusculum by saying,

I can add another reason: I can enjoy a profounder peace there, more comfort, and fewer cares; I need never wear a formal toga and there are no neighbours to disturb me; everywhere there is peace and quiet, which adds as much to the healthiness of the place as the clear sky and pure air. There I enjoy the best of health, both mental and physical, for I keep my mind in training with work and my body with hunting. My servants too are healthier here than anywhere else; up to the present I have not lost a single one of those I brought here with me.

Although it can be argued that these experiences are pleasant, and, therefore, conducive to relaxation, Greco-Roman understandings of how the senses functioned indicate that the Romans understood these experiences to have a greater influence on their bodies than mere respite. Ancient philosophers wrote about the five senses: vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch, but did not always agree on how they worked. Nonetheless, they tended to be described in terms of touch. The atomist, Democritus, argued that all objects gave off effluences (thin replications of atoms) that moved from the object into the eyes. These replications also had qualities of sound, smell, texture and taste, which were detected when the film of atoms entered the sensory organ associated with the sensory stimuli. Those influenced by Platonic thought argued that objects were “touched” via extramission. For sight, this meant that fire was emitted from the eyes. This fire grabbed the object and brought it into the eyes for identification. Essentially the stimuli were physically brought into the body. Once in the body, they could affect the balance of the humours. For example, Vitruvius stated that

The open spaces which are between the colonnades under the open sky, are to be arranged with green plots; because walks in the open are very healthy, first for the eyes, because from the green plantations, the air being subtle and rarefied, flows into the body as it moves, clears the vision, and so by removing the thick humour from the eyes, leaves the glance defined and the image clearly marked.

Although the writers give us ideas about what were beneficial sensory experiences, for the most part, their descriptions are vague. We have little information about the precise nature of healthful stimuli. Moreover, the ideas mentioned so far are those of learned men. To determine specific details about beneficial experiences and if the ideas presented in the texts were widely held, we turn to the archaeological remains of gardens in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Gardens served a variety of functions: social interaction, worship, dinning and other domestic activities, such as weaving. All of these activities would have been enhanced in a pleasant environment designed to mimic the natural world that offered healthful benefits to those who used them, especially to escape the sounds, smells and general chaos of urban streets.

Over five-hundred gardens were found in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Some common archaeological finds emerged from comparisons of the remains. These include fresco paintings and fountains. The paintings were regular features added to garden walls to make the gardens appear larger than they were. Most depicted similar scenery, having a low fence painted in the foreground with jetting fountains, greenery, flowers and birds depicted in the boundary of the fence. The background colour tends to be blue, as a representation of the sky.

The greenery depicted on them are plants and trees common to the Mediterranean climate. They are a mixture of fruit trees, evergreens, vines and flowers. Colour was added with blooming flowers, such as corn poppies, oleanders, lilies and roses. The scent of the plant life was either sweet, indicated by the roses and oleanders; while mild, woody aromas were indicated by depictions of pine and cypress trees. The plants represented on the frescos also correspond to the plant remains found in the archaeobotanical remains of pollens, seeds and fruits.

Aside from being depicted on the frescos, fountains were also common features in the archaeological remains of the gardens. They range in size from elaborate waterfalls that emptied into pools to smaller fountains with water jetting out of the mouths of animal statuettes. Fountains provided soothing sounds, views of moving water and if touched, the feel of movement. Some pools were painted blue (House of Meleager VI.9.2), possibly to imitate the colour of the sea or a clear lake. Views of the colours and moving water, combined with the sounds created by it would have indicated the water was fresh. It probably had no distinguishable smell, so did not taint the air.

Two other signs that gardens were healthy were their location within houses and the types of rooms that surrounded them. The majority of house gardens were placed at the rear of dwellings away from streets. Street odours and sounds likely did not permeate into the backs of the houses. If smells and sounds did seep into the dwelling space, their strength would likely have dissipated with distance from the source. Rooms that tended to be close to gardens have been identified as the tablinum and dining rooms. Some also appear to be storage areas. However, kitchens and latrines, places with strong smells, were not placed near the gardens.

Thus, through this quick survey, we find that there were pleasant sensory stimuli in gardens that would not only relax the visitor, but in accordance to Roman understandings of sensory function would have played a direct role in the maintenance of humoral balance.