Ancient gardens of Greece

 "Delight comes from plants and springs
and gardens and gentle winds and
flowers and the song of birds."

-Libanios-

wild Greek vegetation
wild Greek vegetation
vale of Tempe
vale of Tempe
island of the nymph Calypso
island of the nymph Calypso

There are moments when we see visions of earlier gardens, while walking on the streets and mountains of Greece, transitory glimpses of the mysterious splendour of gardens and pleasure grounds of the kings of the time of mythology, houses of nymphs and supernatural creatures...in the spring and again in autumn after the first rains, most of Greece is covered with a prodigal display of wild flowers; some 6000 species flourish, of which a few grow only in the Arcadian valley of the Styx...from the gardens of the Gods to the world we know, or would like to know: as for example, the natural and untended vale of Tempe in Thessaly, later to be named as a fictional part of the estate of the Emperor Hadrian: the vale of Tempe is the quintessential locus amoenus, the "pleasant place", the unspoiled, untended meadow of the classical times, the very model for the garden lore of yore.
The ancient Greeks' awareness of landscape is apparent in their chioce of sites for temples and theatres, their love of trees in the care expended on temple groves, and their delight in flowers in the innumerable stories of mythological lore; they also used floral motives to give color and ornamental detail to architecture or as decorative and symbolic designs in vase painting. To a nation like the Greeks, so eager to take advantage of every device for embellishing their surroundings, the cultivation of beautiful gardens became a prime necessity in setting off their architecture. They always preserved a studied symmetry in laying out their gardens, which were planned to meet the principal requirements of shade, coolness, fragrance and repose. We can have some glimpses of their love for the garden lore from early literary sources: Homer, in the fifth book of the Odyssey, describes an early Greek garden: "In it flourish tall trees: pears and pomegranates and apples full of fruit, also sweet figs and bounteous olives...here too a fertile vineyard had been planted...beyond the last row of trees, well laid garden plots have been arranged, blooming all the year with flowers. And there are two springs; one leads through the garden while the other dives beneath the threshold of the great court to gush out beside the stately palace; from it the citizens draw their water- these were the splendid gifts of the Gods in the palace of Alcinous." Again, when Odysseus is imprisoned on the island of the nymph Calypso, the poet said that her cave is surrounded by a grove: "Trailing round the very mouth of the cavern, a garden vine ran riot, with great bunches of ripe grapes; while from four separate but neighbouring springs four crystal rivulets were trained to run this way and that; and in soft meadows on either side the iris and the parsley flourished. It was indeed a spot where even an immortal visitor must pause to gaze in wonder and delight."

The love of flowers and gardens characterised all the great nations of antiquity, but by none, except perhaps for the Egyptians, were flowers more intimately connected with daily life than the Greeks. On festal occasions they wore garlands of flowers on their heads and round their necks, the statues of the Gods were always adorned with many and varied garlands, actors and dancers often wore crowns of flowers, guests were offerend flowers when they arrived and even food at banquets was decorated with flowers, many were brought by the maidens at these banquets so that the guests of the house could enjoy music, wine and dialogues among the sweet aroma of flowers; kept in exquisite vases, flowers adorned the living- rooms and, finally, garlands and flowers were offered to the dead and many species were grown upon the graves. The art of forcing and retarding flowers was considerably practised by the Greeks who thus ensured a continuous supply throughout the year: a thing they surely loved and needed.  Flowers were cultivated upon an elaborate scale, each variety being as a rule in separate beds. The flowers in ancient gardens were those still most familiar to us: crocus, violet, grape-hyacinth, anemone, cyclamen, tulip, myrtle, narcissus, daisy, iris and lily were largely grown. Of all the most beloved was the rose- it appears in the Iliad as the flower of Aphrodite, who cured Hector's wounds with oil of roses- the rose was the only flower to be intensively cultivated; as for example, the island of Rhodes, which took its name from the rose and showed the flower on its coins, cultivated the rose so abundantly that sailors claimed that they could sniff the land before they sighted it. Rose-gardens, growing without any care, were "the place called Garden of Midas...wherein roses grow of themselves, each bearing sixty blossoms and of surpassing fragrance; in which garden...Silenus was taken captive."
Ancient Greek gardeners did not write of their profession until in the late Hellenistic times they produced treatises called "Kepourika" and "Geoponica", books on the care and growing of the plants. In these collections of writings there are frequent allusions to the varieties of plants and also the general planning of Greek gardens. These experts instructed the Romans in topiary work and other extravagant forms of gardening: there is no doubt that Roman garden craft was largely borrowed from the Greeks, the same strictly formal type appears to have everywhere prevailed, and all the technical terms in use are always of Greek origin.

In ancient Greece existed many varieties of gardens: sacred groves, private gardens etc.
The religious gardens were of two varieties: the cultivable type, which could be rented out while also being a pleasant gathering place, and the rustic shrine, where statuary and trees coexisted; a subspecies of this latter type consisted of natural grottoes embellished by rock-cut sculpture, votive offerings and at times, great gardens. We might define a sacred grove as a place apart, consacreted to a spirit or divinity, or to the memory of a hero, with trees, rocks and waters; some spots possessed a mysterious quality, some mysterious or tragic event had left there an emotional effect on the nearby rocks and trees and streams, and these remote localities possessed a spirit of its own, a Genius loci.
Through the literary sources we learn also that Theophrastos, a pupil of Aristotle, managed to buy a private garden shortly after the death of his teacher through the offices of Demetrius of Phalerum. This garden Theophrastos dedicated to the Muses; it contained a shrine and statues of the Goddesses, two stoas and some houses, an altar and many wondrous statues, as well as walks through the garden area. Theophrastos' garden was connected with the philosophical school, the Lykeion, where Aristotle taught and where Lykourgos in the fourth century BC had built a palaistra and planted many trees; the site however was very much earlier than the famous philosopher because it was dedicated to Apollo Lykeios. We know also that Theophrastus, in his will, left the garden to his friends and disciples as a place for study.
A similar situation prevailed at the Academy, which is best remembered because of the theaching of Plato, but which had existed long before as the shrine of the hero Akademos, and which had been transformed into a veritable park by that same Kimon who had given plane trees to the Agora. The region of the Academy was an enclosed region some distance out from the city and was clearly both a sacred grove and a private place. Plane trees and olives grew there, watered by the river Cephissus; the olives were said to have been reared from cuttings taken from the sacred olive in the Akropolis. Within the enclosure of the Academy were temples, shrines and tombs; near Plato's residence,a small garden enclosure within the groves of the Academy, was a small temple dedicated to the Muses. So Aristophanes, in the "Clouds" spoke about the celebrate and well-known Plato's olive near the ancient Academy, where youthful racers competed: "But you will below to the Academe go, and under the olives contend with your chaplet of reed, in a contest of speed, with some excellent rival and friend; all fragrant with woodbine and peaceful content, and the leaf which the lime-blossoms fling, when the plane whispers love to the elm in the grove in the beautiful season of spring." So Plato himself wrote about the perfect garden in his book "Laws": "The fountains of water, whether of rivers or of springs, shall be ornamented with plantings and buildings for beauty. If there be a sacred grove or dedicated precint in the neighborhood, let water be conducted to the very temples of the Gods to beautify them at all seasons of the year."
The areas contained a basic religious core which made them different from purely civic centers or private gardens, and the philosophers often tended to buy gardens to connect with their schools. As for example, a similar garden existed around 490 BC near Hipponium, on the southwestern tip of Italy: "a grove exceedingly beautiful and well supplied with flowing streams, in which also there is a place called the horn of Amaltheia, which Gelon constructed" (Athenaeus). Also many public places, like gymnasia or philosophical schools, were connected with gardens and shaded walks, and in almost all cases they included also a shrine to a deity or the tomb of a hero.
Many private gardens are mentioned by the inscriptions and the literary sources. An obvious source for the garden is the farm which was partly- or completely- developed for pleasure. The oldest pictures we have of gardens are from Egypt: paintings of scenes which contain agricultural elements, but which are combined in ways which provide pleasure, and not merely use. About the 6th century BC the effect of foreign influence began to make itself felt and there were glowing account of the wonders of Babylon and Egypt; on account of the smallness of the Greek territory and cities, it was vain to attempt any approach to eastern magnificence. But altough unable to compete in extent or display, the Greek gardens by the beauty of their statuary and architecture equalled, if they did not surpass, their larger prototypes. The principal apartments of a Greek dwelling were planned upon the opposite side to the entrance, and the garden was usually enclosed by the rear wings of the house. At the further end would be a high bank of earth planted with sweet-smelling shrubs, roses, myrtles and agnus-castus, in order that the scent might freely wafted across the garden area; upon one side was often a cool shady wood thickly planted. The private gardens were mixed gardens planted with fruit trees and vegetable beds. The produce of these gardens named in written sources include figs, mulberries, nuts, herbs, melons and vegetables such as leeks, lettuce, cabbages, asparagus and onions.

The original groves, established thousands of years ago, have been altered, destroyed, obliterated. But their spirit survives in secluded shady spots, cut off from disturbance by an angle of wall, by rocks and irregular stones; a statue, an urn, a single column of white marble invite our contemplation. Ferns grow in the shady soil, and water drips from ledge to ledge: often we may not see what it is that draws our attention- the sacred grove is far away- but it is this element which lies behind such pensive scenes.

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Comments 6 comments

Glenn Raymond profile image

Glenn Raymond 6 years ago from Bailey, Colorado

This is a great article. You have researched and put it together very well. The photographs really add an excellent touch. I find this one very interesting. Thank You.


Varenya profile image

Varenya 6 years ago Author

Thanks Glenn! I'm really glad that you have find this article interesting and that you have enjoyed the reading. I'm particulary happy that you have liked the images: I too love them greatly!


reddog1027 profile image

reddog1027 6 years ago from Atlanta, GA

I love plants, gardening and their history. This is a hub I have bookmarked. Thanks for the well researched and written hub.


Varenya profile image

Varenya 6 years ago Author

Thanks, Reddog, for the comments and for having bookmarked the hub, I'm truly glad of this!

I too love greatly gardening and the gardens: the ancients can still give us so useful and delightful advices on how take care of our plants!


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States

Absolutely beautiful! Voted up and Stumbled! I love how you included the words of Plato and Homer, and how you listed some of the flowers used in ancient times.


Varenya profile image

Varenya 6 years ago Author

Many, many thanks dear Dolores! The archaeology is one of my favourite matters, and it is not limited simply to the architecture...poetry and amusement, gardens and pleasures are a vital part of this lore: that's why I've included some quotes from ancient writers, as to exemplify this perfect melange.

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