BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Herod the Great’s Ancient Gardens

Palace gardens of the first centuries B.C.E. and C.E.

Anyone familiar with the gospel story of Jesus’s birth knows Herod the Great as the ruler of Roman Judea responsible for the Massacre of the Innocents—the slaying of all boys under the age of two born in Bethlehem with the intention of killing the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:1–18). Fewer people know Herod as an ambitious builder who had commissioned many construction projects all across the Holy Land, including his splendid palaces in Jericho and the generous rebuilding of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. But perhaps only the aficionados of Roman Judea have ever heard about the ancient gardens built under Herod the Great.

Writing for the May/June 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Kathryn L. Gleason of Cornell University, Ithaca, introduces Herod the Great (73–4 B.C.E.), a Roman client king of Judea, as a patron of architectural achievements much smaller and much less studied than his monumental palaces and fortresses.

villa-of-livia

A disaster for those who lived nearby, the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 C.E. is a blessing to modern historians. The towns sealed over by volcanic ashes present a rare opportunity to study ancient gardens in detail. In Pompeii, only about 500 domestic gardens were preserved. Contemporary with Herod the Great, these gardens offer useful comparative material to studying the gardens of Roman Judea. Painted representations of gardens include this fresco from the Villa of Livia (first century B.C.E.) at modern-day Prima Porta, 10 miles north of Rome.

“Admittedly, we cannot find the remains of lush plantings, beautiful scents, the sounds of birds, or the cooling spray of a fountain. At the same time, gardens are not entirely ephemeral,” states Gleason about ancient gardens. Gleason goes on to unveil the various methods through which we can identify the long-forgotten gardens in archaeological record.

“Palace gardens of the first centuries B.C.E. and C.E. were quite unlike anything we know today. It was a period of intense innovation in garden forms, in the propagation and aesthetics of the plants, and in their role in the space,” explains Gleason, opening a discussion of what is known about the different ancient gardens from Roman Judea and the wider Mediterranean.

A professor of landscape architecture, Gleason shows how scholars can work out the design of gardens and their place within the architecture of a house or in the wider landscape or cityscape from the various traces preserved in the ground. To identify the original plants, scientists can analyze pollen and the minerals that accumulate in living plants and survive long after these plants decay.

caesarea-maritima-promontory

In defiance of nature, Herod’s seaside palace in Caesarea Maritima included this impressive garden, established on a promontory within a colonnaded courtyard that featured a pool surrounded by planters. Photo: Courtesy of the Promontory Palace Excavations.

To learn how scholars identify ancient gardens, what Herod’s gardens looked like, and how they fit in the larger landscape, read the Archaeological Views column “Herod the Great Gardener” by Kathryn L. Gleason in the May/June 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Subscribers: Read the full Archaeological Views column “Herod the Great Gardener” by Kathryn L. Gleason in the May/June 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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1 Responses

  1. Matt says:

    Thanks for the post, it was an enjoyable read.

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1 Responses

  1. Matt says:

    Thanks for the post, it was an enjoyable read.

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