An ancient Roman street in Alexandria 100BC

Ancient Arborists – The Roman Empire

When Rome was a Forest: Arboriculture and Urban Landscapes

What Trees did the Ancient Romans Plant?

Through the lens of history, we often view Rome as a concrete jungle, a bustling metropolis of marble, and mortar. However, as surprising as it may be, this metropolis was once a forest, teeming with greenery. The Romans, true connoisseurs of urban planning, had a deep understanding and appreciation for trees. They often incorporated them into their cityscapes, creating verdant retreats amidst the bustling city.

Most prominently found were the Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), Olive (Olea europaea), and Italian Stone Pine (Pinus pinea). The Cypress, with its tall, columnar shape, served as a living monument, enhancing the grandeur of Roman architecture. Olive trees, on the other hand, were more than just landscape elements; they were a crucial part of the Roman economy, providing oil for various uses. The Stone Pine, with its broad, umbrella-like canopy, offered shade and comfort in the hot Mediterranean climate, a feature that Romans found invaluable.

Why were Trees Important in Ancient Roman Cities?

Romans valued their trees, not just for their aesthetics but also for their practical uses. Trees were planted along roads, around public buildings, and in the villas of the wealthy, creating a blend of nature and architecture that still inspires city planning today.

Cities like Pompeii and Herculaneum offer excellent examples of this. Excavations reveal that these ancient cities were home to a wide variety of trees, strategically planted for shade, ornamentation, and utility. The Romans had a clear understanding of how to use trees to improve their urban environment, a concept that we are only now beginning to fully appreciate and reapply in our modern cities.

How did Roman Roads and Trees Shape their Cities?

The Romans were famous for their roads, but few realize the role trees played in these iconic structures. Often, rows of trees were planted along the roads, serving as natural guardrails and providing travelers with much-needed shade. This not only made the roads more visually appealing but also made travel more comfortable.

Trees were also used as landmarks, with specific species planted at regular intervals along the roads. These served as natural signposts, helping travelers navigate the vast Roman road network. A notable example is the Appian Way, one of the earliest and most important roads of the Roman Republic, which was known for its tree-lined paths.

How did the Romans Plant and Maintain their Trees?

Roman arboriculture was sophisticated, with clear guidelines on how to plant and care for trees. They understood that different species had different needs and adapted their planting techniques accordingly. For instance, they knew that Olive trees thrived in rocky soil and that Cypress trees required well-drained conditions.

When it came to maintenance, Romans were ahead of their time. They practiced pruning and shaping to keep their trees healthy and aesthetically pleasing. Moreover, they understood the concept of tree aging and succession, replacing old, dying trees with new ones, ensuring the continuity of their green urban landscapes.

What Role Did Trees Play in Pompeii’s Urban Landscape?

Pompeii, on the other hand, was a city that truly embraced its natural surroundings. Here, trees were not just ornaments but an integral part of the urban fabric. Olive groves were common in Pompeii, not only providing shade and aesthetic appeal but also serving as an essential resource for the production of olive oil. The city’s roads were lined with stone pines, their umbrella-like canopies providing shade for travelers and merchants.

How Did Ephesus Blend Nature and Architecture?

Ephesus, in modern-day Turkey, was known for its magnificent Temple of Artemis – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This grand temple was surrounded by lush groves of trees, creating a sense of tranquility amidst the bustling city. Fruit trees, particularly figs and pomegranates, were prevalent in Ephesus, contributing to the city’s self-sustainability and adding splashes of color to the urban landscape.

What Made Antioch’s Tree Landscape Unique?

In Antioch, one of the empire’s easternmost cities, the selection of trees was influenced by the city’s close proximity to the Orontes River. Willows, poplars, and plane trees thrived in the moist soil along the river banks. These trees were then incorporated into the city’s design, providing shade and contributing to the city’s unique character.

How Did Trees Contribute to Trier’s Aesthetic Appeal?

Trier, situated in what is now Germany, was another city that used trees to enhance its aesthetic appeal. The city’s cooler climate favored different types of trees, with oaks, beeches, and linden trees prevalent. These trees, with their broad leaves and robust structure, added a sense of solidity and permanence to the city’s landscape.

Pioneers of Roman Arboriculture and Urban Design

Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, a trusted ally of Emperor Augustus, was a key figure in the development of Rome’s urban landscape. He was responsible for constructing many of Rome’s aqueducts, roads, and buildings, and he understood the value of incorporating trees into these structures.

Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, better known as Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, also played a significant role in shaping Rome’s urban landscape. His vision of a ‘city of marble’ didn’t neglect the natural environment. He ensured that trees were an integral part of Rome’s cityscape, adorning roads and public spaces.

In the realm of road construction, Appius Claudius Caecus, the Roman censor who commissioned the Appian Way, understood the benefits of tree-lined roads. His foresight led to the creation of one of the most famous roads in history, a road that wasn’t just functional but also visually appealing, thanks to its rows of trees.

The efforts of these individuals, along with many others, shaped the Roman Empire’s cities, creating urban environments that were functional, beautiful, and green. It’s a legacy that continues to inspire us today, reminding us of the value of trees in our cities.

Fascinating Facts about Trees in Ancient Rome
  • The Ficus Ruminalis, a wild fig tree, was considered sacred in Ancient Rome. It was believed to have sheltered Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, when they were infants.
  • Cypress trees were often planted in Roman cemeteries. Romans believed that the Cypress, which remains green all year round, symbolized eternal life.
  • Romans worshipped a goddess named Feronia who was associated with wildlife, fertility, and abundance. She was often depicted with attributes of fruit and trees.
Links for Further Reading:
  1. Trees in the Urban Landscape: Lessons from the Ancient Romans
  2. The Appian Way: Rome’s Tree-Lined Road
  3. Pompeii: A City Frozen in Time
  4. Ephesus and the Temple of Artemis
  5. Trier: The Oldest City in Germany
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