The ancient Greeks and Romans cultivated gardens to beautify their surroundings as well as for agricultural products. While some gardens were created purely for pleasure, others, especially those of poor or middle-class people with a small plot of land, yielded fruits and vegetables that were an important food source for the owners. The most elaborate gardens, those belonging to the country villas of wealthy Romans, were both small farms and pleasure gardens in one.
The tradition of landscape gardening dates back to the early civilizations in the Near East, where people planted trees and dug pools to create restful, fertile havens of shade and water. The Greeks considered certain shady, well-watered places—such as mountain springs or brooks—to be sacred, and they sometimes created gardens in temple courtyards or public places to imitate these sanctuaries.
The Romans, however, developed gardening into an art form. Scholars have learned about the fine Roman gardens from wall paintings, the writings of ancient authors (such as Pliny the Elder), and excavations of the ruins of the city of Pompeii. Such formal gardens might have had springs, streams, hills, clusters of trees, or caves. If the land did not have such features, landscape gardeners sometimes created them. These natural features were decorated with statues, paved walkways, painted murals, fountains, pools, and aviaries (large, walk-in birdcages). Vegetable gardens, grapevines, and orchards of fig, cherry, pear, olive, and lemon trees were located elsewhere on the property. Even the villas of rich men were expected to produce fruit, flowers, grapes, oil, wine, and sometimes fish from ponds. The owners used the produce of their land and sold the excess. Many luxurious villas operated as successful commercial farms. (See also Agriculture, Greek; Agriculture, Roman; Houses.)