PHYLLIS ODESSEY

Veni, Seri, Florui: I came, I sowed, I flourished.

pompeii_gardenWhy would anyone study urban agriculture in Ancient Rome?  This is the question, I put to Tracey Watts, who is writing her doctoral dissertation on the subject.

“This may sound old-fashioned.  The history of Rome is a cautionary tale.  At one time a million people lived in Rome.  This called for intense environmental manipulation for the city to function. The flowreing of this intense growth was not sustainable.”

As I talked to Tracey about urban ag in ancient Rome; something incredibly Pompeei. Casa di Trebius VAlens Summer Triclinium Dining Roomsynchronistic happened.   Her analysis of the virtues of urban agriculture movement during the first two centuries BC through the first two centuries AD in Rome, sounded like the mantra of the urban ag movement today: enhancing the quality of life, connecting individuals with nature, improving air quality and using plants for medicinal purposes.  Sound familiar?

flower 1 What really blew my mind was Tracey ‘s discussion of how food was being grown in the city.  “The presence of patio gardens is well-attested in literary sources.  Indeed this method of urban farming may have constituted the primary type in highly-populated areas of the Roman world.  Not only were crops grown on rooftops (Brooklyn Grange pay attention), but some were even placed in windowsills to make the most of available space.  As in many densely populated regions now, land became so expensive near major cities that even marginal plots were productive.  Tomb or funerary gardens were common in Rome and elsewhere.”

pompeii_fresco_gardenWe  use cold frames, row tunnels and greenhouses, but the Ancient Romans were a little bit more inventive.  In order to have cucumbers on their dining room table all year round, the Romans wheeled their cucumbers out in carts to sit in the sun on a daily basis and then kept them warm during the evenings under “cold frames” with glazed oil clothes known as “specularia.”
urban ag 1

When I first decided to talk to Tracey, I thought her thesis might be interesting from a scholarly perspective.  I did not think our discussion would have any relevance for the Urban Ag movement of today.  In 2013, we have not yet invaded cemeteries and used them as productive land.  We’ve found other vehicles for letting nothing to go to waste: guerilla gardening is in full swing (neighborhoodfruit.comveggietrader.com, fallenfruit.org) throughout the country.  Maybe, Tracey is correct, the ancient world does have something to teach all of us, not just those writing dissertations.

FOR MORE INFO: 

http://www.history.ucsb.edu/people/person.php?account_id=212
Tracey Watts
Beyond the Pleasure Garden:  Urban Agriculture in Ancient Rome

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