The Wonders of the Roman Specularia Still Lives On

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green leaves

Gardening is an ancient art, and many historians believe that it originated when humans started domesticating plants and developing agriculture. Forest-gardening is the oldest form of art, and mostly it involved family groups that gradually discovered which plants were useful. Eventually, these were the only ones grown inside courtyards, which ultimately led to the domesticated plant species we know today.

But we have very little evidence of what these prehistoric human groups grew. The only account that we could verify is from the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, in his book Historia Naturalis. Pliny wrote about the Roman Emperor Tiberius’s specularia or greenhouse. But these were not the kind of greenhouse we would recognize today. Pliny described them as “beds mounted on wheels.” These were then moved outside when it was sunny, then hidden under a frame made of transparent stone or mica, as a form of a greenhouse window shade.

The Wonders of Tiberius’s Specularia

Tiberius was the Emperor who ascended the throne after Augustus. He was 54 years old, but he was still in good health when he succeeded Augustus. But being Emperor in the first century was a dangerous position. According to legend, Tiberius asked his physicians how he could stay healthy, and they recommended that he eat a cucumber a day.  Emperor Tiberius then asked his engineers to make sure that cucumbers were grown year-round in his villa in Capri.

Tiberius might have grown other things in his specularia, as Romans were fond of building gardens in their homes. They grew flowering plants, herbs, vegetables, and trees. A typical garden would include roses, mulberry, cypress, and rosemary, and these would be used for cooking, medicine, or purely for aesthetic reasons.

Recent archaeological evidence from the House of Julius Polybius in Pompeii revealed that ordinary Romans grew fig, cherry, apple, pear, and olive trees. There were also citrus trees along the garden wall, as well as some ornamental plants. The Emperor likely grew the same trees and plants in his garden, and even Augustus was known to grow fig trees.

From Specularia to a Botanical Wonder

woman inside greenhouse

It wasn’t until the 13th century that Italians built the first botanical gardens. These were meant to nurture the plants that the early explorers brought to Europe.

During the 16th century, newfound wealth and desire for knowledge led to the building of the first real greenhouses. The aristocracy developed a taste for exotic fruits and plants from the New World, and some of these required warmer temperatures to grow. King Louis XIV of France built one of the most famous: an orangerie at the Palace of Versailles in 1661. That made the greenhouse a status symbol for many people in Europe.

But scientists, explorers, and scholars also recognized the value of having a greenhouse. Many countries built their own and made it accessible to the general public. Since the 19th century, greenhouses have become a regular sight in many gardens of ordinary people.

And the fascination continues. Many countries are building botanical gardens that include conservatories. They protect local plants and help spread knowledge on the value of plants and trees. They also provide humans with food that helps us stay healthy, just as they did in ancient Rome.


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