Workshop "Soothing Gardens"

Soothing Gardens
Ancient ideas and practices about plants, natural environments and well-being

This workshop aims at discussing gardens in ancient (mostly Greco-Roman) cultures and practices, with particular attention to ideals of well-being and therapeutical measures. Our intention is to explore concrete experiences and activities: from the subjectivity of sensorial experience (smelling, seeing and hearing in the pleasures a garden offers) to material aspects (recipes, the trade and availability of ingredients, instruments, techniques and practices).


1:30-1:45 p.m.
Dana Zentgraf/Chiara Thumiger: Welcome and introduction

1:45-2:45 p.m.
Laurence Totelin: Plant imports in the Greek and Roman worlds: imaging the other's gardens

2:45-3:45 p.m.
Patty Baker: Roman Conceptions of Wellbeing: Sensory Experiences and Flower Crowns

3:45-4:00 p.m.

4:00-5:00 p.m.
Sean Coughlin: Recreating the Pleasures of Scent in the Greco-Egyptian and Greco-Roman World

5:00-6:00 p.m.
Grazia Piras: Bringing Classical wellbeing practices into everyday’ life

6:00-6:15 p.m.

Laurence Totelin: Plant imports in the Greek and Roman worlds: imaging the other's gardens

Soothing Gardens ROOTS
Garden Party of Ashurbanipal

The Greeks and the Romans imported many of the plants they used in the production of medicines, cosmetics, and perfumes from regions beyond the boundaries of their empires, in particular from the Middle East and Arabia. With those plants travelled stories of the wondrous gardens or wild regions in which they grew, the fantastic animals that protected them, and the rituals involved in collecting them. These stories, some of which are preserved, offer an insight into how Greeks and Romans perceived 'foreign' gardens as places of eudaimonia, but also of lurking dangers, of threats to their identity. In this paper, I examine several of these stories and reflect on the ways in which the Greeks and the Romans both appropriated and othered imported products in their search for healing and wellbeing.  
Laurence Totelin is Reader in Ancient History at Cardiff University. She is a historian of Greek and Roman science, technology, and medicine, and her research focuses on ancient botany, pharmacology, and gynaecology. Her key works include Hippocratic Recipes: Oral and Written Transmission of Pharmacological Knowledge in Fifth- and Fourth-Century Greece (Brill, 2007); Ancient Botany, with botanist Gavin Hardy (Routledge, 2016); Medicine and Markets in the Graeco-Roman World and Beyond, edited with Rebecca Flemming (Classical Press of Wales, 2020); and Bodily Fluids in Antiquity, edited with Mark Bradley and Victoria Leonard (Routledge, 2021).

Patricia Baker: Roman Conceptions of Wellbeing: Sensory Experiences and Flower Crowns

Soothing Gardens ROOTS
Example of a flower crown based on Greco-Roman descriptions

The history and archaeology of Greco-Roman flower crowns are the main topics of this presentation. I begin by explaining how my study of flower crowns developed out of my research which demonstrates how the Romans believed that the sensory experiences they had in salubrious spaces, such as gardens, were conducive to mental and physical health and wellbeing. Crowns, too, were said by ancient writers to have some health-giving properties that are similar to those had in natural spaces and gardens.
Following the introduction, I use experimental archaeology to demonstrate how I think Roman crowns were made and the types of flowers and greenery used in them. I will also explain the sensory experiences I have when I create and wear them.
Finally, I consider the reception of ancient techniques by floral designers today. Flower crowns are still popular for special occasions, but they are far from environmentally friendly. By using ancient techniques our understanding of Greco-Roman perceptions can help florists and wearers of the crowns chose a more environmentally friendly option. At the same time, creating these crowns also has benefits for mental focus. Thus, I conclude by asking what a Roman technique can teach us about environmental sustainability today and how their perceptions of natural materials might benefit our mental wellbeing.
Dr. Patty Baker is an affiliated scholar and adjunct instructor in the Department of History at Virginia Tech. She is also founder of the online teaching forum, Pax in Natura ( which is a public outreach forum that explores what we can learn from the ancient history and archaeology of gardens, landscapes, floral design, and medicine, to further awareness and find new ways of approaching environmental and personal wellbeing issues today. She has published widely on ancient medicine and most recently her work has focused on sensory experiences in ancient gardens that was thought to promote health and wellbeing. Alongside her academic and outreach work, she is a floral designer. Currently, she is completing a book aimed at both historians and florists on Greco-Roman floral design. She has also worked at Florida State, U.S.A., the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, and the University of Kent, UK.
Recent/larger Publications

  • 2018 “Identifying the Connection between Roman Conceptions of ‘Pure Air’ and Physical and Mental Health in Pompeian Gardens (c.150 BC–AD 79): a Multi-sensory Approach to Ancient Medicine.” World Archaeology 50 (3): 404-17.
  • 2017 “Viewing Health: Asclepia in their Natural Settings.” Religion in the Roman Empire 3 (2), 143-63.
  • 2013 The Archaeology of Medicine in the Greco-Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • 2012 Baker, P., H. Nijdam, and C. van ’t Land (eds.), Medicine and Space: Body, Surroundings and Borders in Antiquity and The Middle Ages. Leiden: Brill.

Sean Coughlin: Recreating the Pleasures of Scent in the Greco-Egyptian and Greco-Roman World

Soothing Gardens ROOTS
Vienna Dioscorides, botanical picture of an iris

There is an immediate delight that comes from fragrance, and in Greco-Egyptian and Greco-Roman antiquity these pleasures infused everyday life, from the natural fragrance of healing gardens to the aesthetic and medical use of incense and aromatic oils. Even ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Theophrastus believed that the pleasure we take from fragrance was something uniquely human: animals can smell, but only humans experience pleasure and pain, beauty and ugliness, through scent. In this talk, I discuss some insights into the past and its pleasures that we can gain by recreating these scents. The focus of the talk will be on new approaches to recreating the olfactory heritage of Greco-Egyptian and Greco-Roman perfumery. These approaches form part of a five-year initiative funded by the Czech Science Foundation and the Czech Academy of Sciences: Alchemies of Scent.
Sean Coughlin is Research Fellow in Project A03 of the Collaborative Research Centre SFB 980 Episteme in Bewegung funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and at the Institute for Classical Philology, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Sean has held visiting and research fellowships in Canada, Germany, and Israel, and has worked as a laboratory technician in neuroscience at McMaster University in Canada and as a cook. His work on ancient Greco-Egyptian perfumery has been exhibited at National Geographic Museum in Washington DC and has been covered by media organizations such as the BBC, the Times, Washington Post, Repubblica and Der Spiegel. He teaches courses on the history of philosophy, medicine and witchcraft, and publishes on Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, science, and medicine, especially the relationship between art and nature. In 2021, he begins as Principal Investigator of Alchemies of Scent, a 5-year interdisciplinary research project focusing on the history of perfumery, botany, chemistry and olfaction, funded by the Junior Star initiative of the Czech Science Foundation and hosted by the Institute of Philosophy (in partnership with the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry) at the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Grazia Piras:  Bringing Classical wellbeing practices into everyday’ life

Soothing Gardens ROOTS Soothing Gardens ROOTS
Roman and Contemporary cosmetic containers

Classical Greek and Roman culture made important contributions to philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, botany and more.
Over the centuries this wealth of knowledge has been at times feared, and at times overlooked and dismissed; yet, more recently, there has been a renewed interest towards Graeco-Roman antiquity as a source of inspiration for wellbeing and self-care practices.
What is the role of classical scholars in bringing into contemporary lifestyles the lessons learned from ancient Greek and Roman sources (medical, philosophical and otherwise)?
Two case studies from two different fields, public and private (respectively urban policy and the cosmetic industry) will offer the chance to explore and debate gaps, challenges, and opportunities of integrating Classical wellbeing traditions into everyday’ life.
Grazia Piras holds a PhD in sustainable management of cultural and natural resources. She has over twenty years of experience working for various UN agencies and latterly for IIED (International Institute for Environment and Development) leading policy driven research and delivering global and regional programmes aimed at preserving natural and cultural resources while fostering social cohesion and economic development. She is passionate about how the attribution of values drives economic development, shapes conservation policies and forges lifestyles. She lives in London and works as an independent consultant.


Organisers of the workshop: Chiara Thumiger and Dana Zentgraf
Date: 12 May 2021, on Zoom

This is a workshop within the collaborative project ‘Gardens and Eudaimonia’ link (Reflective Turn Forum and the Subcluster Knowledge ROOTS)

Download Programme and Abstracts here


Fieldwork + Activities


Participating Institutions