Pyrrha's Roman

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[the real Medusa!]

article written for the Classical Association magazine CA NEWS and the Prep School Classics magazine SATIPS.

It was all very well for Virgil to write (in his 4th Eclogue) that 'bushes and humble tamarisks do not please everyone', but even as a totally non green-fingered Sixth former all those years ago I was mildly intrigued to know what a tamarisk was - especially when they started singing and dripping amber from their bark in other poems! Five years or so later, it was again Eclogue 4 with its intertwining plants which gave me the inspiration to illustrate in my video the possibilities of chiastic or intertwining word-order in Latin poetry.

errantes hederas passim cum baccare ...
mixtaque ridenti colocasia ... acantho

So is it really surprising that, having moved into a new house on a featureless housing development, I should talk my husband round to the idea of incorporating some Roman ideas into the small, dreary square of turf which the housebuilders euphemistically described as a garden? It is very small - 36 feet square, with almost a quarter of this taken up by a conservatory, but it now looks much bigger, divided into three circular areas with a screening trellis in front of the steps down to our Medusa mosaic patio. The eye is immediately drawn to a semicircle of five Corinthian pillars around a marble fountain and Virgilian visitors can recognise the area of

climbing ivy everywhere with cyclamen
and colocasia mixed with smiling acanthus

- even though the colocasia isn't hardy enough to live with its companions for most of the year but has to be cherished in the conservatory!

At this point I must admit that since my knowledge of horticulture had not increased at all since my Sixth form days, we would have achieved nothing without the help of the tolerant and enthusiastic staff at our local garden centre. I knew the names of the plants I wanted from my favourite poems, but had no idea what many of the plants themselves looked like! Venus' myrtle and Apollo's laurel had to be near each other because Virgil liked their intermingling fragrances, but I also wanted Daphne near the laurel and Bacchus' fennel close by with Narcissus in a 'Metamorphoses' section. 'Golden Fleece' and 'Lucifer' are wonderful names for varieties of crocosmia and I have always imagined Catullus' 'flower on the edge of a meadow' as a poppy. Since we were recently married, an orangeblossom seemed appropriate and who could ignore Pliny's praise of box-hedges?

One plant which was ruthlessly thrown out despite its Classical connections was Monkshood, with its beautiful deep blue flowers. We had not realised that this was Medea's aconite, and since our family includes a dog who is both inquisitive and helpful in the garden, we considered the risk of keeping it too great.

Lavender, herbs, a fig, roses, and vines to climb on the columns : we had originally planned to make our columns out of chimney-liners, but after seeing 'the real thing' in another garden centre, as well as a beautiful little 'boy on a dolphin' fountain which reminded us of the Fishbourne mosaic, our ideas of economy were soon overturned.

Talking of mosaics ... we made our own mosaic using marble tesserae. We copied the head of Medusa surrounded by a 'guilloche' twisted rope design from Bignor Villa in Sussex, and were delighted with the result - a hardwearing, unique sitting-area. The local press took endless photos of us watering it with a watering-can after we rashly mentioned that the colours showed up much better when wet!

It is amazing what effects can be created within a Roman theme. We have, however, been fairly liberal in applying Agricola's principles of 'Romanisation'. While following the idea of creating interest within the garden to compensate for the over-proximity of neighbouring houses, our garden is divided into circular areas rather than more Roman squares and we have combined 'English country garden' type flowers with Roman ones.

I would love to have Pliny's umbrella-pine overshadowing the lot but, upon reflection, perhaps such a reminder of Pompeii's imminent doom would not be a very cheery background even if we had the space! As it is, we can sit out in our own little piece of Roman Britain enjoying the combination of beautiful colours, fragrances, architecture and - our very special mosaic.

Roman plants                plants from mythology