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Gardens of Maecenas

Gardens of Maecenas

Laid out over a former graveyard on the Esquiline Hill by Maecenas (ca. 74-8 B.C.), a wealthy knight, advisor of Augustus, and patron of poets such as Vergil and Horace. Ancient sources tell us that Maecenas had the first heated swimming pool in Rome; and that the gardens contained a tall tower. The so-called “Auditorium” is preserved and can be visited. After Maecenas' death, the gardens became an imperial property. Tiberius lived here when he returned to Rome in A.D. 2 from exile on Rhodes.

Horti Maecenatis

From Samuel Ball Platner, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, rev. Thomas Ashby. Oxford: 1929, p. 269.

Gardens which Maecenas laid out on the Esquiline, on the Servian agger and the adjacent necropolis, thus transforming this unsavoury region into a beautiful promenade (Hor. Sat. I.8.14; Acro, Porphyrio, and Comm. Cruq. ad hoc.). They became imperial property after the death of Maecenas, and Tiberius lived here after his return to Rome in 2 A.D. (Suet. Tib. 15). Nero connected them with the Palatine by his Domus Transitoria (q.v.) (Tac. Ann. XV.39), and viewed the burning of that from the turris Maecenatiana (Suet. Nero 38). This turris was probably the molem propinquam nubibus arduis of Horace (Carm. III.29.10). These gardens were near those of Lamia, but it is not easy to reconcile the indications of the ancient literature or to determine their exact location. Topographers are not agreed as to whether they lay on both sides of the agger and both north and south of the porta Esquilina. Maecenas is said to have been the first to construct a swimming bath of hot water in Rome (Cass. Dio LV.7), which may have been in the gardens. Whether the horti Maecenatiani of Fronto (Ep. I.8) were the former gardens of Maecenas, or called so for some other reason, is unknown. The domus Frontoniana mentioned in the twelfth century by Magister Gregorius may refer to them (JRS 1919, 35, 53). For the description of a building, often thought to be within these horti, see Auditorium Maecenatis. Many of the puticuli of the ancient necropolis have been found near the north-west corner of the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, that is, outside the porta Esquilina and agger, and north of the via Tiburtina vetus, and probably the horti extended north from this gate and road on both sides of the agger (HJ 345-7; BC 1874, 166-171; Richter, 313; LR 411-413; Cons. 155 ff. for works of art found here).

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Additional source material

  • Ancient Library Sources (from Peter Aicher, Rome Alive: A Source Guide to the Ancient City, vol. 1, Bolchazy-Carducci: 2004) [Works cited]

    48. The Carinae (“The Keels”). Sources.

    48.5.

    When Tiberius returned to Rome [in AD 2], as soon as he had accompanied his son Drusus into the Forum for his formal initiation into public life, he moved out of the Pompeian mansion on the Carinae and up to the Gardens of Maecenas on the Esquiline, where he quietly spent his time on private affairs, keeping out of the public eye.

    Suetonius, Tiberius 15.1


    72. Gardens of Maecenas. Commentary.

    Maecenas was for a time one of Augustus's closest advisors, and a famous patron of artists, including the poets Horace, Virgil, and Propertius. The land for his estate on the Esquiline was acquired by covering over the burial pits located just outside the Rampart of the Republican Wall on the Esquiline. Both Horace and Suetonius refer to some sort of tower on the estate that gave views of both the city and the mountains, but this has not survived. A suggestive hall, however, does remain, near the crossing of Via Merulana and Via Mecenate called the Auditorium of Maecenas today, it was probably a banquet and performance hall, perhaps where the artists under his patronage would debut some of their work.

    Many tombs from the earlier burial ground have also been found, as well as some of the pits. Observing work on the new Via Napoleone III in 1887, the topographer Rudolf Lanciani describes the excavations of seventy-five pits, which also included the remains of animals “reduced to a uniform mass of black, unctuous matter.… The field of death served also as a dumping place for the daily refuse of the city. This hotbed of infection was suppressed by Augustus at the suggestion of his prime minister Maecenas. The district was buried under fresh earth to the depth of 24 feet, and a public park, a fifth of a mile in extent, was laid out on the newly made ground”(The Destruction of Ancient Rome, p. 14).


    72. Gardens of Maecenas. Sources.

    72.1.

    The word “Pitkins,” referring to graveyards one finds outside the walls of cities, is formed from “pit,” because human corpses were thrown into pits there; or perhaps it was formed from “putrefaction,” because the bodies would rot there, in the public burial ground outside the walls on the Esquiline.

    Varro, The Latin Language 5.25


    72.2.

    Evicted by death from their tiny rooms, the corpses of slaves

    Were commonly carried to the Esquiline hill in a cheap box;

    Here too were the burial grounds for the poorer citizens.

    But today the hill is wholesome, healthy enough for homes,

    And one can stroll along the sunny Rampart, where lately

    One gazed across a landscape littered with bleached bones.

    Horace, Satires 1.8.7-10,14-6


    72.3.

    Maecenas, it is time you pay my country home

    A visit; viewing the lovely Alban Hills

    And the watered slopes of Tivoli from Rome,

    You've gazed enough on beauty at a distance.

    Tear yourself away from tiring abundance,

     

    From your tower aloft in piles of Esquiline clouds,

    Free yourself from this endless fascination

    With the smoke, splendor, and noise of the city below.

    Horace, Odes 3.29.5-12


    72.4.

    Viewing the fire from the tower of Maecenas and inspired, as he said, “by the beauty of the flames,” Nero sang his “Sack of Troy” from beginning to end, dressed in his customary stage costume.

    Suetonius, Nero 38.2


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