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Annette Lucia Giesecke. The Epic City: Urbanism, Utopia, and the Garden in Ancient Greece and Rome.

Annette Lucia Giesecke. The Epic City: Urbanism, Utopia, and the Garden in Ancient Greece and Rome. Cambridge: Center for Hellenic Studies/Harvard University Press, 2007. xi + 204 pp. $18.95

Ancient Athens and Rome were very different cities. In particular, as Annette Giesecke argues in this interesting study, they differed with respect to the degree that nature was allowed within the city walls. "Athens," Giesecke notes, "was not a garden city" (xi) and the lack of public gardens in the city was reflected in the design of its houses:
   Closely clustered along narrow labyrinthine
   roads, Athenian houses presented a blank,
   fortress-like facade to the outside world. Their
   source of light and air was an interior courtyard,
   which served as a place for work, play, and
   worship, but not as a place to test one's green
   thumb. Inner city domestic gardens were
   limited, in the main, to ephemeral container
   plantings perched on rooftops and displayed in
   honor of Aphrodite's beloved Adonis .... (xii)


Similarly, parks were almost unheard of and gardens (of a predictably utilitarian nature) were typically placed outside the high walls that secured Athens "against human and animal foe alike" (xi). In Rome, on the other hand, the central courtyards at the heart of each house were designed to be filled with plants, and rooms opened onto the courtyard in such a way as to provide views of this domesticated flora. Unlike Greek houses, the external walls of Roman houses were often pierced with windows to give their inhabitants views of the surrounding countryside. When these views were unavailable, the interior walls of these houses were often decorated with landscape paintings framed in such a way to look like windows in an attempt to maintain a connection between the houses' inhabitants and nature. More generally, over its long history,
   Rome gradually became a garden city, its
   defensive walls breached by garden estates
   such as those of the illustrious Maecenas,
   whose Esquiline gardens spilled over, and thus
   appropriated, the Servian Wall. By the age of
   Augustus, such blurring of distinctions between
   country and city, the intra- and extra-mural,
   manifested itself not only in and through the
   private gardens of villas and smaller dwellings
   but also through the proliferation of public
   parks.... (xiii)


These differences might be explained in a number of ways. Rome, of course, was much richer than Athens and its need for protective walls was not as great. Giesecke, however, argues that these differences grew out of two vastly different utopian impulses that celebrated different ways of life based on differing conceptions of the proper relationship between humans and nature.

The utopian impulses that shaped these cities were themselves responses to different crises. Giesecke argues that Greek utopianism must be understood as a response to the Greek "Dark Ages," a time characterized by great poverty and disastrous social instability. As the Greeks began to emerge from this condition, they began to establish new social institutions-such as the Olympic Games and the Delphic oracle-and to develop the polis as the locus of their political life. On Giesecke's view, these changes led to an intense concern with the question of the proper form of the polis and with the type of person who could best inhabit it and, according to her interpretation, the Greeks came to define both in terms of an opposition to nature. Greek utopianism, therefore, was characterized by a progressive, urban, masculine, anthropocentrism that understood the polis as being in opposition to nature. This utopianism led the Greeks to exclude nature from their cities by placing their gardens and parks outside the city walls.

The crisis that shaped Roman utopianism was the fall of the Republic, an event that led to a period of intense civil war, great uncertainty about the future, and an intense nostalgia for the past, understood as a golden age, a pastoral period in which a virtuous citizenry lived in dose contact with nature. Consequently, Roman utopianism was characterized by a nostalgic pastoralism that imagined an ideal life of virtuous people living in harmony with nature. This reactionary utopian pastoralism led the Romans to develop an ideal of "rus in urbe" which led to a number of attempts to bring nature into the city. Thus, unlike the Greeks, the Romans built houses that contained gardens and windows that opened onto nature: "While the Greek house functioned as a barrier against penetration of the natural world, the Roman house was built with an eye toward domesticating it" (100). The same was true of their respective cities.

Giesecke spends a great deal of time showing how a coherent and integrated interpretation of Greek and Roman architecture, urban planning, gardening, and interior decoration can be developed from the assumption of these two differing utopian impulses. This account is quite convincing. She is also sensitive, however, to the need to provide additional evidence for her claim that Greek and Roman cultures were shaped by the different views of nature. To do this, she turns to a fascinating discussion of Greek and Roman art that shows it as being shaped by the same attitudes toward nature that she uncovered in architecture and urban planning. For example, she presents a long analysis of Greek pottery that draws attention to the fact that Greek potters rarely depicted elements of nature in their work, and that when they did these depictions were both highly stylized and placed in opposition to human figures. She contrasts this view of an opposition between nature and the human mwith Roman landscape painting that often placed humans and nature in a harmonious relationship.

Almost half the book is devoted to a comparative analysis of what Giesecke takes to be the central utopian works of the two traditions: Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid. According to Giesecke's reading, "[t]he Odyssey focuses.., on the process by which the hero is equipped [with the knowledge necessary] to undertake the societal reorganization that is so desperately required" at the end of the Dark Ages (7). Over the course of his travels, Odysseus encounters a number of human and non-human individuals or societies: some of which are to serve as models for the new society that he will create upon his return to Ithaca; some of which are to serve as examples of practices to avoid. According to Giesecke, the various beings that Odysseus encounters can be arranged on a scale from most human and civilized--the Phaiakians, the Laestrygonians, and the Aeolian--to the most despicable and natural: the Lotus Eaters, Circe, and the Cyclops. In the course of his travels, Odysseus must flee from the latter and learn from the former. Thus, the founding document of Greek civilization, in Giesecke's view, is an anthropocentric utopian story. While the Odyssey presents an account of the socio-political elements of a utopian society, in Giesecke's reading the Iliad presents an account of the nature of the ideal citizen of a utopian polis by recounting the transformation of Achilles from a barbarian inhabitant of the Dark Ages into a creature more suited to the new world; a transformation that requires Achilles to overcome his natural anger in order to develop the artificial virtue of justice.

This utopian reading of Homer's works quite naturally paves the way for a utopian reading of Virgil's Aeneid. Although, like the Odyssey, this book takes the common utopian form of a travel story, the theme is just the opposite: Here nature is celebrated. Giesecke's analysis, which begins with an exploration of the relationship between Virgil and Lucretius that argues that Virgil was strongly influenced by Epicurean theories of the essential connection between humanity and nature, ends with a very interesting discussion of the differences between the Shield of Achilles and the Shield of Aeneas, which, she ably argues, supports her central claims.

The Epic City is well written, wide ranging, and full of interesting details. However, it is not without some minor flaws. First, in some ways the book is too narrowly focused: It does not discuss in detail any cities other than Athens and Rome, and it does not address features of these ancient cities other than their use of gardens and parks. More important, it fails to discuss Greek philosophy in any detail. This absence might be important as some Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle, argued that there was a direct connection between humans and nature, and these arguments might undermine Giesecke's reading of Greek society as somehow essentially anthropocentric and anti-nature. Moreover, there seems to be a bias toward the Roman model of garden city while Athens is continually criticized. These criticism often seem unfair. For example, several times Athens is taken to task for its imperialism which Giesecke connects to its anthropocentrism; but Rome, even if it is not as anthropocentric as Athens, was perhaps even more imperialistic. With the exception of the book's failure to discuss fully certain aspects of Greek philosophy, however, these criticisms are not only minor but also they are not related to the core argument of the book. This argument must be taken seriously in any future account of the shape of the ancient city.

Reviewed by Roger Paden, George Mason University
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Author:Paden, Roger
Publication:Utopian Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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