Director’s Research Project

In her research project (2021–24), Ria Berg, the current director of the Institute, is investigating the ancient Romans’ relationship with nature, which was reflected in many ways in the built environment, art, and literature. This relationship is approached in two ways – as personal and experiential, and in a broader social, ethical, and philosophical context. As Rome grew from a small village to a large city and then declined again in Late Antiquity, the Romans’ relationship with nature changed.

The project addresses important questions. How consciously was the relationship with nature considered in Roman culture? What meanings did it have in Roman religion, literature, and art? What fears and negative feelings did nature evoke? How was nature aestheticized or glorified in poetry and visual art, and when was nature a luxury? This interdisciplinary project draws on methods and source materials from the Institute’s core research areas (archaeology, history, art history, ancient language and literature) as well as more recent theoretical approaches including materialism, affectivity, and ecocriticism.

The spaces and interactions between nature and the built environment raise more questions. How were elements of wild nature preserved in urban structures? How were elements of the built environment – such as cave sanctuaries, fountains, pavilions, and pergolas – extended into their natural surroundings? How was the transition between the urban and natural environments structured and experienced as concrete spaces, routes, and stops?

This is explored in the houses of Pompeii and Ostia, where the relationship with nature was materialized in the connections between the interiors and exteriors, in the gardens, painting, and sculptural decoration, and in patterns on household utensils. Through these, we can consider how and why the Romans maintained contact with nature in their urban and domestic environment.

The findings will update our understanding of the Roman relationship with nature from different angles. Another aim of the project is to plot and reflect on the early stages of the Western relationship with nature – and its problems.