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What the Roman Emperor Tiberius Grew in his Greenhouse. Jules Janick Purdue University West Lafayette Indiana 47907-2010, USA. Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus 42 BCE to 37 CE ; reign from 14 to 37 CE. Villa Jovis. Roman Emperor at Jesus Crucifixion . New Testament references:

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what the roman emperor tiberius grew in his greenhouse

What the Roman Emperor Tiberius Grew in his Greenhouse

Jules Janick

Purdue University

West Lafayette Indiana 47907-2010, USA


Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus

42 BCE to 37 CE; reign from 14 to 37 CE

Villa Jovis

roman emperor at jesus crucifixion
Roman Emperor at Jesus Crucifixion
  • New Testament references:
    • In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Pontius Pilate being governor of Judeae … Luke 3:1.
    • Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. Matthew 22:17.
two 1 st century roman works mention tiberius protogreenhouse and cucurbits
Two 1st century Roman works mention Tiberius, protogreenhouse, and cucurbits
  • Luciuis Junius Mereratus ColumellaDe Re Rustica (On Agriculture)
  • Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder) Historia Naturalis (Natural History)
  • Anyone who wishes to have the fruits of cucumis ripe earlier than usual should, when midwinter is past, produced well-manured soil enclosed in baskets and give it a moderate amount of water; then, when the seeds have come up, he should place the baskets in the open air on warm and sunny days near a building, so that they may be protected from any blasts of wind; but if it be cold and stormy, he should bring them back under cover and continue to do so until the spring equinox is over. He should then sink the whole baskets into the ground. He will thus have early fruits. Is also possible, if it be worth the trouble, for wheels to be put under larger vessels, so that they may be brought out and taken indoors again with less labour. In any case the vessels ought to be covered with specularibus so that even in cold weather, when the days are clear, they be safely be brought out into the sun. By this method Tiberius Caesar was supplied with cucumis during almost the whole year. (11, 3, 52–53)
  • Cucumis was a delicacy for which the emperor Tiberius had a remarkable partiality: in fact there was never a day on which he was not supplied with it, as his kitchen gardeners had cucumis beds mounted on wheels which they moved out into the sun and then on wintry days withdrew under the cover of frames glazed with transparent stone (mica). (19, 23, 64)
What is cucumis referred to by both Columella and Pliny?
  • Cucumis generally translated as cucumberGerard 1597Ash 1941 (Columella translator)Jones 1951 (Pliny translator)Whitaker and Davis 1962Kirkbride 1993Robinson and Decker Walters 1997Jeffrey 2001
Pliny refers to cucumis and cucurbita as:
    • Cartilagenous (pliable) fruits
    • Normally prostrate on the ground but could also climb
    • Cucumis composed of cartilage (pliable skin) and flesh
    • Cucurbita composed of cartilage and rind which becomes woody when ripened

Cucumis describes various types of “melon” (Citrullus, Cucumis, Ecballium)

  • Columella
    • Twisted
    • Bluish with swollen womb, hairy
    • Snake like
    • Foul juice
    • Whitish, turns yellow when ripe

Chate melon ‘Carosello Barese’ (top) and Bet Alfa-type cucumber ‘Shimshon’ (bottom)

Chate melon (Vesling 1640)



    • Vary when grown in different regions
    • Grow into any shaper forced to take
    • Blossoms covered with white down
    • Round (quince-like) forms in Campania, & fruit separates from stalk when ripe, aromatic
    • Very large ones in Moesia called pepones (watermelon = Citrullus)
    • Wild cucumis is a source of elaterium (squirting cucumber = Ecballium elaterium)
    • Wild cucumis called colocynthi (Colocynth = Citrullis colocynthis)

Cucurbita describes bottle gourd (Lagenaria)

  • Columella
    • Swelling
    • Sometimes hang from arbors
    • Sometimes snake-like
    • If you want long ones, select seed from the neck
    • If you want globular ones, choose seed from midbelly
    • Use for vessels, water pails, wine flask, or floats for teaching boys to swim
  • Pliny
    • Long ones used for culinary purposes
    • Seeds nearest the neck produce long gourds
An accurate understanding of the history and development of food plants requires critical evaluation and comparison of widely interdisciplinary evidence from horticulture botany, archaeology, history, and philology (Dalby 2003)
  • Plant iconography has played the most important role in the accurate identification of cucurbit taxa in the Renaissance (Eisendrath 1961) especially with regard to the American genus Cucurbita (Paris 2001).
  • Although, detailed depictions and accurate descriptions of cucurbits are much scarcer in medieval times and antiquity they are scattered but they exist.
watermelon citrullus lanatus
Watermelon (Citrullus lanatus)

Egyptian Old Kingdom

(3100–2100 BCE)

Villa Farnesina (1515–1518)

Korea (1504–1551)

Caravaggio 1603

roman watermelon
Roman Watermelon

Carthage 4th century

Greece 4–5th century

Greece 6th century

melon cucumis melo from egypt
Melon (Cucumis melo) from Egypt

Egyptian Old Kingdom

(1550–1300 BCE)

Egyptian Old Kingdom

(1550–1300 BCE)

Egyptian Old Kingdom

(1550–1300 BCE)

Egyptian New Kingdom

(1517–1192 BCE)


Tunisia 2nd century

Thessaloniki 3nd century


Egyptian Old Kingdom

(1550–1300 BCE)

Pierce vires

Mérida, Spain approx. 4th century

Shimauri stripe

cucumis melo flexuosus
Cucumis melo Flexuosus

Lebanon 6th century

Tunisia 3rd century

Tunisia 3rd century

Green snake

Stripe snake

roman melons
Roman Melons

Rome 4th century

Tunisia 4th century

bottle gourd lagenaria siceraria
Bottle gourd(Lagenaria siceraria)

Bottle gourd

Pompeii cupping vessel 1st century

Cucurbitula Latin

Sikya Greek

Tunisia 2nd century

jonah and the gourd
Jonah and the gourd

Tunisia 3rd–4th century

Turkey 270–280

Aquileia, Italy 4th century

colocynth citrullus colocynthis
Colocynth(Citrullus colocynthis)

Dioscorides, De Materia MedicaAniciae Julianae Codex,ca. 512

squirting cucumber ecballium elaterium
Squirting cucumber (Ecballium elaterium)

Temple of Karnak 1450 BCE

Juliana Anicia Codex 512

Israel 2007

  • The cucumis beloved by Tiberius appears to be Cucumis melo Flexuosus Group and not cucumber based on:
    • Descriptions of cucumis in Columella and Pliny excludes cucumber (snake-like, hairy).
    • The tubercules common on the fruit which would have been noticed are not mentioned.
    • Absence of any cucumber images in antiquity.
    • First images of cucumber are found in 1335 suggesting cucumber arriving late in Europe probably with mogul invasions of the west beginning with Genghis Khan.
    • Subsequent images of cucumber in the West are very similar indicating the introduction of one specific type.
  • The mistranslation of cucumis for cucumber is probably due to the similarity of its name with cucumis and cucurbita.