Roses and ancient Roman rituals

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Roses and ancient Roman rituals

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During the Roman Empire, Rosalia or Rosaria was a festival of roses celebrated on various dates, primarily in May, but scattered through mid-July. The observance is sometimes called a rosatio (rose-adornment) or the dies rosationis, ‘day of rose-adornment’.


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Flowers were traditional symbols of rejuvenation, rebirth, and in Greece and Rome, wreaths and garlands of flowers and greenery were worn by both men and women for festive occasions. They were offered to deities, particularly the goddesses Venus, Persephone and Flora, the goddess of Spring.Venus received roses at her ritual cleansing (lavatio) on April 1st and at the wine festival (Vinalia). And, in Athens, roses and violets could be adornments for Dionysian feasts.

The Roman army celebrated the Rosaliae signorum, rose festivals at which they adorned the military standards with garlands. The rose festivals of ancient times are recorded in at least forty-one inscriptions in Latin and sixteen in Greek, where the observance is often called a rhodismos.

An Imperial-era business letter, written on papyrus, documents that 4,000 narcissus  flowers were sent from a florist to a wedding. We know too, that men wore a garland of flowers more than women. First century AD Roman poet Statius describes a groom as wearing a wreath of roses, violets, and lilies.

“When the Emperor made a formal arrival – an adventus- at a city, garlands of flowers might be among the gestures of greeting.”

And then, of course, early Christian writers transferred the imagery of garlands and crowns of roses and violets to the cult of the saints. Blood and flowers are linked in divine metamorphosis in mythology.

And in fact every year, at the Pantheon, a place of Christian worship, which was converted from a pagan temple, to the Basilica of Mary and the Martyrs, celebrate Pentecost by dropping rose petals through the roof.  Like many pagan rituals, they were continued in Christian times, but with a different meaning.

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