19 November 2013

Plants & Their Properties: Roman Religious Ceremonies

Plants played a big role in Ancient Roman religion, to honor the gods and to communicate desired outcomes. Roman culture was extremely superstitious, and many plants were thought to possess magical properties. Here's a quick look at how plants were used in a few Roman rituals, starting with the two biggies — weddings and funerals — and moving on to festivals and other ceremonies.

Roman weddings varied greatly by region and socio-economic status. Laws restricted who could marry whom, but the only legal requirement for a marriage was a declaration of consent before witnesses; naturally, many couples made this declaration during a ceremony of some type. The middle and upper classes employed an elaborate ritual called confarreatio which officially transferred the bride from her father's custody to her husband's; many Western traditions stem from this ceremony, from "tying the knot" to kissing the bride and carrying her over the threshold. Roman brides wore garlands and carried bouquets made from flowers that promoted fertility and love, such as roses, myrtle, lilies, fruit blossoms; and herbs that attracted good fortune and repelled bad vibes, such as rosemary, hyssop, verbena, and sage. Such plants would also be used to decorate the wedding venue, altar, and bridal chamber.

sarcophagus carving of a sacrifice:
the altar is ringed with wreaths,
and the bull is wearing a garland
Roses were equally popular at weddings and funerals — in fact, a long list of plants pulled this double duty, because the Romans considered both weddings and funerals to be celebrations of life. Certain flowers like hyacinths, anemones, and violets were said to have been created by a god in memory of a dead lover, making them suitable for both romance and mourning; likewise, herbs with evil-repelling properties would be useful at both occasions. Flowers and herbs were extremely important during holidays commemorating the dead like Parentalia, Rosalia, and the deceased’s birthday, to pacify the spirit world and guarantee loved ones a restful afterlife. Yew and cypress trees were said to line the road to the underworld and were thus popular in cemeteries and mausoleums, as were plants that symbolized rebirth like ivy, acanthus, and evergreens.

Most Roman gods had at least one plant that was closely associated with them. Listing these would be a post in itself — some gods had a horticultural catalogue, and some plants were shared by several deities — but a few examples include:

Apollo — laurel, acanthus
Bacchus — ivy, grapevine
Ceres — wheat, poppy
Diana — oak, amaranth
Juno — lily, pomegranate
Jupiter — oak, dianthus
Luna — peony, jasmine
Mars — verbena, ash
Mercury — hazel, crocus
Minerva — olive, feverfew
Venus — myrtle, rose

woman wearing a crown of leaves
and flowers and a garland draped
around her shoulders
These plants were used in many ways during religious rites honoring their representative god. Garlands might decorate the altar, the priests and priestesses, the worshipers, and the animal to be sacrificed; tied bundles could be used to sprinkle wine, oil, or blood during the ritual; and pilgrims might leave posies, garlands, or fruit as votive offerings when petitioning for a favor. These plants would also feature heavily in festivals to symbolize the deity being honored, whether in decoration, ceremonial use, or food and drink (for edible varieties).

Lots of people are familiar with the laurel (of “resting on” fame) as a symbol of public kudos, but other trees were also used for such honors in Roman times. Oak crowns were given to military men for acts of valor and civilians who performed heroic deeds; generals wore laurel or oak crowns during triumph parades and myrtle or olive crowns during ovations. Rarest of all was a crown made of weeds taken from a battlefield and presented to a commander who single-handedly rescued his army from defeat. All these crowns carried major prestige, and golden versions were usually presented later. More casually, crowns made of flowers, herbs, myrtle, or olive were given out at weddings, funerals, festivals, and parties to be worn by guests of honor.

If you’re interested in trivia about Romans and plants, you might enjoy the In Hortem series I did a few years back. (Alas, I lost the pictures when I moved from Livejournal to Wordpress, but they were all from Wiki Commons anyway.)

Heather Domin writes historical, romantic, and speculative fiction. She is currently preparing her upcoming novel The Heirs of Fortune, set in Augustan Rome, for publication.