Perhaps the 'Mutabilis' seedlings growing in our garden in Rome, or 'Luciano del Bufalo', the vigorous climber 'born' in Maresa Del Bufalo's wonderful rose garden here could someday be considered true roses of ancient Rome. Take the robust R. arvensis which thrives here without watering, pruning, or any care and can be found along the country lanes in Italy. Even though the antique writings don't mention this rose, it most likely was growing here before Rome was Rome.
Today there are several R. sempervirens flourishing near Rome's sea shore, in the pine woods of Castel Fusano, growing here and there where Mother Nature had intended and invading man's habitat; one has completely engulfed a road sign. In June, the perfectly delicate, simple white roses flutter in the breezes, yet no one looks at them as they pass. Almost all the people who come to the pine woods are completely unaware of them, hard as it is to believe. Although known and used by the Romans, R. sempervirens (widely used for hybridizing), was not 'discovered' as a garden rose until about 1825.
Just a few minutes drive away from a large, very old, wild R. sempervirens, lies the ruins of a villa which once belonged to Pliny the Younger, now completely covered with brambles and weeds. The area is surrounded by a cyclone fence to keep prowlers off. In the 1960s I was given permission to see it and, except for the fence, nothing has been done to excavate and restore it since then. Mosaic floors are exposed to the sun and rains, and the warm walls make favourite sunning spots for the poisonous vipers which thrive here near the sea. This villa was one of many luxurious villa complexes which were built along the sea coast and where violets and roses were once tended and loved. In his letters, Pliny left us very clear and interesting descriptions of Roman life. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, left us Historia Naturalis, 37 volumes of precious documentation, including information about several roses in volume XXI.
Roses played a very important part of everyday life for all the ancient Romans, regardless of their social status. They grew roses in hothouses so as to have blooms all year round, piping warm water through terracotta pipes and watering them with hot water to force them. Roses were so intensively cultivated in open fields that Horace was worried that the neglect of the olive groves might threaten the general economy.
Notwithstanding this intensive rose cultivation by the Romans, shiploads of roses were also imported from Egypt to meet the demands. We still do not know how the Egyptians managed to keep the cut roses fresh during the lengthy crossing that took at least six days. History tells us that Cleopatra greeted Marc Anthony with a carpet of roses (covered with a fine netting to keep them in place) to walk on.
The Latin word rosa hardly needs translating.
No festivity - state or private - was complete without garlands of roses to decorate the guests, the tables, the couches, the servants and musicians. There were carpets of roses to walk on, and roses were also used to flavour puddings and sherbets. Generous quantities of rose-flavoured wine flowed, keeping the guests jolly. According to Roman mythology, it was Bacchus, who not only created the grape vines, but also the roses as well. Fabulous parties given by Verre, Lucullus and Heliogabalus (who bathed in rose wine), were remembered for the cascades of rose petals which showered down on their guests. Sometimes so many petals were tossed down, that unfortunately some guests suffocated.
The rose was dedicated to the goddess Venus. Incidently, her son Eros' name is an anagram of the word rose.
Roses had become symbolic of a life style that the Christians, understandably, found sinful. And so as Christianity spread, the Roman rose cult was shunned and no longer practised. For several centuries most roses were only cultivated for medicinal use.
It is certain that the Romans were familiar with R. canina with simple five petal blooms; As it was used as a medicine for rabies, they called it "Cynorrhodon", (from the Greek: dog and rose tree). They also knew R. alba which probably derived from R. canina and either R. x damascena or R. gallica.
Pliny mentions several roses which are all thought to be forms of the double flowered R. gallica. He writes about a red "Milesian Rose', the 'Praeneste Rose", the "Trachinian Rose', the 'Cyrene Rose', the 'Mucetum Rose' the 'Alabandian Rose', a "Little Greek Rose", plus a 'Carthage Rose" with winter bloom. It is believed that these roses were named after the places where they were cultivated. Quite probably the rose we know today as R. gallica versicolor, or 'Rosa Mundi' was a spontaneous mutation of ancient times which produced the first variegated rose, red with white slashes.
Pliny also writes about a "Prickly Rose" and a "Bramble Rose" which have not been identified. R. sempervirens was called "Coroniola" by the Romans, so named because the thornless flexible canes were used in the making of crowns for elegant parties and banquets. This is the same rose that still grows wild near the ruins of his nephew's villa, south east of Rome.
Another rose known in Roman times was the R. damascena. According to Coggiatti, notwithstanding the name damascena, there is no proof that this ancient rose originated in Damascus. In 400BC, parallel to the Via Sacra in Paestum, there was a mile long bed of roses planted by the Sybarites. Sometimes called `Semperflorens' (not to be confused with the China of that name) or R. x damascena bifera, or 'Quatre Saisons' and Autumn Damask, this unusual and special rose produced flowers in the autumn as well as the late spring. All other roses known to the Romans bloomed only once. In September of 62AD, when Nero and Poppaea visited Paestum, she had all the roses picked to cover her couch and then to be used to perfume the asses' milk that she bathed in.
Virgil praised these twice blooming roses of Paesturn: "canerem biferique rosaria Paesti", which brought wealth to the town as there was a big demand for cut roses. Virgil also talked about the roses that the poet Catullus had brought from Paesturn and had planted in his garden on Lake Garda. Ruins of his villa (second only to Hadrian's as the largest Roman villa in the world) are open to the public but no trace is left of his fragrant roses; (The villa is well worth a visit; there is an amazing thick-clipped rosemary hedge which makes up for the lack of roses). Today, alas, no trace remains in Paesturn of the roses of its ancient past.
Some think that the R. centifolia which was mentioned by Pliny (as well as Herodotus and Theophrastus), was actually a very full R. gallica, while others believe that it was a rose which is now extinct. For five centuries R. centifolia was not mentioned. Then the name was used for a rose that was definitely a hybrid from the south of France, and which was made popular by the Flemish artists. This R. centifolia is definitely not the same rose that the Romans knew by this name.
Perhaps the R. sempervirens, a tough survivor, growing right now near the ancient Via Severiana, the road which passes the ruins of Pliny's villa, is a direct descendent of a rose used for the crowns of one of Pliny's parties. One can guess that 2,000 years ago most distracted Romans, like their counterparts today, passed by these simple wild roses and never noticed them. Who knows how many stories they could tell...
Today in modern Rome roses are increasingly used in urban plantings. A few minutes in Rome's Municipal Rose Garden on the Aventine Hill overlooking the Forum and the ruins of the emperors' palaces might leave you with many pleasant thoughts. Time passes quickly, our lives may be fleeting but many Roman Roses still live on.
Helene Pizzi lives in Rome; she lectures and writes on species and old roses.
This article appeared in the Spring 1999 issue