Ancient Rome’s Sacred Plants: History and Symbolism

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Last Updated on 2023/02/05

Explore the Sacred Plants of Ancient Rome: Symbolism and Significance in Roman Culture

The Roman Forum, one of the most iconic and historically significant sites in the ancient world, was adorned with a variety of plants that were considered to be particularly important with symbolic value. In particular, in front of the Rostra Vetera (the elder Rostra), which was the large platform from which Roman senators delivered speeches and orations, three trees were considered to be particularly symbolic: the figolive, and vine. These trees were carefully tended to and were considered to be an important part of the Forum’s landscape. If a tree withered or died prematurely, it was immediately replaced and was said to prophesy misfortune. Even today, these plants can still be found in the Roman Forum, located near the Lacus Curtius and the Arch of Septimius Severus, providing a glimpse into the ancient world and the importance placed on these trees in Roman society.

Fennel

In ancient times, the Greeks and Romans held a high regard for fennel, utilizing it for various purposes such as medicine, food, and even as an insect repellent. It was believed that consuming fennel tea would give warriors courage before the battle. According to Greek mythology, Prometheus used a giant stalk of fennel to transport fire from Mount Olympus to Earth. The plant was also believed to have medicinal properties, with Pliny the Elder claiming it could cure more than twenty diseases. Fennel was a plant linked to the world of witchcraft and the underworld until the 1600s in northern Italy.

Ficus Ruminalis

The Ficus Ruminalis was a wild fig tree that held great religious and mythological significance in ancient Rome.

The tree was considered sacred to Rumina, one of the Roman deities who protected breastfeeding in humans and animals. In his writings, St. Augustine mentions a Jupiter Ruminus associated with the tree and its religious significance. The Ficus Ruminalis tree is closely connected to the legend of Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers who, according to Roman tradition, founded the city of Rome. The tree is said to have stood on the banks of the Tiber River, where the floating makeshift cradle of the brothers came to rest after they were abandoned. The tree is believed to have been located in the Velabrum, a district of Rome located a short distance from the Lupercal, a small cave that figures prominently in the story of the twins. The tree is said to have provided shade and shelter to the brothers as they were suckled by a she-wolf, just outside the nearby Lupercal cave, until they were discovered and taken in by the shepherd Faustulus and his wife Acca Larentia. However, Remus would eventually be killed by Romulus, who went on to find Rome on Palatine Hill, above the cave. It is said that a statue of the she-wolf stood next to the Ficus Ruminalis tree. 

Romulus and Remus, between 1615 and 1616, Peter Paul Rubens

«Ficus Ruminalis, ad quam eiecti sunt Remus et Romulus»

(Tacitus, Annales, XIII, 58)

In 296 BC, the curule aediles Gnaeus and Quintus Ogulnius placed images of Romulus and Remus as babies suckling under her teats. The Augustan historian Livy mentions that the tree still stood during his time, but his younger contemporary Ovid notes only traces of it, possibly just the stump. Pliny suggests that the tree was miraculously transplanted by the augur Attus Navius to the Comitium, the original open-air public meeting space of Ancient Rome. This fig tree was known as the Ficus Navia, named after the augur. Tacitus refers to the Ficus Navia as the Arbor Ruminalis, which suggests that it had replaced the original Ficus Ruminalis tree, either symbolically after the older tree’s demise or literally, having been cultivated as an offshoot. The Ficus Navia was considered sacred as it grew from a spot that had been struck by lightning. 

The “Plutei of Trajan” are on display in the renovated Curia Julia as marble slabs. The slab depicts the emperor on a platform with visible Roman landmarks in the background, including the arches of the Basilica Julia, the Ficus Ruminalis fig tree, and the Marsyas statue in the Forum. (source)

Pliny’s reference may be to the statue of Attus Navius in front of the Curia Hostilia: he stood with his lituus raised in an attitude that connected the Ficus Navia and the accompanying representation of the she-wolf to the Ficus Ruminalis as if the tree had moved from one space to the other. When the Ficus Navia wilted, it was taken as a bad omen for Rome. When it died, it was replaced. In 58 AD, it withered but then miraculously revived and put forth new shoots. Pliny also mentions other sacred trees in the Roman Forum, specifically two additional fig trees. One of these trees was removed with great ceremony as its roots had caused damage to a statue of Silvanus. A relief on the Plutei of Trajan depicts Marsyas the satyr, whose statue was located in the Comitium, next to a fig tree that is placed on a plinth, as if it were also a sculpture.

Laurel, Laurus nobilis

The laurel plant was considered sacred in Greco-Roman mythology, symbolizing wisdom and glory. Winners in the Pythian or Delphic Games would receive a laurel wreath, and the plant was also associated with poets who were appointed as poet laureates. The laurel is a symbol of victory, fame, triumph, and honor. Laurel was closely tied to Roman Emperors, starting with Augustus. Augustus’ house on Palatine Hill in Rome was adorned with two Laurel trees at its entrance. This house was connected to the Temple of Apollo Palatinus, which Augustus had constructed. The presence of the Laurel trees served a dual purpose: it displayed Augustus’ triumph in the Civil Wars and his close relationship with the god Apollo. 

According to Suetonius, Augustus’ wife and Rome’s first Empress, Livia, had a significant role in the association of Laurel with the Roman Emperors. It is said that Livia planted a sprig of Laurel on the grounds of her villa at Prima Porta after an eagle dropped a hen with the sprig clutched in its beak onto her lap. The sprig grew into a full-size tree which fostered an entire grove of Laurel trees. Subsequent Emperors, when they celebrated a triumph, added to this grove. The Emperors in the Julio-Claudian dynasty all sourced their Laurel wreaths from the original tree planted by Livia. However, it was considered a sign of the impending end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty when the entire grove died during the reign of Nero, shortly before his assassination. 

Emperor Trajan Surrounded by Troops, Crowned by Victory. Trajan being crowned with a laurel wreath by Victory leads his army with Rome by his side. (source)

Tiberius, Rome’s second Emperor, wore wreaths of Laurel whenever there was stormy weather as it was widely believed that Laurel trees were immune to lightning strikes, affording protection to those who brandished it. This belief was because Laurel crackles loudly when on fire, leading the ancient Romans to think that the plant was inhabited by a “heavenly fire demon” and was therefore “immune” from outer threats like fire or lightning. 

Apollo pursues Daphne and turns her into a laurel tree (source)

The plant was especially sacred to Apollo, as the nymph Daphne was transformed into a laurel tree to escape his affections. Apollo placed the tree in his garden and vowed to wear it as a crown forever. The Romans also used laurels in parades on the Capitol. The plant was also connected to the power of divination and the Pythia, Apollo’s priestess would chew laurel leaves before giving prophecies. The ancient Romans held the Laurel in high esteem, considering it to be a noble plant, and would place a circular ornament made of Laurel twigs on the heads of victorious poets and generals as a symbol of glory and victory. The Greeks, in ancient times, referred to the Laurel as Daphne, in memory of the Nymph. Due to its noble status, it was common to grow Laurel in imperial gardens and Roman emperors would encircle their heads with Laurel during triumphs and ceremonies as if it were a crown. The Greeks chewed Laurel leaves to prophesize the future, as the leaves of the plant are somewhat poisonous and somewhat intoxicating. In Roman magic, Laurel was not commonly used except to consecrate blessed Laurel wreaths that were then burned. 

Consecrating a Laurel wreath to a general was thought to bring victory, but on the other hand, it could also bring relegation by attracting adverse spirits, so it was consecrated and burned immediately afterward. This type of crown, called a ‘Laurel’, has remained an iconography in later eras in the pictorial representation of poets and emperors. For example, Napoleon liked to have himself portrayed with a Laurel wreath. The terms “Laurel” and “Laureate”, meaning being girded with Laurel, also derive from this. In Italy, it is a tradition for new graduates to wear a laurel wreath.

Mentha, Mint

In Greek mythology, the Naiad nymph Minthe was a concubine of Hades, the god of the Underworld. However, when Hades’ wife Persephone discovered their relationship, she transformed Minthe into the fragrant mint plant in a fit of jealousy. The plant was named after her, and a temple of Hades was located near a mountain named after Minthe in Pylos. According to different accounts, Minthe had been Hades’ mistress before he married Persephone or she bragged that Hades would return to her, enraging Demeter, who trampled her and turned her into the mint herb.

In ancient Greece, mint was not only used to mask the smell of decay during funerary rituals, but it was also a key ingredient in the kykeon, a fermented barley drink consumed as part of the Eleusinian Mysteries, which promised initiates hope for the afterlife. It is believed that Minthe, the nymph who was transformed into mint, may have originated from Demeter’s mystery cults, alongside figures such as Baubo and the daughters of Celeus.

Mint was highly prized for its fragrant properties and its ability to enhance the flavor of many foods. It was also considered an aphrodisiac, which is why Minthe became the lover of Hades. At the same time, it was also believed to have contraceptive properties, as it was thought that consuming it before intercourse would prevent pregnancy. This led to the mint being seen as the opposite of Demeter, the goddess of fertility. Similarly, the relationship between Minthe and Hades is barren, as no children were born from the couple, which is also true for Hades and Persephone themselves.

The ancient Romans believed that mint had a calming and soothing effect and that it could be used as a sedative. According to Seneca, soldiers were advised not to consume it as it was thought to reduce their energy and power. Additionally, it was utilized in magic practices to calm emotions and was particularly used to connect with deceased loved ones or ancestors.

Myrtle

The common myrtle, Myrtus communis, was known for its medicinal properties as early as 600 B.C.E. In ancient times, it held symbolic and ritual significance and was associated with honor, justice, prosperity, generosity, hope, love, and happiness. In Greek and Roman mythology, the myrtle was sacred to goddesses such as Aphrodite and Demeter. The myrtle garland was considered a symbol of good luck for farmers and women due to its association with Demeter and Aphrodite. Pausanias explains that the Graces in the sanctuary at Elis hold myrtle branches as they are closely related to Aphrodite and connected to the story of Adonis.

People would often encircle their heads with a myrtle wreath before embarking on a long journey or settling in a new colony as a symbol of their hopes for success. In addition, myrtle was also used in wedding rituals and was often included in wreaths presented to victorious commanders as a symbol of fertility and fruitfulness. The plant was also referred to as “Myrtus coniugalis” meaning “married myrtle” because of its association with a happy and loving marriage. In mythology, it was said that the Romans and Sabines have reconciled thanks to the purifying power of myrtle fronds.

Aeneas pulling up the myrtle that reveals the ghost of Polydorus, Victor Honoré Janssens

In ancient Rome, the myrtle was associated with Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. During the Veneralia, a festival honoring Venus, women would wear crowns made of myrtle branches and it was also used in wedding rituals. According to Virgil, the myrtle was considered to be sacred to Venus. In the Aeneid, myrtle was used to mark the grave of Polydorus, a murder victim. Attempting to remove the myrtle caused the ground to bleed and the voice of Polydorus to warn Aeneas to leave. The spears that killed Polydorus were said to have been magically transformed into the myrtle marking his grave.

Myrtle was highly valued in ancient times for its medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. Women participating in festivals honoring Venus Myrtea would adorn themselves with it, believing it to stimulate desire and promote encounters. Lovers also had a tradition of plucking myrtle branches at the summer solstice to make a pact of mutual fidelity, and myrtle wreaths were used to symbolize conjugal union on wedding days. In ancient Rome, it was considered a powerful symbol of love and was believed to have originated from the spot where the city was founded.

Myrtle also held significant funerary meaning. According to Greek mythology, Dionysus had to leave a myrtle plant in return for visiting the underworld to free his mother, Semele. As a result, myrtle came to represent the underworld and the dead. This duality of myrtle symbolizes the association of life and death, representing the eternalization of cycles. Venus Myrtea was also considered a goddess of the Underworld.

In ancient Rome, myrtle was used in magic to appease the dead before or after summoning them. It was also believed to be connected to the ancestors, making it a popular choice for those seeking protection during journeys or risky ventures.

Oak

The oak tree was revered in both Greek and Roman mythology for its sacred association with Zeus. In the Greek oracle of Dodona, the sacred oak stood at the center of the precinct, and its rustling leaves were believed to carry the pronouncements of the god. Those who dared to harm or destroy such trees were said to incur the wrath of the gods, as the ancient Greeks believed that beings known as hamadryads lived within them. Similarly, the Romans held the oak in high esteem, viewing it as a symbol of virtue, strength, courage, dignity, and perseverance. It was also considered a good omen and included among the list of auspicious plants.

Bust of Augustus wearing the Civic Crown, Glyptothek, Munich (source)

The Civic Crown (corona civica in Latin) was a military award in the Roman Republic and Empire for those who rescued the lives of other citizens. It was considered the second highest civilian honor, after the Grass Crown. The crown was a chaplet of oak leaves woven into a crown. It was awarded to Roman citizens who saved the lives of others by killing an enemy on enemy-occupied land, as long as the person rescued confirmed it; no other witnesses were accepted.

Olive tree

The olive tree holds a significant place in the history of civilizations around the Mediterranean basin and the West. For the ancient Greeks, it was a sacred plant with many legends and stories associated with it. One such legend tells of Athena planting her spear in the ground and an olive branch growing from it, as a blessing for humanity. Another legend tells of Hercules picking an olive tree from the edge of the world, which gave birth to the sacred forest of Zeus, where crowns were woven for Olympic winners. The poet Homer also mentions the olive tree several times in the Iliad and Odyssey. The Cyclopes had staffs and clubs made from olive wood, and Odysseus even made a pole from an olive tree trunk to blind Polyphemus. The first wild olive plants existed on the island of Crete as early as 4,000 B.C., and the Cretans later specialized in growing the plant, which was then exported throughout the Mediterranean basin. 

Red-haired woman with an olive garland, from Herculaneum prior to 79 AD destruction (source)

Pliny the Elder states that an olive tree, a fig tree, and a vine were located in the center of the Roman Forum, with the olive tree specifically planted for shade. Horace, a Roman poet, mentions the olive tree in his simple diet, which includes olives, endives, and mallows. Vitruvius, in his work De Architectura, describes the use of charred olive wood for building walls and foundations. Pliny the Elder writes that the olive tree was brought to Rome during the reign of Tarquinius Priscus in 581 B.C. and quickly spread throughout the Italian Peninsula. The initial pressing of the olives, done while they were still green and without cracking the stones, producing high-quality oil. A second pressing, which crushed all remaining parts of the olives, yielded oil that was high in sediment. The remaining residue from the pressing was utilized for various purposes, including as fuel for oil lamps. 

The goddess Pax was celebrated on January 30th and July 4th. Pax, a counterpart of the Greek goddess Eiréne, was already revered in Rome, but she became one of the most important deities with the reign of Emperor Augustus and the construction of the Ara Pacis in 4 B.C.

This is because peace and abundance were believed to be closely linked, and the olive tree symbolized both longevity and endurance, representing eternity and tenacity. Olive trees are known to be drought and cold-resistant, and when their trunk is cut, they can grow new buds. Due to this ability to rejuvenate, the olive tree was associated with survival. Both Greek and Roman cultures viewed the olive tree as a symbol of peace. In ancient Roman cuisine, only olive oil was used as a cooking fat. Butter, which was used by northern barbarian peoples, was not well received by the Romans, and they particularly despised the pork fat commonly used by the Celts. Olive oil was also used to fuel oil lamps, both in homes and in temples to honor the statues of the gods, similar to how a lamp is lit today in the honor of San Gennaro. 

Palm

The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera)’s fronds were frequently carried in triumphal processions in ancient Roman culture as a representation of victory. A sign of any form of victory, the palm was so strongly linked to victory that the Latin term “palma” was employed as a metonym for it. Palm leaves were used to adorn the front doorways of attorneys who prevailed in court. The palm branch or tree was adopted as the goddess Victory’s standard symbol. 

Triumphant charioteer with a palm frond on Roman mosaic. (source)

A palm tree is also claimed to have mysteriously appeared in the Temple of Nike, the Greek goddess of triumph, in Tralles, now known as Caesarea in Asia Minor, to symbolize Julius Caesar‘s ascent to power with his victory at Pharsalus. Only those who had already accomplished one wore the toga palmata, a toga decorated with a palm theme, to commemorate a military victory. The toga, on the other hand, was worn by the victorious to symbolize the surrender of arms and the end of the conflict. It was the garment of people in peace.

The palm is used in various contexts to demonstrate how the initial meaning of “victory” progressively changed to “peace” following the triumph.

Symmachus with triumph over death palm (4th century), ivory diptych panel detail. Showcases the apotheosis of a mortal (likely Q. Aurelius Symmachus), elephant litter and funeral pyre with Sun god chariot, and ascending eagles. (source)

The imagery of the goddess Victory was often combined with Christian symbols on coins issued by Constantine I and his successors. For example, the Roman senator Symmachus is depicted on an ivory diptych holding a palm branch, symbolizing his triumph over death, despite the efforts to preserve Rome’s traditional religious practices under Christian rule. Despite not bearing fruit in Italy’s cooler climate, the date palm was a popular decorative plant in Roman gardens, as seen in frescoes from Pompeii and other cities such as the House of the Wedding of Alexander.

Pomegranate

The pomegranate, known as Malum Punicum or Malum Granatum, is seen as a symbol of fertility and the abundance of life. It was named after “malum,” meaning apple, and “Punicum,” meaning Carthaginian, as it was originally imported from the city of Carthage before it was also grown in Italy and the rest of the Mediterranean. Its origin, however, is in Asia. In ancient Greece, the plant was sacred to Hera, wife of Zeus, and Aphrodite, goddess of love. Many Greek and Roman goddesses, including Hera, Athena, and Persephone, were also associated with the fruit.

Glass bowl of pomegranates and apples, wall painting, before 79 AD

Roman brides would braid pomegranate branches in their hair as a symbol of wealth and fertility. The pomegranate was particularly linked to the cults of the Sacred Mysteries, with the archaic Greek myth of Persephone eating seven pomegranate kernels in Hades. In all ancient religions, the descent into Hades was seen as a journey of self-discovery, and the mysterious significance of the pomegranate was awareness of life and life beyond death. In magic, pomegranate seeds were used to reinforce enchantments, both for healing and causing harm.

Rosemary

The ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks considered rosemary to be sacred. They used the plant or its oil for medicinal purposes and in propitiatory and funeral rites to ward off evil spirits. The Greeks associated rosemary with Ares, the god of war, and placed branches of it in the arms of the deceased as a symbol of the immortality of the soul. The Romans also used it as incense and made wreaths of it for festivals in honor of Aphrodite, goddess of love. It was also believed to have the power to ward off evil spirits, which is why it was placed in the cradles of newborn babies and used to decorate newlyweds and wedding processions. In Roman magic, rosemary was used to sweep the ground during spell-casting to remove negative influences, and the practitioner kept a sprig of it as protection. After the spell was cast, the sprig was burned.

Thyme

In ancient times, thyme was considered a sacred plant due to its ability to attract bees and produce honey. Ancient Greeks utilized thyme in baths and burned it as temple incense, as they believed it brought courage. The ancient Greeks believed that thyme symbolized vitality and was created from the tears of Ariadne, who had been abandoned by her lover Theseus. The word “thyme” is derived from the Greek word “thumos” meaning life breath. Romans are credited with spreading thyme across Europe, using it to purify rooms and flavor cheese and liqueurs with its aromatic scent.

Verbena

Verbena was called “tears of Isis” in Ancient Egypt, and later on “Juno’s tears”. It was considered a sacred plant in ancient times and was featured in Orphic myths and rituals. In Roman culture, it was used to purify altars, including that of Jupiter, and in ceremonies performed by the Fetiales. Additionally, the Druids, the ancient Celtic priests, used verbena in rituals and drank an infusion of it as a means of divination. The plant was also used to cleanse and perfume rooms and a decoction made from its leaves and branches was used to scent floors and furniture before social gatherings to enhance the mood of the attendees.

Vitis vinifera

The cultivation of grapes was brought to Magna Graecia by early settlers and it spread throughout Italy, likely through the influence of the Etruscans, as evidenced by the depictions of vines in their tombs. The ancient Romans refined the techniques they learned from the Etruscans, as showed by texts such as De Agri Cultura by Cato the Elder (circa 160 BC), De re rustica by Marcus Terentius Varro, the Georgics by Virgil, and De re rustica by Columella

However, during the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, the crisis of the Roman Empire led to instability in the countryside, resulting in a decline of viticulture in general, which was mostly restricted to areas near towns and cities and along coastlines. The Roman Empire greatly influenced the cultivation of grapes and the production of wine. The wine was a fundamental part of Roman cuisine and winemaking became a thriving industry. The Empire’s expansion also led to the spread of the “wine culture”, following the Roman legions. 

Bacchus, Caravaggio, 1596

The Greek god Dionysus was identified with the Roman Bacchus and Liber, to whom a special cult was dedicated, as seen in the Villa of the Mysteries in ancient Pompeii. Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, vines, and harvest, was honored with a cult and festival, known as the Bacchanal. The deity was often depicted with a crown of vines and grapes on his head and holding a cup of wine in his hand. With the beginning of the Christian era, the cultivation of grapes spread to the Hispanic and Gallic regions and eventually reached as far north as Britain. Many different varieties of grapes and cultivation techniques were developed. Wooden barrels, invented by the Gauls, and glass bottles, made by the Syriacs, began to compete with earthenware amphorae for storage and transportation.

Walnut

Related article: The Witch Trials of Benevento: the Mysterious World of the Janare and Their Magic

In Greek mythology, the walnut tree was considered a symbol of wisdom and was sacred to Zeus. The story of Dionysus and Carya, one of the princesses of Laconia, further underscores the tree’s significance. According to the tale, Dionysus fell in love with Carya. When she died, he transformed her into a walnut tree and made her the goddess of the nut tree. This connection can also be seen in the scientific name of the pecan, Carya illinoinensis, which is related to the walnut.

Similarly, in Roman mythology, the walnut tree was dedicated to Jupiter, the god of sky and thunder. The Romans believed that when the gods walked upon the earth, they lived on walnuts, which is reflected in the tree’s scientific name, Juglans regia, meaning “Jupiter’s glans” or “royal nut.” This further emphasizes the significance and reverence that ancient civilizations held for the walnut tree.

Sources

Wikipedia 1, 2, 3, 4, Romano Impero

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