Facts of the Matter


Roses are rich
in history, mythology

The rose has a rich history and mythology, and is the subject of many legends. It is the flower of the month of June; the official flower of several countries, prefectures, states and provinces, the symbol of beauty, love, and perfection, a religious icon, the subject of art and poetry, including some 4,000 songs, the design theme for countless patterns of china, silver, wallpaper, and fabrics.

The oldest fossil roses are 35 to 40 million years old, but the earliest records of cultivated roses from Asian gardens and petrified rose wreaths in Egyptian tombs date from around 3,000 B.C. In ancient China rose oil was a precious fragrance for emperors and the wealthy; Confucius wrote that the Emperor of China owned 600 books about the cultivation of roses.

In ancient Persia roses adorned palaces and were prized for their perfume and the fragrant oils of Damask roses were traded around the world. The ancient Greeks used rose-scented olive oils for perfume, to keep illness at bay and to anoint their dead.

In Greek mythology the rose is the flower of love, created by Chloris, the goddess of flowers, given beauty by Aphrodite from her tears and the blood of her lover Adonis. Dionysus added the sweet scent, and the three Graces gave charm, brightness and joy. Zephyr, the West Wind, blew away the clouds so that Apollo, the sun god, could shine and make the flower bloom.

Young men and women in Athens wore a crown of roses and danced naked at feasts to symbolize the innocence of the Golden Age. In 600 B.C. the poet Sappho called the rose the queen of flowers.

The Romans followed the Greek tradition and adopted the rose as the symbol of love and beauty. Cupid is said to have offered a rose as a bribe to the god of silence to hush the amorous escapades of Venus, and thereby turned the rose into a symbol of secrecy. Roman ceilings were decorated with roses as a reminder to guests to keep dinner conversation confidential. Today we use the term 'sub rosa' (under the rose) to mean 'confidential.'

In the first century A.D. Nero dumped tons of rose petals on his dinner guests. During public games the streets of Rome were strewn with rose petals and wealthy Romans maintained huge rose gardens for their gravesites, believing that roses would please the spirits of the dead. Peasants were ordered to grow roses instead of food crops to satisfy the extravagant demands of the emperors, who filled their baths and fountains with rose water and sat on carpets of rose petals for feasts and orgies.

Cleopatra received her lover, Marc Antony in her room literally knee-deep in rose petals where the couches were covered with rose petals and the fountains were filled with rose water.

Roses were associated with the paganism, orgies and lust of the Roman Empire when they were introduced to Europe. Early Christians saw the five wounds of Christ in the five petals of the rose, but the Church was reluctant to adopt the rose as a religious symbol due to its association with the Roman decadence. Eventually, as the Church absorbed paganism into Christianity, the red rose was declared a symbol of the blood of the martyrs and the Virgin Mary came to be called the "Rosa mystica," the 'mystic rose.'

We could all be a little smarter, no? Richard Brill picks up
where your high school science teacher left off. He is a professor of science
at Honolulu Community College, where he teaches earth and physical
science and investigates life and the universe.
He can be contacted by e-mail at

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