When they dined, ancient Romans draped their guests with rose garlands, washed in rosewater, ate rose puddings and drank rose wine. When privacy was desired, Romans hung a rose to indicate confidentiality or bribed one another into silence with a bouquet of roses, thus leading to the “sub rosa,””under the rose.” Romans showered rose petals on important people and religious statues, notably those of the Kybele, Phyrigian mother of the gods whose statue was honored with a “snow of roses.” Her orgiastic cult dominated the central and north-western districts of Asia Minor, and was introduced into Greece via the island of Samothrake and the Boiotian town of Thebes.

Kybele

Typically — and not unlike our own faddish immoderations — the Romans overdosed on a good thing. The rose, worn by priestsses of Venus, came to symbolize degeneracy and debauchery to the early Christians, who disdained it until the Middle Ages when it underwent another transformation as a symbol of the purity of the Virgin Mary. (The rose is an emblem of goodness and virtue as seen for example in the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, when Beauty’s hapless father picks a rose for her from a stranger’s garden, but must then exchange his daughter for the flower in order to save his own life. The characters of rose and maiden are alike.

La Belle et la Bete, Jean Cocteau

La Belle et la Bete, Jean Cocteau

The rose wheel is a kind of Christian mandala, as the rosary is the rose wheel of Mary. The role of roses in the West parallels that of the lotus in the East as an emblem of nascent life. Roses are said to have been made red with the blood of Christ, just as numerous other heroes gave theirs to generate flowers: Adonis of the anemone, Enymion of the bluebell, Attis of the violets, Hyacinthus.

In the Dark Ages, as Christianity gained speed, flowers in a church were considered by zealous laymen to be a pagan custom. Monks, however, decorated altars with bouquets and on Holy Days priests wore chaplets and wreaths, particulary of roses.

King Midas was said to have grown a sixty-petaled rugosa, doubtless befcore the curse of his touch turned everything, even his daughter, to gold. Rugosas might well be gold. They are salwart and came first to England two hundred years ago from Japan, where they had been cultivated for 1,000 years. They are named for their crinkled leaves “rugose,” from the Latin ruga, meaning wrinkled.

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