Rosalia: The Roman Floral Festival for the Dead

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If you are ever in Rome around Pentecost, you should visit the Basilica di Santa Maria ad Martyres. You may know it by its older moniker, The Pantheon. If you gaze up at the beautiful domed ceiling on the seventh Sunday after Easter, you will see a shower of red rose petals pouring from the oculus on the faithful below. It is a magical sight.

Oculus of the Pantheon with red rose petels pouring through
Rose petals shower the interior of the Pantheon on Pentecost.

Since the Middle Ages, the basilica has celebrated Dominica de Rosis (Sunday of Roses) in this way. Roses, however, had showered the Pantheon in May before Jesus was even born. Just as the grand structure of the Pantheon became a basilica, so too the Roman memorial festival of Rosalia moulded into Pasqua di rose.

So let’s explore the roots of this ancient rose festival, how the Romans memorialised their dead with aromatic flowers, and how vestiges of the Rosalia exists today.

The Ancient Rose

Roses play a significant role in Mediterranean and West Asian cultures. The rose was unknown to the inhabitants of the Italian peninsula until the 3rd millennium BCE. Its introduction to Italy came via the Greeks, who got it from Anatolia. The Mesopotamians introduced its cultivation in Anatolia, Cyprus, the Levant and Egypt during their waves of conquest.

The oldest written evidence of rose cultivation comes from a tablet discussing the Akkadian king Sargon I’s military campaign to the west. Sargon brought rosebush saplings with him on the campaign so rose cultivation could begin in these newly acquired territories soon after his conquest. It was an act of supreme confidence and evidence of roses’ importance to Akkadian culture.

'Ram in a Thicket' Sumerian votive of a golden ram on two legs standing near a tree with large golden flowers
The famous ‘Ram in a Thicket’ Sumerian votive object depicts a standing ram climbing or perhaps stuck in a thorny flowering bush.

The Mesopotamians themselves probably got their roses from Central Asia, which also had a long obsession with roses. Regardless of their exact place of origin, humans have been cultivating roses for over 5,000 years. We’ve been growing these pretty plants for longer than we’ve had the concept of money. We’ve selected for physical beauty, colour, resiliency, but above all, smell.

Roses in Rome: Love, Beauty, Sex, Death

Hearty but beautiful, roses were used in the Mediterranean for food, flavouring, medicine, decor, adornment, and perfume. The seasonality of the blooms marked time and was a sign of the arrival of spring. Romans deeply associated roses with the worship of Venus (Greek: Aphrodite), Proserpina (Persephone), and Flora (Chloris). These goddesses embodied vegetation, growth, prosperity, spring, abundance, love and sexual desire. Roses were the emblems of the pleasures of life, but they also had a darkness to them.

Detail if roses painted on the Garden Painting of the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta in Rome (30-20 BC) - Archaeological Museum Palazzo Massimo -
Detail of roses from the Garden Painting of the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta in Rome (30-20 BCE), Archaeological Museum Palazzo Massimo

Greeks and Romans loved to give mythical origins to the objects in their lives. The origins of flowers seemed of particular interest and were often tied to violence or death. Narcissus wastes away looking at his own reflection and turns into his namesake flower. Violets spring from the blood of Attis’ self-castration. The jealous Zephyrus kills Hyakinthos, and the grieving Apollo turns his dead lover into the larkspur flower.

This tradition of desire, loss, transformation, and death continued with the birth of the rose. One of the oldest Greek origin stories for the rose is the goring of Adonis by a boar. The god’s blood mixed with the tears of his lover Aphrodite to create a rosebush, bearing blood-red blooms symbolic of eternal love but studded with the sharp thorns of grief.

The Awakening of Adonis by John William Waterhouse
The Awakening of Adonis by John William Waterhouse

In a Roman myth, Flora is despondent, finding one of her most beloved nymphs dead in the forest. The goddess begs other gods for assistance. Flora gives the nymph a diadem of petals. Venus gives her beauty. Vertumnus (God of the Seasons) gives her a lovely scent. His wife Pomona (Goddess of Fruit Trees) gives her rosehips. Bacchus gives her nectar, and finally, Apollo grants the breath of life, and the rose is born from the nymph’s corpse.

One of my favourite origin stories is the rather grim Late Roman poem Cupid Crucified by Ausonius. Cupid is dragged to the Underworld by the vengeful spirits of mythical women wronged in love. They crucified him and tortured him with the same weapons that caused their deaths. A rose bloomed where Cupid’s blood fell, and the flower sprouted out from the Underworld to the world above.

Greco-Roman culture deeply tied roses to love and desire but also the pain of separation and the grief of loss. The graceful blossoms and prickly thorns embodied beauty and pain. The rose additionally symbolised transformation and rebirth. This is why we see roses carved onto Greek and Roman burial steles and sarcophagi. So in context, it is not surprising that the Romans built a memorial holiday around this flower.

Detail of stone sarcophagus with garlands of roses and grapes held but cupids with a Gorgoneion, Hierapolis, Pamukkale, Turkey
Detail of stone sarcophagus with garlands of roses and grapes held by cupids with a gorgoneion, Hierapolis, Pamukkale, Turkey

Roses for the Dead

Rosalia, at its core, was an annual memorial day for one’s dead relatives celebrated primarily with roses. Romans made garlands and wreaths to decorate the graves of their ancestors. The extended family would gather to clean tombs and arrange elaborate floral displays. The family may have poured libations and conducted prayers for the dead graveside. They told stories to memorialise those they lost. Then they would eat a rose-themed memorial meal.

Fresco fragments of Cupids and Psyche stringing rose garlands
Fresco fragments of Cupids and Psyche stringing rose garlands, Getty Villa Museum

The celebration of Rosalia usually occurred in late May when the roses first bloom and are at their aromatic peak. This was a time of deep symbolic meaning. Spring had arrived. The love and rebirth promised by Flora, Venus, and Proserpina were in the rose-scented air.

However, the festival could be celebrated as late as July. This is because it was a private parentatio, not a public celebration. Parentatios were sacrifices or rites conducted to honour one’s ancestors, most importantly, deceased parents. This also meant the responsibility fell on individuals to perform the rituals instead of the state or temple cult.

This gave the practice enormous variation due to personal taste and family economics. It was the Roman equivalent of the Rose Bowl Parade for wealthy families. Professional florists would create and install massive displays. Staff prepared elaborate meals, and even special rose-scented clothes were worn. Plebeian families however, may have only provided a few homemade wreaths or garlands. We know from Roman wills that it was common for patricians and well off merchants to set aside some money to ensure their surviving relatives honoured their memory on Paternalia and Rosalia.

Roses growning in the Palatine Hill ruins
Roses growning in the Palatine Hill ruins

There is even a considerable variation in what this holiday is called. It went by Rosalia, Rosaria, Rosatio (rose-adornment), Dies Rosationis (Day of rose-adornment), as well as Rhodismos and Rhodophoria in Greek. While roses were the most common flower, violets could also be employed. In that case, the name used would be Violaria or Violatio. Some families memorialised their dead multiple times a year with Rosalia and Violaria.

Rose-Scented Ghosts

The olfactive role of roses in the Rosalia ceremony was twofold. Firstly, Roman cemeteries were not the most sanitary places. Cemeteries were liminal spaces outside the city limits. Seeing scavenged bones, witnessing cremation, or smelling decay were common in public burial spaces. Unscrupulous dissignatores (funeral directors) and libitinarii (undertakers/tortures) sometimes dumped the bodies of the poor along the roadside leading to the cemetery. In the Greco-Roman mindset, dead bodies were physical and spiritual pollution. Liminal spaces outside of the order of the city were seen as places of lawlessness and provoked anxiety.

Grave stele of Kallidemos, the son of Kalliades featuring several floral designs including roses 350–325 B.C., The Met
Grave stele of Kallidemos, the son of Kalliades featuring several floral designs including roses 350–325 B.C., The Met

Part of Rosalia was about tending to and beautifying your relatives’ graves. It was bringing the city’s order to the liminal space of the graveyard. The use of roses, heavy with indole, both masked and elevated any odours present and was part of grave hygiene. The scent was also thought to protect living relatives from lingering ill air that may harm their health.

Secondly, giving roses was a form of sacrifice. Sacrifice required beauty, and roses possess both physical and olfactory beauty. One could argue that olfactory beauty was more important as the Rosalia was most often performed in May when the roses’ scent was most potent. The ethereal and invisible power of odour has long served as a metaphor for the spirit, after all. In antiquity, people used aromas to divine the future, converse with the dead and appease angry gods. So, of course, only heavily scented flowers were appropriate for sacrifice.

The openness of Rosalia meant this sacrifice of roses could be interpreted in different ways depending on the beliefs of the family. This heavenly scent could comfort the ancestors in the Underworld or call them home. It could have been nourishing or protective for the dead. It could have also been directed at a deity asking for intercession on the dead’s behalf.

Roman Holiday

The lack of state-mandated sacrifice for Rosalia also meant that everyone within the Empire could participate. This included Christians and Jews who refused to participate in public festivals or sacrifices on religious grounds. They saw these acts as a form of idolatry. The openness of Rosalia meant you could dedicate your flowers and prayers to whatever god you wished.

Caracalla and Geta by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

There is no evidence that Rosalia was celebrated among Jews in Judea, but it very well may have been. Gazan Christians celebrated a rose festival by the 6th century CE. Rosalia was also very popular with Jewish communities outside of Judea, particularly in Greece, North Africa, and the Italian peninsula. This shared experience would continue until the Jewish-Roman Wars.

Eighty years of violence, the Temple’s destruction, displacement, and the birth of antisemitism forever changed Judaism and brought about an impulse towards cultural isolationism that is present to this day. Rosalia was Roman. This period of violence pretty well crushed the idea that Jews could share in some sort of Roman identity. Anything that hinted at Roman influence had to go, and Rosalia fell out of practice among Jews. This is one of the reasons why it is inappropriate to send flowers to mourners or leave flowers at a Jewish grave to this day.

Christianity ruptured from Jewish society during the Roman-Jewish War. While the church faced their own struggles with persecution and acceptance within Roman society, they also leaned into their Romanised identity instead of outright rejecting it. Conversion of Roman citizens from all strata of society meant that by the 2nd century CE, most Christians were culturally Roman and deeply embedded in Roman society, customs, and mythology. This led to a great deal of synchronisation between Roman traditions and the emerging Christian culture of Europe.

Respectability, Incense & Roses

Before Christianity was legalised in 312 CE, it went through a difficult period of oppression and social rejection in Rome, separate from the experience of the Jewish community. We will cover the totality of that experience in another post, but it wasn’t quite the bloodbath that the hagiographies would lead us to believe. While there was a lot less slasher-film-style gore, that didn’t mean people didn’t suffer. Christianity was seen as a superstitio (an anti-social cult) in the early days, which held a social stigma that could significantly impact people’s lives.

This distrust came because many Christians adopted behaviours in their new lives that threatened the mos maiorum (ancestral custom). Mos maiorum was the unwritten code of normative conduct for the Roman Empire. It was the way you did things as a Roman. The way the ancestors did them, the bedrock on which Roman Traditionalism sat.

Terracotta relief with two women in chitons in front incense burner, 36-28 BCE From temple of Apollo, Palatine Museum
Terracotta relief with two women in chitons in front incense burner, 36-28 BCE From temple of Apollo, Palatine Museum

Jews also refused to participate in state-mandated incense sacrifice. However, they were granted an exception because they were recognised as a separate ethnic group with an ethnoreligion honouring its version of mos maiorum. Many Romans found this admirable. As long as Jewish people were willing to submit to Roman rule, both practically and symbolically, they were left alone about the incense sacrifice.

However, most Christians from the third generation onward were Romans with no connection to Judea. Their conversions directly challenged the time-honoured traditions of Rome. The obligatory incense offerings became symbolic of a more significant concern around social disruption and change. They became a litmus test for fidelity to Rome. This focus on the incense offering was something felt on both sides. Fellow Christians shunned those that succumbed to the social pressure and threats of torture to perform the ritual. The moniker of turificati (incense burner) became synonymous with apostates.

Rosalia became incredibly important to Christians in rehabilitating their reputation before becoming the official state religion in 380 CE. It helped them walk the tight rope between their beliefs and Roman culture. It was a holiday focused on honouring the ancestors, and nothing could be more mos maiorum than that.

Yet, its openness meant it could easily sync to Christian beliefs. The symbolism of the rose in Christianity gave added layers of meaning to Rosalia. Likewise, Rosalia gave Christians an opportunity to venerate martyrs and saints in a socially acceptable way. Christians had developed a bit of a sinister reputation for conducting mass in secret in the catacombs of Rome. Their public participation in Rosalia showed them as respectable Roman citizens honouring the dead properly instead of a fringe sect skulking around graveyards at night.

Everything Old is New Again

It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint when exactly Rosalia stopped because it effectively didn’t. Instead, it slowly morphed into a new set of customs. After Christianity became the official religion of Rome, Rosalia became about venerating the graves of saints and martyrs. By the 6th century CE, a variety of Rose Days were celebrated in April and May strictly as Christian festivals. Rosalia also deeply influenced European traditions around floral gifts and memorials for the dead.

We see elements of Rosalia’s rose-adornment transfer to the church. Instead of it remaining a personal memorial holiday, the rituals of Rosalia synchronise with the drama of Easter, Lent and Pentecost.

There are two Sundays classified as Rose Sunday on the Western liturgical calendar. They are the fourth and seventh Sundays after Easter which means they usually occur between late April and early June, just like the Roman Rosalia.

The first Rose Sunday is also called Mothering Sunday and involves the pope blessing a golden rose, churches adorning their altars with roses, the clergy wearing rose-coloured vestments. Christians also historically returned to the church where they were baptised, just as families gathered to celebrate Roman Rosalia.

Rose vestments worn on Rose Sunday by the clergy at The Basilica of Saint Mary in Alexandria Virginia.
Rose vestments worn on Rose Sunday by the clergy at The Basilica of Saint Mary in Alexandria Virginia.

The second Rose Sunday is Pentecost and happens in late May or early June. Some alternative names for Pentecost are; Latin – Festa Rosalia, Greek – Rousalia, Neapolitan – Pasca Rusata (Rosy Easter), Sicilian – Pasqua Rosatum, Romanian – Rusalii. Are we seeing a pattern yet?

What are some of the things one does on Rosy Easter? Make garlands of roses to decorate the church, of course. If you are in some parts of Italy, you’ll sprinkle rose petals from the church gallery. If you are lucky enough to have a saintly relic at your church, it too will have unique rose decorations on this day.

Pope Francis giving the Pentecost mass surrounded by displays of roses in 2019
Pope Francis giving the Pentecost mass surrounded by displays of roses in 2019

Of course, the story behind Easter, Lent, and Pentecost is about death, rebirth, sacrifice and transformation. Understandable concepts to discuss in spring for Romanised early Christians. Pentecost is the day honouring the Holy Spirit descending on the disciples of Jesus. With that descent came the hope of reunion and the continuity of memory. Rosalia went from a memorial for one’s ancestors to a memorial for Jesus. Pentecost is about more than simply roses or Rosalia, though. It is also heavily influenced by the Jewish holiday of Shavuot and also represents its own unique tradition.

However, when looking at ancient practices, it is important to remember they aren’t fixed but they are one spot on the timeline in our desire to make meaning out of life and death.