In the SCA, we bestow upon those who have gained great skill or insight in the arts and sciences a laurel wreath. As we associate the laurel wreath with wisdom it makes a fitting symbol for a laurel… hopefully. A wreath worn on the head is also the stereotypical look of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, as any Halloween store will show you. However,  the history of wreaths is far more complex and arcane than some might think. And the laurel wreath was only one of many kinds.

The Corona of Ancient Rome

Augustus wearing the Civic Crown

Wreaths were often made out of either vegetation or gold. The favored being oak and laurel, but there was also bay, ivy, olive, rose, and myrtle to name a few. Of course, meaning is reliant on context and the times. Wreaths have a very clear and cloudy, simple yet complex history. For wreaths were not born of Rome, nor of Greek alone.

However, when the cultures to which these early wreaths belong are enveloped and assimilated by a stronger militaristic culture, like Rome. Their symbolism shifts… a bit.

The origins of wearing wreaths is murky. However, their is clear evidence, and remaining examples, of the prevalence of these wreaths in ancient cultures, especially Etruscan and Greek, but others as well and new ones are turning up all the time. Particularly because it was believed that many were funerary and had no purpose, or perhaps they were just too fragile for the living. With that being said, Rome did like its rules and the Empire has some pretty clear ones.

Father of thy country, who wast the first of all, while wearing the toga, to merit a triumph, and who didst obtain the laurel for oratory. Great father, thou, of eloquence and of Latin literature! as the Dictator Cæsar, once thy enemy, wrote in testimony of thee, thou didst require a laurel superior to every triumph! How far greater and more glorious to have enlarged so immeasurably the boundaries of the Roman genius, than those of its sway! (31.) Those persons among the Romans, who surpass all others in wisdom, have the surnames of Catus and Corculus given to them. Among the Greeks, Socrates was declared by the oracle of the Pythian Apollo to be superior to all others in wisdom.

Pliny the Elder

Rome loved military prowess. And why wouldn’t it? They were good at it, mostly, and at that time it was a conquer or be conquered kind of world. And keeping up the appearance of being a super power can be taxing.

During this time wreaths, known as “corona” (not the virus… or the beer, but a crown) are often associated with military triumphs and feats of valor. They were awarded and worn predominately by soldiers, generals, and emperors and each corona had a specific meaning. Pliny the Elder, the source of much of what we know, wrote, “It is with the leaves of this class of trees [Oak] that our civic crown is made, the most glorious reward that can be bestowed on military valour, and, for this long time past, the emblem of the imperial clemency…” (Pliny, ch. 3). However, it should be noted that there were also corona for brides and grooms, priests, celebrations, and funerary corona. We often see funerary wreaths in Etruscan burials and the Fayum Mummy portraits. However, one might speculate that later, in paintings, could be of a symbolic nature.

However, the major corona were awarded were for military service. Pliny cites the Corona civica, as the most prestigious, yet the Corona obsidionalis was thought to be of the highest honor. While the Corona civica (oak) was awarded to a soldier for saving the life of a Roman Citizen, the Corona obsidionalis was awarded to the general who saved an army under siege. It was made of whatever vegetation that the fighting had occurred on. The Corona navalis, Corona muralis, and Corona castrensis were all awarded for the first soldier to cross into enemy territory, whether it was a ship, a wall, or camp respectively. The Corona triumphalis (laurel or bay, gold) was a bit different in that it was for the victorious general to wear. It became the symbol of the Emperor. And then there were the less prestigious ones, such as the Corona ovalism (myrtle) and the Corona oleagina (olive leaf). The first given for someone deserving of an ovation and the other given to soldiers who were triumphant in battle.


The Crowns of the Ancient World

Greek Gold Laurel Wreath 3rd – 2nd century BCE
(Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

To discuss the wearing of wreaths in Ancient Rome, a little background is required. Wreaths in Greece and Etruria are often what we image when we think of wreaths and the meaning changes with time. Of course, by the time we get to Imperial Rome, Greek had already been annexed and the Etruscans had been destroyed during the Etruscan and Roman War.

“Awarded for various accomplishments, or simply as symbols of status and rank, wreaths might be made from the leaves of such plants as olive, ivy, oak, myrtle or laurel. The laurel wreath, awarded to victorious athletes and for academic achievement, is perhaps the best known of the wreath crowns”


Wreaths in Rome


Heroic Acts

In Imperial Rome different types of wreath were worn predominately by soldiers, generals, and emperors. These wreaths were awarded for acts of heroics by soldiers and each had a specific meaning. The descriptions in literature focus on gold wreaths that mostly resemble bay leaf but oak leaf wreaths were particularly popular.

Pliny cites the Corona civica, as the most prestigious, yet the Corona obsidionalis was thought to be of the highest honor. While the Corona civica (oak) was awarded to a soldier for saving the life of a Roman Citizen, the Corona obsidionalis was awarded to the general who saved an army under siege. It was made of whatever vegetation that the fighting had occurred on. The Corona navalis, Corona muralis, and Corona castrensis were all awarded for the first soldier to cross into enemy territory, whether it was a ship, a wall, or camp respectively. The Corona triumphalis (laurel or bay, gold) was a bit different in that it was for the victorious general to wear. It became the symbol of the Emperor. And then there were the less prestigious ones, such as the Corona ovalism (myrtle) and the Corona oleagina (olive leaf). The first given for someone deserving of an ovation and the other given to soldiers who were triumphant in battle against barbarians or slaves.

It is with the leaves of this class of trees [Oak] that our civic crown is made, the most glorious reward that can be bestowed on military valour, and, for this long time past, the emblem of the imperial clemency; since the time, in fact, when, after the impiety of civil war, it was first deemed a meritorious action not to shed the blood of a fellow-citizen. Far inferior to this in rank are the mural crown, the vallar, and the golden one…”

Pliny the Elder (CHAP. 3)

Source: Pliny the Elder. Delphi Complete Works of Pliny the Elder (Illustrated) (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 53) . Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition. 


Funerary

In the Catalogue of the jewellery, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman, in the departments of antiquities, which I’ve referenced before, the author discusses such funerary crowns:

“Besides the numerous crowns prepared for the living, there was also a most extensive manufacture of crowns for purposes purely funerary.  The signification of the funerary crown is not quite certain. In many cases the crown was clearly a mark of honour, as in the case of the crowns granted to the living. But the custom was so general that some other meaning must have attached to it. Tertullian suggested that the dead were crowned for the same reason that images of the gods were crowned. They became as it were deified. It is possible that some such notion lurked beneath the practice.” (Page xxxii)

F.H. Marshall

Other Types of Corona

Corona Nuptialis or The Wedding Wreath:
Brides would collect verbena to make into a wreath to wear upon their wedding day.

Corona Sacerdotalis or The Sacrificial Wreath:
it is speculated that the priests who preforms the sacrifices might have worn an “olive or gold wreath.”  It’s a little unclear whether they are speaking of an olive leaf wreath, a gold olive leaf wreath, or a gold wreath or crown of a different style. The Corona Sacerdotalis was worn also believed to be worn by devoted onlookers.

Corona Convivialis or Wreath of Celebrations:
Was, as you might have guessed a wreath to be worn on celebrations (i.e. Parties). I guess Toga parties aren’t that far off.

And I’m sure I’m missing a few.


To sum up, you can see that there is the shift in meaning that went along with the assimilation of other cultures, and the passing of time. The corona, from its obscure origin, became the symbol of social values. For what was valued by the Etruscans was not necessarily valued by the Greeks and what was valued by the Romans was different yet. History is rarely black and white, this is no different.

There are several books and websites that will go more in-depth about wreaths, it is definitely worth looking into.


Sources:

Coronas of Ancient Rome

Rituals of Triumph in the Mediterranean World by Andrew Erskine

Roman Crowns and Wreaths by Brian Campbell

Wreath – its Use and Meaning in Ancient Visual Culture by D. Rogić