Flower Power: 12 Ways the Rose Has Mesmerized Gods, Kings and Lovers Through the Centuries

RealClear Staff


"A rose by any other name..." wrote Shakespeare. How big has the rose influenced world culture? Let us count the ways.

1. A Rose in the Ancient Deserts

The first use of the rose as a symbol can be found in the art of the Ancient Sumerians (in modern day Iraq, arguably the first civilization in the world), and later by the Hittities (in moder day Turkey and Syria). The royalty of the Ancient Hittite empires of the 15th century B.C. used roses, often called Rosettes, that can be seen in Hittite inscriptions (above), seals, adorning jewelry, and headwear.  Later roses were worn by Egyptian, Assyrian, English and Norman rulers from approximately the 7th century B.C. forward.

2. The Goddess of Love

But the rose as a symbol was perfected by the ancient Greeks and Romans (Latin, rosa, in Greek, rhodon), who identified the rose with the goddess of love, known as Aphrodite by the Greeks and Venus by the Romans. Additionally, the goddess Isis uses a rose as a key plot point in "The Golden Ass" (a.k.a. The Metamorphoses of Apuleius), the only Ancient Roman novel in Latin to survive in its entirety. For these ancient cultures, the rose was a sacred symbol not only of love but of regeneration, purity, virginity, fertility, sexuality and secrets. In the earliest of times, women were often referred to as a "rosebud," and a bride a "rose."

3. The Rose Has a Secret

One cool symbol of the rose for the ancient Romans was as a synonym for secrecy. In Rome a wild rose would be placed on the door of a room where secret or confidential matters were discussed. The phrase sub rosa, or "under the rose," means to keep a secret. It's a phrase still used today; "sub rosa" activities have become a byword for covert operations, usually by American special forces.

4. The Secret Societies

Several secret societies, such as Rosicrucianism, which has its roots in medieval Germany, use roses as part of their symbolism.

5. The Rose of Baghdad

Abdul-Qadir Gilani (1078-1166) was a jurist who became one of the most famous sufis in Islam, known as "The Rose of Baghdad." Sufism is defined as the inner mystical dimension of Islam -- kinda like a grandmaster in the martial arts realm. His fundamental Islamic Sufi order, Qadiriyya, still exists today and is symbolized by, you guessed it, a rose.

6. The Wounds of Christ

Medieval Christians identified the five petals of the rose with the five wounds of Christ. Roses also later came to be associated with the Virgin Mary. The red rose was eventually adopted as a symbol of the blood of the Christian martyrs. 

7. St. Valentine's Day Is Actually a Religious Holiday

Valentine's Day actually began as a religious holiday, and the introduction of roses is tied to the Christianity's symbol for the wounds of Christ. Little is know about Saint Valentine, who was a third century Roman martyr who was imprisoned and executed for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry and for ministering to Christians, who were persecuted under the Roman Empire.

8. In Love and War, England Is a Rose

The rose is the national flower of England, dating from the reign of Henry VII (1457-1509) who introduced the Tudor rose, combining a red rose, representing the House of Lancaster, and a white rose, representing the House of York, as a symbol of unity after the English civil wars of the 15th century which came to be called the Wars of the Roses.

9. Jack Benny's Posthumous Rose

Radio, television and movie star Jack Benny was married to Mary Livingstone for a half century until his death in 1974. She was famous as well; she was one of the fixtures of her husband's radio show, which for 21 years was a Sunday night must for millions of Americans. After Benny died, she began receiving a long-stemmed rose each day. 

''Every day since Jack has gone the florist has delivered one longstemmed red rose to my home,'' she wrote in a magazine article. ''I learned Jack actually had included a provision for the flowers in his will. One red rose to be delivered to me every day for the rest of my life.''

10. Joe DiMaggio's Love for Marylin Monroe

Though they were married for only nine months in 1954, Yankees great Joe DiMaggio and movie star Marilyn Monroe continued to love each other. When Monroe died of a drug overdose at age 36 in 1962, DiMaggio personally handled details of her funeral. But that's not all; for 20 years afterward, he sent a half-dozen roses three times a week to her resting place at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.

11. Honor to the White Rose

The greatest use of the rose as a symbol was the courageous work by a non-violent, intellectual resistance group in Nazi Germany, consisting of students from the University of Munich and their philosophy professor. The group's leaflet and graffiti campaign, lasting from June 1942 until February 1943, called for active opposition to Adolf Hitler, and fueled similar opposition and resistance groups within Germany.

The group's most famous member was Sophie Scholl (above) with her brother Hans (left) and their best friend, Christoph Probst (right). Those three and three others were arrested by the Gestapo, tried for treason and beheaded in 1943. By then, they had already inspired an underground. The Allies made copies of the White Rose's last leaflet, retitled it "The Manifesto of the Students of Munich," and dropped thousands of them over Germany during bombing runs.

12. Let's Have a Parade!

The state of the rose in the United States is stronger than ever. Four states (Iowa, North Dakota, Georgia and New York) count the rose as their state flower. Since Jan. 1 1890, the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, has been America's official New Year's Day Parade (they added a football game in 1902, the Rose Bowl). Since 1907 in Oregon, the Portland Rose Festival has celebrated the flower each June with Parades and other activities.

So think about all that the next time you decide on a lark to stop by a florist and pick out a rose for your significant other. You're part of a rich tradition!



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