Roses in the ancient Mediterranean were symbols of religious devotion, erotic desire, and luxury. They were used in incense and aphrodisiacs, garlands and perfumes, wines and food. They were also an important medicinal ingredient. The juice from rose petals was used as a rinse for sores in the mouth and gums. Whole flowers, consumed in wine, were taken for stomachaches and diarrhea. A mixture of rose oil and butter was injected as a clyster into the anus as a remedy for dysentery.
More than anywhere else, though, the rose appears as a medicinal ingredient in ancient Mediterranean gynecological writings. Decoctions of rose were used in sitz baths for inflammation, vaginal and uterine ulcers, and uterine hemorrhage. Dried rose petals and leaves made a remedy for thrush. Metrodora, a Byzantine medical writer, advised the use of roses in pessaries, clysters, and ointments for cervical inflammation, vaginal fluxes, conception, contraception, and abortion.
As a medical historian and an herbalist myself, I can imagine Metrodora gathering her rose petals. Every summer, I harvest Rosa rugosa, the “beach rose” (pictured). They are white and pink, single rows of five wrinkly petals around a cluster of bright yellow stamens. I grip the velvety petals lightly, tug gently, and release microscopic oils in a cloud of sharp, wild fragrance, leaving yellow centers bare amid green leaves. I dry them on screens and scoop them, lighter than air, into glass jars. I macerate them in almond and olive oil to make rose oil.
In his Medical Materials, the first-century-CE Greek medical writer Dioscorides describes the involved process of making rose oil: Macerate the petals of 1,000 roses in oil overnight. The next day, strain the oil and reinfuse with the petals from 1,000 more roses. Do this seven times. Needless to say, rose oil was an expensive commodity because of both the materials and the labor it took to produce it. Even today, vast quantities of petals are required to make small amounts of rose essential oil.
Dioscorides and Metrodora would never have seen (or smelled) the Rosa rugosa, a Japanese import to Europe in the 19th century. But the genus Rosa is very old. Fossil records of roses from more than two million years ago have been discovered in both the Pacific Northwest (where I live) and eastern Europe. As far as scholars can tell from literary sources and material records, the ancient Mediterranean herbalists likely would have been working with Rosa gallica, a variety of which is the Rosa damascena, both of which are renowned today for their scent, as well as their culinary and medicinal uses. Ancient Greek scientific writer Theophrastus also mentions R. canina, sempervirens, centifolia, and dumetorum as varieties available in the third century BCE.
My experience as an herbalist enriches my work as a scholar and a teacher. This past year, teaching online, I ran a monthly activity called “Stuck at Home in Ancient Rome.” I sent my students ingredient lists and even mailed them ingredients—including rose petals. We gathered on video calls to make recipes from the ancient Mediterranean. Via Zoom, students made their own ancient Roman face cream. The sensual smell, sight, and feel of rose petals brings the medicine of the ancient world alive for me and my students.
Tara Mulder is assistant professor of teaching in classical studies at the University of British Columbia. She tweets @tarasdactyls.
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