The Many Coronas of Ancient Roman Society
The laurel wreath has endured for millennia in the public imagination as one of the defining symbols of ancient Rome. And as I’m sure most of you are aware, it was more than just a fun plant-based accessory or a casual bit of headwear. Not just any Gaius, Marcus, or Lucius could wrap a bunch of laurel leaves around his head and go out to the chariot races for the day.
Like most aspects of fashion in ancient Rome (i.e. senatorial regalia), the various crowns and wreaths worn by her citizens were strictly regulated. And each corona had a different meaning.
The famous laurel wreath (Corona Triumphalis) made — believe it or not — out of laurel leaves, was only to be worn by a general during his Triumph.
A Triumph in ancient Rome, especially during the days of Republic, was the single highest honor that a citizen could hope to achieve. If you were a general and you conquered a new territory or suppressed a provincial rebellion, the senate might vote to grant you a Triumph and you could wear this fancy laurel wreath. Also, your army would present you with a massive laurel wreath made out of gold… Oh, and the provincial territories would all send you golden laurel wreaths as well.
In the days of the empire, the emperor was the only man allowed to have a full triumphal procession. However, ordinary citizens could still be given the honor of wearing triumphal regalia. Including the laurel wreath.
A military triumph may have been the most prized reward in the Roman world. But, winning the Grass Crown or “Corona Obsidionalis” was the most highly respected. Because in order to win a grass crown, you had to be — in short — a hero.
The Corona Obsidionalis (blockade crown) or Corona Gramineae (grass crown) was made out of the grass, weeds, and wildflowers that were growing on the very spot where the act of heroism had taken place.
Imagine you’re a Roman general and you hear that another Roman army is being badly beaten, besieged, or otherwise beleaguered by an enemy force somewhere in the region.
Upon hearing this, you rush to their aid, breaking up the siege and turning the tide of battle in favor of your countrymen. The army whose lives you just saved would fashion you a hero’s crown out of grass and flowers they plucked from the battlefield.
One small step below the grass crown was the “oak crown.” This was awarded to a soldier who saved the life of one of his comrades in battle. Because this award required the testimony of the soldier whose life had been saved, it was a tough prize to win. Apparently, Roman soldiers were not quick to admit that they needed help.
In the days of the empire, this oak crown became synonymous with the emperor because of his role as a savior of all Romans.
The first of several branch-specific military crowns was the “naval crown.” As the name clearly indicates, this crown was awarded to men who displayed acts of bravery in naval battles.
There were two types of naval crowns that a man could win and two ways that he could win them. One, a lesser (but still impressive) corona navalis was awarded to the man who was first to board the enemy’s ships. Since the invention of the Corvus in the First Punic War, the Romans had become huge fans of turning sea battles into de facto land battles by boarding their enemy’s ships.
The second (and much grander) version of the Corona Navalis was awarded to the naval commander who destroyed an entire fleet. The crown itself — made of gold and precious stones — was meant to look like the prows of enemy ships which was doubly evocative of the Roman Rostra.
On land, as at sea, a soldier could win himself an honorary crown by being the first over the wall of a besieged city.
the Corona Muralis, a golden crown adorned with towers and turrets, was presented to the soldier who was first to scale an enemy wall by his commander. This was obviously meant to serve as an incentive for soldiers to be both brave and fast when storming cities.
The Romanized version of the Phrygian goddess Cybele (the Great Mother goddess) is always pictured wearing this mural crown on her head. Most likely because of her introduction into the Roman pantheon as a religious ally against the Carthaginians in the 200s B.C.
When there were no cities to pillage, the “camp crown” was awarded to the soldier who was first to force an entrance into the enemy camp.
Winning the camp crown was like a very high-stakes version of winning Capture the Flag. Again, this was a great way to both reward bravery and incentivize efficiency in battle.
This next corona is another one that no mere soldier could hope to win. The “myrtle crown” was awarded to commanders who won a battle against pirates, barbarians, slaves, or other uncivilized peoples in a battle that was not a part of some official war.
The myrtle was the plant most sacred to the goddess Venus who was strongly associated with both Julius Caesar and the mythical foundation of Rome.
The olive wreath was awarded to all of the soldiers who had fought in the army of a general who had been awarded a Triumph. In other words, the men who had made the triumph possible. While their boss got the big parade, they got these olive crowns as a sort of recognition trophy for their service.
This crown, the sacrificial crown, was worn by priests as well as pious onlookers during a religious ritual, usually a sacrifice. The crown was not made out of any single material, but, it was typically an agricultural plant such as corn or wheat or olives. Because it was not a wreath won by military actions, it often doubled as a symbol for peace. When there are no laurel wreaths to be one, you can always toss on a corn wreath and pray for a good harvest.
My personal favorite crown, this “party crown” was worn by Romans at parties. These crowns were tight-fitting headbands or “fillets” made out of wool, roses, ivy, and other materials thought to combat the effects of intoxication. Romans were not allowed to wear these crowns in public but commonly wore them in private banquets.
The wedding or bridal wreath was made out of verbena gathered by the bride herself (using store-bought flowers was bad luck) and worn underneath her veil. The groom also wore a less flashy chaplet wreath.
At the house of a family who had just given birth to a child, a wreath of ivy or parsley was hung above the door both in celebration and for good luck.
The divine crown, worn only by gods and emperors. For the gods, this crown was a sign that they had deified a mortal hero. For emperors, it was appropriated as a symbol of their divinity. As you can see from the picture, it was a simple circular crown adorned with spikey, radiating lances of gold shooting up towards the heavens.
Whenever I come across some token of the emperor’s divinity, I’m reminded of the ever down-to-earth emperor Vespasian (founder of the Flavian dynasty) and his famous last words, “Dear me, I think I’m becoming a god.”
This radiant imperial crown was often associated with the cult of Sol Invictus, or “unconquered sun” a god with syncretic ties to both Jesus and Mithras.
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