Crowns and Laurels Mores 


The Romans were in the habit of creating and wearing wreaths and garlands to signify an honor received, an event celebrated, or a ritual observed. As usual they adapted an old Greek custom to their own tastes, creating a strict hierarchy of crowns for military honors that was carefully outlined by law. Interestingly, the lowest and highest degrees of military coronae were made of the simplest plant materials rather than gold and precious jewels.

Military Awards for Commanders

The corona ovalis was made of myrtle leaves and was awarded to generals whose achievements in war merited an ovation only, such as a conquest over slaves or pirates, or in a non-declared war. The corona rostrata was made of gold and decorated with ships' beaks (rostra). It was awarded to a commander who destroyed a fleet or achieved some other great feat in naval warfare. Coronae triumphales were awarded to generals who had achieved an outstanding conquest against a strong enemy or in especially difficult circumstances. There were three varieties of the triumphal crown:

The laurea insignis or insignis corona triumphalis was made of bay (laurel) leaves. It was worn by the commander during his triumph and was considered the most honorable of the three.

A second crown, possibly a corona Etrusca, was made of gold and often decorated with jewels; it was held over the head of the commander during his triumph. This golden crown and the laurea insignis (above) were presented to the general by his own army.

The corona provincialis was made of gold and was carried before the general in the triumphal procession. Such crowns were presented to the general by his own province and by neighboring provinces -- and not always voluntarily.

Rarest of honors, the corona obsidionalis (or graminea) was given to a general who broke the siege of a beleaguered Roman army. The wreath was made out of grasses gathered from the very site where the siege had been lifted. It might be made of a cereal, such as wheat, if the battle took place in a field of grain; sometimes weeds or flowers were used. It was presented to the general by the army he had rescued.

Military Awards for the Rank and File

The corona oleagina was made of olive leaves and was awarded to all soldiers under the command of a general who had himself achieved one of the higher ranking crowns (above). Crowns awarded for individual distinction were usually made of gold and alluded to the specific nature of the accomplishment:

The corona castrensis or corona vallaris was decorated with the upright sticks (valli) that surrounded a Roman camp or entrenchment and was given to the first soldier who forced his way into an enemy's palisade.

The corona muralis was decorated with turrets and awarded to the first soldier to get over the walls into a besieged city.

The corona navalis, decorated with a ship's prow, was given to the first sailor to board an enemy ship in a naval engagement.

Rarest of awards for a common soldier was the corona civica, and it was made not of gold but of oak leaves and acorns. It was reserved for a soldier who "preserved the life of a Roman citizen in battle, slew his opponent, and maintained the ground on which the action took place." An extraordinary award (because the circumstances were usually difficult to prove), the civic crown brought many social privileges thereafter for the soldier's lifetime.

Non-Military Coronae for Specific Occasions

A corona convivialis was composed of specific herbs or flowers thought to counter the effects of intoxication. It was worn only at private dinners and parties, never in public.

Made of flowers and leaves, the corona funebris or sepulchralis, crowned the dead.

The corona natalitia was created from laurel, ivy, or parsley and hung over a vestibule door to signify the birth of a child within.

The corona nuptialis was made of flowers interspersed with sprigs of verbena. It was worn over the flammeum, the bride's saffron veil. By tradition the flowers for her crown had to be picked by the bride herself.

The corona sacerdotalis was worn at sacrifices by both the officiating priest and the bystanders. It was sometimes made of olive leaves, sometimes of gold, and sometimes of ears of wheat. The latter was also called corona spicea, an ancient symbol associated with Ceres and also used as a symbol of peace.

The corona sutilis was worn by the Salii at their festival and consisted of flowers sewn together rather than woven or twisted by the stems, perhaps to counteract the jumping motions of the celebrants. Roses in particular were favored.

corona civica

Miscellaneous Types of Crowns and Wreaths

Corona Etrusca -- made of gold oak leaves, decorated with gems, and tied with ribbons (lemnisci) of gold.
Corona longa -- a festoon for decorating objects such as chairs or doorways.
Corona pactilis -- made of any flexible materials, such as flowers, grasses, or wool, that could be twisted into shape; also called plectilis or plexa or torta.
Corona pampinea -- made of grapevine leaves and associated with Bacchus.
Corona radiata -- with rays of light as though from an inner heavenly nature; reserved for gods, deified heroes, and emperors who wished to advertise their own godhead prematurely.
Corona tonsa or tonsilis -- of leaves only, such as laurel or olive.


-- Catherine McMullen, December 2000.

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