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Making Roman Crowns: Lessons from Roman Floral Design: Building Sustainable Floristry Today (Part II)

Written by Patty Baker |

Dr. Patty Baker (University of Kent) shares an update on the progress of her ICS-funded public-facing project exploring Roman floral design. 

Surviving images from the Greco-Roman world often portray deities, women, men, and emperors wearing crowns made of laurel, olive branches, grape vines, and flowers. Garlands consisting of greenery, fruit, and flowers are depicted adorning temples and altars, as well as acting as frames around scenes on mosaics and fresco paintings. Ancient writers also discussed the significance of crowns and garlands for different occasions, including births, weddings, dinner parties, military honours, religious festivals, headache remedies, and funerals (e.g. Athenaeus Deip. 14629eAulus Gellius 5. 6Hor. Carm. 3.25.204.8.3Pliny HN 16. 421. 821. 28-29). Combined, the sources indicate that the Greeks, and particularly the Romans, had a great appreciation for adorning themselves and their structures with natural elements.

The flowers and greenery they used in their crowns and garlands held symbolic meanings. For example, laurel and olive represented victory, and the goddess Ceres was celebrated with wheat. Even today, crowns and garlands are used for weddings, holidays, and music festivals. Yet, unlike Roman designs that were completely biodegradable and held together with linen, papyrus, or palm fibres, modern flower crowns and garlands are joined with wire and tape, which are polluting. Many florists are developing sustainable methods to help the global business become environmentally sound. To assist in this movement, I believe that much can be learnt from the history of floral design.

In November 2019, I wrote my first blogpost related to the generous funding I received to teach Roman floral design to the Canterbury Flower Club, florists, and flower growers. At that time, I held a trial event with interested friends. In January and February, I led the two funded workshops. The first was to a group of ten participants that included florists, growers, and interested students. The second was to a group of twenty members of the Canterbury Flower Club. I began both events with a PowerPoint presentation that covered topics on the imagery of crowns and garlands, descriptions of their functions as mentioned in the ancient literature, and the archaeological evidence for the greenery and flowers that were commonly used in the ornaments. Following this, I gave a short demonstration explaining my interpretation of how the crowns were made. Unfortunately, the ancient writers did not describe the techniques used for making them. Virgil indicated that the flowers were woven together but said nothing further (Aen. 5. 556Georg 3. 21). Pliny the Elder said that rose petals were sewn together for the festival of the Salii, a celebration in honour of the god Mars (HN 21. 8). 

In comparison to the literature, ancient images give us a somewhat better idea of how the crowns were woven, and I used these to develop my experimental archaeological techniques. A handful of images from fresco paintings in Pompeii and mosaics from North Africa and Desenzano, Lake Garda, Italy, depict cupids sitting below either a wooden frame or a pole with long strands of flowers hanging from them. The cupids are shown pulling a flower strand towards them and appear to be weaving other flowers into the strand. Since all of the images I have found are similar, this suggests that this was the common method used for crown and garland construction. Unfortunately, the images are not clear enough to determine precisely how the flowers were woven into their base. To ascertain how this might have been done, I explored other methods used for making crowns today, and the one comparable technique that seems likely is from the South Pacific and Hawaiian Islands. In these places, flowers are tied to braided bases made of palm fibres. Having undertaken this research, I was keen to share my interpretation about the possible methods used in Roman crown construction with floral design experts to receive feedback on my ideas, and to see if others had thoughts on alternative techniques.

For the recreation, I braided three strands of raffia together for the base. Raffia is a palm fibre that originates from Madagascar and was the closest material I could find to simulate other types of palm fibres that were available to the Romans. I left long strands at both ends so that the crown could be tied to the head without crushing flowers against the head. To make the braided base, I found it useful to tie the top end to a kitchen cabinet handle or the back of a chair in order to create the tension needed to weave the strands together tightly. This also simulated the wooden frame shown in the Roman images. I then tied one strand of raffia to the top end of the base, based on the Polynesian technique, which is used to tie the flowers and foliage into the base of the crown.

For the workshops, I made the bases of the crowns for the participants to save on time. Similar to the images of the cupids, we all wove the materials onto the base from the top working our way down to the bottom. The materials were only placed on one side of the base, so that the crown would rest against the head comfortably without the flowers being crushed. 

The flowers and greenery were added in the following manner. The first flower was placed at the top of the base and the extra strand of raffia was wrapped two or three times around its stem to hold it in place. The stems were kept about an inch in length. The second was placed slightly below and to the left of the central flower. Again the strand of raffia was wrapped two or three times around the stem. The third flower was placed slightly below the second and to the right of the middle flower. After the stem was wrapped, a knot was placed in the strand to secure the flowers further. These three steps were repeated to the end, leaving strands unadorned at the bottom so that the two ends could be tied together, as mentioned above. Most of the participants found the technique tedious at first especially since they were familiar with wire and tape. However, once they became comfortable with it, they wove faster and created beautiful crowns.

All but one person tried the method I demonstrated, and they introduced me to a technique that was excellent for weaving garlands. In Roman art, garlands appear to have flowers and greenery on all sides. Rather than using one strand to wrap the flower stems to the base, I was taught to use two strands of raffia to weave them in place. When the flowers and greenery were placed on the base, the ties were criss-crossed over the stems. The base was turned over and flowers were added to the opposite side. Each time the base was turned over the flowers were placed slightly below those that were already tied onto the base. Every so often a knot was tied to secure the flowers. The result was just as full as those seen on Roman images.

The greenery we used was olive, ivy, and eucalyptus nicholii. The latter looks somewhat similar to myrtle, which was also common in ancient crowns. The flowers were white mini carnations and purple lisianthus, both look somewhat similar to wild roses, also popular with the Romans. Gypsophila was added as a filler flower.  

These crowns have a few added bonuses in comparison to those that are made of tape and wire. First, they are fully compostable. Second, they last longer, particularly if the raffia is moist. Third, if crowns are needed for a couple of days, these can be sprayed with water and placed in refrigeration when they are not worn. Finally, they dry well for anyone wishing to keep them for an extended period of time. In fact, it seems as if the Romans did keep their crowns, or at least those awarded to them, because it was mentioned in the Twelve Tables that if someone was granted a crown in their lifetime, it could be placed on their heads for their funeral procession (Cicero De Leg 2. 24; Pliny HN 21. 5). 

The events were successful. Not only was I able to bring the subject of classics to the public, but, importantly, teaching through experimental archaeology allowed me to introduce a sustainable practice to a business looking for change. Another significant point is that it showed the relevance of history and archaeology to modern environmental issues.

by Patty Baker

(All image credits Patty Baker.)