A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…
These words, penned by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet, are just one of the countless mentions of roses in poetry, literature, and art that ties the iconic red flower to romance and love.
Why, after hundreds of years, are bouquets of roses still the most classic and enduring symbol of romance?
Red Roses in Ancient History
Based on fossil evidence, the rose itself has existed for over 35 million years. The connotations of romance were almost immediately adopted once humans started crafting culture and art.
Aphrodite & Roses: The Creation Myth
In Western culture, the significance of the red rose dates back to Greek mythology and the belief that the red rose was created by Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. Legend has it that the flower grew from the ground watered with Aphrodite’s tears and the blood of her ill-fated lover Adonis.
However, there is another interpretation of this Greek myth. According to some Greek historians, Cupid accidentally shot arrows into a rose garden after being stung by a bee, causing the flowers to grow thorns. Later, as Aphrodite walked through the garden, she pricked her foot on a thorn and bled, the color of her blood turning the roses red.
Desire & Secrecy: How Romans Used Roses
The legend of the red rose’s creation continued into Roman mythology where Venus took the place of Aphrodite. Wealthy Romans reportedly filled their bedchambers with bouquets of roses to provide a soft, pleasant-smelling surface for their amorous encounters. It was a symbol of love and beauty associated with the goddess, but also came to stand for secrecy after Cupid offered a rose to the God of Silence to keep quiet Venus’s affairs.
In fact, Roman dining room ceilings were decorated with roses to urge guests to keep quiet about what was said at dinner, and “sub rosa” or “under the rose” still means “confidentially” today.
Faith & Love: The Rose as The Virgin
In Christianity, the red rose became the symbol of the Virgin Mary dating back to the third century AD. At that time, Saint Ambrose believed the Garden of Eden was full of thornless roses, which gained their thorns after the fall and symbolized Original Sin. Because of this, the Virgin Mary is often referred to as the “rose without thorns.”
The image of the rose and with the Virgin Mary took off in the twelfth century when Gothic cathedrals became prominent and large, circular stained glass windows, known as rose windows, were placed above the entrance to the church. This was furthered in the thirteenth century when Saint Dominic created the notion of the rosary, a series of prayers to the Virgin Mary -- rosaries get their name from the word rose and are symbolized in religious imagery by garlands of roses. Today this endures with the concept of the “miracle of the roses,” which is a mystical event where the growth of roses in an area reflects an act of God.
Red Roses in the Eastern World
We owe the tradition of growing roses in a garden to the East. Garden cultivation of roses dates back to China about 5,000 years ago. However, there are also many Eastern cultural beliefs and legends that tie the rose back to romance. Hindu beliefs dating back centuries hold that Goddess Laxmi, the goddess of fortune and prosperity and wife of Lord Vishnu, was created from 108 large and 1,008 small rose petals. Vishnu intensely loved his wife, creating a firm link between roses and romance.
An ancient Arabic legend also links roses to romance and the literal effect of one’s heart’s blood. The legend states that a nightingale fell in love with a white rose. The love was so intense that it caused the nightingale to sing for the first time and overwhelmed by his love, the nightingale pressed itself to the rose, a thorn piercing its heart and turning the flower red with its blood. The nightingale pined for the rose so badly, it sacrificed its life, creating an enduring link between one’s heart’s blood and intense feelings of love and romance. These legends are extremely ancient, dating back to some of the most ancient civilizations, thus tying the rose to romance from the earliest days of humanity.
Red Roses in Modern Society
With all of these legends and myths in mind, bouquets of roses went on down the centuries to symbolize romance, appearing in everything from medieval frescoes to Shakespeare and more.
In the middle ages, it pop ups in the French poem “Romance of the Rose,” where the rose is used to symbolize female sexuality while serving as wider metaphor for expounding on “the whole art of love.” The poem is a lengthy allegory of chivalric love with 92 accompanying illustrated miniatures. It was composed in France in the 13th century by Guillaume de Lorris and later turned into an illuminated manuscript in the 15th century. The first part of the poem chronicles the Lover’s quest for the “rose,” a symbol for the love of his lady.
This use of rose as metaphor for love and romance continued into the Renaissance, most notably in the works of Shakespeare. Though its reference in Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s best known nod to the beautiful flower, he uses the rose in his writing regularly as a metaphor for romance beauty -- it pops up in everything from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Antony and Cleopatra to his sonnets.
The Scottish poet Robert Burns immortalized the rose as a symbol of romance in 18th century poem “Red, Red Rose,” which compares his love to a red rose. “O, my love is like a red, red rose” begins the poem. Later, the poem says he will love her still when the seas go dry and the sands of life run still, thus likening his intense feelings of enduring love to the metaphor of the rose.
Beginning in the 1800s, Victorians established the enduring link between romance and red roses as we think of it today. The Victorians were obsessed with the language of flowers, or floriography, developing distinct meanings for every shade of flower imaginable and using this language to send flowers to friends, lovers, and more. It is this tradition that reaffirmed the red rose as a symbol of romance. Professing feelings publicly was not considered acceptable at the time, so the language of flowers and the gifting of a red rose was a subtle way to express affection in this more restricted era. In the Victorian era, individuals regularly gifted flowers, particularly different colored roses, as symbols of sympathy, eternal friendship, and more.
The significance of the rose as a symbol of romance, and its use as a messaging system in courtship and dating has endured since the 19th century. Throughout the 20th century, sending roses has been a timeless way to express love for another. We have seen it endure in popular culture, with a single red rose (either long-stemmed or a boutonniere) being the prize that allows a contestant on The Bachelor(ette) to continue in the quest to win the heart of a lucky lady or man. The rose also symbolizes romance in Beauty and the Beast, with a single rose shedding petals until the Beast can learn to love another and be loved in return.
Whether it be a single red rose given on a date or an entire bouquet of roses sent for Valentine’s Day, there’s still no simpler way to convey romance than through bouquets of roses. A tradition that dates back to ancient times, proving that when it comes down to it, romance and love are some of our oldest, most prized experiences.