The Roses of Paestum
Paestum was famous for its red roses – indeed the majority of the references to Paestum in the ancient literature referred to the roses.
The Paestum rose gardens were first brought to prominence by Virgil, who in Georgics (4,119) mentions biferique rosaria Paesti -– the rose gardens of twice bearing Paestum. What did he mean by the ‘biferi’ – twice bearing? He is usually assumed to mean that the roses flowered twice a year, but twice yearly flowering roses were not known in Europe till they were imported in the 16th century. In just three words, Virgil set a hare running that scholars and rose lovers have been pursuing ever since.
And then Martial in a charming ode (9.60) wondered whether he should make a garland with roses from Paestum – but if he were to use roses from his own humble garden, would this not seem more beautiful? Ovid (Metamorphoses 15, 708) and Propertius also refer poetically to the rose gardens of Paestum while Pliny (Natural History 21) discusses the rose gardens of Campania, and Columella also refers to the roses of Paestum.
Clearly there must have been a major export market of roses from Paestum to Rome, – though possibly it was not so much the roses themselves that were valued as much as the perfume that was made from it.
Sadly, the roses of Paestum have all died out, but there are still a number of oleander bushes which make a colourful display, like the one shown here with the Temple of Athena to the right and the white domes of the Borsa peeping through on the left
So when you visit Paestum – say hello to the oldeanders, and think of the roses!