Throughout world history, the rose has been the symbol of love, purity, devotion, inspiration, beauty, elegance, compassion, spirituality and sensuality. The significance of the rose is both religious and mythological. It was prized as the flower of Aphrodite to the ancient Greeks, and to the Arabs it represented the highest spiritual achievement and to the early Christians it was the flower of the Virgin Mary. The Rose was also a symbol of secrets held in confidence; It was an ancient practice to hang a rose over a council table, letting all who attended know they were sworn to secrecy.
Ancient authors highlight the ritual of the use of the rose in Greek life. Greek myths accentuate the symbolic nature of the rose. The most famous surround Aphrodite (Venus) as Goddess of love. She sprang forth into life from the foam of the sea, and where the foam fell to the ground white roses grew. This and later myths about Aphrodite display the dual nature of love: purity and innocence represented by white roses; desire and sexual gratification by red ones. In the 5th century BC., Anacreon composed an ode in praise of the rose, its beauty, perfume, power to heal and the esteem in which it was held by the Gods. The Greek philosopher Epicurus had his own private rose garden in Athens, wherein he instructed his pupils regarding the highest pleasures.
Theophrastus records that in some gardens, known as ‘Gardens of Adonis’, exceptionally pretty roses were cultivated in silver pots. They were grown for their perfume which devotees believed kept illness at bay, as well as for use in wreaths. As in Greek mythology, the rose plays a recurring and symbolic role in Roman legends. Rose wreaths were awarded by the Romans as a mark of honor for a major military success, and in later ages for every minor victory. Rose petals were scattered in the path of the victors at the Games. The association of the rose with wine and revelry was prevalent at the height of the Empire. The Roman Emperor Nero at banquets made rose petals to rain from the ceiling on the guests below. Stories of roses carpeting the floor of the banqueting hall to a depth of two feet when Mark Anthony visited Cleopatra verify that this trend caught on. The Romans used roses in abundance at funerals, and garlanded their tombs with rose wreaths. Rose buds were offered to the departed during the festival called Rosalie. The rose was a symbol of life because of its beauty, a symbol of death because of the inevitable withering of its blooms and a symbol of eternal life because of its association with the Gods. The predilection of the Romans for roses is attested by the excavation of the remains of private gardens in the ruins of Pompeii, and the depiction of roses in surviving frescoes found there.
Graeco-Roman Egypt affords examples of how practical occultism made use of roses in the land of the Nile. It is believed that the roses cultivated in the West since Greek and Roman times originated in Persia. The last pagan Roman Emperor, Julian, called the Apostate by his Christian opponents, died on an expedition there in 363 CE. Since then, the rose has been associated with all aspects of the spiritual life, and mystical poets have used the symbolism of the rose to express the complexities of existence.