De Rosariis Paesti
Roses of Paestum, Remontant or Not
Roch Rollin

I have heard many times of the roses of Paestum and their supposed twice-blooming. That biferous roses existed two thousand years ago is possible; that they vanished entirely, only to reappear suddenly sixteen centuries later is less likely. Not that it is an impossibility; nothing is impossible. But these plants would have had to disappear from a populous country renowned for its favourable climate and the horticultural skills of its inhabitants; that is most unlikely in my opinion. I decided to examine the matter more closely, to look at the evidence for myself instead of relying on second hand reports, on rumours, legends and hearsay. I looked at all Latin authors I could find from Antiquity to the Renaissance without previous selection. I looked for the words rose, Paestum and bifer as well as remontancy in several different aspects. Here is what I found.

That the rose played an important role in Antiquity no one will dispute. In Ancient Greece, roses were used in many important aspects of life, to adorn one's person at feasts and religious festivals, as hommage to the gods, as flavouring for oil to be used in various ways. Rome learned many things from the Greeks whose colonies had been established in Sicily and elsewhere along the coasts of the Italian peninsula for centuries before Romulus and Remus ever suckled the she-wolf. Educated Romans could usually read and often write Greek, some with great proficiency. Their grand tour was to Greece, Athens in particular. And didn't in fact Romans claim descent from the Trojans who, escaping the sack of Troy, were said to have found refuge in Italy; notably, Julius Caesar's family claimed descent from Ascanius1, Aeneas' son, and through him from Aphrodite, goddess of love, whose special flower was the rose.

As Rome's power and wealth increased, it absorbed more and more Greek territories and culture, and Romans became ever more rose-conscious, finding uses for rose petals at which their ancestors couldn't have guessed. Besides its obvious place in the garden, the rose was present in the fields of home security, hospitality, religion and ancestor worship, food preparation, medicine and cosmetology.

Another science closely connected to horticulture Rome acquired from Greece, Egypt and Asia was perfumery. Even though the still wasn't invented until many centuries after the Roman Republic diminished into a fragmented wrecked Empire, the production of oil-based fragrances was an old and flourishing business long before Caesar was assassinated. The manufacture of rose-scented oil, oleum rosaceum, requires a vast quantity of flowers; since rose scent, then as now, was one of, if not the most popular fragrances, rose bushes were cultivated on a considerable scale. Pliny the Elder2 reports that in his time Naples, Capua and Praeneste had surpassed the Greek city of Phaselis (on the coast of Lycia, now in Turkey) in the production of rhodinum a complex perfume with a dominant rose component. Even though Pliny doesn't mention it specifically, perfume was being manufactured in Paestum as modern archeology had conclusively demonstrated3; since from the contemporary mentions, which we will see below, we know roses were grown around Paestum, and we can confidently infer that Paestum perfumers produced both oleum rosaceum and rhodinum. Were these roses twice-blooming, is the next question.

When the ancients used the term biferous, what did they mean? We have grown used to thinking that biferous means a particular kind of remontancy; the capacity of producing every year a second set of flowers after the usual first crop; triferousness is the capacity to bear three times a year, the next step on the road to perpetual production. In Antiquity, the perpetual fruit tree, or flowering plant, the holy grail of all farmers and gardeners, was but a dream outside of literature. Nevertheless, HOMER4 planted perpetual fruit trees, apple, pear, fig and grapevines in the fabulous gardens of King Alcinoüs of the Pheacians, specifying that the flowers kept coming at the same time the fruit kept ripening all year round. As far as I know, there wasn't, nor is there now, any such thing as a twice-bearing apple, pear or grape, let alone one that keeps flowering and fruiting continuously simultaneously. Figs are a case apart: species do exist that are naturally twice-, even thrice-, bearing. This special ability was well known5, and a fig tree was expected to bear at least some fruit when in leaf as shown by the parable of the Blasted fig6 ; however, it is usually accepted that Homer meant to suggest fantastic, Eden-like, supernatural fertility and not actual arboricultural fact.

Many writers have since tried to emulate, or at least imitate, Homer; in the texts that have survived, mentions of super-fecund plants, animals and even humans abound. When a writer used the Greek diphoros, or its Latin equivalent bifer, he may simply have meant doubly fruitful, as an ewe that bears twins, an apple tree that bows down under a particularly heavy load of fruit, things that bear twice the normal quantity in one event and not necessarily a normal quantity twice as frequently. There is no time element in the words themselves that implies two successive crops in one period of time. Both adjectives are formed with the prefix di-/bi- meaning two, double, twice, twin, etc. and the suffix -phoros/-fer meaning to bear, produce, bring forth. As in, for example, bicolor means being of two colours at one time, bigamous having two spouses, biped two feet, bivalve two valves, dipterous two wings, diptych two tablets, distyle two columns, etc. That being the case, why do we think Virgil's roses produced two successive crops?

The reputation for remontancy of the Roses of Paestum rests on three words or, rather, the interpretation of three words extracted from the Georgics7, a didactic poem about agriculture written two thousand years ago (between 38 & 30 AC) by the "Prince of Poets", VERGIL alias Publius Vergilius Maro (c. 69-19AC) for his wealthy friend Maecenas, the paragon of all patrons. The Georgics have been "in print" ever since, and Vergil's reputation rests in great part on it. It is a work in verse on a very dull subject made interesting by sheer artistry; a tour de force equivalent to writing an opera with your mobile phone instruction manual for a libretto. The topic wasn't the main thing, the poem itself was.

The Georgics consist of four books: agriculture proper, arboriculture and viticulture, animal husbandry and finally apiculture. This fourth book is a bee-keeping how-to manual. In the first 8 of 32 verses of a rather long digression from apiculture Vergil comments that he had intended to write a further book but had given up the idea for fear he would not live to finish it. The sincerity of his fears is questionable: he wrote the Georgics when he wasn't forty and still had fifty years to live. This hypothetical book was to have been about gardening, both for food and for pleasure. In a typical period (it contains 62 words!) he names eight kinds of plant among those about which he would have written: endive, cucumber, parsley, acanthus, myrtle, ivy, narcissus, and roses at line 119. This is the one line (There are 566 lines of verse in this fourth book, 2188 in the whole poem.) on which rests the reputation for remontancy of the roses of Paestum:
"..., biferique rosaria Paesti"
The translation isn't difficult: ... and the rose bushes/gardens of twice-bearing Paestum. But, according to some, this isn't what the author meant. He would have used hypallage, a figure of speech which, in a writer of lesser standing, might be taken for a solecism.

A hypallage consists of changing the case, gender or number of a word, making it appear to agree with another word than that which you might expect, but without confusing the sense of the sentence8. You can see from the following examples why it is mostly used in versification where it allows variety without drastically changing the meaning:

Fecundaque vineta Tusculi vs Fecundique vineta Tusculi;
And the fertile vineyards of Tusculum vs And the vineyards of fertile Tusculum;

Tristesque oculi duchissae vs Tristisque oculi duchissae;
And the sad eyes of the duchess vs And the eyes of the sad duchess;

If Vergil did indeed use a hypallage, he would have meant bifer to agree with rosarium instead of Paestum, the meaning of the phrase would then change to: the twice-bearing rose bushes/gardens of Paestum.

These are the alternatives: either Vergil simply wrote what he meant: that there were roses at Paestum where the mild climate allowed two harvests of plants in general; or he twisted the syntax, something which he was certainly capable of doing, to signify that the rose bushes/gardens gave two harvests a year at Paestum. There is nothing in the text itself that allows to decide which interpretation is the right one.

Let us look at the probabilities: since we have no way of knowing definitely what Vergil meant, he isn't talking, and didn't give interviews, I give equal probability to his verse being literal (bifer linked to Paestum) or figurative (bifer linked to rosarium). If he was being figurative, since we have no way of saying if by rosarium he meant rose bush or rose garden, I also give equal probability to his meaning biferous rose bushes and biferous rose gardens (forced rose bushes).

  • 50% = rose bushes/gardens of biferous Paestum (non-remontant);
  • 50% = biferous rose bushes/gardens of Paestum (maybe remontant);
    • 25% = biferous rose bushes of Paestum (remontant);
    • 25% = biferous rose gardens of Paestum (non-remontant);

From this I conclude that there is only 25% chances that the rosebushes were actually biferous and 75% that they were once-blooming. If you really think about it, why would Vergil introduce arcane meanings in such a mundane unimportant passage, padding almost, stuff he could, and did, improvise at the drop of a rose chaplet. The obvious explanation is probably right, he meant the legendary fertility of the whole region around Paestum. Alluding subtly to Theophrastus while he was at it; translating the Greek diphoros to bifer, just tricky enough, not too obvious, so his less literate, wealthy friends/patrons might catch the allusion and feel good.

MARTIAL alias Marcus Valerius Martialis (c. 40 AD- c.104 AD) a poet born in Spain but very high-flying among the literary Roman 'chariot-set' at the time of emperors Titus and Domitian, was particularly fond of roses. About sixty years after Vergil, he used the very same expression9: "... nec bifero cessura rosaria Paesto" when comparing to those of Paestum the roses of his own Spanish garden (in Bilbilis, site near Catalayud, province of Zaragossa). But since he didn't elaborate, we are no better off. Without more evidence, both theories still have equal value.

Using only these two texts themselves, we cannot conclude with any certainty that the roses of Paestum were or were not remontant. But if Paestan roses did in fact rebloom, they would have been quite a rarity in the horticulture of Antiquity and as such must have left some trace.

I have looked around in the rest of the literature of Rome from earliest to medieval times. I had started several years ago, but the digitalization of old books has progressed quickly and greatly facilitates research: the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the Latin Library and Perseus Project are very helpful. Of all the Latin texts I prospected, I will quote only the most relevant, and those that use at least two of the three words: rose, bifer and Paestum. Rose is by far the most common, being used in many different ways. Paestum and bifer are both quite rare: Paestum because it was a small and undistinguished, if ancient, town; bifer because it was a very rare quality, and probably for other reasons which we will see later. Of the 136 writers of antiquity I investigated, 30% spoke of roses, but only 8% spoke of Paestum and only 6% used the word bifer. Only three writers use all three and of these one can be dismissed as he is using bifer in relation to something else than roses. Among the more recent Latin literature, I looked at 144, only 20% mention roses and not one mentions either bifer or Paestum. Here is an overview of the results:

The case for remontancy is founded on three witnesses: I have found two10 to support the remontancy of roses in general.

  • THEOPHRASTUS of Eresos (c.371-c.287 AC) the great Greek philosopher reported a rumour of the remontancy of roses, trees and other plants as well as twice-bearing sheep at Dium in Macedonia11.
  • ATHENAEUS of Naucratis (fl. 2nd c. AD) in the surviving portion of his great encyclopaedic scrapbook quoted, while doubting their authenticity, the now lost Annals of Samos, in which Aethlius had written that roses, apples and grapes were twice-bearing in Samos12.

The third witness is apparently responsible for the particular reputation of the Roses of Paestum:

  • SERVIUS Maurus Honoratus was a grammarian in the 3rd or 4th century AD about whom nothing is known. In his commentary on Vergil he says in a footnote about Paestum13: "Pestum oppidum est Calabriae: in quo uno anno bis nascunt rosae." which means: Paestum is a town in Calabria: where roses are born (bloom) twice in one year.
Everyone else who mentions the supposed biferousness of the Paestan roses refers to Vergil, or rather to Servius' interpretation of Vergil without mentionning Servius whose commentary was, and is, ubiquitous in Vergilian literature.

You will notice that of the preceding three testimonials, the first two are unverifiable hearsay. Servius, the third witness, proposes an opinion based on a grammatical interpretation, the quality of which is thus treated in the 1911 edition of Encyclopedia Brittanica: "In the grammatical interpretation of his author's language, Servius does not rise above the stiff and overwrought subtleties of his time; while his etymologies, as is natural, violate every law of sound and sense." Servius' opinion is further undermined by that of another, later, commentator, E. K. F. Wunderlich14 who wrote: "biferum autem propter egregiam coeli clementiam, et ad Homeri imitationem de Alcinoi hortis. Od. n, 117-121" which means: biferous may only refer to the extraodinary mildness of the climate, in imitation of Homer's garden of AlcinoĆ¼s.

The case against remontancy is founded on everyone else: some writers which you might expect to mention twice-bearing roses don't, and others, who mention Paestan roses, don't mention remontancy:

  • VARRO, Marcus Terentius (116-26 AC) wrote of twice-bearing apples and grapes, but not of roses15.
  • PROPERTIUS, Sextus Aurelius (52AC-15 AC) used the roses of Paestum as symbols of the transitory nature of beauty: "Vidi ego odorati victura rosaria Paesti sub matutino cocta jacere Noto." 16 = I have seen with my own eyes the newly opened roses of fragrant Paestum, dried up by the South wind at the end of the morning."
  • OVID alias Publius Ovidius Naso (43AC-17AD) one of Vergil's contemporaries, wrote of flowers often, roses among them; he even mentions the rose gardens of Paestum in the phrase: "tepidique rosaria Paesti" 17that, although it is out of the same mold as Vergil's, is nevertheless always translated as: the rose gardens of mild Paestum; and therefore without recourse to hypallage. He also wrote that Paestan roses were more fragrant at least than marigolds, Caltha sp. 18
  • PLINY THE ELDER alias Caius Plinius Secundus (23-79 AD) writes of the roses of 9 different towns, addresses remontancy several times, but mentions neither Paestum nor reblooming roses19.
  • PLINY THE YOUNGER alias Caius Caecilius Plinius Secundus 61-115 AD), nephew of the Elder, writes of roses in his garden, but doesn't mention remontancy20.
  • COLUMELLA, L. Junius Moderatus (fl. 1rst c. AD) teaches how to grow roses, even mentions the roses of Paestum, but not their supposed remontancy21.
  • LUCIANUS alias Lucian of Samosate (c.120- c.200 AD) in the well known story of the Golden Ass, roses play an essential part, but there is no hint of remontancy or of Paestum. No more than in Metamorphoses, vel Asinus aureus by his colleague Apulaeius Madaurensis. A story both borrowed from Lucius of Patras by the way.
  • SUETONIUS Tranquillus, C. (fl. 2nd c. AD) explains that emperor Augustus liked to eat special biferous figs22, no mention of roses or of Paestum.
  • FLORUS, L. Annaeus (fl. 2nd c. AD) writes of Campania where Spring blooms twice23, but no roses or Paestum.
  • AUSONIUS, Decimus Magnus (309-c.394 AD) gives the roses of Paestum as an example of fragility and beauty24, like Propertius before him.

Among these few writers, each in his domain, most spoke of roses, several used the word biferous, or Paestum; but not one wrote clearly that the roses of Paestum bloomed twice in the year; many used them as symbols of transience, fugacity. If these Paestan roses had really been biferous, would not everyone have written odes to such precious, extraodinary plants? Would a late-blooming grammarian have been the only one to discover their excellence? And knowing how easily roses are propagated (an essential quality for mass production of petals), wouldn't they have been disseminated and planted throughout the empire, like the grapevine and the fig?

We know that roses were grown at Paestum; we can speculate that the skillful Paestan gardeners succeeded in getting two seasons of bloom from their fields, or twice the usual amount of flowers; but, so far, I have found nothing that would allow me to conclude that these roses, anymore than those of Capua, Naples or Praeneste, were biferous or remontant.


1. Ascanius was also known as Iulus from which the family name Julius was supposed to be derived. This godly descent was always taken with a grain of salt even then, as any notable family would have a tendency to discover godly, or at least heroic, antecedents once it reached a sufficiently exhalted level in society. This type of exaggerated or invented genealogy continued popular until not so long ago among the nobility of Europe and the snobility of the Americas as the still flourishing trade in spurious heraldic arms and the quantity of 'courtesy' titles attest.
2. PLINIUS Secundus, Caius (in Naturalis Historia, book XIII-5).
3. BRUN, Jean-Pierre (-) Une Parfumerie romaine sur le forum de Paestum, @ Most interesting article about a perfumery boutique/atelier in Paestum. He has also published an article, The Production of Perfumes in Antiquity, in American Journal of Archaeology 104 (2) p. 277-308, which I haven't seen but is on my list of must read.
4. Homer (8th or 7th century AC) Odyssey, book VII; lines 117-121.
5. PLINIUS Secundus, Caius (in Naturalis Historia, book XVI-61.
6. Bible: Matthew 21:18-19; Mark 11:13-14. In which Jesus was so peeved at not finding fruit in a leafy fig tree he killed it with one word. Not one of his finer moments.
7. Georgicon : Greek geo = earth, soil + argon = work, labour.
8. It does not work very well in English where the relative position of words replaces case.
9. Epigrams, book XII, epig. XXXI.
10.These two are Greeks not Romans, but would have been known to educated Romans of their period and later.
11. In Causis Plantarum, book I, chap.13.11 and 14.1.
12. In Deipnosophistae, book XIV, chap. 654.
13. In Publii Virgilii Maronis Opera, Georgicorum, lib. IV, lin. 119. In almost all editions of Virgil.
14. In the1822 Leipsig edition of P. Virgilii Maronis Opera.
15. In Rerum Rusticarum de Agri Cultura, book I, chap.7.
16. In Elegiae, book IV, eleg. V., Lena Acanthis, lin. 59-60.
17. In Metamorphoses, book XV, lin. 708.
18. In The Pontics, book II, in the very sad letter IV, to his friend Atticus, line 28.
19. In Historia Naturalis: book XIII, chap. 2 and 6; book XXI especially.
20. In Epistulae, book V, epist. VI: a letter to his friend Domitius Apollinaris.
21. In De Re Rustica, book X, verse 37.
22. In De Vita Caesareum, book II, chap. 76.
23. In Epitome de Rerum Romanorum, book I, chap. 16.
24. In De rosis nascentibus: vers 11 et seq.