Article by Anthony Rich, Jun. B.A. of Caius College, Cambridge
on pp359‑363 of
William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.
CORO′NA (στέφανος), a crown, that is, a circular ornament of metal, leaves, or flowers, worn by the ancients round the head or neck, and used as a festive as well as funeral decoration, and as a reward of talent, military, or naval prowess, and civil worth. It includes the synonymes of the species, for which it is often used absolutely, στεφάνη, στέφος, στεφάνωμα, corolla, sertum, a garland or wreath.
Judging from Homer’s silence, it does not appear to have been adopted amongst the Greeks of the heroic ages as a reward of merit, nor as a festive decoration; for it is not mentioned amongst the luxuries of the delicate Phaeacians, nor of the suitors. But a golden crown decorates the head of Venus in the hymn to that goddess (1 and 7).
Its first introduction as an honorary reward is attributable to the athletic games, in some of which it was bestowed as a prize upon the victor (Plin. H. N. XV.39; Pindar. Olymp.IV.36), from whence it was adopted in the Roman circus. It was the only one contended for by the Spartans in their gymnastic contests, and was worn by them when going to battle.
The Romans refined upon the practice of the Greeks, and invented a great variety of crowns formed of different materials, each with a separate appellation and appropriated to a particular purpose. We proceed to enumerate these and their properties, including in the same detail an account of the corresponding ones, where any, in Greece.
I. Corona Obsidionalis. Among the honorary crowns bestowed by the Romans for military achievements, the most difficult of attainment, and the one which conferred the highest honour, was the corona obsidionalis, presented by a beleaguered army after its liberation to the general who broke up the siege. It was made of grass, or weeds and wild flowers (Plin. H. N. XXII.7), thence called corona graminea (Plin. H. N. XXII.4), and graminea obsidionalis (Liv. II.37), gathered from the spot on which the beleaguered army had been enclosed (Plin. l.c.; Aul. Gell. V.6; Festus, s.v. Obsidionalis); in allusion to a custom of the early ages, in which the vanquished party in a contest of strength or agility plucked a handful of grass from the meadow where the struggle took place, and gave it to his opponent as a token of victory (Aul. Gell. V.6; Plin. H. N. XXII.4; Festus, s.v. Obsidionalis; Serv. ad Virg. Aen. VIII.128). A list of the few Romans who gained this honour is given by Pliny (H. N. XXII.4, 5). A representation of the corona graminea is introduced in the annexed woodcut ( Guichard, De Antiquis Triumphis, p268; compare Hardouin, ad Plin. H.N. X.68).
[image ALT: A woodcut showing a wreath made of a plant with small leaves. It is a representation of the corona obsidionalis or siege crown of the ancient Romans.]
The engraving was recut for Smith’s Dictionary: see the original.
II. Corona Civica, the second in honour and importance (Plin. H. N. XVI.3), was presented to the soldier who had preserved the life of a Roman soldier in battle (Aul. Gell. V.6), and therefore accompanied with the inscription Ob civem servatum (Senec. Clem. I.26). It was originally made of the ilex, afterwards of the aesculus, and finally of the quercus (Plin. H. N. XVI.5), three different sorts of oak, the reason for which choice is explained by Plutarch (Quaest. Rom. p151, ed. Reisk.). It is represented in the next woodcut.
[image ALT: A woodcut showing a wreath looking much like a Christmas wreath. It is a representation of the corona civica or civic crown of the ancient Romans.]
As the possession of this crown was so high an honour, its attainment was restricted by very severe regulations (Plin. H. N. XVI.5), so that the following combinations must have been satisfied before a claim was allowed:— To have preserved the life of a Roman citizen in battle, slain his opponent, and maintained the ground on which the action took place. The testimony of a third party was not admissible; the person rescued must himself proclaim the fact, which increased the difficulty of attainment, as the Roman soldier was commonly unwilling to acknowledge his obligation to the prowess of a comrade, and to show
him that deference which he would be compelled to pay to his preserver if the claim were established (Cic. Pro Planc. 30). Originally, therefore, the corona civica was presented by the rescued soldier (Aul. Gell. V.6; Polyb. VI.39º), after the claim had been thoroughly investigated by the tribune who compelled a reluctant party to come forward and give his evidence (Polyb. l.c.); but under the empire, when the prince was the fountain from whence all honours emanated, the civic crown was no longer received from the hands of the person whose preservation it rewarded, but from the prince himself, or his delegate (Tacit. Ann. XV.12; cf. III.2).
The preservation of the life of an ally, even though he were a king, would not confer a sufficient title for the civic crown. When once obtained, it might always be worn. The soldier who had acquired it, had a place reserved next to the senate at all the public spectacles; and they, as well as the rest of the company, rose up upon his entrance. He was freed from all public burthens, as were also his father, and his paternal grandfather; and the person who owed his life to him was bound, ever after, to cherish his preserver as a parent, and afford him all such offices as were due from a son to his father (Polyb. VI.39;ºCic. Pro Planc. 30; Plin. H. N. XVI.5; Aul. Gell. V.6).
A few of the principal persons that gained this reward, are enumerated in the following passages:— Plin. H. N. VII.29, Plin. H. N. XVI.5; Liv. VI.20; X.46. L. Gellius Publicola proposed to confer it upon Cicero for having detected and crushed the conspiracy of Catiline (Aul. Gell. V.6); and among the honours bestowed upon Augustus by the senate, it was decreed that a civic crown should be suspended from the top of his house (Dion Cass. LIII.16; Val. Max. II.8.fin.; Ov. Fast. I.614; IV.953, Trist. III.1.36;º Senec. Clem. I.26; Suet. Cal. 19, cf. Claud. 17, Tib. 26); hence a crown of oak leaves, with the inscription ob cives servatos, is frequently seen on the reverse of the Augustan medals, as also on those of Galba, Vitellius, Vespasian, Trajan, &c., showing that they likewise assumed to themselves a similar honour.
III. Corona Navalis or Rostrata, called also Classica (Vell. Pat. II.81). It is difficult to determine whether these were two distinct crowns, or only two denominations for the same one. Virgil (Aen. VIII.684) unites both terms in one sentence, “Tempora navali fulgent rostrata corona.” But it seems probable that the former, besides being a generic term, was inferior in dignity to the latter, and given to the sailor who first boarded an enemy’s ship(Plin. H. N. XVI.3); whereas the latter was given to a commander who destroyed the whole fleet, or gained any very signal victory. M. Agrippa is said to have been the first person who received the honour of a naval crown, which was conferred upon him on his conquest of Sex. Pompeius in B.C. 36; though, according to other authorities, M. Varro was the first who obtained it from Pompeius Magnus (cf. Vell. Pat. l.c.; Liv. Epit. 129; Dion Cass. XLIX.14; Aul. Gell. V.6; Senec. De Ben. III.32; Festus, s.v. Navalis Corona; Plin. H. N. VIII.31,º Plin. H. N. XVI.4; Suet. Claud. 17). At all events, they were both made of gold; and one at least (rostrata) decorated with the beaks of ships like the rostra in the forum (Plin. H. N. XVI.4), as seen in a medal of Agrippa; the other (navalis), with a representation of the entire bow, as shown in the subjoined woodcut (Guichard, De Antiq. Triumph. p267).
[image ALT: A woodcut showing a sort of crown decorated with the beaks of ships. It is a representation of the corona navalis or naval crown of the ancient Romans.]
The engraving was recut for Smith’s Dictionary: see the original.
The Athenians likewise bestowed golden crowns for naval services; sometimes upon the person who got his trireme first equipped, and at others upon the captain who had his vessel in the best order (Dem. De Coron. Praef Nav. pp276, 279, ed. Schaeffer).
IV. Corona Muralis. The first man who scaled the wall of a besieged city was presented by his commander with a mural crown (Aul. Gell. V.6.4; Liv. XXVI.4). It was made of gold, and decorated with turrets (muri pinnis, Aul. Gell. l.c.), as represented in the next woodcut (Guichard, De Antiq. Triumph. p265); and being one of the highest orders of military decorations, was not awarded to a claimant until after a strict investigation (Liv. l.c.; cf. Suet. Aug. 25).
[image ALT: A woodcut showing a sort of crown composed of representations of brick or stone turrets. It is the corona muralis or mural crown of the ancient Romans.]
The engraving was recut for Smith’s Dictionary: see the original.
Cybele is always represented with this crown upon her head (Lucret. II.607, 610;Ov. Fast. IV.219; cf. Virg. Aen. X.253, VI.786); but in the woodcut annexed (Caylus, Recueil d’Antiq. vol. V pl. 3) the form of the crown is very remarkable, for it includes the whole tower as well as the turrets, thus affording a curious specimen of the ancient style of fortification.
[image ALT: A woodcut showing part of a statue of a woman wearing a turreted crown. It is a representation of Cybele wearing the corona muralis or mural crown of the ancient Romans.]
V. Corona Castrensis or Vallaris. The first soldier who surmounted the vallum, and forced an entrance into the enemy’s camp, was, in like manner, presented with a golden crown, called corona castrensis or vallaris (Aul. Gell. V.6; cf. Val. Max. I.8 §6), which was ornamented
with the palisades (valli) used in forming an entrenchment, as represented in the annexed woodcut (Guichard, De Antiq. Triumph., p266).
[image ALT: A woodcut showing a sort of crown composed of representations of the stakes of a defensive palisade. It is the corona castrensis or palisade crown of the ancient Romans.]
The engraving was recut for Smith’s Dictionary: see the original.
VI. Corona Triumphalis. There were three sorts of triumphal crowns, the first of which was worn around the head of the commander during his triumph. It was made with laurel or bay leaves (Aul. Gell. V.6; Ovid. Pont. II.2, 81; Tibull. I.7.7), which plant is frequently met with on the ancient coins, both with the berries and without them. It was the latter kind, according to Pliny (H. N. XV.39), which was used in the triumph, as is shown in the annexed woodcut, from a medal which commemorates the Parthian triumph of Ventidius, the lieutenant of Antony. Being the most honourable of the three, it was termed laurea insignis (Liv. VII.13) and insignis corona triumphalis.
[image ALT: A woodcut showing a coin with a robed female figure holding a laurel wreath, representing the corona triumphalis or triumphal crown of the ancient Romans.]
The second one was of gold, often enriched with jewels, which being too large and massive to be worn, was held over the head of the general during his triumph, by a public officer (servus publicus, Juv. Sat. X.41). This crown, as well as the former one, was presented to the victorious general by his army.
The third kind, likewise of gold and great value, was sent as presents from the provinces to the commander, as soon as a triumph had been decreed to him (Plut. Aemil. Paul. 34), and therefore they were also termed provinciales (Tertull. De Coron. Mil. c13). In the early ages of the republic, these were gratuitous presents, but subsequently they were exacted as a tribute under the name of aurum coronarium, to which none were entitled but those to whom a triumph had been decreed. The custom of presenting golden crowns from the provinces to victorious generals was likewise in use among the Greeks, for they were profusely lavished upon Alexander after his conquest of Dareius (Athen. XII. p539A); and the Romans probably borrowed the custom from the Greeks. [Aurum Coronarium.]
VII. Corona Ovalis was another crown of less estimation, appropriated solely to commanders. It was given to those who merely deserved an ovation, which happened when the war was not duly declared, or was carried on against a very inferior force, or with persons not considered by the laws of nations as lawful enemies, such as slaves or pirates; or when the victory was obtained without danger, difficulty, or bloodshed (Aul. Gell. V.6; Festus, s.v. Ovalis Corona); on which account is was made of myrtle, the shrub sacred to Venus, “Quod non Martius, sed quasi Veneris quidam triumphus foret” (Aul. Gell. l.c.; Plut. Marcell. 22; cf. Plin. H. N. XV.39; Dionys. V.47). The myrtle crown is shown in the woodcut annexed, from a medal of Augustus Caesar.
[image ALT: A woodcut showing a coin with a patera, a lituus, and a simpulum surrounded by a myrtle wreath, representing the corona ovalis or ovation crown, made of myrtle, of the ancient Romans.]
VIII. CORONA OLEAGINA: This was likewise an honorary wreath, made of the olive leaf, and conferred upon the soldiers as well as their commanders. According to Gellius(V.6), it was given to any person or persons through whose instrumentality a triumph had been obtained, but when they were not personally present in the action. It is represented in the next woodcut, from a medal of Lepidus, and was conferred both by Augustus and the senate upon the soldiery on several occasions (Dion Cass. XLIX.14, XLVI.40).
[image ALT: A woodcut showing a coin with a cornucopia surrounded by an olive wreath: the corona oleagina or olive crown of the ancient Romans.]
Golden crowns, without any particular designation, were frequently presented out of compliment by one individual to another, and by a general to a soldier who had in any way distinguished himself (Liv. VII.10, 37, X.44, XXX.15).
The Greeks in general made but little use of crowns as rewards of valour in the earlier and better periods of their history, except as prizes in the athletic contests; but previous to the time of Alexander, crowns of gold were profusely distributed among the Athenians at least, for every trifling feat, whether civil, naval, or military (Aesch. c. Ctesiph.; Dem. De Coron. passim), which, though lavished without much discrimination as far as regards the character of the receiving
parties, were still subjected to certain legal restrictions in respect of the time, place, and mode in which they were conferred. They could not be presented but in the public assemblies, and with the consent, that is by the suffrage, of the people, or by the senators in their council, or by the tribes to their own members, or by the δημόται to members of their own δῆμος. According to the statement of Aeschines, the people could not lawfully present crowns in any place except in their assembly, nor the senators except in the senate-house; nor, according to the same authority, in the theatre, which is, however, denied by Demosthenes; nor at the public games, and if any crier there proclaimed the crowns he was subject to ἀτιμία. Neither could any person holding an office receive a crown whilst he was ὑπεύτηυνος, that is, before he had passed his accounts. But crowns were sometimes presented by foreign cities to particular citizens, which were termed στεφάνοι ξενικοις, coronae hospitales. This, however, could not be done until the ambassadors from those cities had obtained permission from the people, and the party for whom the honour was intended had undergone a public investigation, in which the whole course of his life was submitted to a strict inquiry (Aesch. Dem. ll. cc.).
We now proceed to the second class of crowns, which were emblematical and not honorary, at least to the person who wore them, and the adoption of which was not regulated by law, but custom. Of these there were also several kinds.
I. Corona Sacerdotalis, so called by Ammianus Marcellinus (XXIX.5 §6). It was worn by the priests (sacerdotes), with the exception of the pontifex Maximus and his ministers (camillus), as well as the bystanders, when officiating at the sacrifice. It does not appear to have been confined to any one material, but was sometimes made of olive (see the preceding woodcut; Stat. Theb. III.466), sometimes of gold (Prudent. Περὶ Στέφ. X.1011;Tertull. De Idol. 18), and sometimes of the ears of corn,º then termed corona spicea, which kind was the most ancient one amongst the Romans (Plin. H. N. XVIII.2), and was consecrated to Ceres (Hor. Carm. Sec. 30; Tibull. II.1.4, I.1.5), before whose temples it was customarily suspended (Tibull. I.1.16; cf. Apul. Met. VI. p110 Varior.). It was likewise regarded as an emblem of peace (Tibull. I.10.67), in which character it appears in the subjoined medal, which commemorates the conclusion of the civil war between Antony and D. Albinus Brutus.
[image ALT: A woodcut showing a coin with a wreath of wheat, representing the corona sacerdotalis or priestly crown of the ancient Romans.]
II. Corona Funebris and Sepulchralis. The Greeks first set the example of crowing the dead with chaplets of leaves and flowers (Eur. Phoen. 1647; Schol. ad loc.), which was imitated by the Romans. It was also provided by a law of the Twelve Tables, that any person who had acquired a crown might have it placed upon his head when carried out in the funeral procession (Cic. De Leg. II.24; Plin. H. N. XXI.5). Garlands of flowers were also placed upon the bier, or scattered from the windows under which the procession passed (Plin. H. N. XXI.7; Dionys. XI.39), or entwined about the cinerary urn (Plut.Marcell. 30, Demetr. 53), or as a decoration to the tomb (Plin. H. N. XXI.3; Ovid. Trist.III.2.82; Tibull. II.4.48). In Greece these crowns were commonly made of parsley (σέλινον) (Suidas, s.v.; Plut. Timol. 26).
III. Corona Convivialis. The use of chaplets at festive entertainments sprung likewise from Greece, and owe their origin to the practice of tying a woollen fillet tight round the head, for the purpose of mitigating the effects of intoxication (cf. Plaut. Amph. III.4.16). But as luxury increased they were made of various flowers or shrubs, such as were supposed to prevent intoxication; of roses (which were the choicest), violets, myrtle, ivy, philyra, and even parsley (Hor. Carm. II.7.24, et alibi). The Romans were not allowed to wear these crowns in public, “in usu promiscuo,” which was contrary to the practice of the Greeks, and those who attempted to do so were punished with imprisonment (Plin. H. N. XXI.6; cf. Hor. Sat. II.3.256; Val. Max. VI.9 ext.1).
IV. Corona Nuptialis. The bridal wreath (στέφος γαμήλιον, Bion. Idyll. I.88) was also of Greek origin, among whom it was made of flowers plucked by the bride herself, and not bought, which was of ill omen. Among the Romans it was made of verbena, also gathered by the bride herself, and worn under the flammeum (Festus, s.v. Corolla) with which the bride was always enveloped (Catull. LXI.6.8; Cic. De Orat. III.58). The bridegroom also wore a chaplet (Plaut. Cas. IV.1.9). The doors of his house were likewise decorated with garlands (Catull. lxiv.294; Juv. Sat. VI.51, 227), and also the bridal couch.
V. Corona Natalitia, the chaplet suspended over the door of the vestibule, both in the houses of Athens and Rome, in which a child was born (Juv. Sat. IX.85; Meursius, Attic. Lect. IV.10). At Athens, when the infant was male, the crown was made of olive; when female, of wool (Hesych. s.v. Στέφανος); at Rome it was of laurel, ivy, or parsley (Bartholin. De Puerp. p127).
Besides the crowns enumerated, there were a few others of specific denominations, which received their names either from the materials of which, or the manner in which, they were composed. These were —
I. Corona Longa (Cic. De Leg. II.24;º Ovid, Fast. IV.738), commonly thought to resemble what we call festoons, and as such seem to have been chiefly used to decorate tombs, curule chairs, triumphal cars, houses, &c. But the word must have had a more precise meaning, and was probably called longa from its greater size, meant a circular string of anything, like the “rosary” used by the lower orders in Catholic countries to reckon up their prayers, which in Italy is still called la corona, doubtless tracing its origin to the corona longa of their heathen ancestors, to which description it answers exactly.
II. Corona Etrusca, a golden crown made to imitate the crown of oak leaves, studded with gems, and decorated with ribbons (lemnisci) or
ties of gold (Plin. H. N. XXI.4,Plin. H. N. XXXIII.4). Any crown fastened with these ribbons, whether real or artificially represented, was also termed corona lemniscata, a specimen of which is given by Caylus (Recueil d’Antiq. vol. V pl. 57 No. 3).
III. Corona Pactilis (Plin. H. N. XXI.8), probably the same as the corona plectilis of Plautus (Bacch. I.1.37), corona torta (Propert. III.20.18, ed. Kuinoel), plexa (Aul. Gell. XVIII.2), and as the στεφάνοι πλεκτοις and κυλιστὸς στεφάνος of the Greeks. It was made of flowers, shrubs, grass, ivy, wool, or any flexible material twisted together.
IV. Corona Sutilis, the crown used by the Salii at their festival. It was made in the first instance of any kind of flowers sowed together, instead of being wreathed with their laves and stalks; but subsequently it was confined to the rose only, the choicest leaves of which were selected from the whole flower, and sewed together by a skilful hand, so as to form an elegant chaplet (Plin. H. N. XXI.8).
V. Corona Tonsa or Tonsilis (Virg. Aen. V.556) was made of leaves only, of the olive or laurel for instance (Serv. ad Virg. Georg. III.21), and so called in distinction to nexilis and others, in which the whole branch was inserted.
VI. Corona Radiata (Stat. Theb. I.28) was the one given to the gods and deified heroes, and assumed by some of the emperors, as a token of their divinity. It may be seen on the coins of Trajan, Caligula, M. Aurelius, Valerius Probus, Theodosius, &c., and is given in the woodcut annexed, from a medal of M. Antonius.
[image ALT: A woodcut of a medallion of Mark Antony with the Greek legend ANTONIOS. It is an early example of the corona radiata or radiate crown of the ancient Romans.]
VII. The crown of vine leaves (pampinea) was appropriated to Bacchus (Hor. Carm.III.25.20, IV.8.33), and considered a symbol of ripeness approaching to decay; whence the Roman knight, when he saw Claudius with such a crown on his head, augured that he would not survive the autumn (Tacit. Ann. XI.4; cf. Artemidor. I.79).
A number of other crowns are mentioned by Pliny: to the victor at the Isthmian Games, originally a crown of parsley was awarded, then a pine crown (Plut. Timol. 26, Pliny, N. H. XV.9.36); a crown of peach leaves was awarded to victors at unspecified games by Alexander (NH XV.13.46); etc. In general, search Book 15 for coron.
For the expression sub corona vendere, applied to slaves, see this section of the article Servus.
More generally, the serious student really ought to read Books 15 and 21 of Pliny’s Natural History, which, to boot, are much more rewarding than Smith’s article, being full of interesting and even funny stori