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Oak in the culture of the ancient Romans

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Coin showing emperor Galba with a corona civica on his head
Coin showing emperor Galba with a corona civica on his head | Author: Ursus | Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

On the occasion of the ongoing Olympic Games, it is worth mentioning that the plant that is directly associated with the everyday life of ancient Romans is the noble laurel (Laurus nobilis). The image of the winner of the Olympics is a figure of a man with a proudly raised head, on which there is a laurel wreath, decorated with laurel leaves. What if our image was not true and instead of the characteristic lanceolate leaves we would see pinnate oak leaves adorning his temple?

Oak is a common plant throughout Europe and Asia. It occupies very diverse habitats – from semi-deserts to subtropical forests. From antiquity, the oak was considered a sacred tree, the king of plants on earth and the seat of the supreme deities – Zeus and Jupiter. Already among the Slavs, oaks were treated as a kind of temples, sheltered by statues of idols – why would it be different with the Romans?

Rome handed out the most deserving corona civica, i.e. a wreath of oak leaves, which is also one of the highest military decorations. Moreover, on many ancient coins the images of emperors are decorated with characteristic oak leaves, and not bay leaves, as is commonly believed.

These trees were also a valuable raw material not only for making tools or construction sites, but also provided acorns for feed for pigs. Oak staves could be a raw material and the subject of export trade – after all, oak was commonly used in making wine barrels.

Author: Konrad Pietrucha
  • Group work: Oxford – Wielka Historia Świata. Cywilizacje Europy, Poznań 2006.
  • Zygmunt Gloger, Encyklopedia Staropolska, Warszawa 1900.

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