The centerpieces of ancient Roman townhouses, peristyle gardens were lush and vibrant with decorative plants. Here, you can read about ancient Roman homes, the flowers grown in them, and a recipe for rose wine you can try.
A photo I took of the rosatum in a glass after three weeks of steeping, with extra rose petals for show.
Enter the House of Menander in Pompeii, and you move into the atrium. Walking through this hall, past colorful Trojan War-themed frescoes adorning the walls and abandoned ancient bedrooms, offices, and sitting rooms, you notice a great doorway that opens into the outside. It isn’t the back door, though: it’s the peristylium. Girded by columns, this broad central courtyard was — and is — the heart of this Pompeiian house.
A number of ancient Roman homes (domi), in cities at least, follow a pattern very similar to this, where the house opens to a main garden. The great peristylium of the House of Menander (and those in other townhouses) evolved from the hortus, a household food garden. As Rome’s size and scope grew, it became less necessary for all food to be grown at home.
The Roman peristylium, inspired by Greek architecture with its colonnaded outer walkways, became largely decorative and added splashes of color to the hearts of republican-era houses. Rather than including just crops and herbs, the peristylium became a work of art for its owner, like the murals on the House of Menander’s walls.
Evergreens like cypress, yew, boxwood, and myrtle were planted and pruned inside the peristylium‘s cloisters, alongside fruit trees like the mulberry and the date palm. The ground was likewise covered with flowers; roses, lilies, narcissus, irises, violets, and poppies were popular choices.
We can imagine that these flowers were of course used to impress visitors to the garden. However, they weren’t just meant to beautify home gardens. Flowers also colorfully garnished dishes to dazzle dinner party guests — the emperor Elagabalus used flower petals at a banquet to deadly effect! And in some cases, they even wound up in wine.
In my reading, I found a recipe from the cookbook Apicius, giving instructions on how to infuse wine with roses:
Rosatum sic facies: folias rosarum, albo sublato, lino inseris ut sutilis facias, et vino quam plurimas infundes, ut septem diebus in vino sint. post septem dies rosam de vino tollis, et alias sutiles recentes similiter mittis, ut per dies septem in vino requiescant, et rosam eximis. similiter et tertio facies, et rosam eximis, et vinum colas, et, cum ad bibendum voles uti, addito melle rosatum conficies. sane custodito ut rosam a rore siccam et optimam mittas.
Rose wine is made this way: rose petals, with the lower white part removed, are sewn into a linen bag and immersed in wine for seven days. After seven days, extract the roses from the wine and add a sack of new petals, allowing them draw for another seven days. Do this again a third time, extract the roses, strain the wine, and when you wish to drink it, prepare honey for the rose wine. Take care so that only the best petals dry of dew are used.
The practice of soaking flowers, particularly rose petals, in liquids isn’t a one-off. Rose water, made by steaming rose petals, has been used for millennia as an aromatic drink and cooking ingredient. It probably originated in Persia, and continues to be used in Iran to this day. Rose water is consumed across the Middle East, southern Asia, and Europe, too.
Certainly ancient cooks and vintners who may have made ancient rosatum recognized the wonderful flavor roses imparted to the wine they sat in. But there could have been another reason for this culinary move. Pliny the Elder writes in his work Naturalis historia (Natural History) that roses were used medicinally, in lotions, poultices and eye ointment, without any “noxious result.”
It seems possible, then, that steeping rose petals in wine was a way to ease the delivery of roses’ curative properties. Other plants were prepared in wine to use as medicine: rue and pennyroyal, which we’re familiar with, are two examples.
A photo of the Arcisate Treasure, an Italian cache of Roman silverware c. the first century BC (now in the British Museum). Shown is a pitcher, ladle, drinking bowl, and strainer — maybe used for rosatum!
Should you plan to sample some of this rosatum, I would encourage you to pick the roses yourself — they’re most aromatic this way. I conveniently have a rose bush in my backyard, so this worked out well. In a pinch, dried rose petals can work, but be sure to steer clear of roses from a florist or rose extract as substitutes. The former can contain chemicals you won’t want in your wine, and the latter evidently makes wine taste soapy (neither is good).
So supposing you’re able to get your paws on a rose bush (though that might not be a great idea), here’s my recipe for Roman rose wine to try out:
A bottle of dry white wine
1 1/2 cups of rose petals (I would suggest picking 1/2 cup each week)
Honey, to taste
Pour the wine into a large pitcher. Pluck the rose petals from the flowers and place them on a piece of cheesecloth. Tie the cheesecloth and submerge it in the wine, leaving to sit in the refrigerator for a week. After the week has passed, fish the sachet from the wine and replace with more fresh rose petals in new cheesecloth. Repeat this twice, so the wine steeps for a total of three weeks. Once it is done sitting, serve the wine with honey to taste (and optional rose petals for garnish).
Photos of the rose bush in my yard, the ingredients on the counter, a glass of the rosatum, and the peristylium of the House of Menander.
This recipe is straightforward — time is the only real limiting factor — and the final outcome was really nice. Since the wine was dry to begin with and didn’t get any sweeter from the roses, I would encourage adding honey. The wine had a subtle floral flavor (go figure!) that I enjoyed, but I almost think three weeks wasn’t enough time to get the proper flavor.
If you find yourself admiring fine flowers any time soon (maybe while sipping on this wine), take a moment to think of the delighted Roman dinner guests ambling through the peristylium of Pompeii’s House of Menander: folks who felt much as you do, just 2,000 years ago.