Understanding crowns in Roman culture. How would a first century era reader understand the crowns mentioned in the New Testament?

Most immediately associate crowns with royalty.  Images of rulers with lavish crowns adorning their heads fill our modern fairy tales.  Recent history affirms that rulers had elaborate crowns during the middle ages, many passed down to current generations.  Google "the Imperial Crown of The Holy Roman Empire" to see a great example of these extravagant crowns.  Designers modeled these loosely after more modest crowns worn by early Christian Emperors of the Byzantine Empire. 

This study needs to look earlier than these examples. When studying the Bible, it's important no one superimposes later understandings onto an earlier text. This investigation concerns the Roman world in Jesus' day.

It would equally be wrong to assume earlier uses of the word are identical in Roman times. Both history and the Old Testament show that early kings wore crowns. This includes the nation of Israel, for example Saul (2 Samuel 1:10) & Absalom (2 Samuel 14:24), and pagan nations too (2 Samuel 12:30; Esther 1:11). The earliest biblical reference had nothing to do with kings. God wanted his High Priest to wear a crown (Exodus 29:6, 39:30, Leviticus 8:9)

Jewish readers in the first century would be aware of the priestly crown and, of course, crowns used by early kings. It is possible for New Testament references to draw on the Old Testament, especially when the primary audience was Jewish. General audiences would have less biblical knowledge to draw on, leaving common Roman practice as the primary source of understanding for Gentiles.

Rome's use of crowns was unique in that far more than kings could receive and wear crowns. Some Roman uses likely originated with Greek practices and mythology.  Apollo, a god worshiped by both the Greeks and Romans, wore a laurel wreath on his head.

Competitor's Crowns

The ancient Greeks awarded wreaths of sacred olive leaves to victors in athletic and poetic competitions. The Greek name for these victory crowns was Kotinos.  Not surprisingly, later Roman crowns first looked like these laurel wreaths. Unlike more modern crowns, most were not complete rings rather horseshoe shaped.

Competition was fierce for these coveted competitor's crowns. The epitaph of an Alexandrian boxer named Agathos Daimon, found on a funeral monument at Olympia in Greece, reads:

Here he died boxing in the stadium having prayed to Zeus for a wreath or death. Age 35. Farewell.

Widespread knowledge of the Greek Olympic Games assured everyone in the Roman world would have been aware of Greek practice. Traced back to 776 B.C., these games dedicated to the Olympian gods continued for nearly 12 centuries. The Emperor Theodosius banned the games with all pagan cults in 393 A.D.

The Greek word for crown, as used in the Bible, is Stephanos. Rome used both Greek and Latin, the latter especially for military purposes.  The Latin equivalent to Stephanos is Corona. 

Beyond competitive crowns, such as those from the Olympic Games, there was widespread public knowledge of five Roman military crowns:

Soldier's Crowns

Corona Civica

The oldest and most noteworthy Roman crown is the corona civica. This civic crown commemorated someone saving the life of a fellow citizen (or saving the life of a Roman soldier in battle). This state award included the rescued individual personally fashioning the crown for their savior out of oak leaves. Once gained, the recipient could wear this crown indefinitely. The state granted freedom from all public burdens to the recipient and his father and grandfather.

In 79 B.C. Julius Caesar, on the staff of a military legate, received the civic crown for saving the life of a citizen in battle.  In 27 B.C. Octavian became Caesar Augustus and emperor of Rome.  Abandoning earlier practice, Caesar Augustus granted himself this civic crown.  He claimed he had saved the lives of all Romans (in 31 B.C.), through his victory in the civil war ending with the battle of Actium.  Later emperors continued wearing it until diadems, or more traditional crowns, became more of the standard from Diocletian onward (around 284 A.D.).

Corona Obsidionalis (or Corona Graminea or Graminea Obsidionalis)

An individual rescuing an army garrison trapped under siege or blockade could receive the corona obsidionalis, or siege crown.  A crown of twisted grasses, weeds, wheat, flowers and other field plants, like the corona civica it had no intrinsic value. It came with great prestige associated with a rare decoration.  Pliny the Elder (lived circa 23-79 A.D.) speaks of it:

"But as for the crown of grass, it was never conferred except at a crisis of extreme desperation, never voted except by the acclamation of the whole army, and never to anyone but to him who had been its preserver. Other crowns were awarded by the generals to the soldiers, this alone by the soldiers, and to the general. This crown is known also as the "obsidional" crown, from the circumstance of a beleaguered army being delivered, and so preserved from fearful disaster. If we are to regard as a glorious and a hallowed reward the civic crown, presented for preserving the life of a single citizen, and him, perhaps, of the very humblest rank, what, pray, ought to be thought of a whole army being saved, and indebted for its preservation to the valor of a single individual?"

Corona Muralis

The gold corona muralis crown belonged to the first man over an enemy wall.  Awarded by his commander, it recognized a dangerous act needing both courage and skill in combat. Small replicas of turrets topped this crown. 

Corona Vallaria (sometimes Corona Castrensis)

The corona vallaris belonged to the first soldier over the enemy ramparts, the vallum, forcing entry into the enemy's camp.  This golden rampart crown was similar to the corona muralis yet decorated with small replicas of palisades.

Corona Navalis (sometimes Corona Rostrata)

The corona navalis, the naval crown, was a gold crown topped with small replicas of the prows of ships. This award was for the first man who boarded an enemy ship during a naval engagement (and occasionally to a commander who achieved a great naval victory, such as destroying an entire naval fleet).

Crowns of gods, emperors and military commanders

Emperors or military commanders wore crowns during parades in Rome. Most under Roman rule would never personally see an Emperor, let alone these spectacles in the capital city, resulting in less public awareness of these crowns.

Corona Radiata

This crown belonged to gods and deified heroes.  Believing themselves to be gods, a few emperors wore the Corona Radiata as a token of their own divinity, an increasing practice in the second century. (They appear on the coins of Caligula, Trajan and Marcus Aurelius). 

The (3) Triumphs

The state awarded Triumphs to great Romans as the summit of military glory.  Every Roman general ambitiously wanted a Triumph. The general would wear this award during a parade in his honor in the capital city.

Corona Triumphalis (or Laurea Insignis or Insignis Corona Triumphalis)

The one responsible for a great military victory could receive an award of the Corona Triumphalis, a crown of laurel or bay leaves.  This Triumph was the peak of military prestige and honor.

Provinciales (or Aurum Coronarium) 

Following the decree of a Provinciales Triumph, the commander would receive a gold crown or wreath from the provinces where the battles took place. It was no longer called a Provinciales following its arrival; the formal presentation featured the same item as the Aurum Coronarium.

Memento Mori

A victorious general could receive a golden crown adorned with jewels. Too large to wear, a public officer held it over the head of the general during his triumphal parade.  The public officer spoke the words "Memento Mori" to the recipient, which translates as "Remember that you are mortal."

Minor military crowns

Those who achieved minor victories might receive an Ovation crown, inferior to a Triumph. Those wanting higher esteem and honor viewed an Ovation as a poor substitute for a Triumph.  

The (2) Ovations

Corona Ovalis

The Corona Ovalis was a crown of myrtle (a shrub sacred to Venus).  Only military commanders could receive this award.

Corona Oleagina

The Corona Oleagina was an olive leaf crown awarded to both soldiers and their immediate commanders.  It recognized their actions in helping to secure a Triumph for their top commander.

Celebratory or Commemorative Crowns

There were several crowns used to celebrate special occasions, or as an emblem of office, as opposed to being rewards for bravery and excellence. 

Corona Sacerdotalis

At sacrifices, priests of the gods (sacerdotes) wore crowns of olive leaves, and occasionally gold, as a symbol of peace.

Corona Sepulchralis (or Corona Funebris)

Mourners at funerals wore crowns of leaves and flowers. On occasion, the same crowns became tomb decorations.

Corona Convivialis

Private parties were common during Roman religious festivals. Participants at these celebrations wore the Corona Convivialis, a crown of assorted flowers or shrubs including roses, myrtle, violets, ivy and even parsley.  

Corona Nuptialis 

The Corona Nuptialis is a bridal wreath or crown worn by both the bride and groom, made of flowers picked by the bride.  The bride wore her crown under her flammeum, an enveloping deep yellow bridal veil which left her face uncovered.  (The deep yellow color of the flammeum mimicked the flame of a candle).

Corona Natalitia 

This crown or wreath celebrated the birth of a child.  Not worn, the family suspended it over the main entrance door of the home.  A crown of olive leaves represented a male baby, wool for a female. 

Biblical Summary

The existence of three specific awards for spearheading assaults over enemy defenses shows how important these actions were in their warfare, and how much value the Romans placed on encouraging such deeds of bravery.

Unlike modern views associating crowns with power and authority, Roman crowns did not necessarily come with power or authority.  However, some having power and authority did wear them.  

As you consider New Testament passages, ask yourself what crown the New Testament readers would have likened each reference to.  Beginning with the gospels:

Matthew 27:29 and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" (ESV)

Mark 15:17 And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. (ESV)

John 19:2 And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. (ESV)

John 19:5 So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, "Behold the man!" (ESV)

Pilate and the soldiers certainly mocked Jesus' claim to be a king through the robe they put on Him.  Of course, the multi-language inscription nailed above Jesus on the cross did the same.  Jews might have viewed the crown of thorns in similar manner, yet the crown came from Romans soldiers. It is unlikely the soldiers used a crown to represent a king.

A crown made of field-gathered items, yet an item that would harm, maliciously mimicked the highest soldier's crown, the Corona Civica, and perhaps the Corona Obsidionalis. This crown of thorns mocked Jesus' ability to save. The equivalent Roman soldier's crown commemorated saving a live or lives. Here the soldiers mocked Jesus' ability to save a life (his own). Not coincidently, a few verses later, Matthew even records one of the ways people verbally mocked Jesus on the cross...

Matthew 27:42a "He saved others; he cannot save himself..."  (ESV)

The Apostle Paul's first two references to crowns each suggest something similar to a celebratory crown.

Philippians 4:1   Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.

1 Thessalonians 2:19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?

Paul's next reference is clearly to a competitor's crown.

2 Timothy 2:5 An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.

The next reference, later in 2 Timothy, is more ambiguous. This crown could allude to a competitor's crown or a soldier's crown.  Paul's earlier context, speaking of a competitor's crown, prompts me to lean towards a similar allusion in the second instance.

2 Timothy 4:8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

Crown references in the book of Hebrews are all associated with Jesus.

Hebrews 2:7  You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor,

Hebrews 2:9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Crowns of glory and honor invoke ideas common to many Roman crowns, such as the Corona Civica or even a Triumph.

James similarly refers to a crown that comes following a time or testing or trial.  This crown might be equated to a soldier's crowns such the Corona Muralis, Corona Vallaria, or the Corona Navalis. 

James 1:12   Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

Peter's allusion to a fading crown matches a host of Roman crowns made from plants, including the Corona Civica. Spiritually speaking all earthly crowns will fade, including those made of gold.  Crowns given by God are unfading because they come from an incorruptible source.

1 Peter 5:4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

Churches in Asia Minor were the immediate recipients of the letters beginning the book of Revelation. As mainly Gentile churches, Roman understanding of crowns would be chief in their minds.

Revelation 2:10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.

Revelation 3:11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.

Revelation 4:4 Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads.

Revelation 4:10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,

By context, the crowns worn by the elders in Revelation 4 are the crown of life (first mentioned in Revelation 2:10). They received this gold crown (see Revelation 4:4) for faithfulness even to death, an act of faith and bravery. The three golden soldier's crowns best fit the imagery.  Military imagery remains in view to the end of the book. Descriptions of enemies and servants of Christ, plus Jesus himself, use terms suitable for military commanders.  Revelation shows a spiritual battle with only two sides, where believers serve under their supreme commander and Lord. All believers would gladly cast their crowns before Him, each recognizing that their life came from Him alone.   

Revelation 6:2 And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.

Revelation 9:7   In appearance the locusts were like horses prepared for battle: on their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces,

Revelation 14:14   Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand.

Article by Brent MacDonald, (c) 2016-2017
CC Discipleship Training Institute & Lion Tracks Ministries
As posted on
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