Welcome to Rome Across Europe! We’ve been around, checking out different spots, investigating various events, discussing people of interest, and even getting in an interview or two.
But now it’s time to get back to the ladies. The last article for our female audience was Clothing of Roman Women.
Like most things here, the accounts were done by men, but it’s the thought that counts. Today we are checking out Cosmetics in Ancient Rome!
In Ancient Rome, cosmetics were initially used only for ritual purposes. Over time cosmetics then became part of daily life for women, especially prostitutes and the wealthy.
Some fashionable cosmetics, such as those imported from China, Germania and Gallia, were so expensive that the Lex Oppia tried to limit their use in 189 BC. These original designer brands spawned cheap knock-offs that were sold to poorer women (sounds familiar).
Working-class women could afford the cheaper varieties, but may not have had the time (or slaves) to apply the makeup as the use of makeup was a time-consuming affair because cosmetics needed to be reapplied several times a day due to weather conditions and poor composition.
Cosmetics were applied in private, usually in a small room where men did not enter. Cosmetae, female slaves that adorned their mistresses, were especially praised for their skills. They would beautify their mistresses with cultus, the Latin word encompassing makeup, perfume and jewelry.
Scent was also an important factor of beauty. Women who smelled good were presumed to be healthy.
Due to the stench of many of the ingredients used in cosmetics at the time, women often drenched themselves in copious amounts of perfume.
Christian women tended to avoid cosmetics with the belief that they should praise what God gave them. Some men, especially cross-dressers, did use cosmetics, although it was viewed as effeminate and improper.
All cosmetic ingredients were also used as medicines to treat various ailments. Lead, although known to be poisonous, was still widely used.
Roman attitudes towards cosmetics evolved with the expansion of the Empire. The assortment of cosmetics available increased as trade borders expanded and the resulting influx of wealth granted women additional slaves and time to spend on beauty.
Ideas of beauty from conquered peoples, especially the Greeks and Egyptians, greatly influenced the Roman paradigm of beauty. Unlike their eastern trading partners however, the Romans felt that only the “preservation of beauty” was acceptable and not “unnatural embellishment”.
Despite exaggerating their makeup to make it appear in the poor lighting of the time, women still wanted to appear natural as a sign of chastity.
Artificiality denoted a desire to be seductive, which made men question for which exactly a woman was trying to appear attractive. This was why men generally viewed the use of cosmetics as deceitful and manipulative.
Vestal Virgins did not don makeup because they were supposed to look holy and chaste. Postumia, one of the Vestal Virgins, defied this convention and consequently, was accused of incestum.
Of all the surviving texts mentioning cosmetics (all written by men, of course) Ovid is alone in his approval of their use. The consensus was that women who used cosmetics in excess were immoral and deceptive and were practicing a form of witchcraft.
Juvenal wrote that “a woman buys scents and lotions with adultery in mind” and mocked the need for cosmetics, believing that they were ineffective.
Use of perfumes was further looked down upon because they were thought to mask the smell of sex and alcohol. Seneca advised virtuous women to avoid cosmetics, as he believed their use to be a part of the decline of morality in Rome.
Stoics were also against the use of cosmetics, as they were opposed to the usage of all man-made luxuries. Although there are no surviving texts written by women expounding the attitude of women towards cosmetics, their widespread use indicates that women accepted and enjoyed these products.
Pure white skin, a demarcation of the leisure class, was the most important feature of Roman beauty. Native Roman women weren’t naturally fair-skinned and spent their time outside with oils on their faces, requiring whitening makeup to fit their model of beauty.
Women would often prepare their faces with beauty masks prior to applying makeup. One recipe called for the application of sweat from sheep’s wool (lanolin) to the face before bedtime, emitting a stench often criticized by men.
Other beauty mask ingredients included juice, seeds, horns, excrement, honey, plants, placenta, marrow, vinegar, bile, animal urine, sulfur, vinegar, eggs, myrrh, incense, frankincense, ground oyster shells, onions with poultry fat, white lead, and barley with vetch.
Bathing in asses’ milk was an expensive treatment that worked like a chemical peel and was used by wealthy women such as Cleopatra VII and Poppaea Sabina.
After their baths, they would then apply face whitener, such as chalk powder, white marl, crocodile dung and white lead. The Roman recognition that lead was, indeed, poisonous underscored their point of view on how important white skin was.
Other ingredients used in whiteners included beeswax and honey, olive oil, rosewater, saffron, animal fat, tin oxide, starch, arugula, cucumber, anise, mushrooms, rose leaves, poppies, myrrh, frankincense, almond oil, lily root, water parsnip and eggs.
The Romans disliked wrinkles, freckles, sunspots, skin flakes and blemishes. To soften wrinkles, they used swans’ fat, asses’ milk, gum Arabic and bean-meal. Sores and freckles were treated with the ashes of snails.
The Romans pasted soft leather patches of alum directly over blemishes to pretend that they were beauty marks. Criminals and freedmen used these leather patches, which came in both round and crescent shapes, to conceal brand marks.
With the exception of hair on her head, hair was considered to be unattractive on a Roman woman. Consequently, women removed hair by shaving, plucking, waxing using a resin paste, or scraping with a pumice stone. Older women faced ridicule for their depilation because it was viewed primarily as preparation for sex.
Although Romans esteemed pale faces, a light pink on the cheeks was considered to be attractive, signifying good health. Plutarch wrote that too much rouge made a woman look showy, while Martial mocked women, believing that rouge was in danger of melting in the sun.
Sources of rouge included Tyrian vermillion, rose and poppy petals, fucus, red chalk, alkanet and crocodile dung. Red ochre, a more expensive blush, was imported from Gallia Belgica and ground against a stone into powder.
Despite a widespread knowledge that cinnabar and red lead was poisonous, they were both still used extensively. Cheap alternatives included mulberry juice and wine dregs.
The ideal eyes, from the Roman perspective, were large with long eyelashes. Pliny the Elder wrote that eyelashes fell out from excessive sex and so it was especially important for women to keep their eyelashes long to prove their chastity.
Kohl was the main ingredient in eye makeup, and was composed of ashes or soot and antimony, with saffron usually added to improve the smell. Kohl was applied using a rounded stick, made of ivory, glass, bone, or wood, that would be dipped in either oil or water first, before being used to apply the kohl.
The use of kohl as makeup came from the east. In addition to kohl, charred rose petals and date stones could be used to darken the eyes.
Colored eye shadow was also applied by women to accentuate their eyes. Green eye shadow came from poisonous malachite, while blue came from azurite.
The Romans preferred dark eyebrows that almost met in the center. This effect was achieved by darkening their eyebrows with antimony or soot and then extending them inward. Plucking began in the 1st Century BC to tidy their overall look.
Although evidence for the usage of lipstick appears in earlier civilizations, no such evidence has materialized to indicate that the Romans ever colored their lips. The only evidence for painting nails comes from a red dye they imported that was produced from an Indian insect.
Generally only the wealthy cut their nails, as they used barbers to clip their nails short, following the contemporary practice for good hygiene.
Although oral hygiene was nowhere near today’s standards, white teeth were prized by the Romans. So this caused false teeth, made from bone, ivory and paste, to be popular items.
Ovid shed light on the way white teeth were viewed in society when he wrote the statement, “You can do yourself untold damage when you laugh if your teeth are black, too long or irregular.” The Romans also sweetened their breath with powder and baking soda.
Perfumes were very popular in Ancient Rome. In fact, they were so heavily used that Cicero claimed that, “The right scent for a woman is none at all.”
They came in liquid, solid and sticky forms and were often created in a maceration process with flowers or herbs and oil. The technology for distillation originated in the East, along with most of the imported ingredients.
The most prominent perfume market in Italy was Seplasia in Capua. Perfumes were rubbed on or poured onto the user and were often believed to be helpful against different ailments, such as fever and indigestion.
Different scents were appropriate for different occasions, as well as for men and women. Deodorants made from alum, iris and rose petals were common.
In addition to personal use, perfumes were used in food and as household aromatics.
Makeup usually came in tablet or cake form, sold at marketplaces. Wealthy women bought expensive makeup that came in elaborate containers made from gold, wood, glass or bone.
Kohl came in compartmentalized tubes that could store more than one color of eye makeup. Glassblowing, invented in the 1st Century AD in Syria, lowered the price of containers.
The most common color for glass was teal. Gladiator sweat and fats of the animals fighting in the arena were sold in souvenir pots outside of the games to improve complexion.
Mirrors in Ancient Rome were mostly hand mirrors made from polished metal, or mercury behind glass. Spending too much time in front of a mirror was thought to denote that a woman was weak in character.
Cosmetics, and especially their overuse, were commonly associated with prostitutes, both being regarded as immoral and seductive. The Latin word lenocinium actually meant both “prostitution” and “makeup”.
Women wearing too much makeup have been derogatorily called prostitutes, so this thought has held fast for a couple thousand years.
Due to their low income, prostitutes tended to use cheaper cosmetics, which emitted rather foul odors. The bad smell of cheap cosmetics, combined with the strong, exotic scents used to cover up the stench, made brothels smell especially rank.
The procuress of a brothel often used the promise of beauty to entice girls to enter the profession. As prostitutes aged, with their income dependent on their appearance, they opted for more copious amounts of makeup. Courtesans often received cosmetics and perfumes as gifts or partial payment.
Men are also known to have used cosmetics in Roman times, although it was frowned upon by society. Men seen carrying mirrors were viewed as effeminate, while those using face-whitening makeup were thought to be immoral because they were expected to be tanned from working outside.
Two of the more acceptable practices were the light use of certain perfumes and moderate hair removal. A man removing too much hair was viewed as effeminate, while removing too little made him seem unrefined.
The Romans found it especially inappropriate for an Emperor to be vain. This was especially the case with the Emperor Otho. The Emperor Elagabalus removed all of his body hair and often donned makeup, which caused the Romans much grief.
We hope you enjoyed learning about the origins and uses of cosmetics in Ancient Rome. Like most things Roman, some ingredients, applications or beauty ideals still hold true today.
Please come back again soon to see what we have in store. Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Cassius Dio. Roman History.
Ovid. The Art of Love.
Pliny the Elder. Natural History.
Green, Peter. Ars Gratia Cultus: Ovid as Beautician. American Journal of Philology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.
Stewart, Susan. Cosmetics & Perfumes in the Roman World. Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2007.
History of Cosmetics: A Brief History of Cosmetics in Roman Times. Life in Italy.
Roman Cosmetic Secrets Revealed. BBC News.