Want to know the beauty secrets of Roman women? Read on for the notes from my research paper on Roman Cosmetics.
In order to recover aspects of the lives of historical women I have looked to sources on their dress and mannerisms. Most recently I have found information on their beauty products that gives insight to the realities, perceptions and practices of women regarding their appearance and odour. As a living history participant this information will be used in order to create a toilette appropriate for a medieval or renaissance “bella donna”.
Both common and wealthy Roman women alike wore perfumes and cosmetics. There were always inexpensive subtitues for an expensive producut, blown glass or fired clay vessels to hold unguents were cheap, and the people who made cosmetics substances made themselves available to all classes.
For the Romans of 200 BCE to 200CE a pale, smooth complexion was highly desired. Fair skin displayed leisure class status, and smooth skin spoke to good health and proper care. Milk baths and cosmetics to whiten the skin and block the sun were popular. A preparation called cerussa (sugar of lead) was made by pouring vinegar over white lead shavings, and popular even though lead was known to be poisinous. After the lead dissolved, the mixture was driend, ground, and made into cakes to be sold. Ovid recommended cerussa to brighten the face. The less toxic melinum (white marl clay mixed with calcuim carbonate) also gave a pale sheen to a womans complexion but has been described by Pliny as “excessively greasy”. Creta (chalk dust) mixed with vinegar could also be used on the face to whiten it. Crocodilia (crocodile dung) is recommended as a facial whitener by Ovid, who offered several recipes for face creams to make the complexion “pale and brilliant”. Of course, none of these were waterproof and would run when sweat or rain was present.
Once one had the proper pale foundation to start with, color was then applied. Cinnabar (mercuric sulfide) and minium (red lead), both toxic, were used as cosmetic ingredients. To impart a blush, rubrica (red ochre), fucus (orchella weed dye), red chalk, alkanet, rose petals, powder dyed with Tyrian purple, and faex (lees of wine) were all used for rouge.
Other colors for eyes were apparently available, as Ovid warns young men who come across their ladies toilette that he will see pyxides and “a thousand colors”. Coloring and lining the lids and lashes were common practices. Pliny the Elder states that eyelashes were dyed daily and that “such is their claiming of beauty that they color even their eyes”. Saffron was used as eyeshadow as well as eyeliner. Kohl (stibium) of soot, antimony, or ashes mixed with oil were applied with a “kohl stick”. Kohl sticks were thin sticks made of wood, glass, bone, or ivory. The stick was dipped in water or scented oil and then into the powder. Kohl could also be applied to brows in powdered form to enhance existing hairs or to create the prized unibrow.
Tertullian told Christian women to “paint their lips with silence” instead of the ordinary artificial substance. No recipe for lip tint has been uncovered.
Of course, these women had to deal with skin affected by disease, dirt, and the ravages of lead, so cataloges of skin remedies were compiled. Pliny alone mentions blemishes, spots, sores, scars, and facial troubles, for which there were several cures. Crocodilia mixed with cyprus oil was said to brighten and clear the skin. Ground oyster shells could be used as an exfolian to smooth the skin. Snail ash was said to cure freckles and sores. Cucumber, anise, honey, rue, verdigris, barley, gums, iris, and mushrooms were ingredients in other skin remedy recipes.
Women were advised to remove makeup at night and apply creams or poultices. These, too, contained harmful ingredients and caused skin damage as much as they offered skin repair. Aside from remedies, camouflage for the damage was also used. Little patches called alutae or splenia made of thin leather were applied directly to the sores, pits, scars of the face. They were popular and evolved into a fashion statement for those who had no skin problems. Ovid and Martial remark of women who wore them on “cheeks without a blemish” and foreheads embellished with crescent-shaped patches.
Hairless bodies were also ideal. Ovid counsels women to shave their legs and Pliny advises that body hair should be removed. Body hair was removed by plucking, pumice-stone scraping, burning, or stripping by means of resin. Of course, this was done in private. Ovid counseled women not to dress themselves with cosmetics in the presence of a lover, and to hide their toilette from men.
Medicamina is the blurry line between cosmetics for show and ingredients for medicinal use. Of course, some cosmetic ingredients also had medical benefits. Myrrh was a proper cleanser and healing agent for sores, rose petals were used for chafed thighs and perspiration. Poultices and plasters called from red ochre and poppy was used for headaches. Small glass jars found via archaeological digs could have held unguents and powders used for cosmetics or medicinal purposes. Small spoons with bulbous mixing ends called ligula were used for extracting ingredients from vessels and for mixing and applying the cosmetics.
A. Ambrosio. Women and Beauty in Pompeii. 2001.
Bellezza e Seduzione nella Roma Imperiale. Palazzo dei Conservatori 11 Giugno-31 Luglio 1990, Rome.
Olsen, Kelly. Cosmetics in Roman Antiquity. The Classical World, Vol 102, No 3, Spring 2009. pp 291-310.
RJ Forbes. “Cosmetics and Perfumes in Antiquity”. Studies in Ancient Technology. Leiden, 1965.