Roman Cosmetics for CSAN 3902

I’ve been invited to speak to an archaeology class at Tulane University this Thursday! I chose my favorite, and most appropriate subject, Roman Cosmetics. I will also give a little background information on the Roman adaptation of Egyptian cosmetic practices since the class focus is on pre-Coptic times.

Let’s start with why I’m speaking to the class.

I am a planner and social scientist for the Army (as a civilian). We have a practical mission and work under the influence of politics and pay grades. Decision makers are typically several pay grades above me. Innovation and progress are sometimes maddeningly slow. By day I push paper and on the weekends I’m an italophile/ obscure fact addict/ dreamer/ and notorious dabbler (as evidenced by my many blog sites).

So what is a girl to do? How do you reconcile that dreaming and the harsh reality of wetland loss as you calculate habitat units impacted by a flood risk management project? Well, when life gives you cows and coffee it takes a special kind of person to turn that into a White Russian 🙂

This is how I find balance: Living History & Experimental Archaeology.


During the week I work for pay… and on the weekends I work for free – volunteering for an educational non-profit organization, teaching others about the arts and sciences of cultures past.

In my classes I explain the how, why, who, and what of a certain place in time. The Bella Donna display was for the wardrobe and pastimes of a woman in Florence circa 1499. It included handsewn silk brocade sleeves (modernly woven, but replica Renaissance warp/weft silk is way expensive), jeweled hair net (vespaio), feather fan, replica board game and cards from that year, a salt-cellar (hand painted majolica replica), and herbal honey, along with pertinent facts on dress from their undergarments to accessories. This was two years ago just before I geared up to make lye from wood ash to enter handmade soft Castile soap (pot ash lye /olive oil).

For a lot of people this hobby is very strange. So, it’s very nice to talk to other history buffs.

When I say “living history” some people think LARP. This is what they think I do:


Not that there is anything wrong with that! It’s just not living history, it’s living fantasy. This is what I actually do:

    I spend way too much money on fabric from an artisan that weaves silk using period methods.
    I read about the garments worn by women of that time, while drinking tea.
    I pay a historical tailor to make a replica of such a garment, so that when I teach my class I am dressed appropriately and can channel the spirit of the past… oh, wait a minute…
    I’m just kidding! – I wear it for atmosphere… it’s better than jeans.
    I go to Venice to hold a 500-year-old book of secrets.
    I pour over primary sources for the how and why, and then I write papers and create visual displays of that info.

Basically I study “them”… real people and what they used on their skin and hair, what they ate, how it was prepared, then duplicate their methods to see how it really would have tasted or felt. Finally, I record what I learned and write research papers (for fun). I also post what I find on the internet so others can benefit from what I’ve learned. This is how I recharge (and that is why I’m here).

Now, let us discuss Roman Cosmetics circa 95 AD.

Ideal beauty in the first century Rome equaled fair skin showing leisure class status, and smooth skin showing good health plus proper care. Poet Publius Ovidius Naso said, “Only care makes a face beautiful.” The Romans truly believed this. The first step to great skin in 95 AD was cleansing with an unguent (cold cream). This tin was found in 2004 Southwark (which once was Roman Britain) and contains wax, rosewater, and oil, the ingredients of a basic cold cream.

roman cream pot of tin metal Southwark 1C AD

My redaction of Greco-Roman cold cream is from a 16th Century book on medicine (Vesalius). I used this version because it gives quantities:

Ceratum Galeni – Secundum Mesue. Rec. cerae albae unciam unam, olei rosati ex omphacino facti un. 4. Aquae fontis frigidissimae quantum sufficit, aceti albi, clari modicum. Ceratum multum diuque lava aqua fontis, tándem addito aceto fubige. Ceratum Gal. valentius refrigerat, febribus ardentibu, & cephalalgiae calenti, & cum pulsu dolorifico saluberrimu.

Galenus’ Balm (translation by Brad Moore and I) – According to the missive, mix together one ounce of white wax, four ounces of rose-infused olive oil, enough cold water from the fountain to suffice, and plain white vinegar. Wash (bathe) the balm with the water, and add in the vinegar. Galenus’ Balm is most beneficial for cooling/refreshing, high fevers, headaches, and heat, and when the pulse is weak.

The beeswax in cold cream acts as a surfactant, protecting while still allowing skin to breathe. Beeswax also lends its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and emollient properties to the cream (Pointer 2001). The rosewater in cold cream acts as an antiseptic and an astringent to calm and heal the skin and provides a pleasant smell (Pointer 2001). The olive oil, high in squalene, provides antioxidants and moisture. The vinegar is added to balance the pH of the emulsion and make it easily absorbable for our acidic skin. For reenactors who desire these benefits, cold cream can be used as it has for over 2000 years to remove makeup, cleanse the face, and intensively moisturize the skin of the face and body.


I mixed up the ingredients according to the recipe I didn’t really like it. The unguent smelled funny to me and it was soupy, not very much like the creams we are used to with a modern uniform smoothness, uber-whiteness, and pleasant perfume smell. BUT it cleaned off all my eye makeup and left my skin feeling moisturized but not weighed down or oily. To hide the ugliness I displayed it in a pretty soapstone jar so passerby could dab some on their hand with an applicator and rinse it off with water to get the idea of how nice it leaves your skin. My research paper was also displayed but a lot of people (even history lovers) don’t like to read papers (gasp!), much less read 20 pages about cream. Especially when right next to the paper is a handmade crossbow, handtooled leather shoes, and a hurly-gig, plus samples of mead and wine.

Now that your face is clean and nicely refreshed it’s time to work towards the pale/fair part. Cerussa was made by pouring vinegar over white lead shavings. The resulting mixture was dried, ground, and sold in cakes. Ovid recommended cerussa to “brighten the face”. Romans knew lead to be poisonous, but the ends justified the means… plus the more you use, the more you need, as it caused corrosion of the skin and visible pitting. Good for business?

cerussa lead white for artists

To fake fair skin women also used:
Creta – chalk dust mixed with vinegar
Crocodilia – crocodile dung

I substitute those mixtures with food grade titanium dioxide in my demonstrations 🙂

Next, they applied striking color to their smooth, pale canvas-face. Their rouge was made from materials like cinnabar (mercuric sulfide), minium (red lead), or rubrica (red ochre/ iron oxide).

minium red lead

Popular pigment for eye shadows were saffron, ochre, malachite, and ultramarine. These could also line the eyes or highlight the lashes. A popular dramatic eyeliner was stibium (kohl) made of soot, antimony, and black ochre. Stibium was also used to create the prized unibrow. Pigment was ground in cosmetic mortar and pestle sets (40 AD) applied with sea sponges, linen cloth, or ivory/metal/wooden stick applicators.


Nice smelling, hairless skin was also prized (go figure). Scent-infused olive oil was applied to the skin after bathing and scraped off with a strigil like the one shown below. Resin was applied to the skin and removed with linen strips to take away all hair. Tweezers were popular for eyebrow plucking.

Roman-bronze-strigil-and-blue-glass-oil-flask st albans museum verulamium

After all those years of wondering about basic Roman beauty, now you know. You’re welcome.

For more info on ancient beauty practices and where the Romans got most of their ideas see my post on Cosmetics in Egypt and my post on Greco-Roman cold cream.

Ambrosio, A. (2001). Women and Beauty in Pompeii. Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum.
Evershed, R. P. et al. Archaeology: Formulation of a Roman cosmetic. Nature Journal, vol 432. 4 November 2004. pp. 35-36. (
Pointer, Sally. (2005). Artifice of Beauty. London: The History Press.
Vesalius, Andreas. (1568). Chirurgia magna in septem Libros digesta. Venice: Prospero Borgarruccio.


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