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Cosmetics History

History of Cosmetics

A Brief History of Cosmetics in Roman Times

Woman concocting new fragrancesRelentlessly sought for like a mood lost in time- is any woman's search for beauty- and this infinite search is as old as the universe itself. The wisdom of pharmacology, and experimental cosmetic concoctions were thoroughly tampered with until the 17th century by ancient Greeks and by many people of the Orient.


A Roman's worldly ways of the flesh had always been emphasized with natural reason, and carefully recorded throughout History. Vanity was an easy trap that had been filled with people having tendencies of "naîve flesh weaknesses," and this rang true to the majority of Roman simpletons. The care of the skin and that of a well groomed body was not a chore, but instead a thin coat of obsession. Roman's kept up with the Joneses; monitored by that strong drive called "Vanity."


These strong inclinations sprouted into studies of plants and materials speculated to have had significant and valuable cosmetic properties. Beauty cases were crafted using cherished woods and containers made of hand- blown glass. Glass pastes or fragrant amber was used to mold them together. The final product would be a beautifully encased cosmetic case lined with an array of lipsticks, and several varieties of eye make- up. This case had a special purpose. Here, shapely perfume vials were safely kept; which were melted by fire to seal them shut, having to be broken at one end, in order to be opened.

Ancient Cosmetic Basics

Original makeup case from the ancient timesThe makeup base or "foundation" began its life as a greasy liquid substance that was used to cover up imperfections of the skin. Ancient woman used to prepare recipes with whatever they had at their disposal; some whipped concoctions made using a waxy substance called "Biacca," which was melted into honey and then added to any fatty substance. The Roman ladies were aware that biacca was highly toxic, and so, they had wary doubts as to its final results.

Once upon a time, in a book by Lucilio called "Satire" (Book XVI) he once commented on beauty in this way; "Curls, makeup, cosmetics, greasepaint, and teeth you could buy, and with the same money you could have even purchased a new face." He had been quoting this since the 2nd century B.C.

On the Subject of Cosmetics

A Perfume Company- "Everywhere you go, let it be known that "Cosmo perfume" (best- known perfume maker contemporary to Marziale) is moving his shop around, and that perfumed essences are flowing out of their aroused glass bottles. Gellia, I don't like the fact that you enjoy alien foolishness. Did you know that my dog could have worn the same perfume as you?"

Ovidio doesn't seem to be any gentler on the subject, even if he is generous with advice. (Famous Latin Poet - 43 A.C. and 17 A.D.)

"May your lovers never find you with cream in jars- the art that makes you beautiful will have to remain a secret. Who will not be disgusted to see your face all smeared, heaven dripping between your warm breasts? And such a smell! That "esipo" (lanolin) sends out, like a crude fleece squeezed from a stinky goat, even if it came from Athens!"

(Quoted by Artifax Report Editor - Ars- Amatoria, 209 - 218)

"I don't approve when you apply mixtures of female deer's marrow in public places in front of everybody, and then clean your teeth. These lotions make you beautiful, but the applications are something less to be desired. What men like is the final product, because the process is extremely displeasing."

glass molded to look like birds that held cosmeticsDespite shouts of displeasure from men, blasphemous comments, the gross applications, and heavy drippings of putrid creams, the Roman women did not feel discouraged. Keeping on with their womanly operations, they continued to highlight their brows with powders made from "Stibium" (antimony- a metallic element) or "Fulgio" (lampblack- fine black soot created by the burning of certain materials and used mainly as a pigment), and coloring their eyelids with green shadows obtained from "malachite" or blues derived from "Azurite." They were able to procure a substance called "Fuco" (a red algae) from the mulberry, and sought out mineral substances like; cinnabar, red plaster and miniate (which is highly toxic) to mix with animal extracts and vegetables; thus turning them all into berry or red- toned lipsticks.

Teeth were also viewed as objects of vanity, and searches were conducted for materials to beautify even these. Toothpastes were made by blending pumice powder (variety of light spongy volcanic rock used as an abrasive) , "Chio putty" (a metallic powder), baking soda and sodium bicarbonate (salt in the form of powder used as a key component in baking powder and self- rising flour)

Tools used to mix ingredients for cosmetics

Bad breaths were relieved with miraculous pills that Romans sold in the markets. They had the need to subdue the thick scents of heavy drinking from their "yesterday's." They spent their time doing exactly that, continuing to lush along with the tunes of great Roman songs- such as the "Fescennia"- perhaps the equivalent to modern day drinking songs. Again it was COSMO the perfume makers, who had also manufactured these pills. And the other perfume maker\competitor Marziale sarcastically quoted, "...furthermore, the pestiferous breath will be mixed with these pills, therefore stinking much more, besides a double amount of bad breath that will fire out even further!"

The Art of Ancient Cosmetics

The work that went into the production of cosmetics was leveraged by use of female slaves called "Cosmetae." They came in handy and spent their days dissolving various ingredients in their own saliva, and then were set into small containers. The varieties of ingredients were mixed together with spatulas, small spoons and ring shaped mixers made of: wood, bone, ivory, amber, glass or metal.

It was common of Roman's to whip various beauty masks to counteract aging skin and cancel out imperfections such as; freckles, skin flakes, and sun spots.

Another vial to hold cosmetics or perfumeThese masks could also be produced using vegetarian based ingredients; lentils, honey, barley, lupine (any of a number of leguminous plants which bear tall clusters of flowers), or fennel. These could be added to an essence of rose or myrrh—or be obtained from organic sources such as; frail deer horns, excrements of kingfisher, mouse or crocodile, placenta, marrow, genitalia, bile, calves urine, cows, bull, or mule. These ingredients were blended into—oils, goose grease, basil juice, oregano seeds, hawthorn, sulphur (phew) honey and vinegar. The masks obtained with mule's urine seemed to be efficient only if utilized in the moment that the "Dog Constellation was Rising."

P.S. Caution should have been taken when applying these topical products.


Perfumes deserve particularly special attention. Curiosity has been satisfied by concrete evidence of the perfume's ancient existence- along with its production process. As proof, you'll find the chubby cupids present in the house of "Vetii" located in Pompeii.

The distillation process was introduced by the Arabs. This process was not even known even in the 9th century A.D. Plant essences were obtained by squeezing and macerating leaves, roots, petals and flowers. The base of a perfume was an oily substance called Onfacio. It was made by macerating olives or our grape juice called Agresto. The perfumed substances were mixed along with dyes.

The essence of rose petals (Rhodium) was produced mainly in the town of Palestrina along the outskirts of Rome. Various species of lilies were used too, found in and around Pompeii. Myrtle and laurel (Mirtum and Susinum), as well as Melinon were extracted from Quince apples, and Iasminum was extracted from jasmine. Egypt supplied Metopuim—and an expensive perfume called Judean Balsam was thus created.

Imperial times were ready for Alexandria, the central point (at the time), that dealt with spices and aromatic herbs, which were shipped to: Rome, Preneste, Naples, and Capua. These cities housed the top manufactures of spices and perfumes.

Essences were tagged with staggering prices starting from the 1st century A.D. A simple ounce of perfume was worth more than 400 dinars (name of a monetary unit in a number of countries)

Pliny's Outlook on the Situation

"A scandal mongering waste," according to Plin

y (Roman author of natural history), since such riches were wasted. "Profumo" (perfume) was without any use, other that of pleasing others- since "chi è profumato non si accorge di esserlo" (he who is scented doesn't realize he is) his influence prevailed, and the scents were extenuated above and beyond a dot of essence behind an ear. Old vain ancestors used to have fetishes with intense- sweet fragrances. They may have been put to better use. They could have been more properly used; maybe in covering up the stench that the sewers spat out, or the smells in the stables, not to mention the bitter blood odor of murdered animals in the amphitheatres.

P.S. *Perfumes were not only for personal use.

Scents Showed up in Home Environments

It was a widespread custom, as a matter of fact, to even give scent to home environments. For "the royal" and those living in luxury scents played a big part. One example was that of Nero's "Domus Aurea" in which the banquet hall ceiling was made of moving and pierced raw plugs, so that flowers and perfumes could be spread on guests. Some disadvantages are inevitable, according to the mishaps that had taken place in the home of Emperor Nerone; an elegant banquet had been in effect, given by Nero. This mishap incurred involving one of his guests. The unfortunate had been suffocated by an enormous overflow of rose petal scented water that rushed down on him. (It may have been spiked with some strange poisonous plant they were not aware of).

Mishap Number Two- Emperor Eliogabalo had arranged for a perfumed water to rain down on his guests (another one), made with violets and held in substantial vases; these came down along with the scented water—on their heads. This incident had gone public, and this comment was made by Marziale the perfume company, "You gave your table companions perfume and no food. It's funny to be perfumed and hungry at the same time. An empty stomach and oiled."

Ancient Aqueducts used in historical times

Yet Another Mishap Involving Fragrance

According to Plutarch (biographer of Ancient Greece), Julius Caesar ate some asparagus by mistake that happened to be flavored with a vulgar aromatic ointment, instead of with plain olive oil. The devastating effects that Caesar had suffered due to this dangerous meal are unknown. His relationship with perfumes and females in essence to the "Art of Cosmetics" which was known as "Kallopizestai" to the Greeks- should have been emphasized instead.

Along came an ingenious woman, she was a business woman of the ancient cosmetics world, and she was known as Cleopatra. She was an expert connoisseur of cosmetic arts; the proof was in her writings about the art of makeup. This art was so much to her liking, that she opened beauty farms with aromatic workshops (Officina Aromatoria) along the shores of the Dead Sea.

"En Ghedi" was an oasis, that was given the name "Cleopatra's Cosmetic Laboratory." It was in an area resting 400 meters below sea level. Due to frequent water evaporation, the concentration of salt remained at very high levels. The workshop was composed of nine separate rooms, including a waiting room that was furnished with stone benches. On location, they

had found preserved pools in exceptional condition. These pools were used for the maceration of plant parts needed in perfume- making. The workshop produced what Pliny refers to as "Asphalite," a mud known in Judea as "Black Tar." This black tar was extracted from petroleum, and used to cure psoriasis. The famous Dead Sea salts were used as medications, and in cosmetic recipes.

Original wig mockup from Romans high societyWigs & Dyes

We cannot speak about beauty without mentioning hair treatments, improvements and the overall care and health of the hair. Baldness is a touchy subject among men, and the only solace they found was in a solution containing opium and myrrh (Laudanum). Many were tormented by this evil called "baldness," this was a male's tragedy. Its effect was stifling as put by Svetonio about Caesar in his notes (Caesar's Life- Caesaris Vita 1, 7, 5); "Never relieved himself from this sufferance of order to hide his baldness, he combed the few hairs he had left towards his forehead. He was given many honors by the Roman people and by the Senate, but clasped onto only one in particular; this laurel crown, (in any attempts to cover his bald head) and not caring about any other.

Pliny spoke of an effective hair- growth recipe, suggesting to "scrub the balding spots with baking soda, thus applying a brew of wind, saffron, pepper, vinegar, rpizio, and mouse feces. This was noted in his letters of natural history XXII, 104. Pliny's advice didn't pay off, because the crafty Romans had their own remedy for baldness; some smearing on colored ointments, or even stooping to wearing wigs or hair pieces weaved using Egyptian techniques- which happen to be similar to the ones presently used.

It was during the Imperial Era that wigs became elaborate, similar to what showed up in the 60's- the modern daily puff dos, with added little hairpieces on the crest of the head. These Imperial wigs were made using real human hair. Blacks and darker colors were imported from India, and blondes or lighter shades were brought down from Barbarian women's hair, found in various Northern European areas.

Wigs enabled Roman women to keep up with the fashion at any age, and to repair damages caused by "hair dyes," or to hide gruesome white hairs that was a no- no to Roman vanity syndrome.

Pliny had another remedy in store; for those with white hairs—a bit dramatic from a certain point of view- after thoroughly shaving the head, it was necessary to stay strictly in the shade, then to smear the head with a beaten crow's egg, (beaten in a copper vase.).

Black hair was enhanced by using minerals derived from Black Antimony (a metallic element) that was mixed with animal fat, absinthe's ash (wormwood herb) mixed in rose oil or cypress leaves brewed that were then saturated in vinegar.

Red hair was managed by pulverizing leaves in the "Lawsonia Inermis" (or true henna) family. Blond hair was maintained by a potion arriving from Gallic origin. It was made of goat's fat and Beeches Ash. It was also possible to obtain the hair color of a carrot orange- red or a deep blue perhaps obtained by the indigo plant. These colors were very becoming on the prostitutes or Rufae (meaning red)

Males were not left behind when hair- dying broke into fashion. At one point it was blond; it was the fashion, and referred to as "Alla Gernana" or "German Style" and this was big during Commodo's times (even the Emperor used to sprinkle his head with gold powder).

Women's Hairstyles and Poet Ovidio's Advice

"May each woman choose, in front of the mirror, the hair style that is mostly suitable for her. A long face needs hair to be simply parted on the forehead. A rounded face, adores hair gathered on the head with a knot, exposing the ears; otherwise loosened onto the shoulders.

Some women prefer their hair curled, while others prefer hair that is pulled tight to the temples, and yet others like loosened hair with big waves- fixed with the help of a hair- slave. Some will love their hair misleadingly neglected which actually will need more grooming than any of the others.

Advance grayness could be disguised with a dye, and someone will certainly wear someone else's hair bragging that it was certainly not a piece, but actually their own."


Hairstyles and the Period of Trojan

House- maids (ornatrix) had no choice but to aid the Roman matrons in the making of curls, braids, and hairdo's requiring ribbons, pins or barrettes. It was a difficult task to turn an ugly matron hag into a semi- acceptable and beautiful dame, who often was threatened by some nasty mistress.

Throughout many centuries fashions came and went causes influences of various types of hair styles among the Roman women.

One style consisted of hair that was combed to the back of the neck or divided into puffy curls. During the Imperial Age the switch was quite noticeable and a head was piled high with hair, the style that became popular through a complicated process. The redundancy of curls was formed by using a hot iron (calamistrum). This hot iron was heated on cinders by the Cinerarii slaves who worked with the Ornatrix women slaves (a rough job).

Jewels, Hair- Do's and Poison

Since the 2nd century A.D., Roman women began decorating their hair with ribbons, diadems (a crown or decorative wreath) and pins made of gold, silver, ivory and jewels. This "do" was gracefully finished to be left empty inside- just enough to contain poison... just in case. Pins were sharp and slender, besides mimicking a jewel, they were also considered to be considered lethal weapons for defenders and offenders alike.

It was said that, Fulvia (wife of Marc Antonio) had become enraged one night piercing Cicero's tongue with her hairpin- in order to punish him. Bone pins were popular as were little chains or thin coronets that kept their hair in place.

Sex and Roman Contraceptives

Eventually the jagged weapons of seduction had lethal wounding consequences- both sexes were responsible. Roman laws were competent in indicating whether or not a love attraction was legal and when it had to be prohibited or punished—on the account that moral censorship spread with the coming of Christianity.

A piece of thought taken from a book written by Eva Cantarella states; "Contraceptives were not very effective at that time. Doctors suggested using "pessari" which were woollen tampons soaked in vinegar and placed inside the vagina. This was inserted hours before intercourse, and removed right before. If this wool was soaked in a substance with astringent properties, it would perhaps kill the sperm. Another suggestion was volunteered by Pliny; "the woman should eat; Asperon or fern's root." There were other crazy talisman suggestions including that of a cat's liver; to be placed in a tube, then tied to the left foot of a lioness matrix and adjoined to any part of the body!

"Emancipated women didn't want kids, or at least didn't want to be eternally pregnant." So these women found the time to bounce around on carts, to induce miscarriage. And when these methods were applied in vain, abortion became the only option—given, the systems used at the time were unpleasant, dangerous, and often deadly."

Recipes from the Past

Here Metrodora (a Byzantine obstetrician in the 5th and 6th century A.D.) has left a vast list on ancient genecology and vegetal pharmacopoeia (book of medicine).

Thanks to the works of a Greek scribe- at the service of Lorenzo the Magnificent, for the works have arrived all the way modern man.

Metro Dora's Prescriptions:

  • 1\8 of an ounce= 2 drammes
  • 2 scruples=1\3 of 1\8 of an ounce

Toning Tonic for Breasts

  • Take "psillio" (plantain) when the moon is descending, and apply it to the breasts.
  • Toning Mascara for Breasts
  • 2 dramme (eighth of an ounce) of alum on some dust
  • 2 dramme of sour castor oil plant;
  • Grind and mix with red sour wine until the mix becomes dense as wax; spread around the breasts sprinkling with white soil from "Samo" and "Cimolio" or "Cerussa" (ceruse- pigment made from white lead).

Aphrodisiac Beverage

  • 2 scruples (1/3 of a dramme) of "Ruca" seed (rucola, a green savoury plant)
  • 1 scruple of pepper
  • saturate with wine and drink.

Virility Pill

4 scruples of male incense, 5 scruples of pepper, 1 scruple of eatable ginger, 4 scruples of "Euforbia" (euphorbia) lattice. Mix with clay liquorice and grinded bread and make 1dramme pills.

Ointment to Provoke Erection

Pepper, euphorbia, ruca's seed, satirio: 6 scruples, laurel balsam juice: 4 dramme, smear on the hips, on the womb and thighs.

Wardrobe - Beauty Accessories

Roman clothing was limited to two separate types of outfits; the tunic and the toga. The tunic was a knee long robe with short wide sleeves, which could be made of various materials and was usually tightened at the waist with a "cingulum" or (belt).

The toga was semi oval and ankle length. It was worn wrapped in different ways around the body, always leaving the right hand free for use (which was used to gesture in ceremonies)

Women dressed in a tunic variant called a "Stola" (stole or long women's scarf of fur or cloth) and a "Palla" (kind of toga) worn on the stole. Other garments worn by women were; the "Pallia" (cloak), a type of hat called the "Cucullus" (a kind of cap), the "Petasus" (man's hat shaped like half an egg). Women wore either a "Mitra" (a headdress), or a "Ricinum" (a veil). Women's footwear can be described as sandal- type. The "Solea" was worn, which was a typical Roman sandal or "Calceum" which was a tall half- leg boot tighten with laces.

Perfumes And Skin Emulsions

Roman women played the role of vanity indefinitely. Their preoccupations were to keep themselves clean and well- manicured. During the Republican Era they had to advance to the level of being "attractive," the look was now their most important asset. To proceed on to this level they maintained themselves by using specific creams, soaps and oils derived from plants in combination with animal fats. Clothing and hair was scented, and ointments proved valuable in the softening of the skin.

Since the birth of Rome, hair styles evolved into more elaborate and fanciful styles, and the rich required slaves to act as hairdressers to maintain this "attractiveness." Bathing in milk was also an option, since its effect on the skin was a softening action. This option was only available to those who were well off. Those less fortunate were strapped into buying generic creams or balsams found all over the city.

What about the Roman men? Besides being paranoid about their baldness, they worried about keeping their beards well- groomed, and they often found themselves in the visiting rooms of local Roman barber shops. They used fragrances too, especially during ceremonies. The Roman men also used to remove excess hair from their bodies, even if it seemed to be a feminine habit. This practice was so common, that a slave was assigned to the baths exclusively for to assist in male depilating.


According to the Romans, the art of working gold held great promise. As a matter of fact, this you may see even today in museums. Roman jewels are very sophisticated and extremely valuable. There where many types of jewelries: earrings, small chains, coronet (crown- like) shaped hairpins, brooch shaped hairpins, bracelets, cameos, and pendants. Earrings were already much diffused, and various types existed. Simple earrings were made with a gold sphere pendant, or with pearls and precious stones. Necklaces were exquisitely manufactured and were sometimes alternated with small multicolored precious stones. Some pendants were cameo- types, crafted by skilled artisans. Rings ranged from simple gold bands without gems, to rings encased with precious gemstones. Bracelets were elaborate- composed of inlays that expressed various shapes and styles.

History of Cosmetics

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