Scents for the body and for the home

In Roman times, it was widespread custom, as a matter of fact, to use fragrances for the home, too.

For “the royals” 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 Nero: during an elegant banquet, an unfortunate guests died suffocated by an enormous amount of rose-perfumed water than accidentally fell upon him. Of course, who knows… maybe it had been all carefully planned by the emperor and his assistants…

Mishap number two: Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who reigned in the early 3rd century, also had a penchant for perfumed waters. So much so he, too, had organized for an enormous amount of violets-scented water to be poured delicately upon his guests during a banquet. Unfortunately, the large anphors where the concoction was contained also fell upon diners, causing deads and injured. When the accident became of public dominion, Martial commented “you gave your table companions perfume and no food. It’s funny to be hungry and perfumed at the same time: oiled up, but with an empty stomach.”


A frescoed ceiling of the Domus Aurea, in Rome (Jacqueline Poggi/Flickr)


Yet another mishap involving fragrances


Roman glass containers from the 1st to the 4th century, possibly used for cosmetics


According to Plutarch, one of the best known biographers of the ancient world originary of Greece,  Julius Caesar ate asparagus flavored with a vulgar aromatic ointment, instead of olive oil. The devastating effects Caesar had suffered due to this dangerous meal are unknown, yet we know a lot about his relationship with perfumes and alas, women, a match that seems to go hand in hand since the very beginning of times.

One of Caesar’s most popular lovers was Cleopatra, queen of Egypt and cosmetic arts’ expert. Proof of it is to be found in her writings about make up, an art she was very much fond of. She was so much into in that she had beauty farms with aromatic workshops called officinae aromatoriae open along the shores of the Dead Sea.

There was even an oasis called En Ghedi, commonly known as “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 very high. The workshop was composed of nine separate rooms, including a waiting room furnished with stone benches. On location, archaeologists found many pools, still in exceptional condition. These pools were used for the maceration of plant parts needed in perfume-making. The workshop also produced what Pliny refers to as asphalite, a mud known in Judea as black tar. This was extracted from petroleum, and used to cure psoriasis. The famous Dead Sea salts were already used as medications and in cosmetic recipes.


Hair, wigs and 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, today as it was 2000 years ago. At that time, however, the only solution was a concoction of opium and myrrh. Many were, indeed, tormented by baldness. Suetonius even noted how much of a tragedy it became for Julius Caesar in his Vita Caesaris, 1, 7-5: ” (he) never relieved himself from the suffering of baldness… to hide it, he would comb the few hairs he had left towards his forehead. He was given many honors by Romans and the Senate, yet the only he cared about was his laurel crown, which he used to cover up his baldness.”

Pliny spoke of an effective hair-growth recipe, suggesting to “scrub balding spots with baking soda, thus applying a brew of wind, saffron, pepper, vinegar, and mouse feces.” This was noted in his Naturalis Historia XXII, 104. Pliny’s advice didn’t pay off, apparently, but crafty Romans other remedies for baldness, including some smeared on colored ointments,  wigs and 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.


An example of a Roman, intricated hairdo (Darren & Brad/Flickr)


Wigs enabled Roman women to keep up with the fashion at any age, and to repair damages caused by hair dyes  or to hide white hairs that, which a no-no in Roman trends.

Pliny had another remedy in store just for that, even if it’s a bit dramatic: after thoroughly shaving the head, it was necessary to stay strictly in the shade, then to smear the head with a 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 brewed cypress leaves, then steeped in vinegar.

Red hair was managed by pulverizing leaves of the lawsonia inermis (or true henna) family. Blond hair was maintained by a potion of  Gallic origins made of goat’s fat and beeches ash. Carrot orange, as well as deep blue, were also colors used for the hair, the latter possibly created with indigo plants. These colors were usually associated with prostitutes.  Males were not immune from these trends, either. When blond hair became popular, even Commodus the emperor used to sprinkle gold podwer on his head to simulate the golden locks of the Germans, from whom inspiration was taken.


Women’s hairstyles and Ovid’s own piece of 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 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 is not a piece, but actually their own.”


Hairstyles around the times of Troy

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

Throughout many centuries, fashions came and went, but caused 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 to create a style still famous today. Such an aboundancy of hair was created by using a hot iron called calamistrum. This was heated on cinders by cinerarii slaves, who worked along with ornatrices.


More on hairdos, jewels and poisons

Since the 2nd century AD, Roman women began decorating their hair with ribbons, diadems and pins made of gold, silver, and ivory. These “dos” were gracefully finished and left “empty” inside, to provide the wearer with a secret space to hide… poisons. Pins were sharp and slender, and considered jewels in their own right, as well as proper weapons to be used against attackers. It is said that, one night, an enraged Fulvia, wife of Marcus Antonius, got so angry at Cicero that she pierced his tongue with a hairpin to punish him.

Bone pins were also popular, as were little chains and coronets to keep hair tidy and in place.


Perfumes and skincare

Roman women were excellent at the game of seduction and vanity and took great attention to be always clean and well kept.

In the Republican era, being attractive became paramount for women: they took care of their appearance by using specific creams, soaps and oils derived from plants and in combination with animal fats. Clothing and hair had to be scented; oils were often used to soften the skin.

The more time passed, the more 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 popular, since it made it softer. This option was only available to those who were well off, of course.

Those less fortunate were strapped into buying generic creams or balsams found all over the city.

What about Roman men? Besides being paranoid about their baldness, they worried about keeping their beards well-groomed, reason for which they visited the barber very often. They used fragrances too, especially during ceremonies. 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 to assist in male depilating.


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