Makeup and Beauty in Ancient Rome
Or, aren't you glad we no longer smear sheep dung and lead on our faces?
There’s a point in all our lives when we look in the mirror and wonder where that wrinkle came from, how to hide that new spot, or why our skin is no longer so smooth. This has been true for thousands of years for both men and women (also, don’t get me started on how high heels were a power symbol for men for centuries).
Today we have NARS and Milk Makeup, but back in ancient Rome, women weren’t so lucky to have the variety of cosmetic possibilities we have today. Nor did they have TikTok or Instagram to turn to for the latest trends.
But they weren’t without options. Many of you might be familiar with the poet Ovid's Metamorphoses and Amores, but I would bet you've not heard of his Medicamina Faciei Femineae or Women’s Facial Cosmetics, sometimes seen as The Art of Beauty.
The fragment from this book is fascinating, offering up three and a half beauty tips for Roman women.
The first is a lengthy and messy recipe for making your skin whiter. The second recipe for getting rid of pimples would, as we know now, kill you slowly over time. I imagine that many women paid such a high price to be beautiful:
Then make haste and bake pale lupins and windy beans.Of these take six pounds each and grind the whole in the mill. Addthereto white lead and the scum of ruddy nitre and Illyrian iris, which must be kneaded by young and sturdy arms. And when they are duly bruised, an ounce should be the proper weight. If you add the glutinous matter where with the Halcyon cements its nest, you will have a certain cure for spots and pimples. As for the dose, one ounce applied in two equal portions is what I prescribe. To bind the mixture and to make it easy of application, add some honey from the honeycombs of Attica.
That pesky lead. Unfortunately, it was a main additive to cosmetics for centuries. Romans used it in many things, including as a sweetener for wine, which is considered by some to be the cause of dementia that affected many Roman emperors.
There is also a recipe to get rid of blackheads and this little tidbit which is fragmented but is clearly about blush:
I have seen a woman pound up poppies soaked in cold water and rub her cheeks with them...
I also wonder why Ovid concerned himself so much with beauty concoctions that he would write a book for the ladies to use. Perhaps he was a little bit entrepreneurial? Or just looking for love?
However, makeup in ancient Rome was perceived as a form of manipulation by many, including the ancient Roman poet Juvenal, who wrote in his Satire VI, "A woman buys scents and lotions with adultery in mind.” In fact, the modern Italian word for makeup, 'trucco,' translates to "trick.” Seneca was also a detractor, advising patrician women to avoid cosmetics, believing they contributed to the decline of morality in Rome.
Ancient Roman women used various cosmetics to achieve their desired look. Some of the commonly used cosmetics were:
Bear's fat as a wax base.
Chalk and white lead pigment for whitening the face.
Wine dregs to color the lips.
Kohl was the primary material for eye makeup, which had been popular for centuries in ancient Egypt.
Before applying makeup, ancient Roman women often used beauty masks to achieve a flawless complexion. These masks were made from a mix of sweat from sheep's wool, placenta, excrement, animal urine, sulfur, ground oyster shells, and bile. Bathing in asses milk, a favorite practice of Cleopatra, was also a popular pre-makeup ritual. After these treatments, women would whiten their skin with marl, dung, and lead. Swan fat was a best-selling remedy for wrinkles.
In 2003 archaeologists found Roman face cream at a site near London. They were able to recreate the cream, which apparently gives women a white, smooth, powdery texture to their skin. It was a mixture of animal fat, lead, and resins, probably similar to what Ovid described in his book.
This interesting video demonstrates one of the tools that ancient Roman women used to apply soot to their eyes:
As you can imagine, all this dung and animal parts probably didn’t help people smell any better. But the ancient Romans also loved their perfume. One of the most popular scents in the first century was likely Cleopatra’s favorite perfume, which was also recently recreated by scientists.
For those of you who read Feast of Sorrow and wondered what Apicata may have dressed like on her wedding day, take a peek:
To follow up on my post a few weeks ago about the Florida hullabaloo over teaching Michelangelo’s David, here is some good news—the principal who was fired over the situation was welcomed, gladly, by the Florence's Accademia Galleria, to see the statue in person.
What’s Bringing Me Joy This Week:
If you haven’t checked out Max Miller’s YouTube channel, you are missing out. It’s a treasure trove of great recipes throughout history. His new cookbook just came out, and I’m looking forward to trying some of the recipes. He even includes some of his own recreations of Apicius and Bartolomeo Scappi.
Tasting History: Explore the Past through 4,000 Years of Recipes (A Cookbook) by Max Miller with Ann Volkwein
This guy who made a 3D printed house for a frog living in his fence.Tiktok failed to load.
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This quote from Virginia Woolf which encapsulates how I read, exactly.
I am reading six books at once, the only way of reading; since, as you will agree, one book is only a single unaccompanied note, and to get the full sound, one needs ten others at the same time.
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As always... Very interesting!! Thanks for your research and sharing!
When I read this quickly I thought it said: "I have seen a woman pound up puppies soaked in cold water and rub her cheeks with them..." And I was thinking damn, those Roman women were HARD CORE.