9 Ancient Roman Beauty Hacks | History Hit

9 Ancient Roman Beauty Hacks

Lily Johnson

29 Dec 2022
Omphale and Heracles, Roman fresco, Pomeian Fourth Style, c.45-79 AD.
Image Credit: Public domain

When most think of Ancient Rome, images of gladiators and lions, temples and emperors appear. The distant past is often mythologized through its most exciting and alien features to us, however Rome’s rich culture leaves much more to be explored.

Though the Roman love for bathing can still be seen in the presence of their opulent bath houses in numerous cities across Europe, their obsession with cleanliness and beautification did not stop there. Here are 9 Ancient Roman beauty hacks, in all their frightful familiarities.

1. Skincare

‘Learn what treatment may enhance your face, girls, and the means by which you must preserve your looks’ – Ovid, ‘Medicamina Faciei Femineae’.

Caring for the skin in Ancient Rome was a necessity. The ideal face was smooth, blemish-free and pale, leaving both men and women to battle with wrinkles, blemishes, freckles and uneven complexions. Particularly for women, maintaining a desirable, healthy, and chaste appearance was vital for their reputation and marriage prospects.

Salves, unguents and oils were applied to the face, each with ingredients for specific use. The base ingredient is still familiar to us today – honey. Used initially for its sticky quality, the Romans soon discovered its beneficial effects in moisturising and soothing the skin.

For wealthy women such as Nero’s wife Poppaea Sabina, asses milk was essential to their laborious skincare routine. They would take baths submerged in it, often assisted by a team of slaves called Cosmetae, enlisted for the sole purpose of applying skincare products.

Poppaea Sabina, Archaeological Museum of Olympia (Image Credit: Public Domain)

Poppaea reportedly needed so much milk that she was required to take an army of donkeys wherever she travelled. She even invented her own recipe for an overnight face mask containing the milk mixed with dough, aptly naming it Poppaeana.

A host of less glamorous ingredients also went into these concoctors however. Animal fat was extremely popular, such as goose fat that reduced wrinkles, and a grease from sheep’s wool (lanolin) that had softening effects. The smell of these products often pushed people to nausea, but the desire for healthy skin outweighed this small inconvenience.

2. Teeth

Similarly to today, a good set of strong, white teeth were attractive to Ancient Romans, to the point where only those with such teeth were encouraged to smile and laugh.

Ancient toothpaste was made with the ashes of animal bones or teeth, and should you lose a tooth, don’t worry — a false one made of ivory or bone could be attached with gold wire.

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3. Perfume

Due to the foul-smelling products often applied to the face, women (and sometimes men) would drench themselves in perfume, as a pleasant smell was synonymous with good health. 

Perfumes would mix flowers such as iris and rose petals with a base of olive or grape juice and could come in sticky, solid or liquid form. 

Many examples of these perfume bottles have been found when excavating Roman sites.

Roman glass perfume bottle, 2nd-3rd century AD, Metropolitan Museum of Art (Image Credit: CC)

4. Makeup

With the skin now smooth, clean and fragrant, many Romans turned to enhancing their features through ‘painting’, or the application of makeup. 

As most people in Rome had naturally darker complexions, the most common step of the cosmetic process was to whiten the skin. This gave the impression of a leisurely lifestyle, having no need to work in the sun. To do so, white powders were applied to the face containing chalk or paint, with ingredients similar to those they used to whitewash walls.

Though makeup on men was largely seen as too effeminate, some would join their female counterparts in lightening their skin with powder.

Woman with wax tablets and stylus from Pompeii c.55-79 (Image Credit: Public Domain)

A white cream containing a poisonous lead could also be applied. This was however very temperamental, and could change colour in the sun or slide completely off your face in the rain! For reasons such as this, it was usually the wealthier women who used it, requiring a large team of slaves to constantly apply and reapply as the day went on.

A gentle blush was then to be applied, with the wealthy importing red ochre from Belgium. More common ingredients featured wine dregs or mulberries, or occasionally women would rub brown seaweed on their cheeks.

To achieve the full never-spent-a-day-outside-in-my-life look, ancient women also went as far as to paint blue veins on their temples, accentuating their perceived paleness. 

Finally, should you fancy stepping up your nail game, a swift mixture of animal fat and blood would afford you a subtle pink glow.

5. Eyes

Long dark lashes were fashionable in Rome, so burnt cork could be applied to achieve this. Soot could also be used as eyeliner to create a literal smokey eye effect.

Colourful greens and blues were also used on the eyelids made from various natural minerals, while a red lip could be achieved through mixing beetle juice, beeswax and henna.

A unibrow was the height of fashion in Ancient Rome. If you were unfortunate enough that your hair did not meet in the middle, it could be drawn in or animal hair could be glued on.

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6. Hair removal

While extra hair on your eyebrows was in, hair on the body was out. Strict hair removal expectations were rampant throughout Roman society, with well brought-up girls expected to have smooth hairless legs.

Men were also subject to shaving expectations, as to be completely hairless was too effeminate, yet to be unkempt was a sign of laziness. Armpit hair was a universal expectation however, with some enlisting armpit-pluckers to assist them in its removal.

Detail of the “bikini girls” mosaic, found by archaeological excavation of the ancient Roman villa del Casale near Piazza Armerina in Sicily, (Image Credit: CC)

Hair removal could be done a number of other ways too, such as clipping, shaving, or using a pumice. Ointments would also be applied using some interesting ingredients, like the innards of various sea fish, frogs, and leeches.

7. Figure

For women, figure was an important consideration. The ideal Roman women was tall with a stocky build, wide hips and slanting shoulders. Full, thick clothing concealed unfashionable slenderness, and shoulder pads were worn to bulk up your upper body. A girl’s chest could be bound or stuffed to achieve the perfect proportions, and mothers even put their daughters on diets should they begin to slip from the ideal body.

Fresco depicting a seated woman, from the Villa Arianna at Stabiae, 1st Century AD, Naples National Archaeological Museum (Image Credit: CC)

8. Hair

Hair was also a busy undertaking for many Romans. Some would enlist an Ornatrice — or hairdresser — to style them. Ancient hair curlers consisted of bronze rods heated on hot ashes and used to achieve ringlet hairsyles, followed by an olive oil serum.

Blonde or red hair was most desirable. This could be achieved through a variety of hair dyes containing both vegetable and animal substances, that could be washed through with oil or water, or left in overnight.

Fresco showing a woman looking in a mirror as she dresses (or undresses) her hair, from the Villa of Arianna at Stabiae, Naples National Archaeological Museum (Image Credit: CC)

Though hair regimes were employed mainly by women, fashion sometimes called their male counterparts to join them. For example, during Emperor Commodus’ rule men were keen to also dye their hair a fashionable blonde.

The dyeing process could often have dire consequences however, with many finding themselves bald by the end.

9. Wigs

Wigs were thus not an uncommon sight at the Roman forum. People would openly sell hair near the temple of Hercules, imported from the reddish-blonde heads of Germans and Britons. Full wigs for those who were completely bald (or those looking for a sneaky disguise) were available, while smaller hairpieces were also available in order to create extravagant hairstyles.

Just as today, Roman beautification methods held a key role in society and culture. Many modern skincare products even share the same ingredients and processes – but we’ll maybe leave the swan fat and leeches to them!

Lily Johnson