Ancient Roman Beauties and Their Makeup Bag

| Tue, 03/04/2014 - 23:45

In ancient times, beauty was as relevant as it is now and makeup was a real luxury. Diva or Empress, what was in your makeup bag two thousand years ago in Ancient Rome?

Keeping up appearances in ancient Rome was a controversial mission. Today the Italian word for make up is ‘trucco’, which means trick. Make up is magic, in a way! In ancient Roman times, it was considered by many as mere manipulation. Ancient Roman poet Juvenal wrote that ''a woman buys scents and lotions with adultery in mind'' and philosopher Seneca thought that wearing cosmetics led to the decline of the Roman morality. Of course, there are no texts written by women indicating the female attitude towards cosmetics at the time. 

However, historians found evidence that espcially for the wealthy patricians, the goddess Venus - department of beauty - was really on speed dial.  

We know that women went to extreme measures to maintain their beauty. Even two thousand years ago being beautiful included some degree of pain and the saying 'no pain, no gain' applied. And, boy was the importance of beauty placed highly upon that list of must haves back in the day! Some things never go out of fashion. Whether you were a Vestal Virgin or Goddess, a must was having a well dressed tress!

Bathing, pruning and making oneself up was an important ritual in day to day life.  And bathing Roman style was not a simple affair, as there were  three types of bathing (Caldarium - hot, Tepidarium - tepid, Frigidarium - cold). 

However, the ‘diva’ par excellence was from Egypt, Cleopatra. Cleo brought a touch of glam to Rome upon her visit in 46 B.C. bringing the smoky eye to the masses way before makeup web tutorials. She was also known to like a red lip. Back in Egypt, red lips were as damn right de rigueur as they are now.

Make-up and beauty products were made from a delightful blend of chemicals and excrement, to put it mildly. A blend of nature and science kept bad hair days at bay, much like today. Us girls might enjoy a mint face mask today, which is exactly what the ancient roman beauties did too. What would be inside a makeup bag of an ancient Roman woman?


Yes! Compact mirrors existed. Well, more a hand mirror usually made from polished metal or mercury.  Wealthy women bought expensive mirrors and make up palettes to match - which were available in wooden, bone or gold boxes.

Beauty Masks

Beauty masks were a pre-makeup must do. Those included a mix of sweat from sheep’s wool, placenta, excrement, animal urine, sulphur, ground oyster shells and bile. And before you start judging in disgust, check the list of ingredients on your favourite creams, I am sure you will find things have not changed much! Bathing in asses milk was favoured by Cleopatra. And this is before you would whiten your skin with marl, dung and lead. Swans fat was a bestseller to rid of wrinkles. More tempting ingredients used in beauty masks and treatments were rose water, eggs, olive oil, honey, anise, almond oil and frankincense.

Eye shadows 

No mascara? No problem! Burnt cork was the lash thickener, back in the day. Roman women liked their lashes long, thick and curly, as a sign of beauty brought from Egypt and India.  

There might have been an even more important reason to enhance long eyelashes. Roman author and natural philosopher  Pliny the Elder wrote that they fell out from excessive sex and so it was especially important for women to keep their eyelashes long to prove their chastity.

Kajal mixed to soot and antimony was used to line the brows and eyes, and  applied using a rounded stick, made of ivory, glass, bone, or wood. Charred rose petals and date stones were other products used to darken the eyes.  Green and blues were also popular colours for eye shadows, usually made from a mix of minerals. 

Frida Kahlo would have been totally fashionable in ancient Rome as they liked dark eyebrows that almost met in the centre and tried to achieve this by darkening their eyebrows with antimony or soot and then extending them inward. 


Red Lips

Red lips were achieved using bromine, beetle juice and beeswax, with a dollop of henna. Plus a helping hand from the cosmetae  (female slaves that adorned their mistresses) who worked hard to beautify their wealthy roman mistresses.


Martial (ancient Roman author) mocked women who wore rouge because of the baking hot climate, causing the makeup to run down the cheeks. Blusher was anything from the expensive imported red ochre, or rose petals, to the poisonous red lead. The budget end of the blusher colour spectrum was made with dregs of wine and mulberry. Roman ladies would also rub brown seaweed on their faces as rouge, which achieved the desired effect whilst being reassuringly harmless.

Scent of a woman

Make up smelt so bad that Roman divas wore a pungent perfume to deliver a promise of rose over lead.  Perfumes were so heavily used that Cicero claimed that, “The right scent for a woman is none at all."

They came in all sort of forms, liquid, solid and sticky, and every occasion had a specific scent. Deodorants made from alum, iris and rose petals were quite common. They were mostly made using a maceration process with flowers or herbs and oil. Distillation technology, as well as most of the imported ingredients, originated in the east. 


That Mediterranean humidity - never a good thing for the ‘up-do’s. Every morning an ornatrice (hairdressers) took charge of the tresses, by using calamistrum which was the name for the Roman curling iron, bronze rods heated on hot ashes. Basically the original ‘GHDs’, along with olive oil serum. Hairstyle fashion in Rome was ever changing, and particularly in the Roman Imperial Period there were a number of different ways to style hair. In general, a 'natural' style was associated with barbarians, so Roman women preferred complex and unnatural hairstyles that displayed the wearer's wealth and social status to a maximum. 


Forget the motto 'less is more', for Ancient Roman women 'more was more'!