Make up and beauty of ancient Roman women

Make up and beauty of ancient Roman women

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Diva or empress, what was in your make up bag two thousand years ago, in ancient Rome?

Beauty is as relevant now as it was then and make up was a luxury in ancient times. Bathing and pampering in general, was a noble pass time. As a woman in ancient times, the gods had surely favoured you if your days were spent dipping your toes in the Caldarium, before a banquet. Bathing, pruning and making oneself up was an important ritual in day to day life. There were even three types of bathing (Caldarium – hot, Tepidarium – tepid, Frigidarium – cold). That’s gotta take all day.

Beauty icons of ancient Rome would have been none other than that ‘diva’ of Egypt, Cleopatra. Cleo bought a touch of glam to Rome upon her visit in 46 B.C. Bringing the smokey eye to the masses. 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. A blend of nature and science kept bad hair days at bay, much like today. Roman women enjoyed Cosmetae (make up artists) who beautified their wealthy Roman mistresses.

Beauty Masks

Beauty masks were a pre make up must do. Those included a mix of sweat from sheep’s wool, placenta, excrement, animal urine, sulphur, ground oyster shells and bile. 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 best seller 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.

Red lips were achieved using bromine, beetle juice and beeswax, with a dollop of henna.


Martial (ancient Roman author) mocked women who wore rouge because of the baking hot climate, causing the make up 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.

My oh M-Eye!

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 by the East, from Egypt and India. A deadly nightshade was applied to enhance their eyes. The poison dilates the pupils and made peepers look enlarged and glowing.

Kohl created from soot and antimony was used to line the brows and eyes, and brows were big back then. Charred rose petals were used to decorate they eyes, along with date stones.

Time for tea

On a lighter note, Sage and Mint tea played a big part in beauty regimes both as an anti fungal treatment, after sun, face mask, and a tea.

Mirror, mirror, on the ancient Roman wall

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

Woman’s world – mundus muliebris

Mundus is world, Muliebris the woman, the feminine. Mundus Muliebris is ‘woman’s world’. This refers to female fineries – make up, dresses and jewellery. These are described in Latin literature by Cicero, who wrote about the ‘mundi omatum’ – the ordered beauty of the world and ‘caeli omatus’, celestial adornment.

Make up was considered deceitful and manipulative –the word in Italian for make up is ‘trucco’, meaning trick. Make up is magic, in a way. But, in ancient Roman times, it was considered mere manipulation. Ancient Roman 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 attitude of women towards cosmetics. For the wealthy, the goddess Venus – department of beauty – was really on speed dial. For the rest, they would have to rely on mulberry or wine leftovers.

We know that women went to extreme measures to maintain their beauty. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

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