What was in the make up bag of an ancient Roman woman?

beauty 2

What was in the make up bag of an ancient Roman woman?

Diva or Empress, what was in your make up bag two thousand years ago, in ancient Rome, pre Benefit and Mac?

Keeping up appearances in ancient Rome must have been a real mission. Think less au natural, and more, ‘wow, that sounds like hell’. Well, it hurts to be beautiful. No pain, no gain. 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.

Beauty was as relevant then as it is now, 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 way before Christ even bought Birkenstocks to the table. She was known to like a red lip. Mac eat your heart out. 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. Cosmetae (make up artists) 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.


Kiss and make up? Red lips were achieved using bromine, beetle juice and beeswax, with a dollop of henna. Plus a helping hand from the original Santa’s elves with make up brushes, in the form of the ancient Roman slaves Cosmatae. Santa’s elves with brushes and palettes (ish), but not quite that glam (erm).

Make mine a burnt red ochre, thanks.


Is it hot in here, or am I just pleased to see you? 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.

Roman ladies would also rub brown seaweed on their faces as rouge, which achieved the desired affect whilst being reassuringly harmless.

Then there was the art of touching up make up, due to the hot climate, usually carried out by a slave, which excluded the working class from the luxury of retouching make up multiple times a day.

That Mediterranean humidity – never a good thing for the ‘up-do’s. Ornatrice (hairdressers) took charge of the tresses, by using bronze rods heated on hot ashes. Basically the original ‘GHDs’, along with olive oil serum.

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. Painstaking methods, at which one would not bat an eye, were regularly achieved in order to complete the look. The poison dilates the pupils and made peepers look enlarged and glowing. Pliny the Elder wrote that: “eyelashes fell out from excessive sex and so it was especially important for women to keep their eyelashes long to prove their chastity’’.

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.

Green and blues were popular colours for eye shadows, made from a mix of minerals and mixed with saffron or antimony, and make up brushes were tiny ivory sticks.

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.

Scent of a woman

Make up smelt so bad that divas wore a pungent profumo (perfume) to deliver a promise of rose over lead. There was a perception that women were wearing make up for deceptive or even witchcraft motives, Juvenal said that ‘’a woman buys scents and lotions with adultery in mind’’.

Ornamentation and Adornment – are mentioned in Latin literature. Cultus, ormatus. ‘Cultus’ is care of the self. ‘Omatus’ is ornament. Self care, maintenance. To be culta is to be civilized and well mannered. It means also that which softens, and can also refer to luxury and comfort. Cultus is the Latin word encompassing make up, perfume and jewellery.

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. Beauty was not taken with a pinch of salt. Looking like a ‘dea’ was more than a days bath. We know that women went to extreme measures to maintain their beauty. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. But Mac for me, any day!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s