Woman's toilet in ancient Rome

What do we know about the Roman woman? However, the female population represents half of the inhabitants of ancient rome, but we know little about their condition and their way of life. The statuary and the mural are two important archaeological sources, but for the hygiene of the body and the cosmetics, it is necessary above all to refer to the ancient texts, written by men. Here we are going to focus on roman woman's toilet at the beginning of theRoman Empire, the time when the woman is no longer considered only through her husband, but when she becomes independent.

The toilet

"The strong odor of the goat should not sit under your armpits and your legs should not be bristling with coarse hair" Ovid

From the end of the Republic, Roman man and woman paid great attention to their appearance: the body, born imperfect and unfinished, had to move away from animality, through education and effort.

In the countryside, the rule is to wash your arms and legs every day (dirty at work) and the rest of your body every week or every 9 days, which corresponded to market days according to Seneca. At home, hygiene is limited to the personal hygiene of women and small children.

In the city, only the rich have private baths, the others go to the thermal baths every day. From Hadrian, and following a scandal, an imperial decree imposes different hours (in the morning for women, in the afternoon for men) except in certain establishments which were double (Pompeii). But a woman who cares to avoid gossip does not go to the pool which is mixed. The richest women take a bath in milk (sweet almond for Cleopatra, donkey for Poppea). Donkey milk was also known to reduce wrinkles, such as pounded white vine or pigeon droppings diluted in vinegar or oily juice obtained from sheep's fleece.

Not knowing soap, the Romans used to wash a sponge and degreasing substances (even strippers) then removed the impurities with a strigil:
- saltpetre foam
- sapo: foaming paste made from goat fat and beech ash (invented by the Gauls)
- "lomentum": made from bean flour and looted snail shells
- "pumex": pumice stone
These detergents are very abrasive, and after each wash, it is necessary to cover the body with ointments or moisturizing lotions of scented oil intended to restore the skin's softness and elasticity.

These lotions are concocted with the foam of cereal-based drinks, or the lanolin extracted from the wool of sheep, but which must imperatively be scented to mask its very nauseating odor. The beauty masks are composed of wheat flour and donkey milk, or cooked sturgeon glue mixed with sulfur, orcs, silver foam and water, or even crumbs of bread, ointment and egg. These plasters should not be left on for more than a few hours, to avoid irritation and redness. If irritation occurs, a mixture of frankincense gum, myrrh and nitre, diluted in honey and seasoned with fennel and dry roses should normally overcome it. Freckles should also be alleviated with cucumber juice, hand-kneaded veal dung with gum and oil.

The recipes are numerous, as Pliny the Elder tells us in Natural History. But many of these products presented as moisturizers, on the contrary, cause more or less serious lesions, always requiring more care or make-up to hide the effects. The least harmful products remain oil-based ointments. The Romans also used alum stone as a deodorant.

For hygiene of the mouth and teeth, we used a soda-based powder (“nitrum” or saltpeter), called “dentifricum”. Others also used urine, hare's head ash or pumice powder. There were also pastilles of myrtle or lentisque kneaded in old wine or even berries of ivy, cassia and myrrh to freshen the breath. For dental pain, Pliny the Elder recommends deer horn ash, either by friction or by mouthwash. Some even say that unburned deer horn powder is more effective.

To remove food residues, we used either a feather (Martial) or a "dentiscalpium" made of metal, bone or wood, a sort of toothpick finished with a hook, already in use among the Greeks. Some copies had a toothpick on one side and an earpick on the other.
Some toiletry bags could bring together a toothpick, tweezers, a small nail-cleaning knife, a lice scraper and various makeup spatulas on a ring.

Hair removal

Women waxed their armpits and legs with a depilatory cream made from rosin (pitch) dissolved in oil and sometimes mixed with resin, wax and a caustic substance (or a mixture of equal weight of black elderberry seed from Armenia and silver litharge). Some preferred a wax based on pine resin. More simply, women could use bronze tweezers (the size of which can vary from 5 to 11 cm) and whose shape is very similar to ours. The men waxed their face as well as their body; like Auguste who used to burn his legs with walnut shells heated "to white" so that his hair grows back softer.

After long hours of grooming and beautification, the Roman woman can put on makeup and make up. But a woman should never let herself be seen at her toilet, especially by her lover.

The makeup of Roman women

For make-up, the Roman woman uses a bronze or precious metal mirror, very polished, and sometimes silvered to provide a sharper reflection. Excessive make-up is a peculiarity of prostitutes (or lupa) that Roman women take over, to the chagrin of some like Seneca. After skin care, make-up is done. The colors used are bright and contrasting. Fashion is fair complexion. A face that is too red betrays an active woman, and therefore of lower quality. But be careful to avoid the pallor that was reserved for women who wanted to show heartache. As a foundation, we apply a layer of white lead (lead carbonate), mixed with honey or a fatty substance that gives the face a "youthful whiteness" (white lead came from Rhodes; very toxic, it is prohibited in France since 1915). We enhance the white with red thanks to saltpeter foam, Selina earth (yellow ocher), wine lees or fucus (red algae).

We accentuate and lengthen the eyebrows to reinforce the smallness of the forehead (another criterion of beauty). We underline the contour of the eyelashes with a line of antimony or "smoke black" applied with a brush. The upper eyelid is then shaded with green (taken from malachite), blue (azurite, copper carbonate) or red (tincture made from Cydnus saffron). The makeup was completed with the addition of a small mole on the cheek and red blush applied with a brush.
For special occasions, the face was sprinkled with spangles from the crushed crystals of hematite (iron oxide). The powders and creams are enclosed in small cylindrical bone pyxids or glass vials, the contents of which are extracted with a spatula or spoon which can be made of bone, metal or glass. We used small glass cups to make the mixtures.

All these treatments for the body are done according to the means of the family, but even the most modest will take care of them and put on make-up, using other materials (poppy rather than saffron for red by example), in order to appear in a beautiful light. If some of the products used are still relevant today (alum stone, kohl), many are those that caused skin problems, and very probably cancer. Use with caution therefore ...!


- François Gilbert, Danièle Chastenet, The Roman woman at the beginning of the Empire,, Editions Errance, 2007
- P. Virgili, Vita & costumi dei romani antichi T.VII Acconciature & Makeup ed. Quasar 1989
- Giuntoli Stefano, Art and History of Pompeii, Bonechi Edition, 1989

Video: Did The Romans Really Swipe Their Backside With A Shared Sponge? Ancient Roman Toilet Paper (January 2022).