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Tattoos in Roman world

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman legionary | Author: Joseph Qiu

Body tattooing usually in the Roman or Greek world was associated with the barbarians and their mysterious cults. The custom among Greeks to tattoo bodies came from the Persians. They used tattoos to mark slaves and criminals, in case they tried to escape. However, tattoos in Roman world were also present.

The custom of tattooing Romans took over from the Greeks. In late Roman times, when the Imperial army consisted mainly of mercenaries, it was decided to tattoo them so that it was easy to recognize deserters.

The Romans described the tattoo as stigma. Many Greek and Roman authors mention tattooing the body as punishment. Plato mentioned that those guilty of sacrilege should be tattooed and exiled from the state. In turn, Suetonius, a Roman writer from the 1st century CE, wrote that some of the well-born citizens were marked on the order of emperor Caligula – so-called stigmatum notis) – “Many men of honourable rank were first disfigured with the marks of branding-irons and then condemned to the mines, to work at building roads, or to be thrown to the wild beasts; or else he shut them up in cages on all fours, like animals, or had them sawn asunder”1.

Tattoos on legionaries’ hands?

It is possible that tattoos also appeared in the Roman army. For example, probably all legionaries and some auxiliary troops (auxilia) who served on Hadrian’s wall had tattoos. Such a thesis was made by antiquity expert Lindsay Allason-Jones. Confirmation of this state of affairs is the work of Vegetius – writer and Roman historian living in the second half of the fourth century CE. In his treatise Epitoma Rei militaris he mentions that the recruitment to a Roman army should begin with testing the strength, then assigned to the unit and later tattooing with a unit sign2. We do not know what official sign was placed on the legionary’s body; however, we can guess that it was an eagle or a symbol of a legion or a unit. According to Lindsay, the tattoo was placed on the hand. Aëtius of Amida, a Byzantine VI-century medic, mentions this fact in his notes in the work Medicae artis principes. First, the place where the tattoo was to be done (stigma) was carefully washed with leek juice, which was known for its antiseptic properties. The tattooing ink consisted of Egyptian pinewood (mainly bark), corroded bronze and more juice from the leek.

As in Greece, Roman slaves and criminals were tattooed in order to control them better and find it less easy to escape. Interestingly, in the early Roman Empire, for example, exported to Asia slaves were labelled with the term ‘tax paid’, as goods. Their bodies were also covered with the initials of the patron and all information according to the will of the master. Often a slave also had a tattoo on his forehead: “Stop me, I am running away”. It was extremely disgraceful, but it must be remembered that the life of a slave had the same value as the object.

How were tattoos removed in antiquity?

Like today, some Greeks and Romans wanted to get rid of their tattoos for some time. As it turns out, even a large business has been formed in removing from the body. Aetius gives two ways to take off the ink from the skin. The first involves the use of lime, gypsum and sodium carbonate while the second pepper, honey and rue. According to the recipe, the tattoo should be cleaned with nitrate, smeared with terebinth resin and applied bandage for five days. On the sixth day, the tattoo should be punctured with a pin and the spilt blood should be rubbed with a sponge. At the same time sprinkle some salt and continue with the rest of the tattoo. After completing the puncturing process, bandage with linen dressing for five days and apply a feather of a mixture of the mentioned lime, gypsum and sodium carbonate or pepper, honey and rue to the wound. The tattoo will disappear in 20 days without a large ulcer and without scarring. Other Greek or Roman medics, in turn, used a mixture of pigeon’s faeces and vinegar, which was applied to the wound for a long time.

With the development of Christianity, the custom of tattooing slave bodies or criminals began to fade. Roman Emperor Constantine the Great around 330 CE forbade the tattooing of the head of the condemned man, who was sent to the arena of the amphitheatre or to the mine; but he still agreed to mark arms or legs. This decree was apparently due to the Christian beliefs of Constantine, according to which the human face was created in a divine fashion and should be disfigured as little as possible. In 787, Pope Hadrian I eventually forbade the tattooing of the body. Tattoos in the Christian dawn existed again only in the nineteenth century.

  1. Suetonius, Caligula, 27
  2. Vegetius, Rei militaris, I.8

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