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What beauty was appreciated by Romans?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

A painting by John William Godward showing a beautiful woman from the  ancient world
Painting of John William Godward showing a beautiful woman of the ancient world

Ovid, the Roman poet of the August epoch, in his work Medicamina Faciei Feminae, which is a short work on the care of the female body, indicates what is female beauty: pale complexion, rosy cheeks, dark eyes and devoid of unnatural odours of skin.

In ancient Rome, pale skin was considered beautiful. In the picture, a wall painting from Vila San Marco in Stabiae.
Author: Luiclemens | Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.

In fact, the Romans were not the first to pay attention to feminine beauty. Already the Egyptians and Greeks created their own canons of beauty, which later influenced the imagination of the Romans. The work of Ovid, Medicamina Faciei Feminae in a neat way shows the subsequent changes that occurred in Roman society in the way of perceiving female beauty, from the founding of the Eternal City to the time of the author (1st century BCE – 1st CE). Romans, unlike the Egyptians or Greeks, used makeup only to emphasize the natural beauty, and not create a whole range of colors on the face.

Ovid outside of the exterior also indicates that the woman should take care of her character traits, which, if properly cared for, will provide them with stable marital life and husbands’ love.

During the life of Ovid, the ideal of beauty boiled down to the woman’s pale skin. If this one was unburnt, she pointed out that the Roman had spent most of her time at home, and that she was rich enough to have her slaves. Women often whitened the skin with chalk, and the lips and cheeks coloured with red clay. Ovid gives a recipe for the whitening mixture:

Take two pounds of peeled barley and an equal quantity of vetches moistened with ten eggs. Dry the mixture in the air, and let the whole be ground beneath the mill-stone worked by the patient ass. Pound the first horns that drop from the head of a lusty stag. Of this take one-sixth of a pound. Crush and pound the whole to a fine powder, and pass through a deep sieve. Add twelve narcissus bulbs which have been skinned, and pound the whole together vigorously in a marble mortar. There should also be added two ounces of gum and Tuscan spelt, and nine times as much honey. Any woman who smears her face with this cosmetic will make it brighter than her mirror.

Ovid, Medicamina Faciei Feminae

Roman women on the mosaic in Villa Centocelle.
Author: Alberto Fernandez Fernandez | Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 2.5.

Extravagant baths in donkey’s milk were adhered to beautiful skin (for Cleopatra VII); swan fat and flour from legumes were to help in the elimination of wrinkles; in turn, the incinerated snails were to help remove the freckles – in the Romans’ feeling a negative sign of women staying in the sun for too long. All spots on the body and unattractive pimples were hidden with the help of pink color, chalk, poppy petals or crocodile droppings.

The Roman women accented the eyes with the help of a kohl, also called the cauldron, which was made and is to this day from ash and soot. This dye appeared in Rome thanks to the Egyptians and is used in the Middle East and Turkey to this day. Like modern women, the dye was spread under and over the eyes to give them a natural look. The same product was used to darken eyelashes and eyebrows. Different colors were applied to the eyelids from green to malachite or from blue to azurite. Roman women preferred long eyelashes and eyebrows.

Pompeian bathhouse, John William Godward
The painter perfectly showed the perfect Roman body.

Cosmetics were used by both rich and poor women. Naturally, however, richer Romans could afford a wider range of products and substances. The better potions did not smell; worse, the woman required the use of perfumes to camouflage an uninteresting scent. That is why Roman brothel was characterized by a mixture of stench made of make-up materials (used by prostitutes) and strong perfumes. In addition, the older the woman was, the more she tried to hide her wrinkles. For this purpose, she used more makeup and the client knew that she was dealing with an elderly prostitute.

What is worth emphasizing, all antique sources that survive to our times and treat women’s beauty have been written by a masculine hand. Ovid preferred strong when other authors appreciated the light or lack of make-up. There is no doubt, however, that the Romans paid a lot of attention to their beauty, just as modern women do. Naturally, the canons of beauty were different.

Body structure

Which silhouettes were considered beautiful in ancient Rome? We can assess on the basis of preserved sculptures, paintings, mosaics. The beautiful woman was short, slim, but with a strong physique, narrow shoulders, pronounced hips, wide thighs and small breasts. The face, in turn, should have large eyes, a sharp nose, medium lips and ears, oval cheeks and chin.

  • Stewart Susan, Cosmetics & Perfumes in the Roman World
  • Stone Ryan, Swans Fat, Crocodile Dung, and Ashes of Snails: Achieving Beauty in Ancient Rome, "Ancient Origins", 16 June 2015

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