If you gagged last week when you heard that bulls’ urine was used to treat thinning hair, then stop right here because today’s blog is about Roman women’s cosmetics. Beauty was as important two thousand years ago as it is today, the only difference being that then many of the preparations were made from toxic chemicals blended with excrement or some other equally disgusting ingredient.
For example, rouge could be made from red lead or cinnabar, or even crocodile dung. To thicken and lengthen their lashes (and prove their chastity after Pliny the Elder wrote that eyelashes fall out from excessive sex), women like the Roman beauty pictured here used burnt cork. But before any of these products were applied, a make-up base consisting of a mixture of the sweat from sheep’s wool, placenta, excrement, animal urine, sulfur, ground oyster shells, and bile was rubbed on the face.
Miriam was so beautiful and young, however, only 18 years old at the gala at the Upper Palace in Caesarea, that she didn’t use makeup. Still, she records in THE DEADLIEST HATE how the wealthiest and most aristocratic women in the province looked that afternoon as she scanned the throng of party-goers in the peristyle courtyard Herod built.
“Crushed against a rainbow of Chinese silks, I scrutinized their grooming while their skirts rustled the air and their hems brushed the floor. Despite the reek of their cosmetics, which no amount of Arabian perfume could mask, their artful makeup amplified every feature and expression: their red ochre lips twitching into salon smiles, their lead paste foundation caking in the crease of every pucker, and their kohl-lined eyes darting flames of jealousy at the taller, blonder, and younger among them.”
So you see, some things never change.