What beauty was appreciated by Romans?

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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 odors.

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 author (I BCE – I 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 colored with red clay. Ovid gives a recipe for the whitening mixture:

Two pounds of barley groats and an equal amount of vetch mix and soften with ten eggs. Then, dry the mixture in the air and grind it in a stone mill driven by a patient donkey. Kill the first horns falling out of the head of a burly stag (1/6 a pound). Blow it together in white powder and pour through a sieve. Add twelve peeled narcissus bulbs and knock them together. Finally, add two ounces of gum and Tuscan spelled and nine times more honey. Such a mixture of Romance should be rubbed in the face, which was supposed to help lighten the complexion effectively.

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 lupanary 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.

Sources

  • 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
  • What were the beauty standards of ancient Rome like?, "Quora"

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