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Roman women bathing

Swans Fat, Crocodile Dung, and Ashes of Snails: Achieving Beauty in Ancient Rome


Now learn, my dears, the art of beautifying your faces; learn by what means you can retain your charms.

This line, taken from Publius Ovidius Naso's (Ovid's) Medicamina Faciei Femineae, or The Art of Beauty, begins one of the best remaining descriptions of female beauty from ancient Rome.  Within it, he dictates how a proper Roman woman should be pale of face, rosy of cheeks, black of eyes, and free of unnatural scents.  Though his is not the only text that remains of Roman beauty standards, it is the most detailed and succinct account. 

The concept of beauty was not originally Roman.  In truth, the Romans' conquering of the lands of Greece and Egypt is what introduced them to the idea, and they drew on many of their provinces' customs to construct their own beautifying values.  The Art of Beauty briefly discusses the shift in beauty since the founding of Rome to Ovid's present, namely the Roman Empire, and paints a much more natural picture.  Ovid writes of how the women of Rome went from "dressing the fields of their forefathers" to "dressing themselves" because the daughters of the state are "daintier and more refined" than they were in the past.  Interestingly, the Romans did try to stick to this ideal—that is, unlike the Greeks and Egyptians, the Romans used makeup to preserve the natural beauty of a woman and not to embellish the facial canvas into a cacophony of colors.  Above all, Ovid claims that before physical beauty care begins, a woman must perfect her manners: the manners, or personality, will lure the men in and—after beauty has waned—keep them. 

Women in ancient Rome. Romantic scene from a mosaic in Villa at Centocelle, Rome, 20 BC – 20 AD

Women in ancient Rome. Romantic scene from a mosaic in Villa at Centocelle, Rome, 20 BC – 20 AD (Wikimedia Commons)

Now, the ideal Roman female was a woman of extraordinary white skin as it was evidence to onlookers that the woman spent much of her time indoors, thus was wealthy enough to afford servants and laymen.  However, since the natural skin tone of a Roman woman was closer to olive than ivory, there was still a necessary unnatural process of powdering the face.  This involved the use of chalk powder, crocodile dung, and white lead to whiten their entire face.  Ovid even describes a mixture with which to soften the coloration: he dictates that:

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.

In ancient Rome, pale skin was considered the most beautiful. Wall painting from the Vila San Marco, Stabiae

In ancient Rome, pale skin was considered the most beautiful. Wall painting from the Vila San Marco, Stabiae (Wikimedia Commons)

Some intriguing beauty regimes included taking baths in asses' milk for the skin, used by the infamous Queen Cleopatra, lover of Marc Antony, in Egypt; swans' fat and bean meal were used to treat wrinkles, and the ashes of snails could supposedly cure freckles—a negative indication that the woman spent time in the sun too often.  False beauty marks were often utilized to cover sores or pimples and the cheeks were reddened with the use of rose colors, chalk, poppy petals, or—once again—even crocodile dung.  It was not uncommon for the husband to kiss his wife and find his lips stuck to her face from this process.

The eyes were accentuated by the use of kohl, a blackening substance made from ashes or soot, mostly, brought to the Romans by the Egyptians and still used in Turkey today.  It was applied like modern day eyeliner is, just under and above the eyes to bring out their natural color according to Ovid.  This same item was used to darken the eyelashes and eyebrows, allowing them to better stand out from the pales face.  Furthermore, women were known to add color to their eyelids as well every now and again, the colors from ground up rocks and stones such as green from malachite and blue from azurite.  Both lashes and brows were preferred long—the lengthier the eyelashes and the closer the eyebrows were to touching, was considered premiere until the first century AD. 

Portrait of Sappho from Pompeii, c. 50 AD, a famous poet of ancient Rome who wrote poems about beauty

Portrait of Sappho from Pompeii, c. 50 AD, a famous poet of ancient Rome who wrote poems about beauty (Wikimedia Commons).

Cosmetics were used by both wealthy women and poor, however the wealthier the woman the more expensive the products she could afford.  These products had no scent, thus making the need for perfume obsolete, whereas prostitutes—those who tended to wear cheaper, foul smelling products—were forced to wear perfume to cover the odors (and supposedly, also the scent of sex that followed them wherever they went).  This practice was what made brothels smell terrible and what undoubtedly created the stigma that the use of perfumes was an unchaste practice.  As a matter of fact, one of the reasons proper Roman women preferred natural, light makeup was because prostitutes tended to wear far too much makeup—particularly as they grew older and older in their profession—thus an overuse of facial products became an indication that the woman was an adulterer. 

Ironically, despite the many ancient resources that provide evidence of beauty in the eye of the Roman beholder, all the known literature surviving from the period is written by men.  It is important to note that only Ovid valued the use of makeup; most other Roman authors greatly preferred little or no cover-up because of its association with adultery.  There is little evidence of what the women thought of their beauty practices; however their continued use implies that they enjoyed their benefits in spite of the stigmas.  Despite this, it is evident that beauty was as important in ancient Rome as it is today; the standards were merely different.

Featured image: Roman women bathing. ‘The Frigidarium’ by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Wikimedia Commons)

By Ryan Stone


D'Ambrosio, Antonio. Women and Beauty in Pompeii (Pompeii- Thematic Guides) (L'Erma di Bretschneider: Italy, 2001.)

Miles, Margaret R. Plotinus on Body and Beauty: Society, Philosophy, and Religion in Third-Century Rome (Wiley-Blackwell: New Jersey, 1999.)

Naso, Publius Ovidius. "The Art of Beauty," Sacred Texts, accessed June 13, 2015.

Olson, Kelly. "Cosmetics in Roman Antiquity: Substance, Remedy, Poison:" The Classical World: 102.3: 291-310. Spring 2009. Accessed June 13, 2015.

Stewart, Susan. Cosmetics & Perfumes in the Roman World (Tempus: United Kingdom, 2007.)

Walton, F. T. "My Lady's Toilet:" Greece & Rome: 15.44: 68-73. May 1946. Accessed June 14, 2015.

Riley Winters's picture


Riley Winters is a Pre-PhD art historical, archaeological, and philological researcher who holds a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor from Christopher Newport University. She is also a graduate of Celtic and Viking... Read More

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