Find out about Roman hair care in this week’s post by guest blogger Emily, a Museum Studies M.A. student at the University of Leicester.
Appearance was hugely important to the Romans, and much time and energy was invested into presenting themselves in a way which would best reflect their wealth and status. This preoccupation with appearances is evidenced through lavishly decorated Roman houses, ostentatious monuments, and even grandiose triumphal processions.
On a day to day basis, however, how a Roman man or woman styled and maintained their hair was one of the strongest indicators of their place in society. Fashions spread across the Roman Empire, and the haircare industry boomed.
Wealthy women’s hair was tended to by slaves, who themselves had their hair cut short to reflect their lower status. It is common to see women having their hair tended to by slaves depicted on gravestones, symbolising the woman’s wealth, status, and beauty in life. In sculpture, women are most often depicted with long hair and a centre parting (which was not typically worn by Roman men). Roman women’s hair would most often have been carefully controlled with hairpins, nets, and scarves. The comic poet Ovid wrote in his scandalous Ars Amatoria that women should loosen their hair if they wish to attract men. Loose hair on women was associated with loose morals. This was not the case for young girls, however, who regularly wore their hair loose.
For more elaborate hairstyles, like that worn by this Mother Goddess (on display at the Corinium Museum), Roman women commonly wore wigs made out of human hair. Black hair from India and blond hair from Germany were particularly popular. While the Indian hair was probably traded, the blond German hair was taken as a spoil of war, at least in the early Imperial period. These wigs could be sewn into a woman’s real hair, helping to create more volume and height for dramatic hairstyles. Alternatively hair could be supported and structured with shaped hairpieces, sometimes made out of fabric which had been stiffened in a curve with beeswax or resin.
Large eyebrows which met in the middle were also considered to be an attractive feature for Roman women, and women would often use soot to achieve that ‘on fleek’ monobrowed look. The Corinium Museum has two Roman eyebrow combs on display!
Hair was equally as important to men as to women. Most Roman men kept their hair relatively short as a sign of dignity and control. Politicians used artistic depictions of their hair to send a political message about how they viewed themselves, and how they wished their leadership to be perceived. Pompey the Great, a distinguished Roman general and ‘frenemy’ of Julius Caesar, had himself depicted in statuary wearing a hairstyle associated with Alexander the Great, with a lock of hair brushed back from the forehead (called an anastole). This was a statement of his political importance, wealth, his successes in expanding the Roman Empire.
Baldness was ridiculed in Roman poetry and mentioned as a cause of concern to the Emperor Domitian by the Roman historian Suetonius, but was nevertheless as sign of distinction, wisdom, and virtue in artistic depictions of important citizens and philosophers. According to Suetonius, Julius Caesar combed his hair forwards to try to cover his receding hairline. Men also curled and dyed their hair to try to preserve the image of youth.
For the vast majority of Roman history, it was popular for men to be clean-shaven. Beards were seen as a sign of a low status. Indeed, the word ‘barbarian’ comes from the Latin barba, meaning ‘beard’. In Roman comedy plays, the masks worn by actors playing cunning slaves are also bearded, and these slaves might have originally come from ‘barbarian’ tribes living on the fringes of the Roman Empire. This changed shortly before the rule of the Emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.), when beards became popular among elite young men and in the Roman army. Hadrian was the first Roman emperor to wear a beard, possibly as a symbol of his love of Greek culture or because of his family’s military background. In later periods beards went in and out of fashion.
Suetonius wrote that Julius Caesar used to have his stray hairs plucked out. Indeed, this was probably not uncommon. The Roman author and politician Seneca wrote a letter to his friend Lucilius complaining about the noise from the public baths above which he lived, including the screams of men having their armpit-hair plucked and the plucker drumming up more customers. Tweezers are often found on Roman sites, and the Corinium museum has several examples on display!
Be it a bob, beehive, or ombre, a handlebar moustache, mullet, or man-bun, hair says a lot about an individual’s personality, knowledge of fashion, and social status. The literary, archaeological, and artistic evidence available to us of Roman hair care fashions give us a tantalizing insight into this visual cultural language, how it reflects social and political values and changes, and the everyday routines of people living two thousand years ago.
This blog was written by Emily Tilley, a Museum Studies M.A. student at the University of Leicester.