Cosmetics in Roman Britain

Author
Claudia Vanzo, Volunteer, Billingsgate Roman House and Baths
“All the Britons, indeed, dye themselves with woad, which occasions a bluish colour, and thereby have a more terrible appearance in fight. They wear their hair long, and have every part of their body shaved except their head and upper lip.”- (Caesar, The Gallic Wars, chapter 14)

Caesar’s famous description of the Britons is echoed in Propertius, who, writing in the mid 20s BC, harangued an unfortunate girl for wearing woad like a Briton (Elegies,II.18c.23). Pliny remarks that the wives and daughters-in-law of the Britons "stain all the body" with woad (Natural History, XXII.2). For Ovid, they are "the green painted Britons" (Amores,II.16.39; woad dye can produce a green colour).

These descriptions of the Britons, though possibly just literary devices to denote strangeness, may have been founded on the observation that the Britons used face or body colour in a way that other peoples the Romans came into contact with did not. Archaeological evidence has also shown more colours than blue may have been available in pre-Roman and Roman times. Small copper alloy pestle sand mortars sets such as these examples below, found in the Thames, or the elaborate one with an ox head from Bromley, were for grinding mineral pigment sand not only for preparing woad. The small mortars and pestles were used to grind charcoal or other cosmetics with a drop of fat before being applied it round the eye, as the fashion of the time was for heavy dark eye makeup.

Black and white outline illustration of a cosmetic grinder, with a flat bottom and two elongated sides.
Cosmetic grinder made of bronze found in the River Thames.© The Trustees of the British Museum
Four small bronze instruments made with long handles small animal heads.
Cosmetic mortar made of bronze with an ox head from Bromley. Courtesy of The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum

Evidence of personal grooming is demonstrated by the small toilet sets that consist of tweezers, ear scoops and a nail cleaner. These appear to have been a Continental fashion adopted by the British elite prior to the Conquest which then rapidly was adopted by wider society. Interestingly, although the idea of tool kit for grooming was an import from the Continent, in Britain it took on a life of its own as unlike elsewhere, the nail cleaner continued to be an important element.

Three metal instruments including tweezers, a small round headed material for ear cleaning and a flat bed instrument for nails,  on a key chain like attachment.
Toilet set of a pair of tweezers, a nail cleaner and an ear scoop found at Finsbury. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Evidence of the Romano British influence on imported grooming sets is also demonstrated by an enamelled early Roman flask found on a dig in Moorgate, London (see more here). The contents of this flask are long gone but based on its small size, its narrow neck and the fancy decoration, it must have contained some kind of liquid, perhaps an expensive one to be used in small volumes. It seems most probable that it was some kind of toilet flask perhaps containing unguent, perfume or oil associated with toilet practices with their roots in the Mediterranean. This is a fascinating Romano-British object, its form and function meeting new, very Roman, needs while its decoration was still in the British style. Most unguent jars were not so fancy, like this one made of pottery found on the foreshore near London Bridge.

A white stone jar with a large round open top and narrow bottom.
Pottery unguent jar that may have held cream, oil or perfume found on theThames foreshore near London Bridge. Courtesy of The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum

Upper-class women in the Roman empire apparently spent ages dealing with their make-up and cosmetics. The regime would begin with applying lanolin, a heavy, sticky and pungent wax from sheep’s wool. This was an incredibly effective moisturiser, albeit a little smelly, containing a lot of ingredients still used in modern-day skincare. The skin was whitened with creams with ingredients included beeswax, olive oil, rosewater, saffron, animal fat, tin oxide, cucumber, anise, mushrooms, honey, rose leaves, poppies, rosewater, lily root, water parsnip and eggs. A light pink on the cheeks was considered to be attractive. Sources of rouge included rose and poppy petals, red chalk and vermillion from Tyre. Eyebrows that met in the middle may have also been fashionable and were created with a little colouring. This can be seen on some portraits, although these are from Egypt so whether the fashion extended to Britain is not clear.

 

A panting of a woman in realistic style with olive skin, dark short hair and an exaggerated mono brow.
Limewood panel with a portrait of a woman with heavy eyebrows from Roman occupied Egypt ©The Trustees of the British Museum

White face paint was fashionable in Roman times as Romans believed that fair and white skin represented wealth and high position and this look was adopted by the fashion-conscious women of Roman Britain. Face creams reached Roman Britain as the evidence from a Roman container made of tin, still holding a 2000 year old cream found from a dig in Southwark has revealed (see more). This plainly decorated sealed pot six cm across and five cm high of ointment from the 2nd century AD, with a sulphurous odour and with fingers marks still visible on the lid, found in a drain at the site of a temple complex known as Tabard Square, has revealed the cream to be made from animal fat, starch and tin oxide. It’s thought that the fat would moisturise the skin and the tin oxide would make it look translucent.

Rich women would have personal attendants, who could be poorer relations, or use enslaved women called "Cosmetae” to help them prepare and apply their make-up, which would have been bought in a half-prepared form.

Watch this video from English Heritage about Roman bathing, cosmetics and appearance.

Julius Caesar. The Gallic Wars (Loeb edition 1917, London and New York)

Jackson, R. 2010. Cosmetic Sets of Late Iron Age and Roman Britain,British Museum Research Publication 181 (London).

Eckardt, H. and Crummy, N. 2008. Styling the Body in Late Iron Age and Roman Britain, Monographies Instrumentum 36 (Montagnac).

Wiedemann, T 1981. Greek & Roman Slavery. Routledge: London.