By the time of the Roman Empire (27 B.C.E. –476 C.E. ), both men and women had largely given up the customs of simplicity and frugality that characterized early Rome. One of the most popular ways for people to ornament themselves was through hair dyes. The many traders and slaves that came to Rome and other Roman cities as a result of the empire's great expansion exposed the Romans to a wide variety of hair colors.
The most popular hair coloring in ancient Rome was blond, which was associated with the exotic and foreign appearance of people from Gaul, present-day France, and Germany. Roman prostitutes were required by law to dye their hair blond in order to set themselves apart, but many Roman women and men followed suit. The other most popular hair colors were red and black. The most striking hair coloring effects of all could only be afforded by the very wealthiest Romans; some of them powdered their hair with gold dust. The emperor Commodus (161–192 C.E. ), who ruled from 180 to 192 C.E. , was especially famous for powdering his snow-white hair with gold.
Romans used a variety of methods and ingredients for dyeing their hair. Some used henna, a plant-based reddish brown dye, and others used berries, vinegar, or crushed nutshells. Perhaps the strangest hair dye was a preparation used to turn the hair black that was made from leeches mixed with vinegar. Women would allow this awful mixture to ferment; after two months they would apply it to their hair and sit in the sun to allow it to bake in. People have continued to color their hair throughout history, but thankfully dyeing techniques have become a bit more pleasant.
Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.
"Coma." Smith's Dictionary: Articles on Clothing and Adornment. http://www.ukans.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Coma.html (accessed on July 24, 2003).
Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.