Roman philosopher and playwright Plautus (c. 254–184 B.C.E. ) once wrote, "A woman without paint is like food without salt." Like the Greeks before them, Roman women, and some men, used a variety of preparations to improve their appearance. The most common form of makeup used was face paint, called fucus, spread all over the face to make it appear white. This white paste might be infused with a red dye to make rouge for the cheeks or the lips, or tinted with soot to darken the brows or the eyelashes. People also coated their bodies in oils, either plain olive oil early in the Roman Republic (509–27 B.C.E. ) or fragrant oil later in the Roman Empire (27 B.C.E. –476 C.E. ).
The ancient Romans probably needed the fragrant oils, because their makeup was made of ingredients that must have produced a terrible stink. The wife of Emperor Nero, who ruled from 54 to 68 C.E. , used a facial mask made from sheep fat, breadcrumbs, and milk. According to historian Bronwyn Cosgrave in The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day, "This mixture often produced a sickening odor if it was left to sit for more than a few hours." Other ingredients, however, may have been worse: Roman documents report that some women used a paste made from calf genitals dissolved in sulfur and vinegar, others used a concoction made from crocodile feces, and still others used oils gathered from the sweatiest parts of sheep (today the last ingredient is called lanolin, and it is used it in many skin products). By comparison, the usual facial pastes made of lead, honey, and fat must have smelled quite nice, though the lead in them could cause lead poisoning and possibly lead to death. Makeup wearers in ancient Rome certainly knew the meaning of the saying "Beauty is pain."
Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.
Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
Schmitz, Leonhard. "Unguenta." Smith's Dictionary: Articles on Clothing and Adornment. http://www.ukans.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Unguenta.html (accessed on July 24, 2003).
[ See also Volume 1, Ancient Greece: Makeup ]