Roman Body Decorations

Roman attitudes toward the grooming and decoration of their bodies changed dramatically over the course of the long history of their civilization. From the serious and simple habits of the eighth-century- B.C.E. founders of the city of Rome, Romans became increasingly concerned with bathing, jewelry, and makeup. By the time of the Roman Empire (27 B.C.E. –476 C.E. ), bathing had become an elaborate public ritual, wealthy Romans imported precious jewels from throughout their vast empire, and women wore complicated cosmetics.

The early inhabitants of Rome dressed and decorated themselves rather simply. They might bathe their arms and legs daily, but they only took a full bath about once a week. As Roman wealth and luxury grew, however, more and more Romans began to attend public baths. Public baths were civic gathering places, perhaps like a modern gym or health club, dedicated to bathing and exercise. In the larger towns these public baths were very elaborate. They had sauna rooms and heated and chilled pools. Romans developed complex rituals about their baths; they might move through four baths of different temperatures before exercising. Men and women bathed separately: women typically bathed every morning, while men bathed in the late afternoon. All citizens in a town could attend the public baths for a small fee, but the wealthiest Roman citizens had richly decorated private baths.

For men daily bathing was the primary form of body care, and they used few ornaments to decorate themselves, other than perhaps a signet ring, often a gold ring with a decorative stone at its center. Roman women, however, developed a great love of makeup and jewelry. Following their baths, women might use a variety of different forms of skin cream, perfumed oils, and makeup. Their makeup was made from foul-smelling ingredients such as milk and animal fat, and perhaps they wore strong perfumes to mask the odor. Roman women also applied beauty spots, or colored patches, to their faces.

An intricately designed gold Roman necklace. As the Roman Empire began to prosper, jewelry became more ornate and expensive. Reproduced by permission of © .

The Romans inherited from their Etruscan neighbors (in present-day central Italy) a great love of jewelry, and as their society grew richer over time the wealthiest Romans were able to purchase and wear many different kinds of jewelry. Perhaps the most favored kind of jewelry was pearls. The simple bulla, a kind of necklace, was worn by Romans of all classes, however.


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Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

Rich, Anthony. "Balneae." Smith's Dictionary: Articles on Clothing and Adornment.*/Balneae.html (accessed on July 24, 2003).

Signet Ring

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