What was the Romans’ perception of beauty?

In the Augustan era, Roman poet Ovid penned “Medicamina Faciei Feminae,” a treatise on feminine aesthetics, defining beauty through a pale complexion, rosy cheeks, and dark eyes, free from any noxious skin odors.

Romans were not pioneers in the adulation of feminine allure; Egyptians and Greeks had long established their own beauty paradigms, which later shaped Roman ideals. Ovid’s work elegantly encapsulates the evolving perceptions of beauty in Roman society, spanning from the founding of Rome to the author’s time (1st century BCE – 1st century CE). Unlike the Egyptians or Greeks, Romans used cosmetics sparingly, primarily to enhance natural features rather than create vivid facial palettes.

Ovid also extolled the importance of virtuous character traits in women, asserting that nurturing these qualities would secure marital stability and a husband’s affection.

During Ovid’s lifetime, beauty ideals favored alabaster skin. Untanned skin suggested that a woman spent most of her time indoors, indicating her wealth and her ability to afford slaves. Women often whitened their skin with chalk and tinted their lips and cheeks with red clay. Ovid provides a recipe for a whitening mixture:

“Take two pounds of peeled barley and an equal quantity of vetches moistened with ten eggs. Dry the mixture in the air, and let the whole be ground beneath the mill-stone worked by the patient ass. Pound the first horns that drop from the head of a lusty stag. Of this take one-sixth of a pound. Crush and pound the whole to a fine powder, and pass through a deep sieve. Add twelve narcissus bulbs which have been skinned, and pound the whole together vigorously in a marble mortar. There should also be added two ounces of gum and Tuscan spelt, and nine times as much honey. Any woman who smears her face with this cosmetic will make it brighter than her mirror.” – Ovid, Medicamina Faciei Feminae

Extravagant donkey milk baths were believed to enhance skin beauty (a practice attributed to Cleopatra VII); swan fat and legume flour were used to combat wrinkles; and burnt snails were employed to eliminate freckles, which Romans saw as undesirable signs of excessive sun exposure. Blemishes and unattractive spots were concealed with pink color, chalk, poppy petals, or even crocodile dung.

To accentuate their eyes, Roman women used kohl, derived from ash and soot, introduced to Rome by the Egyptians. This cosmetic is still used in the Middle East and Turkey. It was applied both below and above the eyes for a natural look, and also to darken eyelashes and eyebrows. Eyelid colors ranged from green malachite to blue azurite. Long eyelashes and eyebrows were highly favored.

Cosmetics were not limited to wealthy women; both affluent and impoverished Romans used them. However, richer women could afford a more extensive range of products. Superior potions were unscented, while inferior ones required perfumes to mask unpleasant odors. Consequently, Roman brothels were known for a pungent mix of makeup scents used by prostitutes and strong perfumes. Older women, in particular, used more makeup to conceal wrinkles, making it obvious to clients that they were engaging with an elderly prostitute.

It is noteworthy that all ancient sources on women’s beauty were penned by men. Ovid preferred strong makeup, whereas other authors favored minimal or no makeup. Nonetheless, it is clear that Romans placed great importance on beauty, much like modern society, though the standards of beauty differed.

Body Structure in Ancient Rome

From sculptures, paintings, and mosaics, we glean that the ideal Roman woman was short and slender, yet robust, with narrow shoulders, prominent hips, wide thighs, and small breasts. Her face should feature large eyes, a sharp nose, medium lips and ears, oval cheeks, and a defined chin.

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