Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Did Ancient Romans use Nail Polish?

Oh, this is one of the world's greatest mysteries for me. Just next to the Nazca lines and the Maya writing.

We know a lot about the make up in ancient Rome, mainly thanks to Ovid, the only one who approves of the use of make-up. All other ancient authors take every occasion to highlight how dangerous and immoral this can be. Archaeological evidence shows that make-up was used on a large scale, from the imperial court to the most miserable suburbs – and this, by the way, is a great example of how distorted the image of Roman women is in the surviving literature.

So women used make-up extensively in ancient Rome, and some men did that, too. A beautiful skin held a great value, so they used moisturizers and foundation; rouge for the cheeks and went pretty heavy on eyeliners. Raw materials used in producing cosmetics varied considerably, depending on the wealth of the buyer, from the famous baths in asses' milk employed by Cleopatra to crocodile feces and lead (yes, they knew it was toxic. Still, it looked pretty.)

The heavy eye make-up was probably introduced by the cultural contact with Eastern civilizations, and thus is was mostly based on kohl, though we know colored eyeshadow was also in fashion at some point, especially green and blue (and they probably used minerals to achieve that, such as malachite and azurite).

Eyelashes also received their share of attention. Pliny (the same who made the subject of yesterday's post, our ultimate authority on everything that matters) says that excessive sex causes eyelashes to fall off, and thus long and rich ones are a sign of a girl's chastity. Oh, really, now. Anyway, the mascara of the time was most likely based on kohl as well.

Since they paid so much attention to the eyes, it makes sense they didn't color the lips too much (that would be a serious fashion blunder even today). There's probably a bit of a cultural issue here, since red colored lips would imply the woman drank red wine, and this was frowned upon by the serious cast from the Senate (and that's exactly why nobody cared for the Senate's opinion after a while).

We know Roman women used wigs and died their hair black, blonde, red and even blue, if the lady so fancied. The most famous recipe for black dye was one based on bloodsuckers, left to rot in vinegar for sixty days. They used curling irons, too. You didn't think those elaborate curls were natural, did you?

As you can imagine, all these stank. There's a downside in using only natural products, which is they decay fast, and, after spending three hours in make-up, you end up smelling like a compost bin. Perfumes were the solution. Our friend Pliny mentions sixty different scents, and, around the beginning of the 1st century AD, Rome imported almost 3000 tons of incense per year. This led Cicero to say “The right scent for a woman is none at all.” Does anyone feel pity for how Cicero died? He had it coming, saying things like that, really. I mean, after all the trouble these women went to, you'd expect a little appreciation.

And a lot of trouble it was. Specialized slaves, called cosmetae, were employed to apply all these concoctions, and the price for a good such slave could rival that for a doctor or teacher. There was a different slave called ornatrix, who was (apparently) more of a hairstylist.

Ok, all good, but did Roman women use nail polish? All of these seem so close to what we do today. The only evolution make-up recorded in the past 2,000 years is that it went from all natural crocodile feces to artificial substances tested on bunnies. The nail varnish is the only piece that doesn't fit it. You can so easily picture Agrippina with long, red nails, causing Nero one more fetish to deal with in his adult years. Sadly, seems that was not the case. (Sadly, because of the nail thing. Not because of Nero. He had enough problems anyway.)

There was some investment in a good manicure and pedicure (barbers specialized in that), and a certain red dye produced from insects, imported from India, could have been used to paint nails. But no author mentions that, and no mosaic depicts women with painted nails. Oh, well, let this remain one of the greatest mysteries of history for the time being.