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Roman Aids to Beauty

Scents; cosmetics; essences: D.C.S. Wiltshire finds that enormous variety for the unguents were produced in fashionable Roman world.

The early Romans indulged in few fragrances other than verbena which served a double purpose; being hung over doors to ward off both evil spirits and smells, but as they conquered the Greek colonies of Southern Italy Romans began to imitate the customs of the Greeks. Those shifts in fashion are evident in religion on to which funeral rites are stoutly grafted. Whereas in early Rome the dead were buried, the Greeks resorted to the funeral pyre; the bones were put into an urn, mixed with perfumes being more or less costly according to the estate of the deceased and the benevolence of his heirs.

There were, however, innovations. In 454 a Sicilian, Ticinus Menas, introduced the habit of shaving the beard. So successful was the new vogue that a troop of barbers was sent from Sicily to Rome where they set up shops under the porticoes of Minucius near the temple of Hercules. Scipio Africanus and his patrician clique adopted the new fashion and in a short time smooth chins, redolent with ointments, became common.

Not that the new fashion was without problems. Lucius Plotius, having been proscribed by the triumvirs, was betrayed in his hiding place at Salernum by the characteristic unguents which he wore and was prompdy put to death. After the defeat of Antiochus and the conquest of Asia the profligate use of perfumes provoked a totally ineffective consular edict in 56 B.C. banning the sale of imported aromatic preparations. That incorrigible gossip Suetonius tells us that Otho took with him on his military campaigns a complete arsenal of essences and cosmetics with which to adorn himself, and Juvenal inevitably ridicules him for his effeminacy in one of his Satires;

‘To polish off a rival and keep your complexion fresh

Demands consummate generalship.’

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