When the world is functioning normally I usually have my hair cut every 2-3 weeks. This routine has taken a hit during lockdown and my hair now has been left untouched and unkempt for near on 14 weeks. It has got to the point where I do not really recognise myself in the mirror as, rather than Lewis, I appear to be greeted by a human wearing a lego man’s hairpiece. I haven’t tried anything with my new style and I am leaving it to grow until the barber shops reopen which by then, could see me in a top knot. This period of longer hair got me thinking (with a nudge from a friend, shout out to you KN) about what people of the ancient world did with their hair.
The concept of ancient hair routines and rituals is not something I have considered before so looking into this was really quite something. Just like my post on ancient cooking, this may just inspire you to try an ancient Roman lockdown look. So, without any further delays, here is what the women and men of ancient Rome did when styling their barnets.
Single? Looking for a partner after lockdown? Look no further than a “looser” hair style. That, of course, is pretty vague but this, according to Roman poet Ovid, is what women should be doing with their hair if they want to attract a man. Ovid dedicated an entire stanza in his Ars Amatoria (On the Art of Love) to instructing women on how they should wear their hair. Now, I’m fairly sure that any women who may be reading this now wouldn’t appreciate a man telling them what’s best for them in terms of hair style, but regardless of this fact, here’s a quote from Ovid:
“Women with round faces should wear their hair lightly twisted into a knot on the top of the head, leaving the ears exposed…Some women like to adorn their hair with the shell of the Cyllenian tortoise, others to wear it in towering waves. But there are not more acorns on an oak tree, more bees on Hybla, or wild beasts on the mountains, than there are modes of doing a woman’s hair, and new ones are invented every day.”Ovid – Ars Amatoria, translated by Julian May 1930.
Even Ovid, and I do understand how he feels here, knows that there are endless styles women can achieve and even if they ask your advice, your answer is most likely futile. But if you have a round face or enjoy using the shells of tortoise then now you have an indication as to what a Roman man may find attractive.
If you were lucky enough to catch Bettany Hughes’ Secret’s of Pompeii’s Greatest Treasures on Channel 5 then you will have had an insight into some of the most common, and most desirable, hair styles and treatment for Roman women. A fresco, found in Pompeii, depicts a woman with one popular hairstyle which you can see below!
As you can see, curls were definitely a popular choice with Roman women and, with this fresco, hair nets were seemingly somewhat fashionable. Headwear of any kind was used by women to convey an important message – don’t touch me. A veil, net or hood would tell men seeking sexual activity to back off but, according to Roman author Seneca, this would also encourage men as they saw it as a challenge – something still relatable in our modern age.
But what about haircare? Which methods were popular? This is where things become distinctively Roman and a little bit more questionable. Spotting greys in your hair is worrying for some but you’re not alone. Romans were also aware of grey hairs and did their best to cover them up just like people still do today. If we want to rid ourselves of grey hairs we can just nip down to the shops and grab some hair-dye closely matching the colour of our hair. For Romans, as expected, it just wasn’t that easy and therefore they came up with their own methods for hiding their age. Earthworms. Yes, you read that right, earthworms. Romans would combine a paste which was made from these slippery little creatures and a mixture of herbs. This paste would act as an overnight hair-dye concealing any stray greys they had spotted the day before. So, if lockdown has you missing your hairdressers, you can colour your own hair with earthworms and herbs until they open again!
For more on women’s styles, including their make up routines, see Madeline Warner’s post here.
Like women’s styles, men chopped and changed depending on what was fashionable but the general consensus was one that saw shorter hair as the preferred option. One thing which became clear during the late republic, and early imperial age in Rome, was that baldness was not welcomed and, in fact, was seen as a deformity. So for all of you that decided lockdown was the perfect opportunity to shave it all off, you, according to the Romans, are now ugly. You may be slightly relieved to hear that arguably one of the greatest Roman generals in history, Julius Caesar, was balding. Reconstructions have taken place in an attempt to reveal what Caesar may have looked like in the flesh rather than in marble, and it is safe to say they are somewhat grotesque.
An esteemed leader who could not grow a full head of hair did not go unnoticed in Rome and Suetonius, a Roman biographer, pointed out the balding head of Caesar in his work The Twelve Caesars.
“His baldness gave him much uneasiness, having often found himself on that account being exposed to the jibes of his enemies.”Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars Julius 45.
Most depiction of Julius Caesar have him wearing a laurel wreath crown upon his head, most likely to mask the baldness in a sort of ancient version of a baseball cap we see men wearing today so, strangely, little has changed in terms of men’s attitudes towards balding – it’s just as embarrassing today as it was in ancient Rome.
This isn’t a style per se but more of a preference. Roman bath houses were a hotspot, quite literally, for spa treatments including the removal of body hair. There were certain areas of the body the Romans wanted to keep naked and before you all put your minds in the gutter, I’m talking about armpits. Armpit hair was considered to be unattractive and therefore Roman men and women would have it removed when visiting the public bath houses. After visiting both the frigidarium and caldarium (cold room and hot room), Romans would then seek some beauty treatments in the tepidarium (warm room). Bettany Hughes, when discussing this in her documentary, talks of how screams could be heard from outside the baths when armpit hair was being removed – ouch!
So if you want to be truly Roman during lockdown, eat fermented fish guts with everything, pluck those armpits, and rub herbs and earthworms into your hair – delightful!