Ovids Grooming

In the new frescoed Roman art and portraiture set up for permanent public display on their household walls and floors, there were no lice, smells, wrinkles, disfigurements, or blemishes— just delicately pencilled oval faces and graceful bodies, as neat and as perfect as their owners had intended themselves to be.

Egypt had formerly dominated the western Asian cosmetics trade;now Rome was becoming the main consumer and entrepot for powders, oils, perfumes, incense, silk, shawls, artificial flowers, rare woods, gems, jade, porcelain, gold, and silverware flooding in from all over Asia. Rome was also the main entrepot for the large trade in raw materials and finished products sent back in return; and for the further distribution of the Eastern luxury goods into its northern and western European hinterlands.18 Social grooming and cleansing had the same purpose then as now. In a rapidly expanding and competitive commercial society, where your outward appearance could propel you up (or down) the social ladder, even cheap perfumes and cosmetics were better than none: they indicated that you had at least made the attempt. Of course there were fine social gradations in cosmetic care, which the poet Ovid was at pains to describe.

P. Ovidius Naso (43 bc-ad 17), the fashionable poet, wit, and scandalous man-about-town, is one of our best sources on Roman cosmetics. His renowned work Metamorphoses includes a much-quoted speech on the moral purity of vegetarianism, and was an Orphic ode to love in all its forms. He also produced the only known cosmetic receipt book in verse, while his famous Ars Amatoria ('The Art of Love') set new standards of refined courtship and seduction which later made him the idol of aristocratic boudoirs in Renaissance Europe. Ars Amatoria showed him to be a close observer and cheerleader of this newly affluent society:

The good old days indeed! I am, thanks be, This age's child: it's just the age for me; Not because pliant gold from earth is wrought, Nor because pearls from distant coasts are brought, Not that from hills their marble hearts we hew, While piles encroach upon the ocean's blue: It's that we've learnt refinement, and our days Inherit not our grandsire's boorish ways.19

8 A well-dressed naiad reclining in the Hall of the poet Arion, in the late fourth-century ad Roman villa at Piazza Armerina, Sicily.

Ars Amatoria was in fact a passionate text on the civil arts of grooming. For the male citizen there were masterly instructions on how to dress and woo the fair, with sensitive treatment of the problems of female rejection. For women—'my scholars fair, Pupils of Ovid'—there was comprehensive and ganika-like advice on the essential rules of beauty, dress, deportment, hair-styling, music, poetry, manners, and character. By all accounts heavy resources were thrown into the morning regime of the average Roman male and female, and long hours were spent at the toilette table. Fully costumed Roman women were particularly splendid and ornate compared to their Greek or Egyptian counterparts, wearing more colour in their clothing, more paint, and far more elaborate jewellery and hairdressing.20

Ovid saw cosmetics as a philosophy for life, and his basic message was self-cultivation: look after yourself, make the most of your self. The morality was unabashed hedonism; women should grab beauty with both hands, in the face of ravaging time:

Looks come by art: looks vanish with neglect...

While yet you can, while life is at its spring —Years fleet like running water—have your fling...

Pluck then the flower, which left will merely rot...21

A more sober tone was adopted in Ovid's cosmetic poem 'Medicamina Faciei Feminae' ('Cosmetics for Ladies'), the prototype for many centuries of wise parental advice about love and beauty: 'A face will please when character is fine... Love lasts for character: age ruins beauty... Goodness suffices and endures forever;on this throughout its years true love depends.'22 But Ovid's philosophy of cosmetics was also practical, even political: it was a social duty to use the cosmetic arts. He saw cosmetics as part of an honourable craft tradition, and endlessly praised human ingenuity. All culture originated from cloacal nature, but the glory was to perfect and tame it: 'To make a ring, first crush the shining ore; that frock of yours was a dirty fleece before.' It was human artifice that produced beauty: 'cultivation sweetens fruit that's bitter... marble hides black soil below'. Hence his technical interest in 'Medicamina Faciei Femina'—'a little guide to make-up I have writ, though small in bulk, in labour infinite'—which consisted of his personal collection of 'cures for damaged looks' (with receipts now mostly lost) using rouge, saffron eye make-up, kohl, patches, wigs, washes, skin lotions, and who knows what else. In large Roman households the making of cosmetics was traditionally supervised by one of the older women (the dresser, or ornatrix) with her team of slave girls (cosmetae), and was a serious and seasonal business, like all food-preserving.23

Ovid knew his world well: 'hair's curled deep in the country; though they're hidden on Athos, they'll be smart on Athos too'. Wealth was not absolutely essential for careful grooming;and Ovid warned his pupils against vulgar ostentation. The idea was to be subtle and restrained and, above all, clean and trim. Use colour artistically, don't overdo the display of jewellery or 'stagger forth in cloth of gold';neatness was enough: 'By chic we're charmed: no rebel curl should show: A finger's touch, and looks will come or go.'24 And finally—as if any one would actually need to know about cleanliness!—Ovid laughs off intimate personal hygiene as a joke:

How nearly had I warned you to beware Lest armpits smell or legs be rough with hair!

But it's no squaws from Vaucasus I teach Or Mysian dwellers on Caicus beach;

As well to bid you wash your face each day, Nor leave your teeth to blacken with decay...

Nor cleaning teeth in public I advise... Make sparing gestures while you chat Whose nails are scrubby or whose fingers fat.

Talk not when empty if your breath offend, And always keep your distance from your friend.

... Beauty's aids should ne'er be shown.

A face besmeared with [cosmetic] dregs, whose drippings light On the warm bosom, is a loathsome sight... All this gives beauty, but it's ugly viewing, Much that delights when done disgusts when doing.25

Ovid is too discreet to mention the cleaning of that other part or orifice the anus, though archaeology has shown that the Romans were evidently quite fastidious in this respect, using the little sponges, wedged into short sticks, which have been found in debris of their latrines. Sponges and rag cloths were used during female menstruation, with basin-washing, and baths where available.

Roman male fashions were in theory extremely hostile to the painted cosmetics, coloured cloths, and long hair favoured by women, or any other perceived effeminacy or 'dandification'. The fashionable Ovidian ideal was the sober, military, Greek, clean-limbed look:

Man's beauty needs no varnish . . . Limbs clean and tanned by exercise delight, And spotless clothes that match the figure right... Nor sprawling feet in floppy hides encased. Nor wear an ill-kempt crop ineptly sheared, Have expert hands to trim both hair and beard. Well pared and clean the finger-nails should be, The nostrils kept from lurking bristles free. Nor by foul breath from unclean lips exhaled...26

Roman men were weaned from their original beards by the arrival of the clean-cut Greek fashion around the first century bce, and the Roman barber (tonsor) was a man with a respected skill. From then on, says the historian Jerome Carcopino, 'nothing but the gravest and most painful crisis would have induced the great men of the day to omit a formality which for them had become a state duty'. Most of the emperors were clean-shaven, and used simple warrior haircuts suitable for a quick, manly 'stroke of the comb'. Perfumes were allowed, and simple rings or other tokens, but the main beauty was muscular, gained in the gymnasium—with 'the swift ball, the hoop, the lance', or by swimming in 'Calm Tiber's streams or Maiden's icy flow'.27 Training and regimen were not exactly high on Ovid's agenda— they merely helped to produce a pleasing effect. Cosmetics existed to give a final civilized polish to the appearance, smartening up bodies that had already been prepared by all possible means. He left the medical preparations to others.

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