A Roman Lady

She lay awake in bed and thought about the new day and what she would wear. It was still dark outside but all Rome was up. Everyone rose before daybreak. She could hear the crowds outside in the street, though her bedroom was at the back of her mansion and the single little window gave out onto a quiet peristyle with a splashing fountain.

portrait of Roman lady from Fayum, Egypt

She wore her underwear—a linen loincloth tied at the waist and, on top, a tunic, which was a long shirt. She usually kept her linen brassiere on too but her husband had been there last night and it was lying on the floor where he had thrown it. Rich Roman couples didn’t sleep in the same room.

When a man got out of bed, the first thing he did after slipping into his sandals and using the bedpan, was to wind his toga around him. He became rather good at doing that though he sometimes got it wrong and, with a curse, had to start over again. A rich man of course called his servant for help.
And a lady?

The lady rang a little silver bell. Her servant, a Greek slave, came in carrying oil lamps and hung them on hooks along the wall. “What became of my red shawl? Why hasn’t it come back from the dyer yet?”

Nobody washed first thing. There was no bathroom. As soon as the lady was on her feet she sat back down on a stool to wait for the hairdresser. “Where is Irene? Do I have to ring again? I swear I’m going to have that girl whipped.”
Irene was the hairdresser, the ornatrix.

A good ornatrix was hard to find and prized, even loved, by her mistress; there are gravestones with the names of beloved hairdressers and the families they served so well. Bad ornatrices were of course cursed, and more than once.

They had to be very skilled to bring off all the tiers of hair and make them stay put. In the days of the good-old Republic a hairdo was a simple matter: a part down the middle and a bun at the back. A little later, in Caesar’s time, ladies braided their hair and then mounted the braids on pads above their forehead. That style was immortalized in the great busts of Livia and Octavia.

Roman hairstyle

The tiers of braids got higher and higher. By Flavian times (50 AD) they became great towers studded with jewels. Juvenal the poet made fun of one lady who piled her hair up high: “From the front you would take her for Andromache, but from the back she isn’t so tall—you wouldn’t think you were looking at the same person!”

When the lady’s hair was made up, the ornatrix painted her face. She brought out her vast collection of bottles and pots and jars and pyxes and lay them on a table beside her lady, who ordered her to make sure the door to her room was locked. Her husband had a way of barging in; and you know what Ovid said: Art beautifies only when it is concealed.

Her forehead became snow-white, as well as her arms. That was done with chalk and lead-white. Irene reddened her cheeks and lips with the lees of wine or ochre; and she drew her eyebrows and the lines around her eyes with a paste of ashes or antimony. There were only bad hand mirrors of polished metal and the light in her room was not good, even with the door to the peristyle wide open, so a lady had to trust her ornatrix very far.

See Part Two and learn how the lady dressed to become a dazzling beauty in a full-length robe and silk shawl, and with a red ribbon in her hair.


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11 Responses to A Roman Lady

  1. James says:


    Romans (as all Mediterranean civilisations) paid more attentions to intimate hygiene then any other in the known world. “No-Latin” tribes/civilisations won’t reach the level of “Roman hygiene” before the Modern Age begun

    “Carcopino’s Daily Life in Ancient Rome” is the only source mentioning (as a single anecdote) what you assume… But it’s just a misleading drop in a sea of conventional and recognised historiography confirming the intimate hygiene was a must was Roman ladies.


  2. 100swallows says:

    Hello: Could you tell me which? My source for most of it is Carcopino’s Daily Life in Ancient Rome, Chapter 6, part 4

  3. Hello says:

    Some of this information isn’t correct, I know as I study hisory, sorry.

  4. 100swallows says:

    Danu: I was following the Carcopino (Daily Life in Ancient Rome) and didn’t even realize when I said the lady didn’t wash in the morning that someone might understand that she NEVER washed. She slept in her underclothes (there were no pajamas) and, “consequently she, like her husband, had nothing to do when she got up but to draw on her slippers…and then drape herself in the amictus (tunic) of her choice; and her preliminary ablutions were as sketchy as his. Pending the hour of the bath, the essential cura corporis for her as for him consisted of attentions which we would consider accessory. In matters of toilet the Roman lady of the empire resembled the oriental lady of today; she considered the superfluous thing the most necessary.” There were private baths (balneae) for great ladies and also private rooms in the public baths (thermae).

  5. ivdanu says:

    Swallows, you sure about the “nobody washed” thing? Romans were famous, I thought, for the public baths and such…

  6. 100swallows says:

    Eileen: Did your Juno have a hairdo like that? I’d say this is a portrait–maybe of an emperor’s wife. I found it on the Net when looking for an illustration of a hair-tower. It doesn’t seem idealized enough to be a Juno.

  7. 100swallows says:

    erika: I’ve been here longer than you in Canada. I’ll have to look up that play by Mrozek.

  8. erikatakacs says:

    I know what you are talking about, Swallows, it’s a subject that can be discussed for hours if not days. Polish author Slawomir Mrozek has a brilliant play on this, ‘The Emigrants’. I’ve been here for 18 years. And how long you’ve been in Spain?

  9. wpm1955 says:

    This looks like a statue of the Roman goddess, Juno. (I just happened to look up Juno for my own class at school, and it looks like her!)

    Best regards,
    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas

  10. 100swallows says:

    erika: when you (I) write about old times, just as when you write about a foreign country, you can make things seem familiar to the reader or you can stress the differences and make them sound mysterious. I’m afraid the first is not really very instructive. People just conclude that the world is well-known to them. In fact, living in a foreign country, you are surprised all the time at the differences. Often you suffer from them. And it is sad to realize that there is no way to tell the folks back home about a world so unlike theirs. How long have you been in Canada?

  11. erikatakacs says:

    I love to read about everyday life in ancient times. Life for the rich hasn’t changes much. Same routine, same preoccupations, same empty existence…Not all of them, of course. I would like to read about the common Romans’ life too. Love that sculpted head. The hairdo is almost as crazy as in Rococo.

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