Smelling of Roses in Ancient Rome

By Laurence Totelin as part of the perfume series

The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888. Source: Wikimedia

The painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) had a knack for depicting the — sometimes imaginary — luxurious excesses of the Romans. In The Roses of Heliogabalus, he represented a banquet hosted by the emperor Elagabalus (218-222 CE). Vast amounts of delicate rose petals are drifting onto the banqueters, some of whom appear to be asleep, perhaps after drinking too much. Look more carefully, however, and you will note that some are inert but have their eyes wide open — they are dead, suffocated under the oppressive roses.

Alma-Tadema’s inspiration for his painting was a story preserved in a collection of emperors’ biographies called the Historia Augusta (21.5). There, the emperor is said to have smothered his guests with violets and other flowers — no roses then — released from a reversible ceiling. The guests were unable to crawl from under the roses and died; it is unclear whether the emperor had intended for this to happen. If the story is true, Elagabalus might have emulated another infamous Roman emperor, Nero (54-68 CE), who also had a reversible ceiling in his palace, which opened up to scatter flowers and spray perfume (Suetonius, Nero 31).

It would be impossible to count the flowers on Alma-Tadema’s canvas, but one would guess that they are in their thousands. Imagine a heap of a thousand fresh roses. Imagine their scent.

One thousand roses is the exact number we find mentionned in a second-century letter from Roman Egypt preserved on papyrus. Apollonios and Serapias write to Dionysia to apologise for having sent only a thousand roses for the wedding ceremony of Dionysia’s son, Serapion:

There are not yet many roses here — rather a shortage — and from all the farms and all the garland makers we had difficulty in putting together the thousand which we sent you via Sarapas, even by picking the ones which should have been picked tomorrow. We had as many narcissi as you wanted so we sent you four thousand instead of the two thousand you ordered (P. Oxy. 3313; translation John Muir)*

Cupids hanging rose garlands. Roman Fresco, end of the first century CE. Getty Centre. Source: wikimedia.

One thousand roses is also the number we find in the first-century pharmacologist Dioscorides’ recipe for rose perfume (Materia Medica 1.43). The recipe is long and complex and involves several stages. What is clear, however, is that the petals of ‘1000 unmoistened roses’ are left to steep overnight in 20 litrai 5 oungiai of olive oil (approximately 6.7 kg — equivalence between ancient and modern weights and measures is difficult to establish). The petals are then squeezed out, and the same amount of fresh petals can be added to the oil. Dioscorides notes that “the oil accepts the addition of rose petals up to the seventh insertion and no more.”

Imagine then that oil into which the petals of no less than 7000 fresh roses have been inserted. The head spins. Imagine too the feeling of that perfume on your skin. The thick oiliness of it. Let me tell you a secret: I feel queasy at the very thought of it. I can’t quite fathom the work involved in picking this extraordinary amount of thorny flowers, in detaching the petals without bruising them too much, in squeezing them out by hand. Yet that work was carried out, and in antiquity, it was probably carried out by enslaved people. Roses can be oppressive in more senses than one!


Muir, John. 2009. Life and Letters in the Ancient Greek World, London and New York: Routledge.

A rose is a rose is a rose… but how does it smell?

By Galina Shyndriayeva as part of the Perfume Series

Questions of words and the meanings they convey are critical for poetry and literature, but they are just as important in the poetry of the senses. While chemical knowledge seems to have little to do with poetic concerns, European chemistry at the turn of the twentieth century, around the time of Gertrude Stein’s famous pronunciation that “a rose is a rose is a rose”, called into question what a rose really was.

The preoccupation of many organic chemists at the time was to analyze and identify discrete compounds which were responsible for a specific function in the organic matter, such as providing the sensation of a grassy scent. For example, lavender essential oil was analyzed into components which were responsible for the lavender scent. Some of these compounds could sometimes be isolated from materials cheaper than lavender oil and used as an ingredient in perfumes to impart some smidgen of lavender scent.

Evaluating otto of rose at Kazanlik, Bulgaria, major exporter of roses, ca. 1906. From William Le Queux, An observer in the Near East (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1907). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Roses proved to have a particularly thorny (of course) scent to analyze. Chemists, mainly in France and Germany, published many articles claiming to have thoroughly identified the key components of rose oil (known as rose otto, the product of two sequential distillation steps), such as the alcohols citronellol, geraniol, rhodinol and others. But what was rhodinol to one group of chemists was not recognized as rhodinol to another; the second group claimed rhodinol was just an unrefined mixture of other components and judged the first group of chemists for sloppy technique. This situation was due to the delicate and laborious procedures of chemical analysis of the time. Adding to the complexity was the fact that oil from even the same cultivar of rose but grown in different conditions (altitude, rainfall, temperature, etc.) could contain different quantities of compounds. Setting a standard to demarcate a pure rose oil according to its constituents was therefore a matter of contention; what could be a rose in Germany was not a rose in France.

Yet the problem of identifying a rose oil as rose oil was not limited to satisfactorily labelling its components in a way agreed to by all the chemists. Profits from manufacturing rose oil could of course be stretched by adulterating the oil and a chemical understanding of the oil helped to choose more sophisticated adulterants. Verifying by chemical analysis whether the oil one just bought was genuine was as laborious a process. For example, a common adulterant was palmarosa oil, the major component of which was the alcohol geraniol, which was not only also present in rose oil, but varied in quantity depending on cultivation conditions. All these sophistication efforts ensured that the skilled ‘nose’, rather than chemical tests, would often remain the most trusted arbiter of a real rose.1

Rosa x damascena, principal Bulgarian hybrid for use in perfumes. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Lucia Condac / CC BY 3.0.

What about the perfumers? One option was just to identify a favorite, trusted supplier of roses and buy otto of rose, with all its complex mixtures of compounds still somewhat mysterious, only from them. A cheaper option was to replicate the rose scent without using roses at all, possible by the 1920s with a greater range of compounds being manufactured commercially. One recipe gives 80% geraniol and small proportions of other compounds, such as citronellol and phenyl ethyl alcohol. Perfumers could use this product, manufactured by a German fragrance and essential oil supplier called Schimmel, or use something similar but add a little ‘real rose’ to ground the imitation.2 This imitation option called into question what skills were more important for a talented perfumer – to replicate a rose scent skillfully using lesser ingredients, or to properly identify a high quality ‘real’ rose oil? A British perfumer for Yardley, William Poucher, for example, was evidently proud of his skills in both these activities, but what he boasted of most in his book was his ability to identify correctly the origins of different rose oils only by scent: “To the trained specialists, however, the merest graduation of odour is appreciable, and an expert florist will name the variety of rose even in the dark” (italics original).3 And these deliberations do not even take into question which perfume the consumer would identify as a rose scent!

The scent of a rose then was highly malleable, due to both intentional as well as fraudulent artistry, as well as to the difficulty of identifying its components, and defining it was a contentious process.


1. Michael Palairet, “Primary production in a market for luxury: the rose-oil trade of Bulgaria, 1771-1941,” Journal of European Economic History 28, 3 (1999): 564-566.

2. Michael Palairet, “Primary production in a market for luxury: the rose-oil trade of Bulgaria, 1771-1941,” Journal of European Economic History 28, 3 (1999), 569.

3. William A. Poucher, Perfumes, cosmetics and soaps: With especial reference to synthetics, vol. 2 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1932), 206.

Tales from the Archives: What Was Perfume in the Eighteenth Century?

In the UK, we are getting towards the end of the wonderful bluebell season. In some cooler parts of the country, forest floors are still covered with the delicately-scented flower. I love the earthy smell of bluebells as it blends with the other scents of the woods.

In celebration of the delicious smells that spring flowers bring, this month takes ‘perfume’ as its theme.

We start with a post from our archives. In this post originally published in 2014, Kirsten James reflects on the definition of perfume in the eighteenth century, highlighting the changes in the use of perfumes over that century.


By Kirsten James

Perfume as we know it is a sweet smelling liquid made from natural and synthetic aromatic ingredients. Yet, far from being a mere scent, perfume is also a fashion accessory, tool of self-definition, and convenient gift. Perfumes are now branded so successfully that names and bottles are often more recognizable than actual smells.

Simon Barbe, Le Parfumeur Royal, Paris, 1699. Image Credit: BIU Santé, http://www2.biusante.parisdescartes.fr/livanc/index.las?tout=barbe+simon&op=OU&tout2=&statut=charge

It is easy to imagine that perfume in the past was much the same. For instance, conventional histories of perfume remind us that in the eighteenth century, perfume was luxurious and worn by female courtiers, amongst others, to demonstrate their social status. This was undoubtedly the case. But a variety of evidence reveals that, during this period, perfume had multiple uses and meanings that are readily overlooked if we simply seek out the familiar present in the past.

One kind of evidence comes from perfumers’ business records. Stock inventories, account books, and sale receipts allow us to form a more nuanced impression of what perfumers sold, how much their products cost, and how they changed over time. In the late 1700s, the best-selling products available from perfumers in major European cities such as London and Paris included (as one might imagine) scented waters. However, they also included items that one would not associate with perfumers today: soap for the body, powders and pomades for the hair, alongside an assortment of tongue scrapers, tooth brushes, and toothpaste that reflected the new obsession with oral hygiene – the latter trend explored by Colin Jones in The Smile Revolution.

Advertisements, including trade-cards and broadsides, represent another set of evidence betraying the range of products sold by perfumers. In many cases, these advertisements contained a simple picture, the name and address of the shop, and a list of available products. One such broadside was displayed by Arthur Rothwell; it announced that he sold from “The Civet-Cat and Rose” on London’s New Bond Street not only perfumes and “quintessences” but also snuffs, wash-balls, hair combs and powders, skin products, and several medicines including “Daffy’s Elixir.”

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Pierre Lalouette, A New Method of Curing Venereal Disease by Fumigation. London, 1777. Image Credit: Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/newmethodofcurin00lalo

A third kind of evidence consists of medical treatises. These show that some circles considered perfumes effective medicines. As in previous centuries, perfume reputedly prevented and cured plague. But, in the 1700s, when outbreaks of bubonic plague ceased in Western Europe, perfume was set to work strengthening body and mind, preventing spasms, and curing lethargy. In the 1770s, for example, physician Pierre Lalouette invented a fumigation machine that used perfumes to treat venereal disease. Several ingredients burnt in his machine could be purchased from the perfumer’s boutique; these included frankincense, nutmeg, myrrh, and juniper. Others, such as mercury and sulphur, remained exclusive to druggists and apothecaries because they were considered dangerous.

A final kind of evidence is arguably even more useful for showing the different uses and meanings of perfume. Other contributions to this blog demonstrate how recipes can reveal much about the past. Printed and manuscript recipes for perfumes are no exception. Recipes in pharmacopoeias confirm that physicians believed in the medicinal properties of perfumes. Pharmacopoia Bateana (1706) claimed that the “Royal Essence” (consisting of musk, civet, balsam of Peru, clove oil, rhodium oil, tartar salt and cinnamon) could form an “odoriferous water” that prevented “fainting fits.”  Various manuscript collections (such as those in the Wellcome Collection) include recipes for masking stenches, purifying the air, preventing aging, and enhancing beauty.

Such books indicate how the use of perfume changed. In the early 1700s, the emphasis was still on scenting waters, gloves, linens, and homes. By the second half of the 1700s, however, the emphasis switched from perfuming things and places to perfuming the body. For instance, The Toilet of Flora (1784) recommended that “Hungary-Water” (made from rosemary, pennyroyal and marjoram flowers mixed with conic brandy) be used “to bathe the face and limbs, or any part affected with pains” in order to cleanse and strengthen the body.

As these different sets of evidence suggest, perfume in the eighteenth century was multifarious, and the history of the word “perfume” is consistent with these multiple uses and meanings. The word derives from the Latin per fumum (“through smoke”), and throughout the seventeenth century perfume usually referred to substances that released odour when heated. However, by the mid-eighteenth century the “agreeable odour” of perfume was as likely to feature in dictionary definitions as its medical uses. By the early nineteenth century, some dictionaries referred to the purported medicinal uses of perfumes as an anachronism, while adding that perfumes were increasingly sought after for their refined and luxurious scents. It would not be until the nineteenth century, then, that the meaning and uses of perfume – though not its marketing – took on a character that looks decidedly familiar to us.

Nit Picking the Greek and Roman Way

By Laurence Totelin

One of the ‘joys’ of parenthood is dealing with lice and nits. In the UK, the NHS helpfully states that ‘there’s nothing you can do to prevent head lice.’ You can only prevent them from spreading like wild fire. This school year, the problem has deepened in England and Wales, as general practitioners have been prevented from prescribing free treatments in an attempt to make savings. Treatments on sale in pharmacies and supermarkets are exorbitantly priced and don’t work particularly well. Cheaper treatments, basically covering the hair with hair conditioner and combing, are extremely time consuming but perhaps more effective in the long run.

Nineteenth-century lice comb, India. The Science Museum, London. Source: Wellcome Images

Fighting off lice infestations in our household this year has made me wonder whether the Greeks and the Romans also dealt with the issue, and if so, how. I discovered that the ancients distinguished between the adult insect, the louse (phtheir in Greek), and its egg (konis in Greek), thereby showing an understanding that one cannot get rid of the pest without removing all eggs. They also recognised that lice can live on the head, the body, and even the eyebrows. They appreciated that the easiest way to treat an infestation was to shave the hair, although perhaps not as assiduously as Egyptian priests, who according to the Greek historian Herodotus (Histories 2.37), shaved their entire body every other day to avoid lice. That method, however, was not available to those who had to wear their hair long for social or cultural reasons. Thus, Herodotus again noted of the Adyrmachidae, a tribe of Libyans, that:

Their women wear twisted bronze ornaments on both legs; their hair is long; each catches her own lice, then bites and throws them away. They are the only Libyans that do this (Herodotus 4.168, translation A.D. Godley).

This observation is meant to stress the oddness and otherness of the Adyrmachidae, whose women fight lice in a disgusting manner, without even relying on the social ritual of nit picking.

Delousing. Illustration to the Hortus Sanitatis, fifteenth century. Source: Wellcome Images

What about treatments? Ancient Greek and Roman medical authors offer some possible solutions. The first-century pharmacologist Dioscorides recorded several methods in his De Materia Medica, many of which are still in use today. Some consisted in spreading the hair with a sticky or oily substance, such as cedar oil (1.77.2) or boiled honey (2.82.2), which would presumably have asphyxiated the lice and facilitated a combing process. Others involved smearing the hair with a plant sap (sap of ivy, 2.179.3) or decoction (decoction of tamarisk leaves, 1.87.2), which might have acted as an insect repellent or poison. Dioscorides also recommended the use of alum (5.106.6) and sea water (5.11.1). Perhaps more surprising is his suggestion to give garlic, drunk with a decoction of oregano (2.152.2).

Other medical authors gave slightly more complex recipes for the treatment of lice infestation. Thus, the sixth century author Alexander of Tralles (1.459) recommended a mixture of sodium carbonate, alum, and wild grapes, each in the amount of an ounce, mixed with myrtle oil and smeared onto the head. The seventh century medical author Paul of Aegina for his part claimed that ‘I am always successful when I anoint the head with wild grapes crushed together with vinegar and oil’ (3.3.8).

In short, most of those remedies are highly sensible, if perhaps not entirely effective. But then again, what is ever effective in fighting lice? There were, however, some tall tales circulating in antiquity regarding nits and lice. Dioscorides tells us that authorities whose names were not worth recording ‘say that those who are given [viper flesh] grow lice, which is false. And some add that those who eat vipers become long-lived’ (2.16.1). The trade off for a long life, then it seems, is to eat viper flesh and become a growing field for lice. I’m not sure I would make that trade off!