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.

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!

A Pain in the Backside: Ancient Remedies for Haemorrhoids

By Glyn Muitjens

Although haemorrhoids are not often talked about, as many seem to consider them a source of embarrassment, they are anything but a rare condition. In fact, the Association of Coloproctology of Great Britain and Ireland suspects one in three people in Britain suffers from them sometime in life. Haemorrhoids seem to have been a common problem in Greek antiquity as well, and this inspired at least one medical author from the 5th century BCE to dedicate a treatise to them and their treatments – recipes included!

            Haemorrhoids (Greek haimorrhois, a contraction of haima, ‘blood’, and rhoia, ‘flux’) form due to prolonged pressure on the anal veins, which swell up and may in some cases lead to lumps appearing on the outside of the anus. The author of the treatise Haemorrhoids, which is part of the Hippocratic Corpus, describes their formation as follows:

Nineteenth-century representation of the excision of haemorrhoidal tumours. Source: Wellcome Images

When bile or phlegm becomes fixed in the vessels of the anus, it heats the blood in them so that, being heated, they attract blood from their nearest neighbours. As the vessels fill up, the interior of the anus becomes prominent and the heads of the vessels are raised above its surface, where they are partly abraded by the faeces passing out, and partly overcome by the blood collected inside them, and so spurt out blood, usually during defecation, but occasionally at other times as well. (Hippocrates, Haemorrhoids 1)

For this author humoral clogging, heat and the ensuing attraction of ‘like to like’ – staples of Hippocratic pathology – are to blame for the formation of haemorrhoids. Another Hippocratic claims that men from cities exposed to hot winds have heads filled with phlegm, often suffering from haemorrhoids “in the anus” (Airs Waters Places 3). The Greek word haimorrhois can be used to denote any vein that discharges blood, so some topographical precision is necessary to speak of haemorrhoids in our sense of the term.

            The Hippocratic author mentions several possible ways of treating haemorrhoids. Some of these are rather invasive: cauterization with heated irons, for example – a treatment not always welcomed with enthusiasm (“Let assistants hold the patient down by his head and arms while he is being cauterized so that he does not move – but let him shout during the cautery, for that makes the anus stick out more.” Haemorrhoids 2). The cautery wound is then covered with a plaster of boiled lentils and chickpeas for 5 or 6 days, after which an assemblage of different fabrics covered in honey is inserted in the anus and kept in place by a bandage tied around the body.

A tool to remove haemorrhoids: the Chassignae-type écraseur, London, England, 1880-1902. Source: Wellcome Images

            This final treatment points to an interesting aspect of treating haemorrhoids ‘of the anal variety’, namely that the backside is a difficult place to reach both for diagnosis – the author warns that using a device to dilate the anus for closer inspection might obscure the haemorrhoid – and for treatment, which elicits some creative responses. For example, having removed a “knobbiness” or kondulôma next to a blood vessel by hand, the author suggests to dry out the blood vessel by inserting a tube into the anus, and shove a heated iron into the tube, so as not to expose the patient to the burning directly.

            Haemorrhoids could also be removed purely with medications, for which the author provides several recipes, both for direct application and as suppositories. For example, after moistening the anus:

Grind myrrh and oak galls into a smooth paste, and add one and a half times as much burnt Egyptian alum and an equal amount of black pigment: apply this medication dry. (Haemorrhoids 8)

Recipes for this purpose were also provided by the 1st century CE pharmacological writer Dioscorides: bramble, and several kinds of frankincense when applied as a plaster could be used to treat condylomas and haemorrhoids (De Materia Medica 3.74.2; 4.37.1).

Frankincense, represented in the ‘Vienna Dioscorides’ manuscript, 512 CE

            At the end of the treatise, our Hippocratic author speaks of what he calls haemorrhoids “as pertaining to women.” The treatment is as follows:

Moisten with copious warm water in which sweet smelling substances have been boiled; grind tamarisk, burnt litharge, and oak gall, add white wine, olive oil, and goose grease, pound these all smooth, and after she has been moistened give this to be anointed. Also foment the anus after forcing it out as far as possible. (Haemorrhoids 9)

What does the author mean with “as pertaining to women”? The moistening treatment (the Greek verb used appears only a handful of times in the Corpus) is very reminiscent of those found in the Hippocratic gynaecological treatise Nature of Women, in which they pertain to the womb. Are we to imagine that these haemorrhoids are located in the uterus? The final sentence, “also foment the anus”, might be taken to point in this direction, as if the backside is not the primary concern.

            I hope to have broken some of the embarrassed silence surrounding haemorrhoids, putting them in historical perspective. Although haemorrhoids nowadays can be a nuisance, we should remember they are a common condition and rarely pose a serious threat to health. At worst, they have to be treated through minor surgery. Let’s thank the stars we’re not ancient Greeks.

All of the Greek translations, sometimes slightly adapted by me, are from Paul Potter, Hippocrates Volume VIII (Cambridge MA, London: Harvard University Press, 1995)

Cleopatra’s Eye: The Significance of Kohl in Ancient Egypt

By Hazel Lunn

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in 1963 production of Cleopatra, portraying malachite and galena kohls used in Egyptian makeup. Courtesy of

Kohl has been a popular cosmetic in civilisations across the world since prehistoric times, but its association with ancient Egypt is most well-known. We are all familiar with the Egyptians legendary eye-makeup. With Cleopatra as its ‘poster girl’, most famously depicted by Elizabeth Taylor in 1963, the queens signature eye-paint still inspires costumes and makeup looks today. Though the Greeks and Romans also used kohl as an eye-liner, its use in Egypt was much more than simply cosmetic. Used by both men and women of all social classes, the Egyptians believed kohl also had important medicinal, magical and religious qualities.

Cosmetic Use

In the eyes of the Greeks and Romans, excessive adornment belonged only to the prostitutes and favoured more naturalistic makeup, using kohl to finely line the eyes and extend the brow. The Egyptians however shared a different view and smeared kohl over their eyes daily. Wearing both green malachite and black galena in bold designs, kohl exaggerated their eyes to enhance their beauty (Tyldesley 1994, 159). Although she was not Egyptian herself, Cleopatra likely followed ancient traditions wearing beautifully elaborate eye looks, perhaps similar to our modern recreations.

To create these eye paints, kohl was ground in a pestle and mortar and mixed with oils or animal fats on palettes to; then the kohl paint was applied to the eyes using a small stick. Galena, replacing malachite, gradually became the predominant ingredient in kohl cosmetics and its use continued through until the Coptic period; the Fayum mummy portraits display less complicated, everyday use of kohl by both men and women during the Roman period, perhaps influenced more by the styles of Roman women which became popular after the first century AD. As well enhancing beauty, the cosmetic use of kohl could also indicate social rank and achievement, perhaps with more complicated designs worn regularly by the elite (Pak 2009, 108).

Religious Importance

So important was its use in ancient Egypt that containers of kohl, along with various instruments for its preparation and application, were buried alongside the dead. This clearly shows just how essential kohl was in daily life but also in the afterlife, which indicated that it had important religious functions. Kohl was associated with the deities Horus, Ra and Hathor and was regularly used in ritual. Egyptians also exaggerated their eyes with bold liner in veneration of the gods, as they believed it possessed magical properties in providing protection from diseases and warded off the Evil Eye (Tapsoba et al. 2010, 457; Illes n.d., 2).

Medicinal Benefits

Though these magical benefits of kohl may seem irrational to us today, these protective qualities are fully supported by recent studies of the various ingredients found in kohl. Egyptians faced many health issues that effected the eyes; from dust from the desert, to insects and bacteria from the flooding of the Nile, diseases such as conjunctivitis, cataract, trachoma and trichiasis played the population. The proscription of kohl to treat and prevent these illnesses can be found extremely early on in the Ebers papyrus, but were ancient physicians correct to think kohl could heal them?

Kohl contained multiple ingredients that not only added to the beautiful shine of galena, but are also known for their medicinal benefits. Zinc oxide is a powerful natural sunblock, neem has astringent and antibacterial properties and also possesses anti-viral activity like silver-leaf, while fennel and saffron were often used to fight many eye diseases. Other ingredients, such as chaksu and precious gems, were also believed to improve sight (Pak 2009, 110). It has also been discovered that Egyptians synthesised lead compounds (laurionite and phosgenite) to add into their cosmetics, which Dioscorides explains “appear to be good medicine to be put in the eyes” (Dioscorides 5,102).

Although the addition of lead to cosmetics may seem absurd due to its known toxicity, with some pitying the “devastation” kohl must have cause in ancient Egypt, these compounds were not harmful and did actually provide beneficial medicinal roles (Hallmann 2009, 71-2). A biomedical study, which made the news in 2010, ended controversy over the harmful effects of kohl. By analysing various samples found in Egyptian tombs and recreating ancient recipes, reported by Greco-Roman authors, scientists were able to test the effects of these led compounds on skin cells. Amazingly instead of causing lead poisoning, these lead compounds instead triggered an overproduction of nitrogen monoxide (NOo), which stimulates nonspecific immunological defences. This data suggests that the daily wearing of kohl made Egyptian eyes almost immediately resistant to bacterial infections due to the spontaneous response of immune cells. Although concerns about the toxicity of lead, overshadowed its benefits, this study proves that the lead compounds found in kohl did in fact serve a significant medicinal function. Tapsoba therefore argues that these compounds were deliberately manufactured and used in cosmetics to prevent and treat eye diseases (Tapsoba et al. 2010, 457-60). Galena and these other lead sulphides also provide protection from Egypt’s harsh sun by providing a shield from its glare and harmful UV rays (Pak 2009, 109). The addition of these various ingredients to kohl supports the magical protective beliefs of Egyptians and shows an understanding of ancient physicians of the many benefits this cosmetic possessed.

Although kohl was used by the Egyptians to beautifully decorate their eyes, its daily use for religious and medicinal purposes were extremely important. Though the general population may have attributed kohl’s magical healing powers to the gods, physicians and perhaps even Cleopatra herself, understood that the ingredients they added to their cosmetics were effective medicines. Its use, in various forms, has been important to many cultures throughout history and it remains a popular cosmetic across the world today.

Hallmann. A. (2009), ‘Was Ancient Egyptian Kohl a Poison?’ in J. Popielska-Grzybowska, O. Białostocka & J. Iwaszczuk (eds.), Proceedings of the Third Central European Conference of Young Egyptologists. Egypt 2004: Perspectives of Research. Warsaw 12-14 May 2004. 69-72. Pułtusk: The Pułtusk Academy of Humanities.

Illes. J., n.d. Ancient Egyptian Eye Makeup

Pak. J. (2009), ‘Review Kohl (Surma): Retrospect and Prospect’, Pharmaeutical Sciences 22, 107-122.

Tapsoba. I., Arbault. S., Walter. P., and Amatore. C. (2010). ‘Finding Out Egyptian Gods’ Secret Using Analytical Chemistry: Biomedical Properties of Egyptian Makeup Revealed by Amperometry and Single Cells,’ Letters to Analytical Chemistry 82, 457-460.

Tyldesley. J. (1994), Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt. London: Penguin Books.

My name is Hazel Lunn, I am 21, and I have recently graduated from Cardiff University with a degree in Ancient History. I am a food lover interested in gender studies and environmental issues. My degree has sparked my interest in writing and my previous love of makeup inspired my blog on the significance of khol in ancient Egypt. I hope you enjoy reading my findings.