Asses' Milk & Monobrows: Beauty Tips From Ancient Rome

"A woman without paint is like food without salt." – Plautus (254–184 BC)
Publish date:
June 25, 2013
fragrances, eyebrows, hair, makeup, skin, history, milk, unibrows, fair skin, wine, Ovid, Rome

Things I remember from my school trip to Italy: pizza, obviously; the illicit soapy taste of Limoncello; thinking that Italian boys were much more charming than English ones (in hindsight, they had the distinct advantage of me not knowing what they were saying).

But most of all: Although the Vatican and the triumphal arches and the imperial palaces were awesome and overwhelming, my favourite place was Pompeii, where you see the normal stuff, the day-to-day of Roman life.

I remember my friend and I translating some graffiti with painful slowness: "We two… friends forever… were here." Two-thousand-year-old graffiti that sounded like it was written yesterday, by us.

Post-Pompeii, I was left with a love of everything Roman and, in good time, discovered Publius Ovidius Naso, aka Ovid, the Gok Wan of first-century Italy (minus the obsession with waist belts, at least as far as we know).

Ovid, hailed as one of the masters of Latin Literature, wrote a book entitled Medicamina Faciei Femineae (Women’s Facial Cosmetics).

Remember Marci’s post on favourite beauty books? Mine’s got to be MFF!

Not convinced? Grab a limoncello (tastes gross but will make me look better in the photos) and pull up a seat.


"Let every woman strive to look her best… There are women who, even though buried in the country, are yet most careful about their hair."

So there you go. Let not your rustic surrounds impede attention to your coiffure!

As great as that lady undoubtedly looks, she’s clearly ignored Ovid’s next golden rule: "Many women look great with a careless look. Contrived styles must look casual."

Ovid also advises the use of an "ornatrix," widely translated as "hair slave." If you have perchance given your hair slave the day off, you might benefit from these handy tips: "May each woman choose, in front of the mirror, the hair style that is most suitable for her. A long face needs hair to be simply parted on the forehead. A rounded face adores hair gathered on the head with a knot, exposing the ears; otherwise loosened onto the shoulders."


"Now, when you have had your fill of sleep, and your delicate limbs are refreshed, come learn from me how to impart a dazzling whiteness to your skin."

Pallor was vital to the Roman lady, as a signifier that she was far too delicate (and wealthy) to step outside. Some of them even used to highlight their veins with blue mineral powder to suggest the thinness of their skin.

A Roman lady would have used lead or chalk to whiten her complexion. Romans knew that the lead in their foundation was harmful to their skin, but thought olive oil could act as a protective primer.

"Luckily" for me, the English weather means I look like I’ve been at the lead without going anywhere near face-poison. Nonetheless, I had a go at moisturising with olive oil--smells lovely, but makes me feel a bit like pitta bread.

Bonus face fact: Roman ladies thought that spots could be cured with a mixture of barley flour and butter. This is handy as I get quite a lot of flour and butter (aka cake) on my face over the course of an average day.


"Apply your art to reinforce the thin rim of the eyebrows."

Big brows were serious business in Ancient Rome, and every gal craved a monobrow. (Annie would probably have been married to Emperor Augustus.) Women often extended their brows inwards using soot.

Now I would’ve thought that, with soot on her face and ruddy red-wine cheeks (see next section), our Roman lady might risk ending up a bit like Santa fresh from the chimney. But apparently they would have applied it very carefully--with glass or bone sticks!

They also would have used black kohl, or malachite around their eyes if they were feeling daring. Green eye makeup was popular in Egypt and became fashionable among the Romans after they conquered Egypt in 30BC.

Romans thought that too much sex made your eyelashes fall out, hence the distinction of long eyelashes. Because mascara hadn’t been invented yet, they would have used a bit more soot because, hey, why not!


"If the face lacks the natural rosy hue that comes from the blood, there are arts to achieve it."

Roman ladies tried all types of stuff to imbue that "rosy hue": red wine and poppies soaked in water were popular, as was red ochre. They also used rust.

Although this sounds a bit of a health and safety issue, most of our lipsticks today still contain iron oxides. The wine option is clearly the most appealing, though, and I can report after sustaining accidental red wine mouth stainage conducting rigorous experiments, it actually stains pretty well. This must be why the Romans mostly went for mosaic floors over carpets. Ha!


Ovid doesn’t actually mention bathing in MFF, but I thought it would be rude to talk about the Romans without mentioning baths. They LOVED their baths. Even more than Carla and Oprah. Their bathing rituals are worth a whole article to themselves. But in brief, I would like you to know that I have bathed in asses’ milk, principally because I thought I might turn into Elizabeth Taylor.

Asses’ milk, made famous by Cleopatra over in Egypt, was very popular with Roman ladies. Pliny the Elder describes how Poppea, Nero’s wife, couldn’t get enough of the stuff, because it "erases the facial wrinkles, makes the skin more delicate and maintains the whiteness."

Not only is donkey milk rich in vitamins, minerals, and omegas 3 and 6, it also contains a high amount of retinol, which is known for its anti-ageing, tightening and healing properties. Pretty amazing, huh? And pretty easy to get hold of in most places if you have a Google.

I had a lovely time splashing about in milk pretending to be the Queen of the Nile, and my skin felt quite soft afterwards, but I’m not sure it’s worth buying a donkey or anything.


Many Roman men considered perfume immoral because women used it to cover up their telltale scent post-sexing or drinking. To be fair, post-asses’ milk and with half a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon on your face, you may well smell a bit of pub and donkey. Lavender and lemon scents were popular with Roman ladies.

You might be interested to know that there was one more thing that Ovid was very strict about: "May your lovers never find you with cream in jars; the art that makes you beautiful will have to remain a secret… Who would not be troubled by a face of scum, such a weight of it that it trickles down between the warm breasts?"

Just wanted to leave you with that image.