History Travels with Nancy Padgett: Seeing History
Women in Ancient Rome: Beauty 

Poppaea Sabina,1st c AD, Palazzo Massimo, Rome

Roman Women and Beauty: Poppaea Sabina. Poppaea Sabina was the wife of the Emperor Nero. Marble Bust, 1st c AD. National Museum of Rome, Palazzo Massimo.

 Poppaea Sabina was considered a great beauty in her time.

For more on hairstyles: Glorious Roman Hairstyle Photos

You-Tube: How to make a Roman hairstyle: ( Empress Sabina: Ancient Roman Hairdressing," by professional hairstyle-archeologist Janet Stephens)

Roman Women and Beauty

The Beautiful Women in Ancient Rome spent a great deal of time on personal grooming and beauty preparations.

How did they learn about and decide on beauty standards, fashions, and treaments? There were several ways they learned and drove fashion and beauty trends:

* With attendants and escorts, they went shopping or had fine goods brought to them.

* They attended festivals, sacrifices, games, and entertainment with other elite women. In December of each year, Romans celebrated the women-only festival to the Bona Dea (Good Goddess), the goddess of female fertility.

* They acted as hostesses and dined in each other's houses.

* They attended women-only social and religious events.

As Rome became wealthier and more open to conspicuous consumption, the whole gamut of the beauty racket--cosmetics, hair wigs and styles, jewelry, fine garments-- exploded.

To be a Beautiful Woman in ancient Rome required exotic techniques as well as time and money.


Livia, the wife of the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, was known for her elegance as well as her modesty. Livia went to a great deal of effort to look the part. As a strong-minded Empress, Livia exerted an enormous influence over the social and political lives of elite women.

Even when her portrait bust was made at age 60, she commanded to be shown as a much younger woman. Here's what it took to "look the part."

Livia employed an enormous staff:

--Hair and make-up artists. Experts today think the more elaborate Roman hairstyles were held in place with rope. For richer patrons, gold filaments were woven into the hairnet.

The hairstyles lasted for days.

--Dressers (in Latin "ornatices") -- perhaps the fashion stylists of the day.

--Wool workers ("lanipendi") and sewers ("sarcinatrices"), who made the clothes. "Keepers of her wardrobe"  cleaned, folded, and mended them. 

Since Livia was also a priestess, there had to be a separate specialist to look after her priestly garments and accessories.

--A specialized shoemaker ("calicator") for her shoes.

--A goldsmith ("aurifes"),  a gilder ("inaurator"), and a pearl setter ("margaritarius") for her jewelry.

--And of course a masseuse.

The modest look was indeed expensive!
  Empress Livia, 1st c AD, Getty Villa
Livia, wife of Emperor Augustus. Marble Bust (fragment). 1st c. Getty Villa.

Hairdressing in ancient Rome, painted fresco, 1st c AD
Painted fresco panel from Herculaneum, Italy. 1st c AD, Naples, National Archeological Museum. Courtesy: Barbara McManus, VROMA.

Ancient Roman hairnet woven with gold
Hairnet  (remnants).  Palazzo Massimo. Photo courtesy VRoma.

Cosmetics and Galen

Galen, the famous Greek physician of the 2nd c AD, wrote also about cosmetics.

He approved of cosmetics to prolong beauty.

But he frowned upon other beauty procedures, such as dying your hair or bleaching your skin.

To  him, they were  "unnatural."

On the 13th of August each year, Roman women were supposed to wash their hair.

Galen, (idealized bust).  Courtesy: Science Photo Library.

Women's Clothes in Ancient Rome

The tunic

The tunic was constructed from two rectangles of fabric sewn at the sides up to the underarms. To hold it in place vertically, it was sewn, pinned, or buttoned over the shoulder.

The stola

On top of the tunic went the stola.  A woman put on a stola to indicate she was married.

The stola was sleeveless with straight, flat straps at the shoulder. Here the two straps were fastened by pins, brooches, or sewn together. 

For a neckline, the stola was a scoop-neck design; peeking out from under it was the tunic with its higher neckline. Like the tunic, the stola was belted at the high waistline and was full-length.

The palla

When appearing outside the home, a Roman woman would wear a palla, a drape-y long cloak on top of the stola and the tunic.

A properly dressed Roman matron would have the palla covering the back of her head with one end draping down the front of her shoulder. The palla then flowed down her back or encircled her hips, with the other end of the garment terminating in a gracious fling over the other, outstretched arm.

The palla gave her warmth and protection from the elements. It also ensured propriety.
  Woman Wearing tunic, stolla, palla
Venus. Marble, Roman.  Getty Villa.

The first layer is the tunic with its high neckline. On top of the tunic was added the stola. The stola is belted at the high waist and drapes to the floor.

The third layer is the palla. It covers both her shoulders, with one end flung over the outstretched right arm.
Updated 09-December-2016. You may contact me, Nancy Padgett, at NJPadgett@gmail.com