Cosmetics in the Greco-Roman World

This research outlines the use of cosmetics in antiquity, specifically in the Greco-Roman world. The purpose of these findings is to pinpoint exactly what type of makeup was used, describe the consumer, and understand the role of cosmetics in Greco-Roman society. A range of commonly used products will be described, along with their ingredients, and their intended purposes. The ultimate goal of this research is to investigate how the use of cosmetics fits into the lives of women in the classical world. The focus is on eye makeup and skin products, but I will touch on some miscellaneous products that are particularly unique. Sources used span from cosmetic recipes written by Roman poet Ovid (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 1-193), a material science study on white pigments as makeup in antiquity (Welcomme, Walter, Van Elslande & Tsoucaris, 2006, p. 551-556), a study on ocular cosmetics in ancient times (Murube, 2013, p. 2-7), and more rich sources.

Recreation of Ancient Roman Makeup
Recreation of Ancient Greek Makeup


The purpose of cosmetics used on the eye area, was to give the eyes and eyebrows an enlarged look by enhancing their shape (Ryan & Johnson, 2009, p. 121). Eyeliner was worn primarily by women in the Greco-Roman world, unlike South Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Africa, where it was worn by men, women, and children alike (Draelos, 2015, p. 267). A product called kohl was used in India, it was a dark black or grey powder made from grinding up a mineral called galena which is lead sulfide (Draelos, 2015, p. 267) or antimony which is a semi-metal compound. Other kohl style cosmetics were commonly used as eyeliner in Greece and Rome. There was no one specific material used, eyeliner could be made from a number of things, but was likely similar to kohl in that it was made of antimony. Saffron was an ingredient used in some eyeliners. It was high end because of its expensive price tag (due to the amount of labour it took to harvest) and would have only been used by the elite because only they could afford it. Saffron ranges in colour depending on the area it is harvested, and once it is burnt, the ash may be anywhere from a grey colour, to a “natural” skin-like colour (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 121).

Applying eyeliner took a great amount of skill (and still does!), it was drawn around the whole eye, as opposed to just above the top eyelashes, which is a popular style today (Olson, 2009, p. 298). Makeup is an art form that takes practice, but implements were fashioned to aid application. Most eyeliner-type products came in the form of a powder, so a thin stick would be moistened, dipped in the powder, then applied carefully to the eye area. These tools ranged in prices and materials, they could be made from wood or bronze, or more luxurious materials including precious metals, stones, or horn (ivory). The product and applicator could be separate, or would come attached, like the way a modern mascara tube comes with the applicator already inside the product (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 121).

Kohl has been used in India since antiquity and it actually has beneficial qualities outside of aesthetics. Kohl has been found to prevent blindness and eye infections, because of its antibacterial properties. Kohl also protects the eyes from UV radiation due to its photo-protective qualities, thus essentially acting as a sunscreen which they (knowingly) put around the eyes to protect them (Draelos, 2015, p. 267). Eyeliner used in the Greco-Roman world likely had a similar effect to kohl given that many of the same ingredients and techniques for application were used. It is evident that many cosmetics used in antiquity also had medicinal elements, which will be touched further in the next section. 

Eyebrow liner was a cosmetic commonly used by women in Greece and Rome. Some Romans found a unibrow attractive, so quite a few women chose to fill in the space between their eyebrows with eyebrow liner to create this look (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 120). Like eyeliner, the eyebrows could be darkened by several different substances, including charred saffron, crushed up antimony (used in kohl), soot, fungus mixed with other ingredients, ashes of organic material such as rose petals, and even crushed flies (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 120-121). 

For women in the Greco-Roman world, even the eye itself was subject to alterations by cosmetic products. In classical Greece, medicinal substances such as stibnite (sulfide mineral sometimes called antimonite), vitriol (salts of sulphuric acid), and lapis lazuli (a semi-precious stone known for its blue pigment) were put into the eyes to make them look enlarged (Murube, 2013, p. 4). Romans, in a similar practice, used a sort of eyewash filled with perfumes or physical embellishers like the ones listed above, to provoke a moderate pupil dilation. This dilation called “pupillary mydriasis” would last days and was considered to be beautiful in the classical world (Murube, 2013, p.4). Heavily dilated pupils let more light into the eye and so pupillary mydriasis during bright hours of the day could cause one’s vision to be disoriented, making this practice dangerous.


Skincare products and cosmetics intended to alter the appearance of the skin were the most prominent and widespread cosmetics used in the Greco-Roman world. This section will show how the value of an even, bright complexion, and healthy-looking skin, pushed women to seek recipes and products to achieve this look.

Men in classical Greece and Rome found sunburned, imperfect skin unattractive (Ovid, Medicamina Faciei Femineae, 11-16). Blemishes caused by physical labour and neglected skin were evidence of hardworking women, and was the opposite of the desired pale or “peaches and cream” complexion that was sought after (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 50-51). Pale, smooth skin was also desirable because it gave the look of a high social status, leisurely lifestyle (Olson, 2009, p. 294). Of course this look was not completely natural, nor achievable for all women, creating a desire for makeup for the skin. White lead was a common ingredient used in skin lightening cosmetics throughout antiquity (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 68). Lead shavings mixed with vinegar were fashioned into cakes or tablets, then dried and sold (Olson, 2009, p. 295). This combination was thought to produce a perfect-looking complexion, evening out the skin tone and making it appear much lighter. Lead was used despite the fact that it was known (to some degree) that white and red lead is poisonous and can be dangerous when applied to the skin due to its toxicity (Ryan & Johnson, p. 80). This likely curbed its use in cosmetics but it was certainly still used on occasion (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 80). A safer alternative was another face lightener, made from creta or chalk. This powder was combined with vinegar to create a creamy texture, that would then be spread on the face to give the skin a “dazzling” white look (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 119). Women had to be careful with the use of chalk, since it could become excessively greasy-looking, or streak in the rain or in the sun as one began to sweat (Olson, 2009, p. 295). There were a multitude of recipes and materials used to lighten the skin, the overarching goal was to create a white base for the skin. Roman women specifically, used ground oyster shells mixed with antibacterial sulphur to make their skin appear lighter (Draelos, 2015, p. 267). This is another example of multipurpose cosmetics, as this paste also acted as a way to prevent skin from becoming too dry and partially protect it from the sun, while achieving the white mask-like look.

Animal products were used in cosmetics as well as minerals. On a more peculiar note, a substance known as Crocodilea, which was just crocodile dung, was used as a facial whitener, and it is even suggested that land-dwelling crocodiles ate sweet smelling flowers, creating pleasantly fragrant dung (Olson, 2009, p. 297). The dung of a crocodile would have been used because it is light in colour. This practice is unconfirmed as Crocodilea may be a word for ‘Ethiopian soil’ (Olson, 2009, p. 297). Another interesting finding is that some upper-class women reportedly would bathe in asses’ milk because they thought this would contribute to their pursuit of achieving white-looking skin (Olson, 2009, p. 296). Though there is no evidence that this practice was effective for this purpose.

The exact substance used was not overly important, as any white product would reflect light and add brightness to the face (Welcomme, Walter, Van Elslande & Tsoucaris, 2006, p. 555). Chalk-white skin was the main goal, but it is certainly worth mentioning that rouge or blush was also used in ancient Rome to create a healthy-looking glow (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 120). Blush was commonly made from the pigment of roses, poppies, crushed mulberries, dyed chalk, or red ochre (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 80). 

It is apparent that women in the Greco-Roman world were willing to try a number of different cosmetic recipes to achieve their ideal look. The sheer number of small vessels containing white powder found throughout ancient tombs is evidence to that claim. Examples include: Hellenistic and Roman makeup containers and compacts found in tombs at Demetrias, small cosmetic boxes found in a sarcophagus in Eleusis, intense white pigments in the form of small blocks found in a cist tomb in Greece, a large quantity of white powder in a ceramic bowl from the women’s tomb 4 of Fontana del Bolle near Paestum, and a transparent glass flask in the shape of a bird, holding white material from Pompeii (Welcomme, Walter, Van Elslande & Tsoucaris, 2006, p. 552).

More societal implications will be touched on, but it is clear that sexual attractiveness and femininity were associated with an idealistic complexion in Rome (Olson, 2009, p. 299). There are however, discrepancies between contemporary artistic depictions and literary evidence. The harsh white skin and red blush tones are absent from paintings; frescoes depict much more natural looking faces than the literary sources describe (Olson, 2009, p. 297). In contrast to their Athenian counterparts, Spartan women did not wear cosmetics, as outdoor exercise would provide them with the natural glow and “silvery face” (Alcman, Partheneia, 12-15, 17, 57-59, 60) that was meant to be achieved by makeup (Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy & Shapiro, 1995 p. 64).

Miscellaneous beauty products:

This is a particularly interesting and unique part of this research, however, these examples are not as widespread as those outlined above, so this section will remain brief. These are cosmetics used in the Greco-Roman world that would not be considered makeup per se, but beauty products by today’s standards. 

Beautifully adorned hair was prized in antiquity and its aroma was important as well. Hair perfume was used by women and was meant to give their hair a sweet smell (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 51). There is also record of women using hair dye in a range of colours. Like pale skin, the Romans also found light hair aesthetically pleasing, but did not tend to have naturally blonde or light hair, so they formulated products to bleach and lighten their hair (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 88). Hair was lightened by the juice of nightshades, which are any plant containing chemical compounds called alkaloids (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 88). Blonde hair was associated most often with courtesans (sex worker with upper-class clientele) and prostitutes (Ovid, Amores 1.14, 1-2), which may have deterred women from wanting blonde hair if they did not want to identify with that line of work (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 87-88). At the same time, Aurora, Ceres, Apollo and Mercury were traditionally depicted as blonde (Ovid, Amores 1.14, 1-2) and that created a divine ideal (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 87-88). Golden blonde wigs from Germanic tribes were even purchased to achieve this style (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 95). The act of dyeing hair was popular regardless of the fact that chemical colouring could cause balding (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 87). Apart from blonde, hair could be dyed black by ingredients mixed with rose oil (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 78). The dyeing agents in black hair dye ranged from elderberries or flowers like bitter vetch and orchids, to less appealing ingredients like leeches rotted in red wine for forty days (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 88)!

If the skin was deemed too unsightly to be fixed by makeup, women would adorn their faces in leather patches cut into shapes (such as a crescent moon) to cover blemishes. These beauty patches, also called splenium, were also found to be used by formerly enslaved people to disguise branding (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 120). Unfortunately there is only literary evidence of these patches (Francis & Tatum, 1924, p. 120), but it can be assumed that the excess use of facial cosmetics could cause blemishes which one may want to conceal.

The Role of Cosmetics in Society:

Cosmetics were used by women in antiquity for a number of reasons, including; to uphold the pressures of beauty standards, as a tool to attract prospective husbands, or as a means of individual expression. An overarching theme, however, is the value of a perfect complexion placed upon women by men, who paradoxically shame women for using cosmetics to achieve these standards (Olson, 2009, p. 296).

In antiquity, there was a distinction between the “preservation of beauty” and “unnatural embellishment” (Olson, 2009, p. 294). Only the former was seen as acceptable, making the use of cosmetics a tool that must be used carefully and tastefully (if it was the approval of men that they were seeking). Some men in antiquity saw makeup as a means of deception and even an indication of “sexual immorality”, but is unclear whether these are contemporary ideas in academic literature or the reality of the classical world (Olson, 2009, p. 293). Fantham, et al. (1995) provide an example wherein makeup was seen as scandalous (p. 301), when a woman advises a female friend not to use cosmetics (p. 363). So it is apparent that there were at least some people in antiquity who were against the use of cosmetics and there may have been somewhat of a negative connotation. 

An undisputed fact is, however, that beauty standards did exist in antiquity. These standards ultimately pushed many women to use cosmetics, and makeup, specifically face whitener and products for the eyes. Makeup, like elegant clothing, elaborate hair, expensive jewellery, and even suggestive gestures, were all ways a woman could show her beauty and be appraised by a prospective husband (Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy & Shapiro, 1995, p. 28). So the use of cosmetics could be, ultimately, a woman’s way of helping her family. 

Makeup was widely used to benefit the male gaze, but there is evidence that women would adorn themselves for their own benefit, though it was seen as shameful and was discouraged (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 53). It was considered an unflattering look to be caught using cosmetics by a suitor, it could even go as far as being considered devious or ugly (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 121). Essentially, a woman using cosmetics to enhance her looks was looked down upon. Beauty was still important, as long as the act of beautification was concealed. Ovid was seemingly against the idea of cosmetics for the benefit of the individual, but saw makeup as a means to pleasure another’s gaze (Ryan & Johnson, 2016, p. 54).

An important final note about cosmetics is that they could be used and produced for all economic classes. The wealthy could afford more prestigious ingredients in their perfumes and makeup, but cheap substitutes were also widely available (Olson, 2009, p. 291). With this, the use of cosmetics could still represent social status in many cultures (Draelos, 2015, p. 267). Yes, the use of makeup was common but not universal, it would have most widely used by courtesans (sex workers) in the Greco-Roman world (Wilner, 1931, p. 37). Cosmetics were an important part of society and served a number of roles, whether it be for the individual or as a means to receive the approval of others.

This brings me to my conclusion. When speaking of and researching women in antiquity it is important to detach ones own biases and contemporary views from the subject. Material evidence and primary sources are the most accurate lens into the ancient world, so all that comes after must be viewed with a critical eye. Research on non-elite women in antiquity is extremely significant and has often times been overlooked. The lives of the working class majority are equally as enthralling to learn about and help to give a broader context to Greco-Roman society. With the topic of cosmetics, it should be understood that there are a multitude of reasons why one may use these products and it goes much farther than being seen as beautiful. Makeup could be the ticket to a better life, a way to blend into society or a tool for self-empowerment. Cosmetics are something used routinely and often overlooked as having a deeper role in human life, but the more we understand the mundane, the more we understand society as a whole. I hope to have left you with a deeper (or new!) appreciation for the everyday topics of classics and an understanding of how even the smallest, seemingly unimportant items have an important place in history.

Thank you for seeking to learn about women in antiquity! I encourage you to continue reading and researching.


Alcman. Partheneia, 12-15, 17, 57-59, 60.

Draelos, Z. D. (2015). Cosmetic drugs of antiquity. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 14(4), 267-267.

Fantham, E., Foley, H. P., Kampen, N. B., Pomeroy, S. B., & Shapiro, H. A. (1995). Women in the classical world : Image and text. ProQuest Ebook Central https://ebookcentral-

James, S. L., & Dillon, S. (Eds.). (2012). A companion to women in the ancient world. ProQuest Ebook Central

Kelly Olson. (2009). Cosmetics in Roman Antiquity: Substance, Remedy, Poison. Classical World, 102(3), 291-310. doi:10.1353/clw.0.0098

Martial. Martial’s Epigrams, Francis, A. L., and Tatum, H. F. Cambridge [Eng.]: University Press, 1924, 1-245.

Murube, J. (2013). Ocular cosmetics in ancient times. The Ocular Surface, 11(1), 2-7. doi:10.1016/j.jtos.2012.09.003

Ovid, Amores 1.14, 1-2.

Ovid, Medicamina Faciei Femineae. 11-16.

Ryan, T., & Johnson, M. (2016). Ovid on cosmetics: Medicamina faciei femineae and related texts. London: Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Welcomme, E., Walter, P., Van Elslande, E., & Tsoucaris, G. (2006). Investigation of white pigments used As make-up during the greco-roman period. Applied Physics A, 83(4), 551-556. doi:10.1007/s00339-006-3559-3

Wilner, Ortha L. “Roman Beauty Culture.” The Classical Journal 27, no. 1 (1931): 26-38.

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