There Were Hair Rinses And Curling Irons In Ancient Rome

Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), a masterful Roman poet, wrote verses about romance, love, eroticism, and all manner of topics related to women—including fashion trends—in his collection of poems called The Amores. Particularly, in Amores 1.14, Ovid attested to the use of hair rinses, dyes and ancient curling irons that were being used by the women of his day. Unfortunately for the muse of his poem, Amores 1.14 was far from laudatory of the ancient Roman hair products. Instead, Ovid’s poem was a cautionary horror story. As Ovid told it, the muse of his poem applied a rinse to her hair and then later curled her locks with a heated iron. The results, unfortunately, were catastrophic to the poor girl’s hair, with the rinse or the ironing—or a combination of the two—ultimately leading to a condition of temporary baldness for the shocked young woman. Ovid rudely immortalized the embarrassing event, writing,

“I told you to stop using rinses—and now just look at you!
No hair worth mentioning left to dye.
Why couldn’t you let well alone? It grew so luxuriantly,

Poor down-fine tresses,
What torture they had to endure!
You decided on corkscrew ringlets. The irons were heated,
Your poor hair crimped and racked
Into spiraling curls, ‘It’s a crime,’ I told you, ‘a downright
Crime to singe it like that. Why on earth
Can’t you leave well alone? You’ll wreck it, you obstinate creature,
It’s not for burning.

If your hair’s fallen out, it’s not
Any envious tongue that’s to blame. You applied that concoction
Yourself. It was you that did it. All your fault.”
(Ovid, The Amores, 1.14, approximately lines 1-44)

Regardless of what really happened to the Roman woman’s hair, the damage was evidently bad enough for both her and Ovid to conclude that a wig was promptly needed. This decision, however, struck Ovid as sadly ironic; the wig likely would be made from the locks of a captured foreign woman. Therefore, in order to cover up his muses’ hair mistake, another woman elsewhere would have to be subjected to a similar traumatic bad hair day.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Cropped section of The Women of Amphissa, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Clark Art Institute).


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