In ancient Greece, from as early as the fourth century BC, women adopted rouge to add a youthful flush to their lips and cheeks, daubing it onto the apples of the cheeks in a similar way to how we apply modern blusher. The rouge used by the Greeks was made from a host of natural substances, including seaweed and paederos, a root similar to alkanet, cultivated in central and southern Europe for its dye, which was extracted using oils and spirit of wine. Later, a red pigment called vermilion, created from the powdered mineral cinnabar, derived from red mercuric sulfide, was used to create a flush, but as with any mercury derivative, it would have been poisonous if used over a long period. Although makeup was worn, anything obvious was widely frowned upon, especially by the male elite who believed that a woman’s main role in life was to be virtuous and stay in the house and oversee its running. As the Greek philosopher Aristotle put it, As between the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.‚9
Although we might now think of cities as progressive places, it was the women of Athens who led the most restricted and controlled lives of all. Encouraged to stay inside, women were not only excluded from the outside world but from the whole political life of the city around them From the sixth to fourth centuries BC, women were excluded from property ownership, politics, law and war.‚10 They were not recognized as citizens with rights and consequently had to remain under the control and protection of a male relative who would decide when and whom they married. A government office even existed to regulate their public behavior.11 Every aspect of women’s lives was monitored and judged, so it’s little surprise that their use of makeup could be controversial. An exception to this rule was the hetaerae, or courtesans, who generally wore a lot more makeup and were, ironically, afforded more rights. They were also allowed to attend the symposia and control their own money. Interestingly, courtesans, professional mistresses, and prostitutes being afforded more freedom and power than other women (in addition to wearing more makeup) is a pattern that has repeated throughout the ages.
The Greek writer Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, a dialogue focusing on the subject of household management, clearly states the opinion that the use of rouge is dishonest, as it misrepresents a woman’s natural appearance:
“Would I then seem more worthy to be loved, ‚ I said, “as a partner in the body if I tried to offer you my body after concerning myself that it be healthy and strong, so that I would be really well complexioned, or if instead I smeared myself with vermilion, applied flesh color beneath my eyes, and then displayed myself to you and embraced you, all the while deceiving you and offering you the vermilion to see and touch instead of my own skin? ‚12
Considering the lack of education and rights afforded to women in ancient Greece, it’s logical to find that everything written about makeup was recorded by men. But what might be startling was just how much men had to say about it. The sheer volume of words dedicated to the subject is quite something. Whether in poetry, prose, or letters, cosmetics crop up again and again. What’s more, makeup use is described, praised, or censured in great detail, proving how divisive a subject it was.
Of the men who wrote about makeup, the writings of Xenophon are key to our understanding of how the ancient Greeks painted their faces and later, the Roman poet and writer Ovid is equally important. Unlike Xenophon, Ovid was a rarity of the time in that he seemed to actually approve of the use of cosmetics. He admittedly stressed the need for women to be virtuous above all else, as a sort of moral disclaimer, but his didactic poem Medicamina Faciei Femineae (Female Cosmetics‚) contains a variety of recipes for skin treatments. Unlike some of the remedies advocated by Roman writer and philosopher Pliny the Elder, which included the attractive-sounding ingredients mouse dung and owls’ brains, Ovid’s recipes were likely to have been successful.13 Written in the second century AD, his instructional poem Ars Amatoria is wonderfully modern in the advice it offers on relationships (rather like an ancient dating manual), with the third volume giving extensive advice to women on the preparation and etiquette of cosmetic treatments, referring to the fact that women would know to use carmine to give yourself the rosy hue which Nature has denied you,‚14 and also mentioning rose and poppy petals as blush ingredients.
In spite of the mistrust and censure with which they were often regarded, cosmetics continued to be part of daily life, and were widely available throughout the Roman period. A huge variety of makeup containers (pyxides) containing cosmetics have been found by archaeologists some made from basic, inexpensive materials such as wood and glass, which would have held the makeup of the lower classes, to more ornate containers, made from precious metals, which would have been owned by the rich and noble classes. This suggests that makeup wasn’t a luxury and would have been worn by all women, rich or poor.