“Claudius, your skin looks great! Been busy with the tweezers again, have you?”
That might not be what you’d expect one Roman soldier to say to another, but the big, burly centurions stationed at Shropshire’s Wroxeter Roman City had quite a detailed beauty regime.
However, looking good could be extremely painful, judging by the number of tweezers found here!
Managed by English Heritage, Wroxeter Roman City lies six miles from Shrewsbury, and in its heyday was one of the largest Roman cities in Britain. Historians believe it was as large as Pompeii.
The city of Wroxeter, or Viriconium Cornoviorum as it was known, was developed by the 14th Legion from a small frontier post into a fortress capable of housing 5,000 troops and 500 cavalrymen.
Today, the impressive ruins of its public baths, plunge pools, hot and cold dry rooms, and steam rooms, hint at the lengths to which these soldiers went to look and feel good.
A new exhibition offers a fascinating insight into a typical Roman’s beauty regime.
Amongst the 400 artefacts on display, many of which have never been seen before, is a selection of tweezers.
“It may come as a surprise to some,” says Cameron Moffett, English Heritage Curator at Wroxeter Roman City, “that in Roman Britain the removal of body hair was as common with men as it was with women.”
“Particularly for sports like wrestling,” she continues, “there was a social expectation that men engaging in exercise who required minimal clothing would have prepared themselves by removing all their visible body hair.”
While today, we might use tweezers for plucking eyebrows, in Roman times tweezers were the best way to remove any unwanted hair, wherever it was on the body. Ouch!
Standing at the viewing platform, overlooking the ruins of Wroxeter’s hot steam room, the sky is full of short, sharp chirps from swallows darting through the sky, and the occasional buzzard’s mew as it floats high on a thermal.
But it wasn’t always like this, as the Roman author and politician, Seneca, once observed to a friend, when visiting his local Roman bathhouse.
“The skinny armpit hair-plucker,” he wrote, “whose cries are shrill, so as to draw people’s attention, and never stop, except when he is doing his job and making someone else shriek for him.”
Over fifty pairs of tweezers have been found at Wroxeter, highlighting just how important a clean-shaven appearance was to Roman Britons.
“It’s interesting to see this vogue for the removal of body hair around again after millennia,” says Cameron, “although luckily, modern methods are slightly less excruciating!”
It was a fine balance, though. Soldiers wouldn’t pluck too much hair in case it made them look effeminate.
The museum has displays of other beauty products, like nail cleaners, ear scoops and glass bottles for bathing oils and perfumes.
The Romans also used animal bones to look after their teeth. They would crush them to create toothpaste or use parts of the bone to fashion a false tooth.
Centurions even wore perfume because smelling nice was associated with good health.
Dominating Wroxeter’s ruins is a huge seven-metre wall. This was once part of the basilica and is the largest piece of free-standing Roman wall in the UK. The basilica was an enormous hall where Romans exercised and relaxed before going into the baths.
From there, they’d head into the tepidarium, or warm room, for a few minutes before entering the steam room, known as the caldarium. Here they would perspire, allowing their body’s pores to open, expelling impurities and sweat.
The next room was the frigidarium. They would plunge into cold, icy baths, after which they would return to the tepidarium for a relaxing massage with oils.
Workers then used curved metal implements, known as strigils, to scrape away any excess sweat and oils from the body.
This beauty regime was not only important for their health but for their wellbeing, too. Soldiers ate and socialised here. Their obsession with cleanliness meant they often spent much of their free time at the communal baths.
Many of Wroxeter’s soldiers were not actually Roman. Some were locals, looking for a better life. Others came from Northern Europe. To fit in, these soldiers followed Roman traditions, including their beauty routines.
Not only did it help them feel and look more Roman, but it was also a good way to distinguish themselves from the local hairy barbarians.
Even if it meant plucking out your unwanted hair with tweezers!
Roman soldiers weren’t clean-shaven just because it made them look good. There were practical benefits, too. Soldiers with facial hair were at greater risk of having their beards grabbed during close combat. Ultimately, this could allow assailants to overpower them.
Facial creams were popular, especially as they were clean-shaven. They used honey as a base for creams and ointments because it was sticky. But they soon realised honey on its own worked as a moisturiser and skin soother.
They created their own perfumes by mixing irises and rose petals with either grape juice or olive oil.
Many Romans had naturally tanned skin. But wealthy Romans often used make-up to whiten their skin. This was because they thought people would question why their skin was so tanned when they had slaves to do their outdoor chores!
Some Italian Romans wore wigs. One of their favourite hair colours was the naturally reddish-blonde hair of Britons. So, while British Roman soldiers were busy plucking and cutting hair from their bodies, those with luscious locks often sold their hair trimmings, which were then exported to Italy and made into wigs.
Wroxeter Roman City, Wroxeter, Near Shrewsbury, Shropshire. SY5 6PH
© Simon Whaley