Tattoos played an important role in Roman culture. They were used as a way of marking out the lowest members of society such as slaves and criminals.
Some Romans were marked with tattoos, but these played a functional rather than a decorative role. Tattoos were mainly used to identify the ownership of slaves and soldiers and as a way of identifying and punishing criminals.
The most common type of tattoo that was applied was a descriptive text that explained why someone had been marked or punished. Only rarely did Romans use tattoos for decorative reasons.
To mark out a criminal and punish them for life, Roman criminals were tattooed on their foreheads. They were inscriptions that detailed the nature of their crime and could run to several lines of text.
The tattoos were applied by first marking out the inscription with charcoal. The skin was then pricked with pins before a mixture of ink and leek juice was rubbed into the wounds.
In this way, criminals could be easily identified in Roman society. The Latin for tattoo is “stigma” and this word still implies a sign of shame in the English language.
Emperor Constantine decreed that criminals condemned to work in the gladiatorial schools were to be tattooed not on the face, but on the hands or calves. This was so their faces, which were considered an image of divine beauty, would be “defiled as little as possible”.
Slaves and Prisoners of War
Tattoos were used to mark the ownership of slaves belonging to the Romans. If they escaped, they had the words “stop me, I am a runaway” inscribed on the foreheads to deter them from doing it again.
Some slaves were branded by a hot iron as an alternative or in addition to their tattoos. These brands could take the form of animals such as deer and owls.
Prisoners of war were also branded or tattooed to demonstrate their new enforced allegiance. The tattoo became a sign of military ownership.
The Roman Empire was so vast that it was controlled by armies of massive proportion. These soldiers were recruited from across the empire and it was hard to keep tabs on them all.
By the fourth century, the practice of tattooing insignia onto the hands of soldiers and other military workers had been introduced. The Roman writer Vegetius described how recruits were “inscribed with permanent dots in the flesh”.
These tattoos could be seen as a mark of honor, but they also marked out the men permanently for military service and were a deterrent for deserters. There is no evidence that soldiers had “SPQR”, the motto of the Roman Empire, tattooed on their arms, as seen in the movies.
With tattoos being a sign of stigma, it is no surprise that people wanted to get them removed. A Roman’s options for this procedure were either to visit a doctor or a priest.
The doctors first smeared a strong alkali mixture onto the forehead and left this bandaged for five days. On the sixth day, the tattoo was pricked all over with a pin leaving a mass of open wounds.
Once the blood had been wiped away salt was rubbed in and another alkali preparation was then applied. This process was repeated until the tattoo disappeared leaving a clear and hopefully scar-free forehead.
Priests adopted a similar strategy, but with a little more appeal to the gods for help. A cheaper and safer solution was to grow your hair over your forehead or simply to wear a bandage permanently.
Decorative and Religious Tattoos
In 168 BC the Romans conquered the Greek province of Thrace. In contrast to Roman culture, tattoos for Thracians were a symbol of good birth and it was common for them to have geometric patterns or animals inked onto their arms and legs.
Religious tattoos were a feature of the Assyrians who applied sacred symbols to their wrists. The Roman Empire briefly encompassed the Assyrian province, which stretched from Egypt to Syria.
The association of tattooing with criminality and slavery in the dominant Roman culture meant that few Romans willingly sought to apply tattoos. Some cultural influence spread from the Thracians and Assyrians, and a few Romans did apply these decorative or religious tattoos, but the practice was extremely rare.
Today it is common to see tattoos featuring Roman numerals and other designs from Roman culture. This has no connection with contemporary Roman practice.