Nothing was more important to the Roman elite than keeping up appearances.
While everyday Roman citizens probably did little to care for their hair, the rich and influential amongst them took great pride in their manes. They usually washed their hair with vinegar and used olive oil as a kind of conditioner.
A dignified and respectable Roman had to look the part. They believed hair was vital to maintaining the right public image.
Aesthetics and Appearances in the Roman World
The ancient Greeks are remembered for their philosophy and contributions to the development of democracy. However, they were also very vain people obsessed with their appearance. In Greek philosophy, beauty and moral goodness were intertwined and therefore of equal importance.
This tendency profoundly influenced Roman culture. As a result, Romans were one of the cleaner people of the ancient world. Appearances and aesthetics were of noted importance in their culture. The wealthy and influential citizens had gorgeous gardens and sculptures to show off their good taste. They also took great care to keep up immaculate appearances.
Financially comfortable citizens tended to bathe every single day. They were also quite concerned with their hair. A well-kept head of hair was considered a meaningful sign of wealth and status.
The Social Significance of Women’s Hair
Rich women were encouraged to maintain rich and luxurious locks, which they scrupulously maintained. Sculptures of influential Roman matriarchs always emphasized their thick hair, almost always parted neatly in the middle.
A respectable married woman would pin their hair back with a scarf or hairpin. For an adult woman, loose hair was associated with other types of looseness. However, it was perfectly acceptable for young girls to let it grow loose and free.
Many Romans women wore natural hair wigs. They did so either because they believed their hair wasn’t thick enough, or they wanted to experiment with wilder hairstyles. Like the modern weave, the purchased piece was often woven into the natural hair to establish a more natural look. Thick black hair from India or fair German hair were considered the most useful for these purposes.
One of the most critical roles of female slaves in a Roman household was to help the lady of the house keep her mane. This daily ceremony was of immense social significance.
Indeed, many a respectable female Patrician was depicted on their tombstone having their hair tended to by the humans they owned. Meanwhile, the owners forced their slave girls to wear their hair shorn closely, so they would not forget their place.
Finally, it was considered deeply unattractive for women to keep hair anywhere aside from their heads. Therefore, various forms of plucking and shaving were commonplace in Roman villas.
The Social Significance of Male Hair
A respectable Roman male kept their hair short but maintained enough to show they could grow luscious locks if they so wished. There was some leeway regarding the style.
Baldness was a source of ridicule for politicians and generals. However, it was considered appropriate for philosophers and poets. Their statues sometimes emphasize bared craniums.
Men were supposed to remain cleanly shaven at all times. Facial hair was associated with ‘primitive’ cultures such as the Gauls or Germanic tribes. Therefore, it must have been quite exasperating for them when Rome was repeatedly sacked by hirsute warriors.
But the masculine warriors of Rome kept more than their heads clean-shaven. It is said that the streets of the city often echoed with the cries of men having their body hair removed.
Roman Hair Care Products
Now that we have established the importance of hair in Roman culture, it will not surprise you to hear that they used various substances to care for it.
Just like the Greeks before them, they used vinegar as shampoo. This substance had the dual advantage of removing excess dirt and grease while also lightening the color of the hair. This matched the aesthetic of the time, wherein lighter hair was considered more beautiful.
In pursuit of light hair, the Romans used all sorts of dyes. Dark blonde hair was treated with Beeches Ash or goat’s fat to accentuate and highlight the lighter strands.
Red hair dye was made out of henna plants, which have been used as a source of dye throughout human history. Meanwhile, black dye was produced through black antimony, and cypress leaves stewed lovingly in vinegar.
It is admirable that while building an Empire spanning from Britannia to Judea, the Romans put this much effort into caring for their hair.