Culture

The Ancient Roman Handbook for Hygiene

Jul 25, 2014

Photo by Alun Salt

Ancient Romans were serious about keeping clean. Public baths were widely available and running water was a common luxury. Let’s take a look at a few ancient Roman grooming practices that may surprise you. A few of these are bound to make you appreciate your modern life!

Hair Care

The Romans were strong advocates for hair removal. Men were not only advised to keep their faces clean shaven, but Julius Caesar was known for not wanting hair anywhere — except in the one spot he couldn’t grow any (a small bald patch on the top of his head). To the Romans, being hair free was a sign of cleanliness and may have been a practical way to prevent lice. Their method of hair removal is unclear, but it was nevertheless an important practice for proper grooming.

Washing

Soap was not a part of Roman life. Washing was achieved by applying scented oils, showering, and scraping the excess oil off with a tool called a strigil. The strigil is a curved, blunt blade made of bone or ivory. Even though we may be more familiar with using a lathering soap and water for washing, many modern products are not that dissimilar from the ancient ones.  Many modern soaps use olive oils to moisturise the skin and scented essential oilsare very common in soaps and on their own.

Bath

So if the Romans weren’t soaping up in the tub, then what was going on in those famous Roman baths? Perhaps surprising by today’s standards, the baths also served as a community centre. Bathing was a lengthy process and conversation was a large part of the experience. In addition to baths, these centres would include gymnasiums for exercise, rooms for poetry, libraries and eating areas. The Romans believed that good health came from bathing, eating, massages, and exercise. The baths, therefore, had all of these things in abundance.

Teeth

Unfortunately, dental care was not what it is today, but white teeth were still valued by the Romans. False teeth from ivory, bone and paste were popular.  It was also common to freshen their breath with powder and baking soda. We think we’ll stick with our toothbrushes, thank you!

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