Poisonous Lipsticks to die for – part 3


“A woman without paint is like food without salt”- Roman philosopher, Plautus

With the amount of money being spent on cosmetics in the 2nd Century BC, writer Lucilius commented “curls, makeup, cosmetics, greasepaint, and teeth you could buy, and with the same money you could have even purchased a new face” and he was not far wrong

Roman attitudes towards cosmetics evolved with the expansion of the empire. But they felt that only the “preservation of beauty” was acceptable and not “unnatural embellishment” which comes from face painting. Despite exaggerating their make-up to make it more visible in poor lighting, women still wanted to appear natural as a sign of chastity. “Artificiality” denoted a desire to be seductive, which made their men question why women wished to appear more attractive and therefore, they viewed the use of cosmetics as deceitful and manipulative

Ovid was alone in his approval of their use. He wrote “Medicamina Faciei Femineae” (Cosmetics for the Female Face, also known as The Art of Beauty) and even provided five recipes for facial treatments which proves that he was a pretty forward thinking kind of guy

Other than that, the general consensus was that women who used cosmetic, and lipsticks in particular, were deceptive due to the fact that they were altering the look of their faces and were practicing a form of witchcraft. The other opinion was that women of the time who painted their faces were just common and immoral prostitutes

[On a side note: The Latin word for prostitutes is lenocinium and has many definitions, including prostitution, make-up, flattery, pandering, pimping, allurement and enticement, which makes it a pretty cool word]

Rome’s Vestal Virgins (Priestesses of Vesta, the Goddess of the Hearth and Keepers of the Flame) were not allowed to wear make-up as they were supposed to look holy and chaste. The Vestals were committed to the priestesshood between the ages of 6 and 10 and were sworn to celibacy for a period of 30 years. However, Postumia, one of the more vivacious Vestal Virgins, defied this convention and wore lipstick along with some improper clothing and was subsequently accused of incestum, which is an act that violates religious purity (sacrilege). As these women were classified as “Daughters of the State”, they could be tried for treason and be sentenced to death by being buried alive but Postumia managed to escape this morbid punishment with a stern warning from the Pontifex Maximus “to leave her sports, taunts and merry conceits.” Why he spared her life is still a mystery but perhaps it had something to do with her wit and reckless abandon

[On a side note: An unchaste Vestal had to be buried alive as it was not permitted to spill the blood of a Vestal Virgin. However, it was also illegal to bury anyone within the city limits. This problem was overcome by providing the condemned priestess with a little food and water. She would then technically die in a “habitable room” and not a “death chamber”]

By this stage, cosmetics were imported from China, Germany and Gaul, including unguents imported in containers carved from the Red Sea Tridacna shell with myrrh and frankincense from Yemen reaching the Mediterranean by way of Persian traders. To curb this astronomical spending a law was implemented, The Lex Oppia, which tried to limit their use in 189 BCE. The basis of this law seems mainly directed at women as the state was concerned about their indulgences in luxury and extravagance and a devotion to luxury was considered to be a stimulus to greed, and thus a major contributor to the increase in corruption. The law not only restricted a woman’s wealth, but also her display of wealth. Specifically, it forbade any woman to possess more than half an ounce of gold or to wear multi-colored garments, particularly those trimmed in purple

A side effect of this law curbing big spending brought in “knock-off designer brands” which still plagues us today, along with their foul and deadly ingredients. These often rank smelling cosmetics were sold to the less affluent women (including prostitutes) of the time, even though applying the makeup was a time consuming process as the make-up had to be constantly re-applied during the day due to the hot weather conditions and the poor composition of the make-up. As the women and prostitutes aged, (with their income dependent on their appearance), they opted for more copious amounts of make-up. Courtesans often received cosmetics and perfumes as gifts or partial payment. So, I guess not much has changed since then

This brings us to the hedonistic, red-haired Empress Poppaea Sabina, who used her beauty and guiles to marry the crazy Roman Emperor Nero. She bathed in assess’ milk because she was told by someone even crazier that “therein lurks a magic which would dispel all diseases and blights from her beauty“. Actually the milk was an expensive treatment that worked like a chemical peel and quite frankly, I doubt whether the smell was particularly pleasing. Cleopatra VII Philopator was also a fan of bathing in ass milk

It was claimed that Poppaea Sabina also had one hundred attendants to maintain her looks and keep her lips painted at all times. Anybody who has ever been backstage prior to any music or stage production will know exactly how chaotic it is in those tiny dressing rooms and to have 100 women flapping about at different times of the day will no doubt drive anybody nuts, let alone a man continuously subjected to witnessing this spectacle. This probably directly led to her death by Nero’s hand while she was pregnant. It was common knowledge that he punched and kicked her while she was on the floor during a major fight (maybe he did not like her colour choice of lipstick for that evenings extravaganza) but the official version was that she and the baby died during childbirth

Roman women had specially trained makeup and hair-styling slaves, called Cosmatae, who were responsible for the adornment, including dressing, hair styling and bejeweling of their mistresses. Most of their days were spent dissolving various ingredients in their own saliva and mixing everything together with spatulas, small spoons and ring shaped mixers made of wood, bone, ivory, amber, glass or metal. The results were then set into small glass containers, stowed in small wooden boxes

The Cosmatae obtained   red stain from mulberries, and sought out mineral substances like Cinnabar, (bright scarlet mineral formed from mercury sulfide, which is the source for the scarlet pigment vermilion and of course is toxic), red Venetian plaster and Miniate (red lead, which is also highly toxic) to mix with animal extracts and vegetables, thus turning them all into various red-toned lipsticks for their mistresses. How long these Cosmatae lived was not documented but if they were handling these toxic ingredients daily, it’s doubtful that they lived long, healthy lives

End of Part 3

*The History of Lipstick Regulation in Western Seats of Power – Sarah Schaffer

Parts of Ovid’s Medicamina Faciei Femineae – http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/ovid/lboo/lboo62.htm 

3 thoughts on “Poisonous Lipsticks to die for – part 3

  1. I find your posts incredibly fascinating. Thank you for this one, and the previous related posts. I wonder if you’ve thought of doing a post on Countess Bathory and her habit of bathing in the blood of virgins to preserve her beauty and youth? Excellent blog overall!

    Liked by 1 person

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