Weird History

What Was Hygiene Like For An Ancient Roman Emperor?  

Melissa Sartore
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The norms and conventions of the ancient Roman world largely dictated the hygiene practices of its emperors - as did their personal vanity, practicality, and access to luxury. Physical representations of these men on coins and in busts give us an idea of their appearance, while surviving literature provides insight into just how clean they really were. 

The average Roman emperor enjoyed the same services available to everyone in the empire. Public baths, sewer systems, and networks of aqueducts were among the features thought to promote cleanliness. And while their exalted position held distinction above nobles, commoners, and slaves, Roman emperors carried out many of the same daily routines as those of the lower classes - albeit in excess.

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Early Roman Emperors Often Kept Their Hair Short And Shaved Their Beards

Through the first half of the 1st century BC, Roman men commonly wore their hair and facial hair long. When Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) came to power, he became a model for shorter hair in general. According to Roman historian Suetonius,

[Caesar] was somewhat overnice in the care of his person, being not only carefully trimmed and shaved, but even having superfluous hair plucked out, as some have charged; while his baldness was a disfigurement which troubled him greatly, since he found that it was often the subject of the gibes of his detractors. Because of it he used to comb forward his scanty locks from the crown of his head, and of all the honors voted him by the senate and people there was none which he received or made use of more gladly than the privilege of wearing a laurel wreath at all times.

This became the norm for emperors, and Greek barbers were brought to Rome to maintain cleanly shaven appearances. Emperor Otho (32-69 AD) was said to have tried a different approach. Apparently, he shaved "every day, and since boyhood had always used a poultice of moist bread to prevent growth of his beard."

It wasn't until Hadrian (76-138 AD) that another Roman emperor wore a beard, and he may have done so to hide skin deformities on his face. 

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Contemporary Medicine Encouraged Emperors To Leave Their Acne Alone

Emperor Tiberius (42 BC-37 AD) was called "handsome" by Suetonius, though the author noted that he "would break out on a sudden with many pimples."

Acne wasn't without remedy during the 1st century. Medical writer Aulus Cornelius Celsus produced an entire treatise on health, cleanliness, and the treatment of various diseases and afflictions, including skin problems.

In his De Medicina, Celsus wrote, "To treat pimples and spots and freckles is almost a waste of time." However, in the event that one did attempt to remove them, Celsus prescribed the following treatment:

[Pimples are] best removed by the application of resin to which not less than the same amount of split alum and a little honey has been added. A spot is removed by equal quantities of galbanum and soda pounded in vinegar to the consistency of honey. With this the part is to be smeared, and after the lapse of several hours... it is washed off, and the place anointed lightly with oil.

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Emperors, Like All Romans, Would Use A Sickle To Remove Sweat

In many ways, Roman bathing practices were consistent regardless of class. Emperors and common folk alike used a strigil - essentially a small sickle - to wipe away sweat and oil. 

After exercising or bathing, Romans covered themselves in oil. They then used a strigil to scrape it off into a guttus, or small pitcher. The process was devoid of soap and was followed by a cold water rinse. Wealthy individuals had slaves scrape them, while poor bathers had to do it themselves.

Excess use of the strigil could have negative consequences. While the rinse after a good strigil scrape was meant to restore moisture, the process was irritating to the skin. Strigils were also quite sharp. Suetonius speculated that Emperor Augustus's "numerous callous places resembling ringworm" were "caused by a constant itching of his body and a vigorous use of the strigil." 

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Both Emperors And Common People Used The Public Baths

Public bathing in Rome was a communal activity enjoyed by members of the lower classes. Wealthy Romans would often have private baths, but as the Roman empire expanded, bathhouses were built in small and large settlements alike. 

Noteworthy Romans frequented public baths by the 1st century BC. Augustus's mother Atia enjoyed public baths until she a bad experience at one in 63 AD. Seutonius recounted how, after a serpent crawled on her, Atia immediately "purified herself," but was unable to remove a mark on her body that retained "colors like a serpent." From that point forward, the author wrote, "she ceased ever to go to the public baths."

Emperor Hadrian was a common presence at public baths, which was welcomed by other patrons

He often bathed in the public baths, even with the meanest crowd. And a jest of his made in the bath became famous. For on a certain occasion, seeing a veteran, whom he had known in the service, rubbing his back and the rest of his body against the wall, he asked him why he had the marble rub him, and when the man replied that it was because he did not own a slave, he presented him with some slaves and the cost of their maintenance. 

Hadrian's act prompted other bathers to try for the same reward

When [Hadrian] saw a number of old men rubbing themselves against the wall for the purpose of arousing the generosity of the Emperor, he ordered them to be called out and then to rub one another in turn.