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 p1214  Unguenta

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on p1214 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

UNGUENTA , ointments, oils, or salves. The application of Unguenta in connection with bathing and the athletic contests of the ancients is stated under Balneae, Athletae, &c. But although their original object was simply to preserve the health and elasticity of the human frame, they were in later times used as articles of luxury. They were then not only employed to impart to the body or hair a particular colour, but also to give to them the most beautiful fragrance possible; they were, moreover, not merely applied after a bath, but at any time, to render one's appearance or presence more pleasant than usual. In short they were used then as oils and pomatums are at present.

The numerous kinds of oils, soaps,​a pomatums, and other perfumes, are quite astonishing. We know several kinds of soap which they used, though, as it appears, more for the purpose of painting the hair than for cleaning it (Plin. H. N. XVIII. 12, 51; Mart. VIII.33.20, XIV.26, 27). For the same purpose they also used certain herbs (Ovid. Ar. Amat. III.163, Amor. I.14).

Among the various and costly oils which were partly used for the skin and partly for the hair, the following may be mentioned as examples: medesium, megalesium, metopium, amaracinum, Cyprinum, susinum, nardinum, spicatum, iasminum, rosaceum, and crocus-oil,​b which was considered the most costly (Becker, Gallus, II p27). In addition to those oils the ancients also used various kinds of powder as perfumes, which by a general name are called Diapasmata. To what extent the luxury of using fragrant oils and the like was carried on, may be inferred from Seneca (Epist. 86), who says that people anointed themselves twice or even three times a day, in order that the delicious fragrance might never diminish. At Rome, however, these luxuries did not become very general until the end of the republic (Gell. VII.12), while the Greeks appear to have been familiar with them from early times. The wealthy Greeks and Romans carried their ointments and perfumes with them, especially when they bathed, in small boxes of costly materials and beautiful workman­ship, which were called Narthecia (Böttiger, Sabina, I. p52). The traffic which was carried on in those ointments and perfumes in several towns of Greece and southern Italy was very considerable. The persons engaged in manufacturing them were called by the Romans Unguentarii (Cic. de Off. I.12; Horat. Sat. II.3.228), or as they frequently were women, Unguentariae (Plin. H. N. VIII.5), and the art of manufacturing them Unguentaria. In the wealthy and effeminate city of Capua there was one great street called the Seplasia, which consisted entirely of shops in which ointments and perfumes were sold.

A few words are necessary on the custom of the ancients in painting their faces. In Greece this practice appears to have been very common among the ladies, though men also had sometimes recourse to it, as for example, Demetrius Phalereus (Athen. XII p642). But as regards the women, it appears that their retired mode of living, and their sitting mostly in their own apartments, deprived them of a great part of their natural freshness and beauty, for which, of course, they were anxious to make up by artificial mans (Xenoph. Oecon. 10 §10; Stobaeus, III p87, ed. Gaisford; compare Becker, Charicles, II p232). This mode of embellishing themselves was probably applied only on certain occasions, such as when they were out, or wished to appear more charming (Lysias, de caed. Eratosth. p15; Aristoph. Lysistr. 149, Eccles. 878, Plut. 1064; Plut. Alcib. 39). The colours used for this purpose were white (ψιμύθιον, cerusa) and red (ἔγχουσα or ἄγχουσα, παιδέρως, συκάμινον, or φύκος, Xenoph. Oecon. 10 §2; Aristoph. Lysistr. 48, Eccles. 929; Alexis, ap. Athen. XIII p568, compare 557; Etymol. Mag. s.v. Ἐψιμμυθιῶσθαι). The eyebrows were frequently painted black (μέλαν, ἄσβολος, or στίμμις, Alexis, ap. Athen. XIII p568; Pollux, V. 101). The manner in which this operation of painting was performed, is still seen in some ancient works of art representing ladies in the act of painting themselves. Sometimes they are seen painting themselves with a brush and sometimes with their fingers (Böttiger, Sabina, II. tab. IX and I. tab. VI).

The Romans, towards the end of the republic and under the empire, were no less fond of painting themselves than the Greeks (Horat. Epod. XII.10; Ovid, Ar. Am. III.199; Plin. H. N. XXVIII.8). The red colour was at Rome, as in many parts of Greece, prepared from a kind of moss which the Romans called fucus (the rocella of Linnaeus), and from which afterwards all kinds of paint were called fucus. Another general term for paint is creta.º For embellishing and cleaning the complexion the Greeks as well as the Romans used a substance called oesipum (see the comment. on Suidas, s.v. Οἴσπη), which was prepared of the wool taken from those parts of the body of a sheep in which it perspired most.​c Another remedy often applied for similar purposes consisted of powdered excrementa of the Egyptian crocodiles (Horat. and Plin. l.c.).

Respecting the subjects here mentioned and everything connected with the toilet of the ancients, see Böttiger, Sabina oder Morgenscenen in Putzzimmer einer reichen Römerin. Leipz. 1806. 2 vols.

Thayer's Notes:

a Whether the Romans knew real soap or not is uncertain: see my note to the Smith's Dictionary article Fullo.

b Some of you, with fond memories of Tom Lehrer, may feel tempted to join me in the spirit of things and add under your breath "einsteinium, berkelium, and nobelium — and the others haven't been discahvered", although "crocus-oil" breaks the rhythm a bit. By all means do: our author's enumeration doesn't add to our knowledge very much. The source of most of this is Pliny towards the beginning of Book 13, and textual criticism has altered the names by a letter here and there. Pliny has some explanation, at least: nothing like getting things from the horse's mouth rather than second-hand.

c If the grease from the sweatier portions of sheep seems outlandish to you, and a clear sign of the primitiveness of the ancients, you've had your mind turned to mush by advertising and the emollient-sounding term lanolin — because this is what we're talking about, and that's indeed where it comes from (lana, Latin for "wool"), and we are no more sophisticated than the ancients.

In my case, the passage just made me chuckle: my own great-grandmother, Blanche Foote, made the first of three fairly large fortunes by dealing in the stuff in Mexico in 1920 or so. Unfortunately, she lost all three thru various imprudences; otherwise I might be laughing much louder.

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