Plucking Awful : The job of an ornatrix or hairdresser in Ancient Rome

A new hairdresser or ornatrix flowed into Ancient Rome every day. As the women flowed in, hair soared in up-dos and business boomed in hair care essentials like decomposed leeches, urine, and pigeon droppings.

Ancient Roman hairdo by skilled ornatrix

Business in the front, party in the back

Positions in a wealthy household were specialised to an almost ridiculous extent. In one household, you might bump into a secundus or regulator of hot and cold water for a bath, a Eutactus or keeper of overcoats, and many, many vestiplici or folders of clothes.

Even the position of ornatrix was subdivided. A tutolo ornatrix specialised in high hairstyles (a la Marie Antoinette).

One Statilius Taurus, consul in the year 765, had at least 370 servants.

This may be where the position of nomenclator (human version of the blackberry) came in to tell people the names of their own slaves!

Business in the front, party in the back

By Flavian times (50 AD), hairdos became great towers studded with jewels. Juvenal the poet made fun of one lady who piled her hair up high:

“From the front you would take her for Andromache, but from the back she isn’t so tall—you wouldn’t think you were looking at the same person!”

In those days, hair treatments required ingredients like decomposed leeches, urine and pigeon droppings.  To dye hair black, Pliny the Elder suggests applying leeches that have rotted in red wine for 40 days!

To color gray hair, the Romans used a mixture made from ashes, boiled walnut shells, and earthworms. Lead-coated combs dipped in vinegar left a useful dark residue on the hair.

The ornatrix’s skill gave her household status and some power. Ovid specifically advises women never to lash out against their hairdressers:

May your hairdresser be safe; I hate the woman who claws her maid’s face with her nails and stabs her arms with a snatched-up acus. She curses her mistress’ head while she touches it, and at the same time bleeds and weeps over the hated locks.

Sometimes, ornatrix was required to tear out her mistresses grey hairs one by one. No wonder that satires and jokes were full of mistresses on their last hair and cowering servant girls.

The epithets of beloved ornatrices tell us the dates of their death and the families by who they were employed.

Upset your mistress, though, and you might wind up in a curse table, like these ladies:

Agathermis, slave of Manlia; Achulea, ornatrix, slave of Fabia; Caletuche, ornatrix, slave of Vergilia; Hilaria, ornatrix, slave of Licinia; Chreste, ornatrix, slave of Cornelia; Hilaria, ornatrix, slave of Seia; Moscis, ornatrix, Rufa, ornmatrix, slave of Apelia; Chilia, ornatrix.

The Bald Mistress

Happy was the ornatrix whose mistress was bald!

Sometimes false hair was blonde (dyed from blending goat’s fat with beech ash), or ebony black. Cut hair was imported from India in such quantities that “capilli indict” was officially liable  for customs duty.

Popular anthropologist Desmond Morris explains what blonde hair represented. Roman prostitutes at the time were licensed, taxed and even required by law to wear blonde hair.

The third wife of the Emperor Claudius, the wild nymphomaniac Messalina, was so excited by the idea of sudden, brutal sex with strangers that she would sneak out at night clad in a whore’s wig and prowl the city.

When the fashionable ladies copied Messalina, the blonde hair/prostitute law was ruined but blonde hair never really got over its wicked reputation!

The ornatrix wasn’t done with hair. She still had to remove her mistresses superfluous hair (including eyebrows!) and paint her : whiten her brows and arms with chalk and lead, rouge cheeks and lips with wine or rust, and lace the eyes and eyebrows with soot.

Women weren’t the only ones having hairs plucked one by one. Seneca complained about the screams of bathers having the hair under their armpits plucked out by armpit pluckers!


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