Although the story of perfume is intertwined with many cultures throughout the world, today we are going to discuss the use and significance of perfume in Ancient Rome.
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The Use of Perfume During the Roman Empire
The Romans used scented perfumes, ointments, and oils for a variety of reasons. Although they were commonly used for hygienic and aromatic purposes, they were also used during religious practice, as many people in ancient societies believed that such fragrances could bring religious practitioners close to their gods. Such materials were often offered as gifts to the divine in hopes of blessings and good tidings.
During the times of the Ancient Rome, it’s also important to note that it was not quite as easy to shower or take a bath as it usually is nowadays. Perfumes gave people, often those who had some matter of wealth, a way to smell acceptable despite the harsh realities and odors of life. It was also used to cover up the strong scents of the cosmetics which were used during that time.
Perfume was of course also used as symbol of status and wealth, with the wealthier classes, such as politicians and royalty, using intense aromatics to help change society’s perception of them, as people who smelled nice were often presumed to be healthy and therefor in a good mental state.
However, perfume was so widespread in Rome that it also created some interesting commentary from its detractors, such as Marcus Tullius Cicero, who is often considered the greatest orator of the late Roman Republic.
“The right scent for a woman is none at all.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero
Apparently Cicero’s olfactory senses had grown weary of perfume’s growing popularity.
Styles of Perfume in Ancient Rome
While we may use the word perfume, it’s worth noting that ancient perfumes were not typically as refined as its modern iterations. Many of them would probably be considered scented ointments by today’s standards, but there were also solid and powdered varieties of perfume as well.
- Solid Perfume: Solid perfumes were typically less complex in fragrance than their liquid or powdered counterparts, as they often contained less ingredients. It was even common to use just one aromatic ingredient at a time.
- Aromatic Ointments or Pastes: Aromatic ointments or pastes were made by infusing an oil such as olive oil with fragrant materials such as flowers, spices, and resins.
- Powdered Perfumes: Powdered perfumes were made of crushed flowers, spices, and resins and were blended according to the blender’s preference, giving a way for Romans to personalize their fragrances in a simple manner.
Ingredients Used in Ancient Roman Perfume
The perfumes used in ancient times were comprised purely of natural ingredients, as synthetic materials had not yet been developed.
Common ingredients included: Flowers such as rose, jasmine, daffodil, lily, and violet. Fruits such as pomegranate, quince, or grapes. Herbs such as basil, lavender rosemary, or other locally grown grown varieties. Other possible ingredients included aromatic roots and much rarer materials such as cinnamon, myrrh, and frankincense. Olive oil was a commonly used carrier oil for fragrance, but other oils such as almond oil were possible alternatives. They certainly obtained more uncommon aromatic ingredients through trade from time-to-time as well.
The featured image at the beginning of this post is from GDJ of PixaBay.