From painful waxes to irritating shaves, we can trace the modern obsession with hair removal back to the Romans, English Heritage has said today (24 May), as the charity displays a collection of tweezers used to remove armpit hair from Roman men and women in a new museum at Wroxeter Roman City, Shropshire – a Roman town once as large as Pompeii. Amongst over 400 artefacts, most of which have never been on display, other objects related to Roman cleanliness and beauty practices include a strigil (skin scraper), perfume bottles, jet and bone jewellery, make-up applicators and amulets for warding off evil. The new museum at Wroxeter opens to the public tomorrow.
Beauty is pain – or at least it certainly was for the Romans, as their obsession with cleanliness and public image dominated a huge portion of their day-to-day lives. The Romans were devoted to communal bathing, attending the baths daily and many would have owned their own personal cleaning set, including an ear scoop, nail cleaner and tweezers. Innocent enough, but tweezers weren’t only used to remove eyebrow hair, as we might imagine today, but all unwanted body hair. Following the fashions in Rome, and to distinguish themselves from the “barbarians”, Roman Britons preferred a clean-shaven appearance. But, often performed by slaves, hair-plucking was a painful business. Roman author and politician Seneca wrote a letter to his friend complaining about the noise from the public baths, noting “the skinny armpit hair-plucker whose cries are shrill, so as to draw people's attention, and never stop, except when he is doing his job and making someone else shriek for him.”
Cameron Moffett, English Heritage Curator at Wroxeter Roman City, said: “At Wroxeter alone we have discovered over 50 pairs of tweezers, one of the largest collections of this item in Britain, indicating that it was a popular accessory! The advantage of the tweezer was that it was safe, simple and cheap, but unfortunately not pain free.
It may come as a surprise to some that in Roman Britain the removal of body hair was as common with men as it was with women. Particularly for sports like wrestling, there was a social expectation that men engaging in exercise that required minimal clothing would have prepared themselves by removing all their visible body hair. It’s interesting to see this vogue for the removal of body hair around again after millennia, for everyone, although luckily modern methods are slightly less excruciating!”
One of the best-preserved examples of a Roman town in Britain, Wroxeter Roman City (or Viriconium Cornoviorum, as it was known) was a thriving city of the Roman Empire. Archaeological excavations have uncovered the monumental buildings at its heart; the forum – where laws were made, the market (macellum) – where shoppers bought exotic goods, the bath-house basilica (large hall) – which acted as a community centre, a place of education, an office and a shopping centre all in one, the bathhouse itself – where they bathed and socialised, and finally the town houses – there were a high number of wealthy residents at Wroxeter living across the city in over one hundred large town houses.
Alongside these surviving ruins, which are still visible on site today, and a reconstructed town house, are the artefacts found on site which add an invaluable insight into the people who inhabited the town. A few of the remarkable items on display in the new museum, as well as the tweezers, include figurines of deities, a Roman water pipe which would have served the bathhouse, nail cleaners, an ear scoop, glass bottles for perfume and bath oil, copper alloy cosmetic sets used for applying eye liner and shadows, over 1000 jet jewellery beads – painstakingly restrung into necklaces – and amulets in the shape of phalluses and eyes to protect from evil, as well as other poignant amulets relating to the health of women and fertility. These objects discovered at Wroxeter show the rich daily experience of the people who lived there, from their business enterprises to their vibrant social lives.
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