In ancient Rome, there was but one aspect of a woman’s life that she had almost complete dominion over: how she decorated and adorned her body. Although she did, in most cases, require a man to provide articles of adornment and servants to do her hair and make-up, the Romans believed that it was a man’s responsibly to ensure his female family members’ appearances were consistent with his rank. Roman women used jewellery, clothing, hairstyle and make-up to project their wealth, power, influence, rank in the community and status as an adult woman, as well as, to control their public image and how they were perceived. In essence, women used adornment to have control over their own bodies. This essay will explore how women used each category of adornment to display their wealth, rank, status and image, and how doing so was significant to their life as it gave them an opportunity to have power in their relationships, influence in their community and control their bodies in a world where nearly every part of their life was governed by a man.
In ancient Rome, a women’s jewellery was indicative of her wealth, rank and influence. In ancient Rome, like in the modern world, when a woman was given a piece of jewellery as a gift, the jewels were considered her personal property in the majority of cases. This is significant because unlike clothing, make-up and wigs, jewellery never wears out or depreciates in value, and this is especially true of pearls. Pearls in fact, were so valuable that even lower class women would wear them because, as Pliny said, “it is a common saying that for a woman in public a pearl is her lector” (Nat. 9.114) This means that the pearl was so commercially and culturally powerful, passers-by would assume a woman was untouchable simply because she was wearing one. In addition to building her own wealth, a woman could also leave jewellery to another woman when she died, building the wealth of her daughters and grand-daughters (Pliny, Nat. 9.124). Prior to the Lex Oppia taking away a woman’s right to obtain and display her opulence, a woman’s ability to build and exhibit her wealth through jewellery gave her social power, influence and a touch of autonomy that was uncomfortable for men during the current period of social and economic unrest during the Second Punic War. Women in ancient Rome were using jewellery to display prestige and build social influence for themselves and their families.
Women in ancient Rome used clothing to build their confidence and self esteem, as well as, express their social rank, sexuality, status and role.  Women were not dressing in fine and beautiful clothing purely for the goal of charming men and visibly asserting their rank. Indeed for the most part, “all women dress[ed] up to please themselves” (Ov. Med. 27) because wearing luxurious and colourful fabrics in feminine styles made the women feel confident and in control of their bodies. A Roman woman could use her clothing to mark herself as a child, a bride or a respectable wife and mother by wearing the tunic, the traditional flammeum or the modest stola and palla, respectively. In a world where girls married while they were still children, age is not as strong a marker of marital status as dress is. In addition, these garments were made with more desirable fabrics and colours for the higher ranking women. When put together, the distinguishing marks of rank, status and role allowed women to control how others viewed them. Women could also use their clothing to convey their sexuality and control how men viewed their bodies and formed opinions about their virtues. Clothing was a powerful tool of seduction and women could manipulate their appearance to control their erotic power. Much like today, a woman in ancient Rome would dress conservatively to emphasize her sexual virtue, whereas, another woman would wear thin garments that revealed various parts of her body to convey her sexual availability. The Romans were keenly aware of the symbolic potential that lied in the way they dressed their bodies and how they could use clothing to mark social and moral distinctions.
A woman’s hair in ancient Rome was another tool she could use to control her image and sexuality. Women also used their hairstyle, in tandem with their style of dress, to distinguish their status in the community. Hair had erotic potential, and consequently, young girls would wear their hair in loose, cascading styles until they became of marriageable age, at which time they would then wrap, tie and braid their hair as a means of controlling the way their sexuality was perceived by others. Julia Domna, wife of Emperor Septimius Severus, went so far as to have a wig made in mimic of the hairstyle of her popular predecessor, Faustina the Younger, to control her public image. Her objective was “to project a familiar Roman guise” to the Roman populace and create a controlled and favourable cultural identity. Furthermore, by doing their hair in elaborate styles, women, especially those in the provinces, asserted that they were civilized Roman citizens, set apart from the barbarians with wild hair:
Two Hadrianic stucco reliefs found in Carthage illustrate the connection: in one a woman is having her hair dressed in a beehive style by a servant, and in the other, the same woman, her coiffure now finished, sits holding a book. Grooming goes hand in hand with literacy.
An ornate hairstyle is connected to literacy, and literacy is connected to civilization and Romanization. By wearing an exquisitely complex hairstyle or wig, a woman is showing the world that she is a sexually mature, distinguished Roman woman.
Make-up was the most controversial type of adornment for the ancient Roman woman, making the wearing of make-up one of the strongest ways a woman could show her wealth and status, and have control over her body. It was so strong and culturally ingrained, in fact, that women continued to wear make-up despite it being a know poison that was morally condemned by influential male writers. Cosmetics in the ancient world, even when used subtly, never achieved a natural look. Subtlety, after all, was not what they were aiming for because, for a Roman woman, wearing make-up announced to the world that she had enough money and leisure time to devote precious time and resources to her beauty regimen. Cosmetic adornment was also a marker of adult status for women in ancient Rome, “and may be why such items [the paraphernalia of beauty and beauty rituals] are depicted on tombstones,” especially those of children and adolescent girls. The fact that women continued to use make-up even though men hated it, not only because it was a potent poison, but also because they hated the smell and texture of it and were uncomfortable with women deceptively hiding their imperfections, shows that they saw it as something they could use to revolt and hold control over their own bodies.
In ancient Rome, men and women alike saw that there was a connection between beauty, visibility and influence. This is why so many male writers condemned adornment and why so many women continued to decorate their bodies. This is also why the Lex Oppia was passed; men feared that women were growing too excessive, independent and influential, none of which were seen as being virtuous. With the aid of jewellery, clothing, hairstyle and make-up, a woman could use her manufactured charm advantageously. According to Ovid, a woman could use her beauty to sway her lover and gain power over the relationship, preventing him from leaving her for another lover or even beating her (Am. 2.5.44-50). Women in ancient Rome used the adornments of jewellery, clothing, hairstyles and make-up to display their wealth, power, influence, rank, status, public persona and dominance over one facet of their lives. They used jewellery to build and display wealth and reputation in their communities. Clothing was used to denote a woman’s public, sexual and domestic roles, as well as, make her feel good about herself. Hair was used specifically to mark sexual maturity, form social identity and, in some cases, build a cultural persona. The use of make-up screamed to the world that a woman had the wealth, status and leisure required to stand out from the crowd. All forms of adornment showed that only a woman had the power to control the façade of her own body. The power of adornment provided a momentous step towards the attainment of the autonomy women enjoy today in the modern world, as it was “through [the agency of cosmetics, ornament, and beauty] a woman could create space to assert herself socially and gain a (limited) sphere of influence,” in the ancient world.
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DeBrohun, J. 2001. “Power Dressing in Ancient Greece and Rome,” History Today. 51.2: 18-25.
Olson, K. 2008. Dress and the Roman Woman: Self-Presentation and Society. London.