Part of what drew me to studying Roman portraiture in college was my fascination with fashion. When growing up, if I wasn’t pouring over floorplans of Victorian houses, I was pouring over Victorian photographs and fashion plates.
So of course, when I found out that hairstyles were so important in portraits of women in ancient Rome, I was thrilled! Sabina, the wife of Hadrian, wore lovely waves similar to sculptures of Greek goddesses. Meanwhile, Septimius Severus’s wife, Julia Domna, is known for her helmet-like rolls of hair. The timeline of the Roman world unfolds before the fashion-conscious.
But what makes this topic even more fascinating is that, in true Roman-style, hairstyles are not just about beauty. Read on for a closer look at the political importance of Roman hairstyles (yes, you read that right), as well as a video how-to so you can give the hairdo a try yourself.
Official sculpture of women of the Imperial family not only used hairstyles to make the women identifiable, but also used them to convey messages to the public. These high-profile ladies used their portraits—and their hair—to set an example as a proper Roman matron.
For instance, the demure hairstyle of Livia, the wife of the first emperor Augustus, reflected the modesty of the Roman Republic. Modesty was important so that citizens wouldn’t be alarmed that they were now ruled by one man rather than a consul of men. The hairstyle also countered the eastern decadence of Cleopatra of Egypt, the lover of Marc Antony, Augustus’s rival for power. It was such a powerful message that Octavia, Augustus’s sister, adopted the same hairstyle. It became an easy way to identify the ruling family of the early Empire.
As you can guess, the other ladies of Rome were quick to follow the model of the elite. Any woman who could afford to have the most up-to-date hairdo would have done so (most ladies of this upper echelon would have at least one slave dedicated to doing her hair every morning–here’s a tomb relief showing four slaves dressing a woman’s hair from a museum in Trier, Germany). The Roman poet Ovid, who wrote during the time of Augustus, reflects upon one woman’s unsuccessful quest for the ultimate hairstyle in a poem in the Amores, writing, “If only you’d left it alone. No one had hair like yours!”
Roman matrons had to strike a tricky balance: they were expected to be attractively coiffed, but it was bad taste to be ostentatious in their appearance. There were even laws to govern the use of luxury items, one of many regulations Augustus put in place in an attempt to reinstate the traditional values of the Romans and stabilize society.
A woman’s outward appearance was a direct reflection of her important role. She needed to run the home efficiently and bear children that would become moral, productive members of society. She was crucial for the very basis of Roman society, which was necessary for a peaceful and prosperous state.
Accordingly, Emperor Augustus used art as propaganda to emphasize the need for these virtues to the people. The culmination of this is the Ara Pacis Augustae (literally, the Altar of Augustan Peace). A monument to Augustus’s success in bringing civilization to Italy through conquest, the structure surrounding the sacrificial altar is full of meaning in every nook and cranny. The most prominent friezes show members of the emperor’s family in a procession, preparing to conduct a religious sacrifice at the altar. Through this use of portraiture, Augustus makes his own family the moral model for the Roman populous. By doing this, he also claimed power for his descendents, including the women, who were immortalized in stone as good wives and mothers.
As you can see, for women of the nobility, hair was a important part of the official message!
All of this leads me to the subject of this blog post, the Museum’s portrait of a Roman woman. You can find her in Gallery #1.
Tough not an empress, this woman still must have come from a family that can afford a nicely sculpted portrait. Her depiction follows that standards for portraits of women, and she is not only beautiful and calm, but also virtuous and moral.
Her smooth skin reflects the idealizing trend of the early Empire, which stems from their interest in earlier classical Greek art. Although she now stares blankly with her smooth eyeballs, originally the sculpture would have had painted pupils. (In later years, the pupil will be drilled into the eye to create more depth.)
And then her hair! She wears my favorite hairdo of all, with corkscrew curls piled high over her forehead and a braided bun wrapped around the back. (In our sculpture, the hair in the back is not finished, possibly because the sculpture was meant to rest in a niche.)
Indicative of the Flavian period (A.D. 69–96), this hairstyle is one of the most famous because of the beautifully carved “Fonseca Bust” at the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Click here for another view from the side.
This style is probably the easiest to identify, although sculptors had varying levels of success in showing the intricacy of the curls. Ours is certainly not as dramatic as the “Fonesca Bust”, but is better than others.
One Baltimore hairdresser’s fascination with ancient hair has led her to experiment with these styles on real women. Her name is Janet Stephen, and she was so captivated by a sculpture of Julia Domna at the Walters Art Gallery that she decided to try to recreate it. She has since analyzed other hairstyles through artwork and has referenced ancient texts in order to figure out how women really did their hair.
Before now, many classicists thought that the elaborate hairstyles could only be accomplished with wigs. With her practical experience, however, Stephens has been able to prove that in most cases the hair was the woman’s own, with perhaps switches added if the woman’s hair was not long or thick enough.
You can see her recreating our lovely lady’s style below.
Stephens presented her discoveries about the hairstyle of Vestial Virgins at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting last year. What she is doing is a type of experimental archaeology. A fairly new approach to exploring the past, experimental archaeology is just what it sounds like—testing a theory about the past by actually doing it. It’s like reality TV for historians—which can be both educational and entertaining!
So, you can see that our modest marble lady gives us a captivating look into the ancient Roman world and the research continues into past civilizations—there is still much to learn!
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.