Journal of Undergraduate Research


painting, ladies of Rome, beauty, female excellence




Comparative Arts and Letters


Ancient Rome was a culture obsessed with excellence, and much scholarly ink has been spent identifying and elucidating the intricate matrix of ideal Roman masculinity. Meanwhile, relatively little scholarly attention has been paid to the concept of feminine excellence, or the means by which Roman women attained social or personal value. The purpose of this project was to examine the position of Roman women within greater Roman society, and to identify the standards used to typify ideal Roman womanhood. I posited that adherence to rigid beauty standards was a significant means by which Roman women could contribute symbolic and tangible capital to their households, but that its pursuit could incur reputational damage, should the woman in question fail to adequately conform to narrow standards of appropriate feminine behavior. Methodology For this project, I examined extant literary sources to determine Roman attitudes toward feminine excellence, and the cultural significance attached to beauty standards. I then analyzed archaeological evidence, including fresco portraiture from Pompeii and Herculaneum, cosmetic accoutrements such as pyxides, unguentaria, and applicators, and extant samples of ancient cosmetics, attempting to determine how Roman women actually attempted to enact the standards outlined by the literary record. I focused primarily on sources from the end of the Late Republic (c. 1st century BCE), to the beginning of the Imperial regime (c. 1st century CE). This project was built on the following hypotheses: that there existed a rigid set of beauty standards to which Roman women were expected to adhere, and that failure to conform to larger standards of appropriate feminine decorum in pursuit of beauty resulted in tangible loss of social standing. In addition, the ideological underpinnings of my study were based heavily on the conclusions of Carlin A. Barton, who contends that visibility and reputation are central tenets to the creation and cultivation of Roman individual and social identities.1 In the Roman world, lines between perception and reality were to thin as to be negligible – to be was to seem, and to seem was to be, so the pursuit of any virtue was necessarily accompanied by externally conspicuous indicators associated with the attainment of that virtue. Results Roman women were expected to adhere to strict standards of conspicuous, visually-­ identifiable pudicitia, often translated as “feminine decorum,” and which included ideals of chastity and sexual restraint.2 Female beauty was thought to be an outward indicator of feminine excellence and connote the attainment of pudicitia and other socially-­ desirable traits.3 Beauty was thought to be quantifiable through adherence to strict standards, which included pale white skin with a hint of pink in the cheeks, large dark eyes, and thick, full eyebrows.4 Relatively few women native to the Italian peninsula achieved these standards naturally, so it was often necessary for Roman women to manufacture these characteristics through cosmetics. Latin literary sources, representing an almost exclusively male perspective, endorse a model of Roman womanhood wherein beauty and chastity are the most important values in determining a woman’s value to her family and to society. For example, Livy’s depictions of Lucretia and Verginia, which focalize beauty and their chastity as their defining characteristics, exemplify the expectations for idealized Roman femininity.5,6 However, many of these sources also decry overt pursuit of beauty through cosmetic use as potentially insidious. The Roman poet Martial repeatedly equates the personal value of women he describes with their beauty, and depicts women who manufacture beauty with cosmetics as monstrous.7 The poet Horace also depicts women who use adornments to disguise their true natures, which, once discovered by the recently-­ amorous poet, inspire deep repulsion. 8 In these contexts, cosmetics are emphasized as facilitators of deceit, which allow horrifying monsters to assume the guise of virtuous women and which prevent men from seeing their real natures until a critical moment has passed. This reflects an underlying insecurity surrounding manufactured beauty: if corrupt women cannot be reliably distinguished from virtuous women, there is a serious threat to the stability of the Roman social order. Discussion This project is intended to springboard future exploration into the nature of feminine excellence in Classical Antiquity. I am particularly interested in exploring the shift from artistic verism to idealism in Roman portraiture as it correlates to the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire. This shift seems to suggest the increased ideological importance of beauty under the reign of Augustus, and I would like to evaluate the socio-­cultural conditions that may have led to this change. Conclusion The Roman conception of female beauty was a double-­edged sword. Possession of beauty signified personal and sexual virtue, and was necessary for women to be considered excellent. However, pursuit of beauty signified corruption of character. The tension between these social expectations created a very narrow margin in which Roman women had to exist.