Monday, December 12, 2016

Ancient Eyebrow Evolution

Eyebrow fashions for women have undergone a lot of changes in the past century. Even in the past couple of decades, there have been major transformations, from the most extreme version of the 90s brow, a horrifically thin and straight drawn-on line, to the most extreme version of the current style, a horrifically huge and blocky drawn-on shape. And in each age, we swear that our own best version of the eyebrow is the most flattering and beautiful one. Later generations will surely judge us.

Brow styles changed over time in the ancient world as well, though without media being produced and distributed so quickly, they were certainly slower to change. But ancient people did have art that they could use to tell them what was the most beautiful, even when they didn't come into contact with the trendsetting upper classes themselves every day. I thought I'd track some changes over time (and place) in women's eyebrow shapes.

It's sometimes hard to tell how much the eyebrows we see in art accurately represented the way real women groomed their brows. After all, as far as we know most ancient artists were male, and typically men don't pay as close attention to the fine details of feminine beauty trends as women do (with exceptions, of course). I imagine that portraits meant to realistically portray their subjects, at least to some extent, are the most likely to have realistic eyebrows. Those artists had to closely observe details of a particular woman's appearance in order to create a recognizable portrait. On the other hand, generic, fictional, idealized, or mythological images might be less specific about eyebrow styles, other than to design faces that would have been attractive to most viewers.

I've arranged the photos below in roughly chronological order, within each geographical area. I thought about making a collage, but there's so much variation in the sizes of the images that it would be tricky. Also, I haven't linked to sources for each of these works of art, in part because a lot of them are my own photos. If you'd like more information, please ask!


Dynastic Egypt

Generally, the eyebrow shape we see in traditional ancient Egyptian art (on both men and women) has a smooth, round arch that tapers toward the tail. In a lot of examples, the thin tail curves back up slightly. This is an eyebrow shape that I can see most women today being pretty happy with.

Roman Egypt

In Egypt under Roman rule, portraits of the deceased painted in encaustic on wooden panels, called mummy portraits (or Fayum/Fayoum portraits from the area where many of them were found), became popular. I had a hard time choosing just a few examples to include here, because there are so many amazing eyebrows. Seriously, do a Google image search and bask in all the beautiful faces.

The eyebrows on these women tend to be quite full, with a pointed arch, but not too meticulously groomed.


Bronze Age (Minoan) Crete and the Aegean Islands

In Minoan art, women and girls have eyebrows with a round arch near the nose that taper to a fine point at the tail. They're pretty similar to Egyptian eyebrows, which isn't a huge surprise considering the influence of Egyptian art on the Bronze Age Mediterranean world. I especially love the detail in the first painting below of the individual hairs poking up above the line of the brow. It looks like the technique that a lot of women use today, where they brush their brows upward to make them look full and natural while creating definition on the lower edge.

Archaic Greece

Faces in Archaic Greek art are very stylized and homogeneous, so it's hard to say how much real women's eyebrows resembled these. Archaic eyebrows tend to be smooth, symmetrical, thin arcs.

Classical Greece

In this period, brows are low, close to the eye, and fairly straight, often following the contour of the top of the eye. Again, they seem pretty stylized, so I'm not sure how much they reflect reality.


Early Imperial Rome

Women's eyebrows from the first century of the Roman Empire tend to have a gentle, symmetrical curve. Nothing too flashy here.

High Imperial Rome

By about a century later, eyebrows seem to have become more important. Now we have sculptors carving in individual hairs, rather than just leaving the brows to be painted on. And (maybe surprisingly to many of us) the unibrow comes into fashion. Texts from this period talk admiringly about women's "long" eyebrows, and we see them in portraits too. Fashionable, upper class women removed other body hair, but apparently left eyebrows that met in the middle (or nearly did) alone.

So there we go! Obviously this doesn't cover every place and period around the the Mediterranean in antiquity, but there are a lot of different eyebrows in this selection alone.

If you had to choose one of these times/places to live, based on eyebrows alone, where would you send your time machine?

Friday, November 11, 2016

How beautiful was Cleopatra?

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Silver coin of Cleopatra VII
Silver coin of Cleopatra VII
When I started to draft this post, I thought that it would end up being topical and historically relevant. Women in power! But then . . . shit. Well, let's talk about Cleopatra, anyway.

Cleopatra VII was the last real pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt, the Egyptian kingdom ruled by the successors of Alexander the Great's general, Ptolemy. At least since she began to rule Egypt, she's had a reputation as one of the most beautiful women in history. The fact that she attracted and entered into long-term relationships with two of the most powerful Roman men alive at the time, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, must be one of the reasons people assume she was exceptionally beautiful. But lately, as people delve into the artistic and archaeological record more deeply and identify portraits and possible portraits of Cleopatra, they've tried to argue that, in fact, she wasn't very pretty. Most recently, I've seen Tumblr users celebrating Cleopatra's supposed lack of beauty, saying it's proof that women can be powerful and charismatic even if they don't conform to beauty standards (ah Tumblr, where it is impossible to ever find something again so that I can provide a link).

Of course they're right that a woman can be appealing and intimidating and brilliant without being conventionally beautiful. And that the appearance of a powerful woman (or any woman) is far from the most important thing about her! But this is, after all, a blog about ancient beauty, and I think it's interesting to use Cleopatra as an example to explore ancient beauty standards. Because how exactly are we judging Cleo's looks here?

Silver coin with Cleopatra VII on one side and Mark Antony on the other.
Silver coins of Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony. (Photo by Sailko.)
There are a few different ways for us to try to determine if Cleopatra was really a beautiful as history records. First, we could just look at ancient portraits of her and try to decide. Coins are the most reliable sources of these portraits, because they combine her image with an inscription naming her.  Marble portraits, on the other hand, aren't labeled, and so not everyone agrees that every portrait that's been identified as Cleopatra VII is really her. Basically, you have to compare the coins portraits to the marble heads and see if you think they look like the same person.

It's pretty hard to use coins to tell what someone really looked like, though. Portraits on ancient coins are very simplified--plus, they have to be recognizable at a really small size (much smaller than I've enlarged them here). That means they're kind of like caricatures. Nobody looks particularly great on their coins. But then most people never saw the faces of rulers close up and in person, so the coin designers could deviate from reality a bit to make someone look like, say, a more powerful leader. Or in the case of the coins of Cleopatra and Mark Antony above, to make the two of them look more alike and emphasize their unity. So we can't tell a whole lot from Cleopatra's coins, except that maybe she had a prominent nose and that was a feature people associated with her, and that her official hairstyle was included rolls that look something like thick cornrows going back to a bun, with little curls along the hairline, and her diadem on top.

So let's look at a life-size marble head that is probably a portrait of Cleopatra, below.

Possible portrait of Cleopatra VII in Altes Museum Berlin
Possible portrait of Cleopatra VII in Altes Museum Berlin
Possible portrait of Cleopatra VII in Altes Museum Berlin
Possible portrait of Cleopatra VII in Altes Museum Berlin (Photo by Anagoria.)

I chose this one because the nose is intact, which is rare. She has the same hair style as the portrait on the coins, with her hair divided into curly rolls (art historians call this the "melon coiffure"), a diadem over it, and a pretty prominent nose. The problem with this head is that it was probably "cleaned" with some harsh chemicals a long time ago, and they may have dissolved some of the marble, which would make all of her features look softer. Even if we imagine her nose or chin a little pointier--are you telling me this isn't an attractive woman? Or couldn't have been?

But there's a serious problem with looking at portraits of Cleopatra and deciding whether or not they show a beautiful woman. The problem is that beauty ideals vary drastically over time and from one culture to another. So even if we can say unequivocally that we think she is beautiful (or not), judging by our own standards, that tells us next to nothing about what ancient Egyptians and Romans and Greeks would have thought. Beyond that, opinions about beauty differ from one person to the next, so I doubt that we can even come to an agreement amongst ourselves about how good Cleopatra looked. I mean, there are people who will try to tell you that Angelina Jolie or even Beyonce isn't beautiful (they are clearly wrong, but you get my point).

Beyond just looking at portraits and then claiming that Cleopatra wasn't hot, the other piece of evidence people use for that side of the argument is a quotation from Plutarch, who wrote a biography of Mark Antony in Greek a couple of centuries later. He wrote:

For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased, so that in her interviews with Barbarians she very seldom had need of an interpreter, but made her replies to most of them herself and unassisted, whether they were Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes or Parthians. Nay, it is said that she knew the speech of many other peoples also, although the kings of Egypt before her had not even made an effort to learn the native language, and some actually gave up their Macedonian dialect [of Greek].
(Translation from Perseus Digital Library.)
He does not say that she wasn't beautiful. He says that she wasn't absolutely more beautiful than anyone else ever--and that she had all of these other appealing qualities and talents in addition to her good looks. Like she could speak tons of languages. In fact, Cleopatra was supposedly one of the only pharaohs in the Ptolemaic line of kings who actually bothered to learn the native language of Egypt. She was a savvy politician for sure. In other parts of the book, Plutarch does talk about how beautiful she was, and so do other Roman authors. As far as I know, no one else so much as suggests that she wasn't stunning. So the general consensus of ancient men, at least, is that Cleopatra was super hot.

Cleopatra's appearance is probably of minor importance in judging her political influence. But thinking about this question in the context of ancient beauty is a good reminder that we can't simply judge the attractiveness of ancient people based on our own instincts, on whether an image of someone appeals to us personally, or on whether or not it fits into our own dominant beauty standards. Overall, I think the two best possible answers to the question of how beautiful Cleopatra really was are (a) who cares?; or (b) we can't really judge that for ourselves, but the ancient Romans thought so.

In the future I'll write another post about ancient beauty ideals (spoiler: the Romans found unibrows and small boobs hot). For now, if you want to read more about Cleopatra, I've linked some decent sources below. The book Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth is particularly good. It's a museum catalogue so it has tons of images, plus chapters about Cleopatra's background, political strategies, image, and legacy. Personally, I prefer books by experts--I'm suspicious of an author who claims to provide a "new perspective" on Cleopatra, but who is unable to read ancient Greek (the language in which the most detailed ancient texts about her were written).

And for more ancient literary sources and portraits, see this excellent essay, as well.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Is there lead in your foundation? If you're an ancient Roman, read this now!

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So called "Sappho," probably a portrait of a Roman woman. Wall painting from Pompeii, now on display in the Naples Archaeological Museum. 
First century CE. Photo by Carole Raddato (corrected to enhance original colors).
Most ancient women, as far as we know, liked to make their skin look as pale as possible, like lots of other women in history have done.  To be more precise, in ancient texts the male authors equate paleness with prettiness. We also have evidence for women using makeup to look whiter, but no evidence for ancient bronzer. The usual explanation for this historical beauty ideal links it to wealth--rich ladies didn't have to work outside, so they would naturally have lighter skin than poorer working women. In practice, of course, there had to have been a whole range of skin tones at both ends of the economic spectrum, but wealthier women had the added advantage of being able to afford makeup and the free time required to apply it and touch it up, so they could look as pale as they wanted all the time.

This preference meant that ancient Roman foundations had whitening properties. The most common formula used white lead, or cerussa in Latin, which is a lead carbonate produced by putting lead shavings in vinegar. This process produced a white powder that was then formed into cakes which were used by painters and in makeup. Pliny the Elder said that the best white lead came from Rhodes. Imported beauty products have always had an extra appeal, and for some reason (coughorientalismcough), people more often than not seem to think that people who live futher east are better at luxury and beauty.

It could have been applied as a powder foundation, then, or maybe mixed with a cream. White lead probably would have had a mattifying effect, though the Romans were really into radiant skin, so maybe the good stuff also had some reflective properties. Certainly it would have been "brightening."

It's hard to know if Roman women typically applied their white base in a thick, opaque layer, or if they preferred a sheer wash that would just lighten their complexion a shade or two. Paintings of Roman women from Pompeii, like the one above, tend to show pale, but not pure white, skin.

I also wonder if white lead might have had some sunscreen properties, which would have helped the skin actually to become lighter over time--or, at least, to prevent it from getting darker. I'm not sure how to figure that out, though, so if anyone with a scientific background would like to weigh in, I'd be happy to hear what you think. I haven't been able to find any information about the sunscreen properties of lead.

The Romans were totally aware that this stuff was poisonous and actually damaged the skin, making it look worse over time, but they used it anyway. We shouldn't be surprised. It's kind of like people in the last couple of decades who've insisted on tanning, because they like the way a tan looks, despite being fully aware that they're seriously increasing their risk of skin cancer and also damaging their skin, ultimately looking older than they really are. Logic doesn't often overcome the power of beauty ideals, and obviously some people would rather look "ideal" now than worry about what might happen later. (I get that people sometimes tan for reasons other than aesthetics, and that tan skin as an ideal only applies to some groups of people, and that lots of people just don't care about aging skin. I use tanning as an example here because it seems like the closest parallel--a well-known potential risk coming into conflict with beauty standards.)

I have plans for future posts that recreate ancient makeup looks and suggest products you can use that are similar to ancient ones, but I think I'll skip this one!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Welcome to Pyxis & Spatula!

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An ancient Greek pyxis from Athens, showing a wedding procession, made in the 5th century BCE . Now in the British Museum.
© Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons
Welcome to Pyxis & Spatula, where I combine my research in ancient Mediterranean history and archaeology with my interest in beauty products and beauty culture. (You can find my take on modern beauty products on my other blog, brutally honest beauty.) Personally, I know the Romans better than the Greeks or Egyptians (plus, we have the most Roman literature that discusses cosmetics), so this place might be a bit heavy on the Roman side.

The blog's name comes from two pieces of beauty equipment that were often used by ancient women.* A pyxis is a lidded box, usually made from pottery, that could have held any number of things including jewelry, hair accessories, or cosmetics. We think that they were used especially by women, because they're so often decorated with scenes of women getting dressed and doing their hair and makeup, or with wedding scenes like the one on the pyxis above showing a bride and groom in their wedding procession. Lots of ancient products designed for women were decorated with scenes like these. Not all makeup containers were as fancy as the one above--for instance, check out this Roman metal face cream jar with the cream still inside.

Just like some people still do today, ancient women used spatulas or spoons to scoop product out of their jars and to mix cosmetics on palettes. The image in the blog's logo is actually a spoon (not a spatula) that the Romans called a cochlear, because it was good for eating snails or shellfish. But it came in a variety of sizes and could have been used for beauty products as well.

I have all sorts of ideas for topics that I want to write about here: lead in ancient cosmetics; how beautiful Cleopatra really was; ancient skincare ingredients that we still use today; Roman eyebrow grooming techniques; ideals of "natural" beauty in Greece, Roman, and Egypt; ancient figure flattery advice; and I'll probably try to do some easy tutorials based on ancient makeup trends. But if there's anything ancient you're curious about, I would love to hear from you. I'd really appreciate any suggestions. I hope there are some people our there who find the stuff I write about here as fascinating as I do. Thanks for reading!

Below I've included a widget with some really good books on the subject of beauty and cosmetics around the ancient Mediterranean. If you're doing serious research on the topic, you should check those out (since a blog like this isn't a proper "scholarly" research source--which isn't to say I'm not careful about the information I present here).

(*Note that I mainly talk about women using beauty products on this blog, because most of the ancient evidence we have links cosmetics specifically to women. The ancient Greeks and Romans were pretty strict about their gender roles. That isn't to say that no ancient male person ever used and enjoyed makeup, but it's nearly impossible to talk about them, because we don't have much of an idea of what an ancient man who used beauty products was trying to achieve. So when I say, here, "an ancient woman used this product," I am not saying "only a woman could have used this product." I am saying that, since we have to rely on limited information, evidence suggests that this product was most likely used by a woman or, at least, by someone interested in enhancing their femininity. At some point I hope to write a post here about gender identity and beauty in the ancient world that will look at the topic in more detail.)

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