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?


  1. High Imperial Rome for the not-having-to-make-an-effort win for me. I have massive unruly strongly-arched brows, and though I don't groom them to match a current style (I just clean up the edges) it'd be handy to already be trendy. (I wouldn't complain if I got dropped a few years further back in Julius Caesar's era, either, thanks to my longstanding fascination with him. Maybe I could be a trendsetter.)

    1. The real trick to fitting in with Roman portraits of women is to have a good frowny-face, so I think I could manage it!

  2. Roman Egypt for me please. Or Minoan Crete.

    1. In Roman Egypt you would also get to wear a lot of gold jewelry, according to the portrait. In Minoan Crete, it would be one of those dresses with the full skirts but your boobs out.

  3. I love the Roman Egyptian brows! Very into those Cretian ones, too - the shape is really interesting. I think my natural brows would fit in best in Dynastic Egypt, though. They're not quite full enough for Roman Egypt.

    1. I'd probably have to go with Early Imperial Rome or Classical Greece to work with that I already have. But I can dream of others . ..