Romans, lend me your scissors: the empire brought hair removal to Britain, says English Heritage | Roman Britain
As Monty Python fans know, the Romans did nothing for us except give us sanitation, medicine, education, wine, law and order, irrigation, roads, a system freshwater and public health.
Roman experts may also suggest that they gave us public relations, street food, city planning, currency, our calendar, underfloor heating, and bureaucracy.
English Heritage is now adding another: body waxing. “From painful waxes to irritating shaves, we can trace the modern obsession with hair removal to the Romans,” he said as he displayed items in a renovated museum that will open to the public on Thursday.
More than 400 objects will be at Wroxeter Roman City in Shropshire, including items that shed light on bathing and beauty practices in Roman Britain.
They include tweezers used to remove unwanted hair from men and women.
Cameron Moffett, curator of the site for English Heritage, said a surprisingly high number of tweezers had been found there. “We have an incredible number,” she said. “English Heritage has 50 Roman sites, 10 of which have yielded tweezers. We have a total of 94, 60% of which come from Wroxeter. So yes, we have cornered the tweezers market.
The volume of the tweezers shows how popular it was as an accessory in Roman Britain. “The good thing about tweezers was that they were safe, simple, and cheap, but unfortunately not painless,” Moffett said.
Tweezers were used by people selling a service at the Wroxeter seaside resort to pluck people’s hair.
For men, Moffett said, hair was expected to be removed before physical exercise such as wrestling. Roman Britons also followed fashions in Rome for a clean-shaven appearance, which distinguished them from the “barbarians”.
For women, it was often the perception of beauty. “There are many, many written sources, including Pliny and Ovid,” Moffett said. “They’re all writing about how you’ll have to keep your body hair in check and you know, god, no man is going to care about you if you have armpit hair.”
Picking was often done by slaves and was not without noise and pain.
The Roman author and politician Seneca wrote a letter to a friend complaining about the noise of the public baths, noting “the skinny armpit epilator whose cries are shrill, so as to attract people’s attention, and do not never stop except when he’s doing his job and making someone else scream for him”.
The tweezers will be on display along with other beauty items including nail cleaners and an ear spoon. The latter may have been used in the ear, but also for measuring ingredients in face masks and beauty creams.
Also on display will be a replica of the strigil, a curved, blunt blade said to have been used to scrape off oil – and dead skin and dirt – into which a Roman had just been lathered.
The bath was an elaborate process, Moffett said. “There would have been a lot of bottles of perfume and bath oil, there was a lot of kit that you had to take with you.
“There were so many aspects. You could spend hours there, catch up with friends and people would come over and offer you nibbles and a glass of wine to buy…sounds good.
The renovated museum opens in Wroxeter, which was once the fourth largest city in Roman Britain, almost the same size as Pompeii in Italy. It was founded as a legionary fortress in the mid-first century, established as a city in the 1990s, and inhabited until the fifth century.
It is exceptionally well preserved and archaeologists have unearthed a host of treasures which it is hoped will be much better displayed.