Continuing Traditions in the Empire
Today, the Roman Empire is known as one of the largest, most prosperous empires the world has ever seen. Over the course of four centuries, what started as a small city slowly expanded into neighboring countries, spreading across Europe and the Middle East. At its height, the Roman Empire reached as far north as what is now the United Kingdom and as far East as what is now Turkey. As it expanded, Rome brought along its culture, carrying its skin care and hygiene traditions with it. While they may have been bent on world domination, however, the Romans were not afraid to learn from the societies they conquered. In fact, they picked up as many skin care treatments as they shared, and made them their own.
Under the influence of the all-powerful Roman emperors and their elaborate courts, Roman society became more extravagant than ever before. Nevertheless, the Romans retained many of the cosmetic traditions that they had first developed during their time as a republic. The public baths continued to be an important place for both socialization and cleanliness. In fact, many powerful men discussed war strategies as they bathed. Roman women had their own baths in the same building, and they continued to lighten their complexions with lead and chalk and even crocodile dung, if they could afford it. Bathing was a daily occurrence and all Roman citizens were expected to uphold a standard of cleanliness. While the poorest citizens could not afford the luxurious cosmetics and skin care products enjoyed by those in the Roman court, people of all social classes attended the public baths daily.
Expanding the Empire
As the Roman Empire expanded, it brought with it years of skin care expertise. When Roman soldiers conquered a new area, they would introduce their own culture and their own traditions to the people who already lived there. One thing that the soldiers made sure to establish in each new colony was a public bathing house. While the construction of these was often complicated and involved the construction of vast aqueducts and plumbing systems, bathing was so important to Roman culture that they found it to be worth the effort. The remains of Roman baths have been found in all parts of the former Roman Empire, from Germany to Turkey to England. Today, many of these bath houses are still in use in the form of public pools or spas. Bath, England is home to one of the most well-known examples of a working Roman bath. It was first rediscovered during the 12th century, when it was opened for use by medieval royalty. While the current upper section is a reconstruction, the lower structures and columns and the pools themselves are original Roman work and are thousands of years old. (You can read more about the baths in Bath, England here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Baths_(Bath ) )
Learning from the Conquered
As the Romans spread their culture and their knowledge of bathing and skin care, they also began to incorporate knowledge from the societies they conquered. Rome had long had relationships with countries such as Greece and Egypt and many of their skin care products were borrowed from these two cultures. As they spread throughout Europe and, especially, through the Middle East, however, they learned of new plants, herbs and oils that could be used to moisturize and protect the skin. The mineral alum, for example, had long been used in Middle Eastern countries as an astringent and to treat scabs and abrasions of the skin. Frankincense and myrrh, two plants that had long been used in Egyptian and Middle Eastern cosmetics and lotions, also became much more readily available as the Roman Empire spread. (You can read more about traditional Middle Eastern herbs, spices and remedies here: http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200605/natural.remedies.of.arabia.htm )
It is hard to underestimate the effect that Roman culture has had on modern society and its ideas about skin care. Along with the historical baths that are still in use across Europe, it is easy to see the echo of Roman bathing tradition in contemporary spas and public pools. Even modern razors and depilatory creams may have had their origins in Roman hair-removal devices. As the world becomes more globalized, the cultural sharing of cosmetic traditions echos the Roman Empire’s willingness to learn from others, even as they spread their own culture and traditions.