Public Health, Personal Hygiene & Grooming

The Romans were great believers in a healthy body equalled a healthy mind. They had no concept of germs or infection, but they did know that the likely causes of disease were bad smells, bad water, marshes, sewage and personal hygiene. Few Roman houses had their own baths, so in an effort to keep the population clean and healthy every Roman town and city had at least one set of public baths. Men and women had to bathe separately, either in different baths or at different times of the day.

Many people used their visit to the bathhouse as a social occasion. This was possible because the bathhouse was a large complex of rooms offering massage, hot dry rooms, steam rooms and exercise areas.  Archaeological excavations in Carlisle have uncovered the remains of public baths under the present market hall.  The idea was to work up a sweat, have olive oil rubbed into the skin and scraped off with a strigil. This would be part of a personal toilet set along with tweezers, oil flask and possibly a mirror. [See Image 1]

Hair care followed many fashions during the time the Romans were in Britain, which is reflected in statues, tombstones and on coins. The imperial family often set fashions. In the first century CE (AD), for example men were usually clean-shaven, while during the second century the emperors are all shown with beards. Apart from hairpins, which are discussed under jewellery, the only hair care item to survive is a comb. These are fairly common and have widely spaced teeth on one side and close set ones on the other. They would also have been used to control head lice. [See Image 2]

Cosmetics were also popular with Roman women and the wealthy employed slaves who would apply chalk and white lead to their mistress’s face and arms.  Lips and cheeks were tinted with red ochre and ash or antimony was used to darken eyebrows.  Both white lead and antimony are toxic and must have affected the health of the wearer. Some of the small boxes found in Carlisle may have contained cosmetics. However, they could also have contained medicines. Other containers that may have included cosmetics are the small long-necked glass jars that have been found in the city. The contents would have been extracted with long-handled spoons that are also common finds. [See Image 3]