Recreating Ancient Roman Perfumes

Exhibit in the Spurlock Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign / Photo by Daderot, Wikimedia Commons

Even everyday scents have the power to take us back in time, awakening half-forgotten memories.

By Gianluca Farusi

Dictator of the Roman Republic until 44 BC, he invaded Britain and was the first Roman general to cross the River Rhine. He was the lover of Queen Cleopatra, and the month of July is named after him. Julius Caesar is famous for many things – but probably not for his choice of perfume.

Perfumes, however, were an important part of life in ancient Rome: in the form of incense for religious ceremonies; in public areas to mask foul smells – Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) records rose-scented water being sprinkled in theatres; and for moisturising the skin.

Gladiolus sp / Image courtesy of greenhem;
image source: Flickr

Today, most commercial perfumes are alcohol-based, but Roman perfumes for the skin took the form of unguents, or greasy ointments. An unguent consisted of a liquid base and a scented essence, and could also contain preservatives such as salt, and fixatives such as gums or resins – to stabilise the volatile components of the perfume.

One of the most frequent liquid bases used was omphacium, an oil extracted from green olives or unripe grapes. To obtain scented essences, the Romans used many methods to extract scent from flowers, seeds, leaves, bark and other fragrant plant material. Many of these methods are still used today.

  • Enfleurage: petals were placed on suet (the hard fat from around the kidneys) and replaced periodically until the fat was saturated with fragrance.
  • Steeping in oil: the scented roots or leaves were crushed, placed in a loose-textured linen bag and left to soak in oil at a moderate temperature.
  • Steeping in oil and water: a method common in warm areas such as Egypt. The scented roots or leaves were placed in earthenware jars and covered in a 50% v/v mixture of rainwater and oil. The jars were then buried up to the neck in the hot sand and left open for one to five days. The essential oils released by the plant material mixed with the oil floating on the water. Once the water had evaporated, the fragrant oil was strained off.
  • Pressing: to obtain citrus or liquid base oils, citrus skins or olives, for example, were placed in linen bags and pressed.
  • Boiling and squeezing through cloth: to extract resins and oily substances from bark.
  • An archaeological dig in Pyrgos on Cyprus even showed that steam distillation was practised in 2000 BCw1.
A decoration of the House of the Vetii in Pompeii, Italy, is extraordinary evidence of how Roman perfumes were prepared and sold. From right to left: a) Two putti hammer the wedges of a press, to squeeze the oil out of unripe olives. On their left, a psyche stirs a mixture in a cauldron over a fire (probably steeping plants in warm oil); b) Two putti stir the contents of a deep vessel, which may have to be added to the olive oil. On their left, another putto holds a phial and has both a papyrus scroll and a pair of scales. Behind the putto is a cupboard containing phials and a statue of a deity; c) The story finishes with the sale: the purchaser tests the perfume on her wrist. Behind her is a slave girl and a putto stands in front of her holding a phial and a spatula. Click on image to enlarge / Image courtesy of the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei

How do we know so much about Roman perfumery? Partly, of course, from contemporary written records – but science can also help. Modern archaeological analyses of perfume traces in ancient pots can help to identify the perfume, the way it was prepared and even what it was used for. By combining chemical data with information from contemporary authors, we can reproduce some of the perfumes of the ancient world.

The ingredients of the most common and most ancient perfumes, according to Pliny. A: Calumus (Acorus calamus)
B: Pomegranate (Punica granatum) C: Myrtle (Myrtus communis) D: Mastic (Pistacia lentiscus) E: Cypress (Cupressus
) Click on image to enlarge Image courtesy of Gianluca Farusi
Ligustrum sp / Image courtesy of jwinfred;
image source: Flickr

As part of a larger interdisciplinary chemistry project, my students (aged 14-15) and I decided to do just this: recreate the favourite perfume of Julius Caesar. But how did we even know what it was? Thanks to a fragment of poetry attributed to Caesar (‘Corpusque suavi telino unguimus’, ‘We anoint the body with fragrant telinine ointment’), it is thought to be the unguent telinum.

However, finding the recipe is no easy task. For one thing, before the introduction of Linnaean taxonomy, there was no consistent naming convention. Thus, for example, the name ‘cyperus’ may refer to the many species of sedge (Cyperus spp), to gladioli (Gladiolus spp), to lemongrass (Cymbopogon schoenanthus)or even to privet (Ligustrum spp). Moreover, perfume recipes – then as now – were fiercely guarded by their manufacturers, so even though contemporary writers sometimes recorded the ingredients of a perfume, they seldom mentioned the proportions.

Cyperus alternifolius / Image courtesy of ((o: pattoune :o)); image source: Flickr

In the case of telinum, we were lucky: in his Naturalis Historia (Natural History), Pliny the Elder records the ingredients and Pedanius Dioscorides (c. 40-90 AD) records somewhat different ingredients but does mention the proportions in his De Materia Medica (On Medical Materials).

“…Ratio faciendi duplex, sucus et corpus: ille olei generibus fere constat, hoc odorum.… E vilissimis quidem hodieque est – ob id creditum et id e vetustissimis esse –  quod constat oleo myrteo, calamo, cupresso, cypro, lentisco, mali granati cortice.… Telinum fit ex oleo recenti, cypiro, calamo, meliloto, faeno Graeco, melle, maro, amaraco. hoc multo erat celeberrimum Menandri poetae comici aetate.

Unguents comprise two elements: the juices and the solid parts. The former generally consist of various kinds of oils, the latter of odoriferous substances.… Among the most common unguents today, and for that reason assumed to be the most ancient, is that composed of oil of myrtle, calamus, cypress, cyprus, mastich, and pomegranate rind.… Telinum is made of fresh olive oil, cyperus, calamus, yellow melilot, fenugreek, honey, marum, and sweet marjoram. It was the most fashionable perfume in the time of the comic poet Menander [around 300 BC].

Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia (Natural History), book XIII, chapter 7, paragraph 9

For our recreation of telinum, therefore, we carried out a series of trials based on these two ancient recipes, to determine the blend we preferred. How should we interpret ‘cyperus’, though? We prepared two versions: one with lemongrass oil and one with violet oil (Viola odorata) – because the roots of both gladioli and Cyperus species smell like violets.

Finally, because marum (Teucrium marum) is thought to be carcinogenic, we decided to replace it with catmint (Nepeta cataria), which smells similar. If not entirely historically accurate, our perfume should at least smell like Caesar’s.

Originally published by Science in School 21, 11.22.2011, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.