Roving reporter Ryan and Oxford historian Lydia took Nat Geo’s trusty time machine back to the first century CE to get the word on the via about life in the Roman Empire.
Here we speak to Tryphosa, a hairdresser in Caesarea, capital of the province of Judea.
Salvē, Tryphosa! Fill us in on your work as a hairdresser here in Judea.
We are here in Caesarea, capital of the Roman province of Judea. I am in service of the beautiful Claudia Procula, wife of Pontius Pilate, the new prefect of this province. I have been a house slave with this family since I was born, my mother having been a handmaid to domina and her mother before her. When the family came to Caesarea from Rome, they brought me and many other house servants with them.
Each day, I style domina’s hair in accordance with the activities of her day—some days she’ll need something more extravagant and some days she is more simple, relatively speaking. On the average day, she’ll wear her hair in a nodus, a style common among wealthy women back in Rome. I think she likes it because it was popular with the emperor Tiberius’s mother.
When we have many male visitors, she’ll often wear a veil called a palla to show modesty and loyalty to her husband, but typically she opts for something more regal. She’ll ask that I dye her hair using henna, and curl it using the calamister, what you might now call a curling iron. We pin it with an acus, and my mistress has many of these to choose from. Some have gems, others have carvings of the gods, some are made of bronze, others ivory or gold.
My mistress also has a few wigs, which we use for the most special occasions. She has one of fine golden hair from Germania that she particularly likes. I suppose we’ll never know for sure, but I hear the hair was shaved from the head of a local woman before she was captured and sent to live the rest of her life as a slave after one of Rome’s many wars.
Regardless of the style of the day, and even if she’ll wear a wig, we begin each day by first washing her hair with olive oil and combing it meticulously. We have a number of standard boxwood combs around, but my mistress prefers her ivory comb the best.
That sure seems like a lot of work each day. Why is hair so important to your mistress?
What is a noble Roman woman without noble hair? Even here in Caesarea where there are far fewer noble Romans who will notice, it’s extremely important for my mistress to maintain her hair as a mark of her place in society. Only barbarians would have unkempt hair. Even I, a house slave, find the time to put my hair in braids each day.
Between you and me, it’s not just an indicator of her wealth, but one of the ways she keeps her husband’s attention. As women, we have little formal power in society, but one way the noble women exert their influence is through the men in their lives. My mistress is generally quite good at this. Her husband respects her regal presentation, fine clothes, and well-maintained hair. He is attracted to her, and he often listens to her counsel because of it.
How does Judea compare to Rome?
To be quite honest, Judea makes me uneasy. Rome was no utopia, cramped and dirty as it was, but here in Judea there is a constant sense of unrest. The Roman rulers in the area have not been successful in winning over the local Jewish population. They’ve opposed the taxes and even protested King Herod’s reconstruction of their temple.
I once overheard Master Pilate say that the only reason the region even matters to Rome is because of the land and sea routes to Egypt in the south and Babylonia in the east. It’s not as if this province generates significant tax revenue.
Still, I can’t help but feel anxious hearing accounts of bandits in the countryside causing issues for Roman travelers. Something is not quite right here.
2,000 years from now, what should people remember about hairdressing in the Roman Empire?
It may seem frivolous at first glance, but hair is extremely important in Roman society. Noble women, in particular—prevented as they are from playing a visible role in political life—shape their reputation and influence through their appearance. The fact that I’m here with my mistress in Judea, where only a fraction of the population even understands the significance of her different hairstyles, is testament to the meaning we attach to hair.
I think it’s something Romans should be proud of. It’s a mark of their civilization that we make art not just with marble or canvas, but with the human body. You won’t see that in a barbarian tribe.
Wigs in Unexpected Places
Elaborate hairstyles and wigs weren’t just for wealthy women. Some marble busts (statues) even had removable, interchangeable wigs! Historians speculate that this was so the statue’s hair could change with the styles and remain fashionable over time.
nervous or worried.
rude and violent.
city where a region's government is located.
complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.
advice, opinion, or instruction.
crowded or having very little space.
ruler of an empire.
person who is owned by another person or group of people.
outrageous or unreasonable.
carefree, or lacking seriousness.
mineral, rock, or organic material that can be cut and polished for use in jewelry.
one of many spiritual deities or supreme beings.
plant that produces a reddish-brown dye.
sign or signal.
force that effects the actions, behavior, or policies of others.
hard, white substance that forms the teeth or tusks of some animals.
having to do with the religion or culture of people tracing their ancestry to the ancient Middle East and the spiritual leaders Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
very detailed and precise.
person born into a position with a high rank or class.
having to do with public policy, government, administration, or elected office.
administrative official in ancient Rome.
demonstration against a policy or action.
division of a country larger than a town or county.
resembling or having to do with royalty.
any area on Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.
income, or money earned before production costs are subtracted.
path or way.
important or impressive.
money or goods citizens provide to government in return for public services such as military protection.
building used for worship.
troubled, conflicted, or disturbed situation or state of mind.
ideal and perfect society.