Ovid’s Ancient Beauty Elixirs


On History

The man knew his makeup. Ovid, in a woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.

The rumors are true: it’s Publius Ovidius Naso’s 2,057th birthday. You can score some points with the classicists in your life by mentioning this in casual conversation, especially if you toss in a reference to the Metamorphoses. (“I was just thinking of Pyramus and Thisbe,” you might say, wiping a tear from your cheek as you gaze wanly upon a crack in the wall.) And if you’re wooing a classicist, or wooing anyone, really, be sure to heed the advice in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, his instructional elegy on romance—its efficacy has not been diminished by the passage of millennia. Mental Floss even has eleven dating tips from the poet himself. They include “the theatre is a great place to pick up girls,” “do not make a parade of your nocturnal exploits,” and “pay your lovers in poetry.”

But I write today with a more urgent, and more profitable, message. Even if readers still (occasionally) reach for the Metamorphoses or Ars Amatoria, there’s a massive blind spot in our modern view of Ovid. We’ve all but forgotten the man’s gifts as a beautician.

Somewhere between 1 BC and 8 AD, Ovid wrote Medicamina Faciei Femineae, known variously as The Art of Beauty or—my personal preference—Cosmetics for the Female Face. Though only about one-hundred lines survive, they include step-by-step instructions for making your own ancient Roman cosmetics, and believe you me, these concoctions are unlike any beauty products on the market right now. True, they include egg whites, frankincense, and honey, all of which are still found in cosmetics today—but Ovid also calls for such boutique ingredients as hart’s-horn, thural seed, and “the froth of which the Halcyon builds / Her floating nest.” (Presumably available at your nearest specialty grocer.)

At a time when all-natural, organic, locally sourced, “heritage” products are de rigueur—when quinoa is trumpeted as an ancient super-grain and anti-aging creams boast chestnut and citrus extracts—it seems to me that our nation’s leading cosmetics manufacturers have a clear mission: to reproduce Ovid’s makeup as exactingly as possible, and to market the hell out of it. With their poetic lineage and assertively pure ingredients, Ovid® brand foundations, balms, creams, lotions, ointments, and emollients could easily capture the hearts, and dollars, of upmarket consumers and vain PhDs. Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson: I’m looking at you. And I’m happy to offer, for a reasonable fee, my services as an Ovid® consultant and brand ambassador. Let’s talk. As a token of good faith, I include here Ovid’s proprietary formulas.

Vetches, and beaten barley, let ‘em take,
And with the whites of eggs a mixture make;
Then dry the precious paste with sun and wind
And into powder very gently grind.
Get hart’s-horn next (but let it be the first
That creature sheds), and beat it well to dust.
Six pound in all; then mix and sift ‘em well,
And think the while how fond Narcissus fell;
Six roots to you that pensive flower must yield
To mingle with the rest, well bruis’d and cleanly pill’d.
Two ounces next of gum, and thural seed,
That for the gracious gods does incense breed,
And let a double share of honey last succeed.
With this whatever damsel paints her face,
Will need no flattering glass to show a grace.

Nor fear to break the lupine shell in vain,
Take out the seeds, then close it up again,
But do it quick, and grind both shell and grain.
Six pounds of each; take finest ceruse next,
With fleur-de-lis, and snow of nitre mix’d:
These let some brawny beater strongly pound
That makes the mortar with loud strokes resound,
Till just an ounce the composition’s found.
Add next the froth of which the Halcyon builds
Her floating nest: a precious balm it yields,
That clears the face from freckles in a trice:

Of this about three ounces may suffice.
But ere you use it, rob the lab’ring bee,
To fix the mass, and make the parts agree.
Then add your nitre, but with special care,
And take of frankincense an equal share:
Though frankincense the angry gods appease,
We must not waste it all their luxury to please.
To this put a small quantity of gum,
With so much myrrh as may the rest perfume.
Let these, well beat, be through a searce refin’d,
And see you keep the honey ail behind.

A handful too of well dry’d rose-leaves take,
With frankincense and sal ammoniac;
Of frankincense a double portion use;
Then into these the oil of malt infuse.
Thus in short time a rosy blush will grace,
And with a thousand charms supply the face;
Some too, in water, leaves of poppies bruise,
And spread upon their cheeks the purple juice.