Addressing the Dressing IV: Hair and Roman Culture

In the previous post, we learned that women’s clothing in ancient Rome was not terribly varied: respectable women worn the stolla and palla and differentiated themselves from one another with variations of color and jewelry.  Adulteresses and prostitutes were most notably marked by the wearing of the toga, or at times a stolla that was made of thin and revealing Coan silk. A woman’s moral nature was indicated by her choice of clothing, and prostitutes were marked by either various degrees of nudity or the willful rejection of “female” dress.[1]

The previous post dealt a blow against the myth that says “the problem in 1 Tim. 2 and 1 Pet. 3 is one of women dressing immorally, as indicated by their prostitute-like hair.”  In recognizing that hair didn’t indicate that someone was immoral, the previous post also posited the question:  What did ” braided hair and gold or pearls” indicate?

This brings us today to the topic of hair.

crazy hair


Seeing that Roman culture provided far less variety of choice for women on the front of clothing, women mainly set themselves apart from one another with their hairstyles. In New Testament times (and far before and after), “hair was a major determinant of a woman’s physical attractiveness and was thus deemed worthy of considerable exertions to create a flattering appearance.”[2] In fact, Roman culture was somewhat different than our own in that female hair was the main course of fashion. In Roman culture, clothes were of far lesser significance than hair.  Hair “functioned as marker of status” and “seems to have been for some the seat of female attractiveness.”[3] In other words, a woman’s hair was the major factor in determining her physical attractiveness.[4]

In the New Testament era, given that their clothing options didn’t really include anything that was physically flattering, a women’s hair was one of her main outlets of her individuality. Hair communicated a world of details about a woman; social status, personal morality, submission to social norms, and even political leanings.[5] To the Romans, “natural” looking hair was hair “suggesting a lack of civilization and social control – a state close to beasts and barbarians” and grooming was seen as a handmaiden of literacy and culture.[6] Therefore, all Roman women groomed their hair. The nature and level of elaboration of the hairstyle, along with the types of additional elements (i.e. decorations, wigs, etc.) clearly communicated a woman’s status.


Before exploring the various components of Roman women’s hairstyles, it’s worth noting just how much hair communicated.

Hairstyles did change in Roman culture, but slowly and often with far more significance than simply indicating changes in fashion trends. Often the hairstyle of the reigning monarch became a multi-decade standard fashion.  Dr. Kelly Olson writes, “some famous Roman women – Livia or Faustina the younger – never (or rarely) changed their hairstyle.”[7]  Alexandra Croom writes that “women wishing to be fashionable, wherever they lived in the Empire, could use the official statues and coin portraits to follow the latest hairstyles from the Imperial court if they so wished.”[8] What’s more interesting is that Bartman notes “Faustina the Elder had nine official portraits made over her reign that showed changing hairstyles, where as the coins minted during her reign had the same hairstyles.”[9] Bartman suspects that the coins reveal an idealized image presented by the government to the empire, but seeing that the various hairstyles of the portraits corresponded with other known hairstyles of other important women (both contemporaneous and of the past), the official statues reveal “responses to dynastic politics rather than changes made in the actual coiffure she wore.”[10]  In other words, Faustina provided contemporary political commentary by means of her hairstyle.  Croom notes that Imperial women often introduced new fashions “to distinguish herself from her predecessor” but “some women presumably continued to wear the fashions of previous empresses.”[11] The reasons for this certainly involved an aversion to change (tradition is a powerful force), but hairstyles were also subtle ways of showing an affiliation to a previous monarch’s person or political policies.

There were further messages communicated by women’s hair. Roman women wore their hair up on their heads at all times, with two public exceptions. The first exception was for mourning or being part of a funeral procession; adult women letting their hair down was associated with death.[12] The second exception was for children. Elizabeth Bartman writes,

“We also see a marked difference in the hairstyling deemed acceptable for preadolescent girls, such as long hair cascading loosely onto the back, compared to that for sexually mature women – equally long hair but controlled through wrapping, tying, and braiding.”[13]

Hair 2

There was also one private exception, which would be one of a sexual nature.   Women would “let their hair down” with their husbands; something that was far more erotic than one might initially suspect.  Due to the intrinsically erotic nature of hair, it was “a lightening rod for anxieties about female sexuality and public behavior. Hence the ancient sources preserve many references to veiling and other strictures regarding female headware.”[14] The Roman god Venus was often shown wearing her hair cascading down over her shoulders, but this was an image that was overtly pornographic in Roman culture. Bartman writes,

“An attribute of Venus, shoulder locks are worn by Roman women to evoke the goddess and the qualities connected with her: beauty, sexuality, and fertility. As divine signifiers they are no different in their associate role from nudity or the gesture of the hand covering the pubis…”[15]

So all this gives a simple and obvious message: in ancient Rome, a woman’s hair was not just hair. This also should certainly give Christians a greater understanding of the cultural background behind the talk of veiled hair in 1 Corinthians 11. It’s not an interpretive key by any means, but it certainly adds some understanding of the gravity present in the Corinthian predicament.

Addressing the idea of veiling as a bit of a side-note, it is actually significant to note that all the surviving portraits (read “statues/busts”) of Roman women have their hair unveiled, most likely “in order to display her elaborate hairstyle to the viewer.”[16] It is likely that those same women would have been unable to wear such elaborate hairstyles out in public without uncovering them, since the palla “would have crushed the rows of curls and braids”.[17] Then again, they probably didn’t wear those sorts of hairstyles too often in public.  It’s likely that when sitting for a portrait, a women would have had her hair done up as ostentatiously as possible, in order to present herself as extravagantly as possible and to preserve her astonishing coiffure for posterity.


Not all coiffures were extravagant, but women’s hair was highly significant in Roman culture. Lengthy grooming sessions weren’t just tolerated, they were encouraged for women.[18] There certainly wasn’t a certain hairstyle, but all women wore their hair up and the social scale involve increasing levels of ornate hairstyles.[19] If “natural” hair was the mark of illiterate barbarians, the whole point of Roman women’s hairstyles was to make woman’s hair look as unnatural as possible, with mounds of curls, color, texture and sheen.[20]

So what were the typical hairstyles?

Hair 3

The basic style involved parting the hair in the middle of their head, pulling it back into various styles of braids and buns.[21] Lower class women had simple hairstyles, “usually with the hair drawn back and knotted into a simple bun.”[22] Lower class women would have kept their hair in place with a hairpin, which would have generally been a functional rather than decorative piece. Women of some means would have had more elaborate hair pins that were ornamental and designed to display their wealth.[23]

As in contemporary culture, hairstyles and fashion weren’t driven by the lower classes. The wealthy and elite citizens of the empire established and maintained the standards of fashion, and in the Roman empire the more elaborate the hairstyle, the better.

Hair 1

Roman women who were in the upper classes had exceedingly ornate hairstyles. Hairstyles kept the basic division in the middle of the head but involved increasingly elaborate braids, buns, pins, and decorative elements including ornaments made of gold or ivory, and even various mounds of curls that crowned the forehead, often involving both a woman’s own hair and a wig.[24] This forehead crown was the most distinctive element of Roman women’s hairstyles, often being a stack of curls that was impossibly high.[25] These elaborate hairstyles were held down firmly in place with hairpins, nets and snoods.[26] In the first century, around the time of the pastoral epistles, some women even wore hairnets made out of gold.[27]

Women who wore the most ornate hairstyles would have had their hair done daily by hairdressing slaves called Ornatrices, simply because it would take multiple sets of hands several hours to do the elaborate hairstyles that the wealthy women wanted.[28]  Here you can see a wealthy Roman woman with four ornatrices (with one holding a mirror for the woman to observe the affair).


The most elaborate hairstyles, reserved for women with significant means, ”were probably sewn together without the need of hairpins, creating very stable hairstyles that could be slept in if necessary”[29] The richer the women, the larger and more elaborate the mound of hair upon her head. Across the first century, women’s hair was swept “off the face into towering mounds.”[30] Even though Roman women frequently utilized wigs to get maximum effect, many women had “Ample locks, possibly even below waist-level” that were the foundation of their amazing hairstyles.[31]

The point of a wig was to add color to a woman’s hair, but wigs were quite expensive. Women who couldn’t afford a wig could still try to color their own hair, making their hairstyles stand apart from those of their peers. To dye their hair black, women would apply “a mixture of leeches which have rotted for 40 days in red wine” or a mixture of kermes that had soaked in water “until tender and rotten”.[32] To dye their hair red, women would apply “a mixture of very young walnuts” or saffron.[33] To lighten their hair, women would apply sapo, “a mixture of goat’s fat and beechwood ash, molded into balls.”[34] As good as these treatments sound, they weren’t as desirable as having a wig.

The wigs used were wither the half wig (galerus or galerum) or the full wig (capillamentum).[35] Common wigs were frequently made from the hair of slaves, but more expensive wigs had hair of specific colors. The natural color is what made foreign wigs so desirable. Black wigs were imported from India and were very exotic, but blond wigs were brought back from Germany as a spoil of war. This blond/gold “captured hair” was far more exotic and as such was easily the most expensive.[36] Incorporating a foreign and costly wig into a complex and ornate hairstyle would certainly set a woman apart, as “the long commitment of time and the skilled ornatrix needed to produce such a (sp) ornate hairstyle would have marked the woman as a lady of standing, and was a sign of social rank and power.”[37]

Bartman writes that wigs were worn by choice as a fashion accessory, not because of a fault or flaw in the wearers’ hair.[38] I suspect that this is only partially true.  Roman women’s hair was also regularly damaged as part of the process of creating a hairstyle. Olson writes about the Roman version of the curling iron and says,

“The calamistrum was the ancient curling iron: it consisted of a hollow metal cylinder with a solid cylinder inside: the hair would be wound around the solid cylinder and inserted into the hollow one which had been heated on the fire or in the brazier. Because curling tongs and hair dyes could seriously burn the hair and scalp and cause hair loss, some women may have found thin or scorched hair a problem.”[39]



So, after all that, it seems fairly clear that a woman’s hair in Roman culture was a something of extreme significance, often designed with the sole purpose of displaying a woman’s wealth and status. With the pursuit of elaborate hairstyles possibly involving multiple slaves, imported decorations and wigs, coloring, hours of daily work and what would amount to a lot of money, hair was no small affair for many Roman women.  Still, this is just a bunch of data that need to be applied for it to really be helpful.

That’s the goal of the following posts, but first there’s one thing left to deal with before assembling all this data into a coherent understanding of “modesty”.  Next week, I’ll deal with the remaining elephant in the room.

Until Next Time,

Lyndon “the useless ornatrix” Unger

[1] Kelly Olson, “Matrona and Whore: Clothing and Definition in Roman Antiquity” in Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World (ed. A. Faraone and Laura K. McClure; Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), 197.

[2] Elizabeth Bartman, “Hair and the Artifice of Roman Female Adornment.” American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 105, No. 1 (Jan., 2001), 1.

[3] Kelly Olson, Dress and the Roman Woman: Self-Presentation and Society (Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2008), 71.

[4] Bartman, 5.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 6.

[7] Olson, Dress and the Roman Woman, 71.

[8] Alexandra Croom, Roman Clothing and Fashion (The Hill, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing, 2010), 65.

[9] Bartman, 8

[10] Ibid, 8.

[11] Croom, 55.

[12] Ibid, 57.

[13] Bartman, 6.

[14] Ibid, 5.

[15] Ibid, 22.

[16] Olson, Matrona and Whore, 190.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Bartman, 1

[19] Croom, 56.

[20] Bartman, 5.

[21] Ibid, 2.

[22] Olson, Dress and the Roman Woman, 71.

[23] Croom, 55.

[24] Bartman, 3.

[25] Olson, Dress and the Roman Woman, 70.

[26] Bartman, 3.

[27] Croom, 66.

[28] Jerome Carcopino, Daily Life in Ancient Rome (trans. E. O. Lorimer; London: Penguin Books, 1991,), 186-187.

[29] Croom, 65.

[30] Bartman, 3.

[31] Olson, Dress and the Roman Woman, 71.

[32] Ibid, 72.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid, 73.

[35] Ibid, 74

[36] Bartman, 14.

[37] Olson, Dress and the Roman Woman, 71.

[38] Bartman, 18.

[39] Olson, Dress and the Roman Woman, 73.

[40] I am a useless Ornatrix.  There’s proof here.

19 thoughts on “Addressing the Dressing IV: Hair and Roman Culture

  1. Pingback: Thoughts… | Watch Your Life and Doctrine Closely…

  2. Awesome bud!

    For some reason I was mesmerized by the length of that girls fingers in the photo of the girl with the “$” braid in her hair.

    The post was still good though, in spite of my distracted state.

    • Greg,
      I listened to the podcast. It was indeed fascinating, but it posed some troubling elements.

      First, Dr. Heiser said, “You can’t possibly understand the passage unless you have the first century person living in your head.” This would seem to challenge the idea of perspicuity and set up a sort of Magisterium based in Ancient Roman/Greek academia. If Heiser is correct, until 200 years ago (give or take) a faithful Christian could not understand this passage. I agree that cultural understanding enhances our study of Scripture, but I do not believe it is necessary.

      Second, it would seem to deny the inspiration of the Scriptures and put Paul’s understanding of anatomy and physiology as the standard rather than truth. The Holy Spirit surely knew that the hair did not function in the way imagined by the ancient physicians. To let Paul make this argument would seem to be a form of accommodationism that leads to allowing for questioning the inerrancy of the Bible. The Holy Spirit knew Paul’s argument was false, but He allowed him to use it for cultural accommodation since his readers were ignorant.

      I am not familiar with Dr. Heiser, so I am not sure of his perspective on those topics.

      • Hi Roger,
        I can sympathize with your critiques of Mr. Heiser’s explanations, as both of these thoughts crossed my mind as well. I thought I would respond here with my conclusions regarding them so far. Perhaps someone else will find them helpful.
        To the first point about the need for cultural understanding or academic knowledge to understand the Bible versus perspicuity: I think the problem here lies in one’s understanding of perspicuity (from now on simply PS). PS doesn’t mean that we can understand everything in the Bible in an otherwise vacuum of knowledge. It simply means that the core truths of it can be understood and grasped with relative ease (i.e. children can understand the basics). However, I wouldn’t expect a child to untangle Daniel’s visions. You need to know quite a bit about a good stretch of history before it will make any real sense to you. In this regard, relatively few people really understand what is being described in Daniel 11 for instance. Most likely skim over it and are happy to be moving on…
        There are many passages like this in the Bible and PS does not make them any easier to deal with. PS gives us two things: 1) Peace that we can know what we absolutely need to know without being scholars, and 2) That, together with the Holy Spirit, we can often have success in getting to the bottom of tough passages – but it will require some real work, learning and knowledge!
        The second point about inerrancy is thornier, but I think you give part of the answer to it in your post and another part may be again how we define inerrancy. I personally think most people take inerrancy a bit too far – i.e. everything in the Bible must be true in the most literal sense (e.g. all descriptions are scientifically accurate according to our modern expectations). Cultural accommodation is essential to the Bible’s very existence! God is condescending to speak to us, and He is doing it in a way that is understandable to His audience. He didn’t speak to the Israelites in Chinese.
        On a related note, I think one’s view of inspiration plays into this issue. Is the HS dictating the words to Paul, or is Paul writing his own thoughts while being providentially guided by the HS? I see it as the second. And if that is the case, I think it makes perfect sense that Paul would find the uncovered head of a woman offensive towards God and her fellow worshipers. I think there is a universal principle behind the thought (which used a misconception as its launching point): Though we live in an era of grace, do not abuse this privilege! Be aware of how your actions impact those around you. That is one of the key messages of the entire letter to the Corinthians.
        So I found Mr. Heiser’s input very enlightening, and while I can understand how it can give one a bit of a bellyache at first, I think it is a bellyache worth dealing with. I hope my thoughts here will bless you and any others who may read them.

        • ??? I don’t know how that was meant, but it any case, I’ve never commented on that site. I rarely read anything there. I rarely post anywhere for that matter. So, it’s most likely someone else who happens to have the same name.

          But do you have something of substance to contribute to the matter? If you have another view, I’d be open to hearing it.

  3. Pingback: Addressing the Dressing V (Part 1): The “Other” Modesty Text | Watch Your Life and Doctrine Closely…

  4. Pingback: Addressing the Dressing VI: Bringing It All Together…Almost | Watch Your Life and Doctrine Closely…

  5. Pingback: Addressing the Dressing VII: The Right to Bare Arms | Watch Your Life and Doctrine Closely…

  6. Pingback: Rock Your Role: A Head of the Times- Head Coverings for Christian Women? (1 Corinthians 11:1-16) | Michelle Lesley

  7. Pingback: Lyndon Unger: Biblical Modesty

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