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Inside the Byzantine boudoir
Follow us on a journey guided by beauty. A fascinating tour of the 6th century AD Constantinople – its public baths, the houses of nobility and plebeians, even the private chambers of the Empress Theodora!
By Lena Ioannidou

Although antiquity adored and praised the human body, Christianity deemed it something corruptible and earthly, an obstacle to the salvation of the soul. Engaging in grooming was considered a sin and was condemned by the Church. Nevertheless, through scientific studies and testimonies by historiographers who were contemporaries of Theodora, the most famous Byzantine Empress, we find that the external appearance had never ceased to play a leading role in the lives of women and men alike.


Forbidden Beauty
The church fathers were the principal adversaries of beauty. They were criticizing excessive devotion to the body, claiming that its adornment and transformation with artificial means such as makeup alter the image given by God and prevent one from tending to the salvation of the soul. Moreover, they claimed that the face shouldn’t end up being a disguise or become an instrument of erotic provocation. Naturally, in a male-dominated society such as the Byzantine one almost all fingers were pointed at women, who were accused of using grooming to attract the attention of socially powerful men.
In practical terms though, things were very different. The Byzantine socialites didn’t seem to place much importance to the admonitions of the clergy. Proof to that are the numerous cosmetic utensils and perfume containers preserved to this day. Women coming from higher classes – both socially and financially – were far from being frowned upon for following beauty rituals and taking care of their external appearance as a whole. In fact, even their husbands supported it, because it boosted their social status.

In the Boudoir
Let us travel in our mind’s eye inside the private chambers of Theodora, so as to take a peek at her… boudoir. The beauty regimen practised by the Empress – like those of most women at the time – would probably give us the chills. We find out that she used materials such as nitro and chalk to clean her face. To enhance the colour and glow of her skin, she spread lizard’s faeces on, while a face mask made of raisin, dried plants and honey was applied for a whole day before being rinsed off.

The raw materials for make-up were also unorthodox, to say the least. Byzantines were basically using three colours, black, white and red. The black colour with which they accentuated their eyes (smoky eyes were also trending back then), eyelashes and eyebrows, derived either from antimony sulphide or a mixture of pine nut and wet tar! The “psimythion” was a white powder from lead carbonate that covered the face and neck, diluted lime powder acted as make-up, while the red colour used by the Byzantines to accentuate their lips, cheeks and the tip of their chin was produced from seaweed! Finally, there is evidence that some men painted their faces with ochre in order to obtain the pale face of a wretched monk living ascetically!

At the Spa 1,500 Years Ago
The “thermae”, namely the Byzantine thermal baths, were places offering much more than cleanliness and wellness; they acted as hubs of social life, especially for women who led lives more limited, with few opportunities to go out. There they had the chance to converse, sing and dance.
The ritual: The first thing they did was to smear their bodies with oil, wine and perfume and enter the hot area of the baths. After having sweat in the steam room, they were rubbed with a fabric glove, exfoliated with hyssop fibres and lathered with soap imported from France. The bath was completed by entering a tank filled with cold water. Then they would be wiped, smeared with myrrh and gone to the resting chambers, where they ate and drank tonic beverages – perhaps energy drinks of the time.

Hair Trends
For Byzantine women, having long hair was an integral part of femininity and beauty. Women had their hair cut only as a sign of mourning or shaming due to moral misconduct. Their hairstyles were elaborate, even if code of conduct would have decent ladies covering their heads at all outings. They styled them themselves using combs made of gold, silver, ivory, or wood. Nevertheless, the Empress as well as women of the upper class summoned “emplektries” or “kourides”, as hairdressers were called at the time. They usually pulled the hair on top of the head or at the base of the neck in a bun called “kridemnon” and held it together with gold and pearl combs or pins. They would sometimes have a parting done in the middle and weave two heavy plaits – and often add fake braids like today’s extensions – which were adorned with golden ribbons and folded around their heads like a wreath. The young girls used to let their hair down on the shoulders, curly and free. For this look, they spread a special ointment made of daffodil root and wine, and curled each strand with a hot iron, the “calamistrum”. Finally, hair dyeing was common among men and women. Future brides used to dye it red, for example. The most popular colour however was “kalotrichon”, which means “fine hair” in Greek and is none other than blonde, a sign of beauty for both sexes! According to testimonies, although they bleached their hair very often, they always left the eyebrows black.

Byzantine Perfume
In Byzantium, perfume was loved and worn by women and men – even soldiers, clerics and monks. The latter suffused it on body and hair, causing a strong reaction from the church. Women were preparing their own perfumes, the “myrrh” as it was called, using their own recipes. The most popular ingredients were lily essential oil, myrtle essential oil, nard from the homonymous plant, rose essence, wild grape flower’s essence, musk and myrrh. Many of these valuable ingredients were imported from the East and destined for the palace and the upper class of nobles. The perfumes were placed in special vials with tall narrow necks and stoppers, many of which were made of precious metals.


Our journey in time is coming to an end. Studying the beauty habits of that distant era, we see the efforts of the Byzantines to balance between the need to care for and beautify their body as they had learned being heirs of the ancient Greek and Roman tradition, but also to try to meet the imperatives of the Church. Perhaps they were subconsciously saying their farewells to the world of Antiquity and a lifestyle that was slowly getting lost into oblivion. After all, the Middle Ages were already ante portas…