The Roman poet Lucan is like the Perez Hilton* of the ancient world: snarky, gossipy and full of dirt on the glitterati. Take, for example, his description of Cleopatra as a “fatal beauty,” “thick” with cosmetics.
Oh snap! The ability to complement and insult someone in the same breath was obviously a fine art way before Hollywood even had hills. Later in the same poem, Lucan breathlessly describes one of Cleopatra’s gowns as see-through. You can almost hear the ancient hisses of mock outrage and lascivious curiosity.
My point (and I do have one, I swear) is that when we talk about ancient cosmetics, we have to distinguish how the Romans perceived makeup—as a tool to enhance female beauty, versus how the Egyptians looked at it—as a religious requirement for both men and women.
Cleopatra, of course, wore makeup. Everybody in Egypt did—men, women, kings, queens, servants, children and grandparents. Why? Because you honored the gods and called upon their protection when you anointed yourself in that way.
Unfortunately, that protection did not extend to brain damage—especially as most of the materials comprising ancient makeup were metal and lead-based. Green malachite came from copper rocks and black kohl was made from lead compounds. Yes, the ancient Egyptians applied more neurotoxins to their faces than Hollywood starlets on a Botox binge.
To apply these lead-based powders, they mixed them with—wait for it—duck fat to make a paste. Greasy goodness, no? Thankfully, the ochre (red dirt) that they spread on their lips and sometimes, on the souls of their feet, was mixed only with water.
Various implements such as palettes, flat-tipped styluses, and sponges were used to apply the gobs of stinking duck fat—er, I mean the gorgeous khols—to their eyes.
Modern scientists have discovered that the ancient Egyptian belief in makeup as protection from illnesses may have sprung from practical or medicinal observations. It turns out the lead salts used in kohl actually protected wearers from certain eye diseases.
So while Cleopatra may have worn make-up—as Lucan says—to make herself into a “dangerous beauty,” more likely, she wore it because of religious traditions and a need to protect herself from common eye diseases. After all, we couldn’t have the queen of the Nile walking around with goopy eyes now, could we?
*A controversial, gossipy, sometimes cruel Hollywood blog.