Hiding the Natural Face – Alutae et Splenia

BM Cosmetic box

Bronze Cosmetic Box, British Museum 1866,0415.235, 1st-2nd century AD

Non tamen expositas mensa deprendat amator
Pyxidas: ars faciem dissimulata iuvat.

Still, don’t let your lover find cosmetic bottles on your dressing table: art delights in its hidden face.

It’s no surprise to find that Ovid was yet another man fond of the ‘natural look’, the unblemished, thrown together, I-woke-up-like-this woman whose imperfections are as deliberate as her smooth cheeks. In his advice for lovers, Ovid refers to alutae, small soft leather patches worn like plasters to cover blemishes on the face (Ars, 3.202). Unfortunately these bizarre patches are only found in literary references, so we have no archeological evidence to suggest what they looked like and how they were applied. It’s thought that the patches would have been treated with alum and pasted directly onto the skin with a thick paste or foundation, which would then cover them, creating the impression of a flawless skin. 

Aluta, literally meaning a piece of soft pelt or leather, crops up in various other places within the Roman literary world and takes on a variety of other understandable meanings such as leather purses and shoes. As patches, Alutae came in all shapes and sizes, presumably made to measure and fit different parts of the face. Primarily a medical plaster, they also went by the name splenia (splenium).

Given poor standards hygiene and the toxic lead concoctions which Roman men and women smeared over their faces, blemished and diseased skin was probably not an uncommon sight. These leather patches served two purposes, first to protect the skin, but also to hide the imperfections below. The epigrammatist Martial claims to go out with his chin patched (spleniato mento) and his lips painted white so as avoid having to kiss Philaenis. Whilst the patch could very well provide the poet with a disguise from Philaenis, the suggestion is that Martial is feigning a skin disease in order to avoid being kissed by the basiatores, the notorious kissers.

However, whilst these patches might have initially had a medical purpose, they appear to have been adopted as an aesthetic: a deliberate and visible flaw applied to the face. Ovid mocks the lover who fills out their eyebrows and wears an aluta on otherwise blemish-free skin (sinceras genas). The unnecessary application of the plaster, supposedly veiling a flaw, serves only to accentuate the flawless and insincere cheeks. 

But the trend depends on what you’re hiding. In another epigram, Martial taunts a freedman for his senatorial airs, dressed in deep purple and crisp white, his hair dripping with oil and his starred brow plastered with many a patch. Remove the patches, he tells his friend, and you read who he really is, referring to the branding marks which cover his forehead (2.29.9).

Roman splenia developed from a medical patch to a beauty patch, and can find parallels in the beauty spots fashionable in 18th century French high-society which, beside their decorative value, were often used to high scars from smallpox or syphilis sores. Splenia were even used superstitiously in the courts by Marcus Regulus who would move a patch from one eyebrow to another depending on if he was appearing for the prosecution or the defendant (Pliny 6.2.2). 

The different functions these plasters played, hiding blemishes or drawing attention to the; making the face appear natural or highlighting its artificiality, provide us with a glimpse into the complexity and variable standards of beauty and aesthetics.