Wherein the Romans know fly heads and donkey genitals are just the thing to maintain a youthful head of hair.
Few Rush fans would consider their song I Think I’m Going Bald to be a rock classic—even Geddy Lee says, “The music is really goofy. A lot of people mistake us for being deadly serious, but some of our songs are just plain goofy.” Nonetheless, many people are terrified by the prospect of androgenetic alopecia—the song was apparently inspired by guitarist Alex Lifeson’s fear of hair loss, which did in fact conquer him in the end—and will go to great lengths in a desperate attempt to grow great lengths of hair.
One ancient Roman expert on hair loss and coloring was the naturalist Pliny the Elder, whose career in hair styling was tragically cut short (cut short…get it?) by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. Pliny may not have known about the The Simpsons’ miracle breakthrough of Dimoxinil, but he knew that insect heads, breast milk and even donkey genitals were just the thing for a hairstyle almost as eye-catching as a Viking’s.
I’ll Still Be Grey My Way
Supermarkets frequently have an entire aisle dedicated to hair care and coloring to enable you to engage in follicular self-expression (although perhaps not to these extents). While your local Piggly Wiggly may not have just the product to make you look like Tweety Bird, you can still find something to cover the gray.
The ancient Romans were similarly concerned with maintaining a youthful head of hair. While hairdressing slaves called ornatrices could pluck individual gray hairs, this practice could only work for a limited time before the formerly be-haired looked like a first-century Telly Savalas. This meant, Pliny knew, that the aging patrician needed hair dye to continue looking young and virile.
Pliny describes in his Natural History a number of treatments for hair color. To prevent hair from turning gray, he recommends applying the ashes from the incinerated genitals of an ass (while he doesn’t specify how popular this treatment may have been, I do not foresee Clairol or Revlon rushing boxes of crispy donkey junk flakes to modern store shelves). Hair that has already turned gray can be treated with a liquid made from the skin of leeks.
For the Roman who wanted a head of lustrous black hair, Pliny suggests a concoction that sounds like it could rival garum (a sauce beloved by Romans made from fish guts and salt) as a condiment: leeches that have rotted in red wine for forty days. Perhaps this was the first-century equivalent of Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific shampoo: Gee, Your Hair Smells Like Rotten Booze-Sodden Blood-Sucking Parasites.
I’d never considered the possibility of Romans trying to look like Joy, but I’ve had to reconsider after reading Pliny’s description of orach (atriplex hortensis, a leaf vegetable similar to sorrel and spinach) being used for hair dyes. Because orach seeds were used to create a blue dye, I like to think of women walking the streets of Pompeii looking like they’re cosplaying as anime characters.
I Don’t Care About My Hair
What if it’s too late, however, for cosmetic concealment…what if you no longer have hair to dye? For Roman men, this wasn’t necessarily a problem: baldness, wrinkles and other signs of age were evidence of a life nobly dedicated to serving Rome. Nonetheless, some men were embarrassed by their receding hairline or chrome dome (like Julius Caesar, who sported a combover to cover his bald spot), and Pliny has a few suggestions for these vanity-riddled guys.
To prevent hair loss, Pliny recommends getting a haircut on the “seventeenth and twenty-ninth days of the moon” or at least, following Tiberius and Marcus Varro, on the full moon. In the case of baldness, however, he advocates, in addition to a simple compound of wild thistles to restore hair, smearing the scalp with an ointment made from bear grease mixed with ladanum (or labdanum, a resin used in ancient medicines and incense) and the hair from a maiden. I’m not sure how someone made the connection between bear fat and a female virgin’s hair—perhaps there’s a long-lost myth about Asclepius catching Yogi Bear and Boo Boo after they went on a panty raid.
For those whose hair loss resists even the powerful bear grease / virgin hair combo, Pliny has a super-weapon in reserve: insect heads and breast milk. For standard pattern baldness, the fresh heads of insects—or ashes of the heads—can be rubbed into the bald spot. For the person trying to transform Yul Brynner into Rumours-era Lindsey Buckingham, however, the recommended treatment is fly heads mixed with a substance such as breast milk. In some ways I get the fly heads part: if you’re already wearing the bear grease goop, then flies will probably be in abundance. The concept of using breast milk, while it may seem like a fetish (“rub this on your head and I promise…all sorts of things will grow!) is actually a surprisingly frequent medicinal source in ancient Rome. Pliny elsewhere explains, Tara Mulder says,
It is a curative for long fevers, disease of the bowels, nausea, gnawing pains, lumps in the breast, various eye ailments, including inflammation and fluxes, poisonous toad juices, ear ailments, jaundice, gout, uterine pain, spots on the face, lung afflictions, as an astringent for the bowels, and as an emmenagogue.
So, there you go, shiny: fly heads and breast milk…it’s good for what ails ‘ya.
Image: Julius Caesar by Andrea di Pietro di Marco Ferrucci (1512–14) (Source).