As Monty Python fans know, the Romans did nothing for us except give us sanitation, medicine, education, wine, law and order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health.
Roman experts may also suggest that they gave us public relations, street food, city planning, currency, our calendar, underfloor heating and bureaucracy.
English Heritage is now adding another one: body hair removal. “From painful washes to irritating shaves, we can trace the modern obsession with hair removal back to the Romans,” it said as it displayed exhibits in a revamped museum that opened to the public on Thursday.
More than 400 objects will be on display in Wroxeter Roman City in Shropshire, including items that shed light on bathing and beauty practices in Roman Britain.
They include tweezers used to remove the unwanted body hair from men and women.
Cameron Moffett, English Heritage’s curator for the site, said a striking number of tweezers had been found there. “We have a great number,” she said. “English Heritage has 50 Roman sites, 10 of which have produced tweezers. We have a total of 94, 60% of which came from Wroxeter. So yes, we cornered the market with tweezers.”
The sheer volume of tweezers shows how popular it was as an accessory in Roman Britain. “The advantage of the tweezers was that it was safe, simple and inexpensive, but unfortunately not pain-free,” Moffett said.
The tweezers were used by people selling a service in the Wroxeter bath complex to pluck people’s body hair.
For men, Moffett said, there was an expectation that body hair was removed before physical exertion such as wrestling. Roman Britons also followed the fashion in Rome for a clean-shaven appearance, which distinguished them from “barbarians”.
For women, it was often the perception of beauty. “There are loads of written sources, including Pliny and Ovid,” Moffett said. “They all write about how to maintain your body hair and you know, God, no one will be interested in you if you have armpit hair.”
The plucking was often carried out by slaves and was not without noise or pain.
The Roman writer and politician Seneca wrote a letter to a friend complaining about the noise of the public baths, mentioning “the thin armpit-hair-plucker whose cries are shrill, to attract men’s attention and never to stop, except when he is doing.” his job and have someone else scream for him”.
The tweezers are on display along with other beauty items, including nail cleaners and an ear spoon. The latter may have been used in the ear, but also to measure ingredients for face masks and beauty creams.
Also on display will be a replica of strigil, a curved, blunt knife that would have been used to scrape off oil – and dead skin and dirt – that a Roman had just been soaped in.
Bathing was a complicated process, Moffett said. “There would have been a lot of bottles of perfume and bath oil, there was quite a lot of stuff you had to take with you.
“There were so many aspects to it. You could spend hours there, catching up with friends and people would stop by to offer you snacks and a glass of wine to buy… it sounds fun.
The revamped museum opens in Wroxeter, once the fourth largest city in Roman Britain, nearly the size of Pompeii in Italy. It was founded as a legionary fortress in the middle of the first century, founded as a city in the 90s AD and inhabited until the fifth century.
It is exceptionally well preserved and archaeologists have unearthed a wealth of treasures that English Heritage hopes are now much better displayed.