Adornment as a Vice

The Drawbacks of Luxury:

“As though some crisis of reputation or soul were at stake—so great is the diligence in seeking beauty”- Juvenal (Olson, 81)

Though a matron’s ornamentation served as a powerful representation of her family’s rank within Roman society, a large portion of the community frowned upon the gaudiness of female decoration. In particular, opponents of over-accessorizing included men and followers of the Christian faith.

The Ideal Woman:

Most Roman men wanted their wives to strive for pudicitia, which is the Latin term for modesty. It was considered impure and selfish for women to spend so much of their time and energy on personal adornment, and some Roman men believed that women needed to place emphasis on offering an “intellectual dowry” rather than one centered around material possessions (Olson, 91). According to Roman patriarchs, it was ideal for matrons, who were considered to be chaste symbols of motherhood, to remain relatively unadorned. That being said, Roman men did not want their women “unkempt” and bad-looking, just free of vain decorations (Olson, 93).

Gems and Adultery:

“There is nothing that a woman doesn’t allow herself, nothing that she considers disgusting, once she has put an emerald collar around her neck, and has fastened giant pearls to her elongated ears”- Juvenal (Olson, 84).

Juvenal’s quote above is an example of the belief by Roman men that adornment led to adultery. It was common idea that women were so eager for luxuries, like gems and jewelry, that they would trade their morality for such items (i.e. sexual favors in return for gifts). Roman men often believed that ornamentation was misleading, for women were appearing as something that they were truly not; thus “the signs of aesthetic trickery, clothing and makeup, were often equated with adultery” or unchastely behavior (Olson, 83). Roman authors often wrote stories about women decorating themselves to the nines in preparation for male visitors, insinuating that wives were looking to draw attention from the eyes of other men when they adorned themselves. The author Petronius warned that “[a] wealthy woman will spend all of her husband’s money on ornament to beautify herself for her lover, not her husband” (Olson, 84).

A Decorated Matron: A Waste of Time

“Adornment was wasteful and expensive, time-consuming, and un-Roman” (Olson, 80).

Roman men often considered jewelry and ornamentation to be a silly practice, and a huge waste of time. Plautus Epidicus refers to female decoration as “gerrae maxumae,” which is latin for ‘the highest nonsense’ (Olson, 81).

Jewelry was considered to be a useless art for a number of reasons:

  1. The “care of the body” was being misused on a pointless practice.
  2. Men resented female decoration because jewelry was expensive, and men were typically the ones purchasing the pieces.
  3. Most jewelry pieces, or the metals and gems that they were made from, had to be purchased through foreign markets; thus men were giving their money away to non-Romans for the sole purpose of bettering a woman’s looks. “Juvenal accounts that there is nothing ‘more offensive’ than the fact that women do not consider themselves beautiful unless they are adorned in GREEK fashion” (Olson 88).
  4. If a woman was “decked out” in jewelry and gems, she was “not sitting at home spinning or overseeing her children’s education” (Olson, 89).

A Woman’s Inferiority:

“Ornament was indicative of woman’s inherent frivolity and intellectual weakness” (Olson, 80).

It was a common belief held by Roman men that the nature of women was to desire material things (Olson, 84). Habbinas once said that “if there were no women, we [men] would all look on gems as filth” (Olson, 85). A woman’s adoration for jewelry showed that she was self-obsessed and lacked respect and love for her family. Fashion was considered to be “in contrast with child bearing,” for a woman interested in material goods showed no concern for the well-being of others (Olson, 90).

Interestingly enough, Roman authors write about two conflicting, negative attributes that frown upon female decoration. The first claims that, through adornment, beautiful women try to bring immodest attention towards themselves. The second claims that ugly women use adornment to make themselves look better, thus deceiving those around them.



Suggested Readings:

Olson, K. 2008; 2012. Dress and the Roman Woman: Self-Presentation and Society. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon; New York; Routledge.