Achieving Livia's Look:
Recreating an Ancient Roman Hairstyle
This Style in History:
Roman hairdressing has shown an amazing variety in styles. Tall halos of curls, elaborate braided confections, and simple matronly buns, Roman women wore the hair in a vast array of personal styles. One iconic style is that of Empress Livia.
This bust of Empress Livia resides in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (fig 1-5). The museum has dated this particular piece of marble to 4 CE or later, and believes it to be a copy of an original made ca. 27-23 BCE.
Livia’s style is deceptively simple. She wears her hair with a center section combed forward into a “nodus,” a feature she is known for, the rest pulled back from the face along the sides in loose rolls to meet in the back with a complex bun wrapped with braids. The method for securing such a style is unknown, but there are theories.
I believe this bust to be a representation of a casual hairstyle Livia wore. This style is shown on many other busts, in a variety of materials, most depict Livia, but some show other women have copied her style.
Being an empress, Livia was the model for a lot of sculpture. Though Romans tended toward an eternally young depiction of people (statues made of Livia when she was 60 look much the same as when she was 20) there is certain realism to them (Bartman 19). There are examples of Livia shown as an allegory, most frequently as the goddess Ceres, with a floral crown and holding a cornucopia, (fig. 6) or in the style of Pudicitia, where she is covered modestly by a veil (fig. 7). In some of these styles she wears a similar hairstyle to the featured one, and sometimes her hair is simply parted down the center and flows to either side in waves. In every allegorical image, she wears something on her hair, a veil, a diadem or a wreath of flowers. This leads me to believe that her uncovered style is not allegorical.
Potential Historical Methods:
While no one knows for certain how these hairstyles were created, experimental archeology gives us some clues as to the methods necessary for securing them. There are three methods for fastening styles that are possible with Roman hairstyling, “gluing,” pinning, or sewing. Along with the arguments for and against each of these methods, this section will include descriptions of other tools a period hairstylist would use, and a brief discussion of who these historical hairstylists would be.
A method for securing hairstyles that involves coating the hair, either part or all of the strand, with a substance that sticks the strands together. Beeswax and resins are capable of being documented to the first century CE; gel made from soaking or boiling flaxseed is theoretically possible, and water soluble gum arabic would have been available, though perhaps expensive since it would need to be imported.
It is possible that the entirety of the style was held together with “glue,” but I find it extremely unlikely. This style, even carved in heavy marble, shows a lightness to the hair that wouldn’t have been possible if all the hair was coated in product. Also, seen easier in the plaster cast of the bust of Livia, (Fig. 8) fine, wispy hairs along the hairline are present. That a sculptor found them necessary to carve into the busts instead of eliminating them for ease of sculpting, seems to prove their existence. These wispy hairs wouldn’t be present if all the hair were slicked back with styling product.
Romans who could afford it bathed daily, including women and children. Baths were deep enough to be fully immersed, suggesting that the hair was soaked along with the body. If so, a bath would destroy a hairstyle created entirely by water soluble adhesives. The frequency of bathing would suggest the need for a more easily removable fastener.
Believed by some to be the most common way of securing a Roman hairstyle, this method uses pins to hold the hair at specific points. These pins would be straight, single pronged pins, like sewing pins or hair sticks, as U-pins were not created before the 18th century (Stephens 120). A profusion of decorative hair sticks exist in archeological record. Made of ivory, bone, wood, jet, gold and other materials, they often feature carved heads or elaborate miniature sculptures at the top (Stephens 112). They would be easy to insert into hairstyles, and be easy enough to remove prior to a daily bath.
However, the lack of their presence in art makes it more unlikely that these hair “pins” were used to create these styles. Extremely few portrait busts show large hair sticks, and most of those only show one, insufficient to be the sole means of support (Stephens 117, 119) (Bartman 12). If the styles were constructed using smaller pins, it would require numerous smaller straight pins to secure the style. These small pins could possibly be hidden from sight, but I’ve found no report of a large number of small pins in grave finds.
Sewing hair as a method of securing a style requires a large needle, and sufficient length of thread to stitch through elements of the style, to prevent portions of the style from coming loose. Thread was most likely wool, as it is the most common fiber in Roman clothing, and Juvenal mentions a slave working wool while the mistress’s hair was being styled (Stephens 124). By using a thread of similar color to a lady’s hair, the thread becomes almost invisible, and more closely resembles period artwork.
The use of the Latin word acus causes some confusion amongst translators. It appears to most often be translated as pin when describing hair arranging, but when used in conjunction with sewing terms, it means sewing needle. Janet Stephens would argue that this word should be used for needle in both cases, specifically citing Sextus Pompeius Festus, whose Glossaria Latina has an entry on hairdressing and needles that states: “ACUS dicitur, qua sarcinatrix vel etiam ornatrix utitur” (that which the cloth-mender as well as the hairdresser uses is called a needle.) That the same type of tool was used for both sewing of cloth and sewing of hair explains the difference in needle sizes in Ancient finds. The size of needles believed to be used for hair sewing are larger than would be used for sewing cloth, commonly ranging from 10-15 cm, and being 0.5-1 cm in diameter, and have blunted ends. Roman needles this large are usually made from bone or ivory, though there have been finds of gold and glass (Stephens 113).
In addition to finds of large needles, there is a frieze on a tomb that depicts objects connected women’s work, and a needle is depicted with a cosmetic spatula on the right side. The spindle for creating thread is placed at the far left, with a variety of other elements between them; a clear separation of the two subjects. There is also the “beauty case of
” that contains jewelry, a mirror, several cosmetics related items, and a complete set of hairdressing tools, a comb, bodkin, spindle and needle (Stephens 122-123). Cumae
Roman hairstyles can be complex, and often require at least one other person to arrange the hair, if not several. Taking down a style is also complicated; if sewn, one must separate the wool thread from the lady’s hair, cutting only that thread. This requires the presence of an ornatrix.
Many Roman ladies of wealth had a slave, or several, just for arranging their hair. This hairdressing slave is known as an ornatrix. Images of hairdressing performed by a servant are seen in tomb carvings (Bartman 4). There are several instances in Roman literature of orantrices, and they are frequently mentioned as the recipient of abuse from their mistresses for pulling hair or making a mistake while styling it. Juvenal’s Satire 6 features two slaves actively working on their mistress’s hair, while a third who has retired from work due to age sits and spins thread while giving advice. Her skill is respected and she was once an expert of styling (Stephens 124).
Aside from the needle and thread, arranging the hair of a Roman lady would require a few other tools. A comb was necessary to detangle and smooth the hair, a hair bodkin for parting sections, a curling iron for later styles, and a mirror for the lady to view all angles of the style (Stephens 123).
How I Did It:
Start with clean(ish), combed hair. This style works best with hair of near waist length or more. Begin the style by creating the center section, parting the hair from the back of the scalp to approximately the center of each eye. Comb this section forward, and secure the remaining side hair for the time being. This is easily done with a hair bodkin.
As seen in the images of the Lady from Cerveteri, in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, the center section is parted in a downward point near the front of the hair. (Fig 9) I believe this part indicates a place where the hair is bound together, creating a secure spot to anchor later steps of the style to. Bind off the section of hair, either with a needle and thread, or, if using modern elements, with a small hair elastic. Pull the bound section and the rest of the center section forward and bind them together at nose length. Braid this section below the binding down to the tips. The tips can be bound with thread, dipped in water to temporarily stick them together (Stephens 123), or modernly, wipe gel on them to bind them together. Sew the two bindings together to create a loop at the center forehead (called a nodus), and stitch the braid down the center section. Then release the rest of the hair.
Part the rest of the hair down the center below the wedge. Use large sections to create French twists down both sides of the head. Some busts show twists all the way to the bun in the back; some only use part of the hair on the side, as clearly seen on the Bust of Livia in the British Museum. (Fig. 10) Once these twists rolled to the nape of the neck, bind them into a pony tail. Separate out about a third of the hair from each twist, and create a braid on either side of the head. These two braids will wrap around the finished bun.
Take the remaining unbraided section of hair and pull the tail through the gap made by the center section of the hair, leaving a loop of hair. Stick a hair bodkin through this loop to prevent it from being pulled through the gap. Smooth out the tail below the loop. Pull that tail back through the gap, creating a second loop below the first, inserting another bodkin to keep the loop from pulling through. The two braids should emerge from either side of this loop. What hair remains of the unbraided tail can be wet with water and wrapped around the bun. Secure this bun with large stitches through it. Wrap the braids around the bun, securing the braids with stitches. The style is complete.
A few notes on constructing this style.
When creating the central section, start from further back on the head than you expect. Most of the images show that the point of the central section is covered by the bun. While the most frequent location for this large bun is the nape of the neck, the Late Republican Woman in the NY Met shows a very high bun, perched at the back of her head. (Fig. 11) Her bun is also smaller than most of the examples, and rounder rather than the flatter versions that are more common.
There are a few other alternatives within the style that are exhibited by various busts. The bust of Livia in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek doesn’t feature a central braid, but smooth hair. (Fig. 1) Either all the hair is rolled into the nodus, or the tail of hair is some how smoothed down the central section of hair. Also there is an interesting example of the nodus itself being braided in a herringbone style. (Fig. 12) Most of busts of Livia herself feature a nodus that is full and circular, though when her nodus is paired with a central braid, it is often more horizontal, as can be seen in the bust of Livia Drusilla that resides in The Archaeological Museum in Selçuk, (Fig. 13) or in the bust of Livia from the Crypta Balbi section of the National Museum of Rome, (Fig. 14) where the nodus has broken off, but the shape can be determined by the remaining outline.
The less rounded nodus is also a common feature for women copying the Empress’ look. Images of the Late Republican Woman, (Fig. 11) present a fairly flat nodus, with the top layer clearly shown. The Roman Lady from Cerveteri, (Fig. 9), displays a nodus with barely any height, all the hair is drawn together on the top with smooth curves.
A third variation can be found with the side rolls. In a few examples the side rolls are smooth, but still have volume, instead of sectioned, as in the Late Republican Woman’s hairstyle. (Fig 11) Visible on the bust of Livia carved from basalt, in the Louvre, (Fig. 15) are large waves that undulate down the hairline on either side of the head. The carving indicates that the hair isn’t rolled, but loose pulled toward the back to maintain the waves.
To Wrap it Up:
This elegant style is hardly simple, but with the help of a handmaid, friend or servant, who is a capable hairdresser, and a few simple tools, the nodus style of Empress Livia can be achieved. There are a variety of small changes that can be made to personalize the style, and it is a beautiful way to finish an early Roman outfit.
Bartman, Elizabeth. "Hair and the Artifice of Roman Female Adornment." American Journal of Archaeology. 105.1 (2001): 1-25. Print.
Basalt Livia, (fig. 15) Louvre, Photo by Joe Geranio. http://www.flickr.com/photos/julio-claudians/5826158704/ Jun 12, 2011. Dec 28, 2011
Bust of Livia,
1444 (fig. 1-5). Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. Photos by Roger Ulrich. http://www.flickr.com/photos/roger_ulrich/5401662363/ Jan 30, 2011. Dec 28, 2011. Copenhagen
Bust of Livia, (fig. 10).
, Photo by Roger Ulrich. http://www.flickr.com/photos/roger_ulrich/5083966797/ Oct 15, 2010. Dec 28, 2011. British Museum
Late Republican Woman, (fig. 11) NY Met, Photo by Roger Ulrich. http://www.flickr.com/photos/roger_ulrich/4349761771/ Feb 11, 2010. Dec 28, 2011
Livia, (fig. 14), Museo Crypta Balbi,
. Photo by Rien Bongers. http://www.flickr.com/photos/antiekpubliek/4069196309 Nov 2, 2009. Dec 28, 2011. Rome
Livia as Ceres, (fig. 6) Louvre, Photo by Joe Geranio. http://www.flickr.com/photos/julio-claudians/281634307/ Oct 28, 2006. Jan 11, 2012.
Livia Drusilla, (fig. 13)
Selçuk Museum, , Photo by Christoph Houbrects. http://www.flickr.com/photos/crisdefeu/3936828412/ Sep 20, 2009. Dec 28, 2011 Ephesus
Liva from the Villa of the Mysteries, (fig. 7) Photo by Joe Geranio. http://www.flickr.com/photos/julio-claudians/3534732349/ May 15, 2009. Jan 11, 2012.
, (fig. 12). museum unknown, Photo by Joe Geranio. http://www.flickr.com/photos/julio-claudians/2422218499/ Apr 18, 2008 Tunisia
Plaster Cast of Bust of Livia,
1444 (fig. 8) Photo by William Storage. http://www.flickr.com/photos/bstorage/4045212257/ Oct 25, 2009. Dec 28, 2011 Copenhagen
Roman Lady from Cerveteri, (fig. 9) Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Photo by Roger Ulrich. http://www.flickr.com/photos/roger_ulrich/5102631473/ Oct 21, 2010
Stephens, Janet. "Ancient Roman hairdressing: on (hair)pins and needles." Journal of Roman Archeology. 21. (2008): 111-126. Print.