Amongst Roman glass artefacts, unguentaria are some of the most common finds. Their original use was to store mostly perfumes and cosmetics and thus, they were in high demand across the Roman world. Most unguentaria come in a few common shapes and many different colours. Though there are examples of unusual designs for unguentaria, the vast majority conform to popular designs.
One such example is ‘candlestick’ unguentarium, which have a short globular body, a long thin neck and a flaring rim. The style was designed to reduce the likelihood of spilling its contents, as well as making it easy to pour out small amounts of cosmetics and oils at a time. Due to their specific design, candlestick unguentarium were likely almost exclusively for cosmetics and perfumes.
Unguentaria in Everyday Life
Unguentaria seem to have been used in three main contexts: for storing perfumes and cosmetics, for use in ritual and funerary practices, and as votive offerings. Unguentaria of varying number and quality have been found at excavations of household sites, burials and religious sites, highlighting the diverse uses of these little vessels. The versatility of the glass blowing technique to make small items that were both useful and attractive made them a popular choice for a range of different purposes.
Cosmetics in Ancient Rome
Cosmetics were applied in private, usually in a small room where men were kept out. Cosmetae, female slaves that adorned their mistresses, were especially praised for their skills. They would pamper and beautify their mistresses with cultus – the Latin word encompassing makeup, perfume and jewellery. The use of makeup was a time-consuming affair and far from being convenient as cosmetics needed to be reapplied several times a day due to weather conditions and poor chemical composition. Perfume was also an important part of the Roman woman’s beauty regime. Women who emanated a pleasant scent were presumed to be healthy and, most importantly, wealthy. Care of the body was considered an indicator of wealth and prosperity and thus the use of cosmetics and perfumes grew with the expansion of the Roman Empire.