Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.10.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.10.17

Marguerite Johnson, Ovid on Cosmetics: ‘Medicamina Faciei Femineae’ and Related Texts.   London; New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.  Pp. xiii, 171.  ISBN 9781472506573.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Rachel Philbrick, Georgetown University (


Ovid on Cosmetics gathers together five passages from Ovid’s erotic poetry that directly address issues of beautification and appearance, unified by the theme not of “cosmetics” per se, as the title implies, but of cultus (consistently translated as “cultivation”) more broadly. Johnson applies to these texts a multidisciplinary analysis that takes evidence from the fields of archaeology, history, philology, and even dermatology and horticulture to elucidate the technical details of ancient beauty practices. Livia’s beauty secrets are secret no more.

The five Ovidian passages are: the surviving hundred lines of the Medicamina Faciei Femineae; Amores 1.14; Ars Amatoria 3.101-250; Remedia Amoris 343-356; and Ars Amatoria 1.505-524. Each Latin text is accompanied by an English translation and a commentary (though the book is explicitly not intended as a textbook for an undergraduate Latin language course). The last passage (A.A. 1.505-524) stands out in the collection as the only one that addresses male, rather than female, cultus.

The major contribution of this work is that it makes accessible a wide range of evidence about ancient beautification. The commentary on the relatively neglected Medicamina Faciei Femineae may be the most welcome portion, as previously Rosati’s 1985 Italian edition was the only modern commentary available. And, while numerous commentaries exist for the other texts, Johnson’s interest in the history, archaeology, and chemistry of ancient beauty practices leads her to delve into topics not addressed in the average Ovidian commentary, which tends to focus on literary issues. Ancient testimony on related topics, by authors from Alexis to Vitruvius, gives evidence of the range of ancient views of beauty. The book’s useful “extras”—a chronology of Ovid’s publications; eleven illustrations of artifacts and plants; appendices with a glossary of cosmeceutical terms, a list of the ingredients used in the Medicamina recipes, and two tables of Roman weights and measures—lighten the reader’s work.

The texts are preceded by a substantial introduction, which offers both historical and literary context, arranged in five sections. The first, “Now and then … making-over a woman,” introduces a topic that resurfaces in the commentaries, namely the similarities between ancient and modern beauty practices and attitudes toward physical appearance. In “High maintenance … the Roman body,” Johnson lays out the common practices and tools of ancient beautification, as known through textual and archaeological evidence. Six well-chosen images accompany the text of this section and show examples of these tools, such as cosmetics boxes, combs, and mirrors. The section “Ovid on cultus, munditia, and ars” introduces and defines the three key terms in Ovid’s discussions of beauty. The fourth section, “Ovid and Augustus’s moral legislation,” presents Ovid’s erotic compositions as conflicting with, sometimes even defiantly, Augustan moral precepts and laws such as the lex Iulia of 18 BCE. Johnson also addresses here the issue of Ovid’s intended audience (matronae or not?). The final section, “The texts,” provides an introduction to Ovid’s sources and models for the Medicamina, Amores, Ars Amatoria, and Remedia Amoris; as Johnson acknowledges, Ovid’s command of his literary precedents was vast, and so her discussion must be limited to especially salient examples, with attention to key figures within the genres of didactic and elegy.

The types of analysis laid out in the introduction guide the discussions in the commentaries, which develop three main topics: the technical aspects of cosmeceuticals, adornment, etc.; additional ancient sources of evidence; and literary criticism of the passages. These are three big topics to fit into fewer than 200 pages, and where Johnson cannot be exhaustive she points to important issues and offers interested readers direction for further study. The book’s most exciting contribution comes in the commentary on the Medicamina, where Johnson has “translated” the recipes in the text into the style of a modern cookbook, with ingredients (measured in ounces and grams) and steps listed. This usefully updates Green’s work.1 So, ladies, provided you can get your hands on some red natron gum and a rough millstone, you can concoct for yourself Ovid’s treatment that promises a gleaming face. Johnson supplements the technical discussions with briefer discussions of literary elements of these didactic texts. In the case of the aforementioned facial treatment, she draws the reader’s attention to the sexual connotations of key verbs and the “overtly sexual implications due to the imagery of the young men with their muscular arms pounding away” (p. 71).

The English translations that accompany each text are clear, accurate, and literal, with line numbers and line breaks that mirror the Latin original for easy reference. Johnson explains her translation choices for key terms, which is always welcome from a translator and especially helpful for any reader without extensive Latin training. For each passage, the English and Latin texts are divided by paragraph breaks into sections that correspond to the sections of the commentary—a formatting feature that greatly facilitates reading the text with the commentary. The only deviation from this governing principle of clarity is the inclusion of two bibliographies: one of “ancient texts” (editions, etc.) and one of “modern texts” (recent scholarship). The former is organized by the name of the ancient author, but cited in the text by the name of the modern editor, which makes checking a reference much slower.

The texts assembled in Ovid on Cosmetics are often discussed together, since they address similar topics and were composed in relatively close succession. There is, however, a risk inherent in this kind of collection. It can suggest a greater coherence than the passages might have in the context of the larger works. Excerpting sections of a poem (as in the case of the Ars) or even complete poems from a larger collection (Amores 1.14) places these texts in artificial dialogue. This can draw our attention to important connections, but may also allow us to overlook others and encourage us to read “Ovid on cosmetics” as a coherent entity.

Johnson does some work to ameliorate this risk. At the beginning of each commentary, she situates the selected text within the larger work from which it was taken (essential context for a reader encountering these works for the first time). The introduction (esp. pp. 22-35) also provides background on each of the four works that contribute excerpts, including information about date of composition and genre, as well as sources and models. In the introduction, much more than in the commentaries, Johnson addresses literary critical topics (e.g. allusion, voice, persona, and so on). The commentaries would benefit from sustaining this method of reading, for in them Johnson falls back on a more biographical reading of Ovid that is inconsistent with her discussion of the poet in the introduction. An example: She refers to poetic persona in the introduction in the context of Med. 23-26 (“Here Ovid’s persona is that of the urbane sophisticate,” p. 18)—a statement that acknowledges the possibility of multiple personae. The Ovid of the Medicamina is not necessarily the Ovid of the Amores, for example. But the awareness of personae displayed in the introduction is hard to find in the commentaries, where remarks such as “Ovid does not believe in such practices [as witchcraft]” (p. 55) and (of Rem. 343-56) “If one were to discuss it in isolation, it would present a decidedly distorted interpretation of the poet’s attitude toward such matters” (p. 126) indicate an underlying assumption of a consistent, historical Ovid.

This view also influences the attention Johnson pays to “intratextual contradictions” such as the one she points out between A.A. 1.505-24 and Med. 23-26 (on male cultus). She consistently resolves such difficulties by explaining that they are the result of rhetoric, as here: “The key to understanding Ovid’s different attitudes to male cultus … is in his rhetorical imperative” (p. 135). Persona theory could be useful here, but Johnson adheres to a biographical reading of Ovidian poetry, ending her discussion by stating that this recourse to rhetoric “should come as no surprise” because, as Seneca the Elder tells us, the historical Ovid practiced hortatory speech (yet another example of Seneca’s influence on the reception of Ovid’s poetry). In this specific instance, another productive line of analysis could be comparison with Tibullus 1.8, which displays a different approach to male cultus: the (male) Marathus has adorned himself excessively to attract the (female) Pholoe, who herself looks lovely even with an “uncultivated face” (inculto … ore, 1.8.15). Ovid can be read as responding to this Tibullan mismatch, both in A.A. 1.505-524 and in his repeated declaration that a certain standard of feminine cultus is needed to match the modern standards of male cultus (A.A. 3.107-8; Med. 23-8) —an argument that strikes me as deserving further comment than it receives. Tibullus 1.8, though quoted in the introduction (p. 29) as a precedent and possible model for the Amores, is absent from the commentaries on all three of these passages. This absence is likely due to a misreading of the Tibullan text, for Johnson takes the reference to carefully arranged hair at Tib. 1.8.9-10 to refer to the puella rather than to Marathus, which obscures the passage’s connection to Ovid’s discussions of male cultus. (The identification of the addressee of these Tibullan lines, which the misleading narrative makes ambiguous until line 15, is discussed by Damer,2 whom Johnson cites on p. 29.)

These are small critiques. On the whole, Johnson has achieved an admirable feat by bringing together such a varied collection of primary and secondary materials in a clear and approachable way. This book will provide a very useful point of entry for any reader interested in understanding ancient attitudes towards and knowledge about cosmetics, cosmeceuticals, and beautification practices in general. Johnson has written the book with a broad audience in mind: “it aims to make a modest contribution to the post-postmodern shift in the direction of a shedding of the rigidities of scholarly disciplines and specified scholarship within them” (p. xi). While a variety of readers will find this book useful, it may be most welcome to scholars outside the traditional boundaries of Classics, in fields such as gender studies, cultural history, and history of medicine (though Classicists will also find much to marvel at in the intricacies of Roman makeup and hair-dressing). Johnson does a service to the field by making ancient texts, material evidence, and scholarship accessible to all readers, who will have clear direction for further study thanks to the work’s wide scope and up-to-date bibliography.


1.   Green, Peter. 1979. “Ars Gratia Cultus: Ovid as Beautician.” American Journal of Philology 100: 381-392.
2.   Damer, Erika Zimmerman. 2013-2014. “Gender Reversals and Intertextuality in Tibullus.” The Classical World 107 (4): 493-514.

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