Beauty at the forefront of roman life

From wince-worthy waxes to painful precision plucking, we can in fact trace our modern obsession with hair removal back to the Romans – and the evidence is right here in Shropshire.
Historical preservation charity English Heritage has recently completed a revamp of its museum at Wroxeter Roman City, and is now proud to be showcasing an impressive collection of ancient tweezers that would have brought a tear to the eye of even the toughest battle-hardened Centurion.
A quaint village five miles south-east of Shrewsbury, Wroxeter (or ‘Viroconium Cornoviorum’) was once a bustling town as big as Pompeii, and the fourth-largest settlement in Roman Britain. As such, the English Heritage site at Wroxeter Roman City has long been considered one of the country’s great treasure troves of Roman history, and is one of the most important historical sites that Shropshire can boast.
Following its revamp, Wroxeter Roman City now features previously unseen exhibits and brand-new interpretation panels designed to stoke the flames of joy of our exciting past in all who visit.
“The museum has been completely re-done,” said English Heritage curator Cameron Moffett. “We gutted the existing museum and started from scratch. All the graphics, all the interpretation material and the cases are brand new, as is the selection of objects. There are loads of exciting interactives for the younger audience. And then when you go outdoors on the site, all the interactives are new, and the site team have purchased some Roman-themed games that anyone can come and use. There’s lots on offer!”
Among over 400 artefacts that can be seen at Wroxeter, ancient hygiene products such as the aforementioned tweezers feature prominently. Other objects related to Roman cleanliness and beauty practices include a strigil (skin scraper), perfume bottles, jet and bone jewellery, and make-up applicators.
Beauty can often mean pain – and it certainly did for the Romans.

They were a people devoted to communal bathing, with many citizens attending the baths daily. When they did, they would bring their own personal cleaning sets – replete with ear scoops, nail cleaners and tweezers. Said tweezers however were not only used to remove eyebrow hair, but all unwanted body hair.

Following the fashions in Rome, and to distinguish themselves from ‘barbarians’, Roman Britons preferred a clean-shaven appearance. But hair plucking (often performed by slaves) was a painful business. Roman author and politician Seneca once wrote a letter to his friend complaining about the noise from the public baths, noting “the skinny armpit hair-plucker whose cries are shrill, so as to draw people’s attention, and never stop, except when he is doing his job and making someone else shriek for him”.
“At Wroxeter alone we have discovered over 50 pairs of tweezers, one of the largest collections of this item in Britain, indicating that it was a popular accessory,” said Cameron. “The advantage of the tweezer was that it was safe, simple and cheap, but unfortunately not pain-free.
“It may come as a surprise to some that in Roman Britain the removal of body hair was as common with men as it was with women.
Particularly for sports like wrestling, there was a social expectation that men engaging in exercise that required minimal clothing would have prepared themselves by removing all their visible body hair. It’s interesting to see this vogue for the removal of body hair around again after millennia, for everyone, although luckily modern methods are slightly less excruciating!”
One of the best-preserved examples of a Roman settlement in the country, it is easy to step back in time at Wroxeter and breathe in what was once a thriving metropolis of the ancient world. Archaeological excavations dating back to 1859 have uncovered the monumental buildings at its heart; the forum, the market, the bath-house basilica, the bathhouse itself and, finally, Wroxeter’s town houses.
“Wroxeter is well-known for being the Roman site that school groups come to,” said Cameron. “The demand is extraordinary – I don’t think there’s a day in the next six months when we haven’t got school parties in.
“The ancient population was maybe 8,000-10,000 at its peak, which for Britain during the Roman period is large.”
Alongside Wroxeter’s surviving ruins, a reconstructed Roman town house gives visitors a taste of what some of the buildings at the site may have looked like in their prime.
Back in 2010, a team of builders were set a challenge to construct said ‘villa urbana’ for a Channel 4 TV project entitled Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day. In building the town house they were only permitted to use crafts, tools and building materials that would have been available to the people of the time. The result is still standing strong at Wroxeter, and – situated opposite the ruins of the old Roman city – it creates a beautiful contrast of the then and the now.
While having for many years been a jewel in Shropshire’s historical crown, with its new collection of artefacts Wroxeter boasts an historical experience that can impress even the most devoted scholar.
A few of the remarkable items on display in the new museum – as well as the tweezers – include figurines of deities, a Roman water pipe which would have served the bathhouse, and poignant amulets relating to the health of women and fertility. These objects discovered at Wroxeter show the rich daily experience of the people who once lived there – from their business enterprises to their vibrant social lives.
“I think people will be surprised and really charmed by the display of objects that we have provided because people who don’t have an archaeological background may come to an historic monument thinking that maybe these are primitive people and will then be surprised by the complexity of historic objects that they see,” said Cameron. “The new display at Wroxeter shows very clearly that these are wealthy, sophisticated people who have expensive taste and are in a position to satisfy their wishes for exotic jewellery and fantastic ornaments and that kind of thing. They really were very well-off, the residents of Wroxeter.”
And from August 5-6, visitors have the chance to meet said residents themselves. The Romans Return at Wroxeter Roman City will once again see Viroconium Cornoviorum come alive with its ancient populace as magistrates don their togas and legionaries buckle their armour for an immersive weekend of family-friendly Roman fun.
Actors are set to entertain the young and old alike with tales of daily life in Roman Britain’s fourth-largest city, and all visitors will be able to take in the sights and smells of the site’s fascinating past.
But whether you can make that special weekend or not, so far it seems, the revamped site is nothing less than a total hit and a grand day out for all.
“The visitor numbers are extraordinary,” said Cameron. “Everyone has been really appreciative and enjoyed the museum and enjoyed the new interpretation. I think it’s proving to be a great success.”

-To book tickets for The Romans Return at Wroxeter Roman City, visit


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