Perfumare, is Latin meaning “to smoke through”, the origin of the word perfume: scenting the air with incense for example to bring good fortune on your home. With the remarkable rise of the Roman Empire came wealth and status and increasing sophistication in the use of perfume. From extensive use of incense and perfumes in religious ritual came the urge to anoint the body with these heady fragrances. Over time perfume came to signify health and then status and different scents came to be used for different occasions.
Combine this with an Empire that now controls trade routes across vast distances. The Romans were able to experiment and explore fragrance as never before with access to remarkable ingredients from the Silk Road and the Middle East as well as the Mediterranean.
The foremost marketplace for exotic unguents was called Seplasia in the city of Capua. Here, nearly 200 kilometres south of Rome, the locally produced scents such as highly prized wild rose were available with myriad other ingredients such as tons of imported frankincense and myrrh.
The rituals of public baths also fed into this fascination with balms, oils, perfumes for skin, hair treatments and more. After applying cheap oil, exercising and then scraping off the dirt and bathing, the more well to do members of Roman society could enter a chamber of perfumes with vast arrays of vases filled with perfumes of every sort to chose from:
- rhodinium composed of roses
- lirinum with the scent of lily
- cyprinum from the cypria tree
- baccarinum derived from foxglove
- amaracimum from the oil of sweet marjoram
And so on through lavender, cinnamon, iris, thyme, watermint and more.
As today perfumes created a sense of occasion and bestowed beneficial properties on the wearer whilst the ephemeral qualities property of a fragrance made it all the more precious and uplifting.
“The pleasure of perfume is among the most elegant and also most honourable enjoyments in life”PLINY