What Did the Ancient Romans Smell Like?

Scientists have analyzed the composition of a 2,000-year-old perfume unearthed in Carmona, Spain

Perfume jar
One of the vessels excavated from the funerary site in Carmona, Spain Juan Manuel Román / City of Carmona

In 2019, Juan Manuel Román, an archaeologist at Pablo de Olavide University in Seville, Spain, was called to the small town of Carmona. Residents were constructing a swimming pool and had uncovered something intriguing.

“I was at the construction site and there was a small hole through which I could put my head,” Román tells Isambard Wilkinson of the London Times. “I saw that it was a Roman tomb. I managed to drag myself inside and was surprised, because it was intact.” 

The tomb, undisturbed for two millennia, was the final resting place for three men and three women. Among the items buried with them was a quartz vial of perfume, which dated to the first century C.E. 

Scientists from the University of Córdoba began analyzing the perfume’s composition. Now, after several years of research, they have published a paper in the journal Heritage on what wealthy Romans may have smelled like.

The answer: patchouli, “that love-it-or-hate-it musty aroma you probably recall from your college dorm,” writes Artnet.

Patchouli plant
The patchouli plant provides a musky, earthy scent. Forest & Kim Starr via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States

The researchers write that their discovery is “possibly the first time a perfume from Roman times has been identified.” While many ancient perfume vessels have been found, they rarely hold a preserved substance inside.

Patchouli is a common ingredient in modern perfumes. But at the time, the earthy, musky plant only grew in India and would have been quite rare, according to Vicente G. Olaya of the Spanish newspaper El País

Due to the perfume’s rarity and the material of its container, the team thinks that its owners were likely wealthy. 

“In Roman times, quartz vessels were very rare luxury objects, several of which have been found near Carmona,” the authors of the paper write. “The [perfume bottle] was thus a rather unusual finding for an archaeological site, and even more unusual is that it was tightly stopped and contained a solid mass.”

The container’s stopper was made of dolomite—“a material also unknown in this type of use,” write the researchers—and held together with a tar-like substance. 

Perfume has existed for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians were “among the most enthusiastic perfumers in antiquity,” as Lithub’s Sarah Everts wrote in 2021. (A few years ago, researchers even tried to recreate a perfume that may have been used by Cleopatra, who reigned from 51 to 30 B.C.E.) With time, perfume’s popularity spread, becoming common in Greece and Rome. 

Perfume served several overlapping purposes in the ancient world. In addition to producing a pleasant smell, it also had ritualistic and medicinal uses. For instance, the researchers note that Pedanius Dioscorides, a first-century Greek physician, “compiled several recipes for aromatic oils that were used as perfumes and medicines.”

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