When In Rome, Hairdo as the Romans Do
Friday, April 12, 2013
The Journal of Roman Archaeology is not exactly beach reading; the annual editions weigh in at around one-thousand pages. This is hardcore PhD. land. Recently, though, the academic journal published the debut article of a scholar whose advanced degree is a Maryland Senior Cosmetologist license.
Janet Stephens is a hairdresser at a high-end salon in Baltimore who has shaken up the world of classical studies. She was killing time at The Walters Art Museum on a rainy day when she wandered into a gallery of marble busts. All the famous Romans were there — Nero, Marcus Aurelius — but Stephens was more interested in the women, with their coiffed, architectural hairdos, like the second-century empress Julia Domna.
Hair was clearly a big deal to the Romans, but not so much to scholars of the Romans; Stephens could find nothing in the literature on how they achieved these technical marvels, like the multi-braid Vestal Virgin style. Some scholars opined that the hairdos in the busts were the sculptors showing off, using artistic license; others said the women wore wigs. Stephens didn’t buy it — she could feel that the hairstyles were real, but she could not reproduce them. Roman hair had a secret technique, forgotten for millennia, until Janet Stephens uncovered it.