Divine Fragrances: The Role of Perfumes in Ancient Greek and Roman Rituals

Posted by Emily van Oosterom on

Perfumes found their way from Egypt to Greece, where they were eagerly embraced and incorporated into various aspects of daily life, from personal grooming to religious rituals and public events. The Greeks regarded perfumes as a symbol of refinement and social distinction, and their use extended to both men and women. Perfumes were commonly used for personal beautification, applied to the body as well as the hair. Greeks developed a range of scented oils and unguents that were used for their appealing fragrances and perceived health benefits (McHugh, 2012).

Religious rituals in ancient Greece were incomplete without the use of perfumes. Fragrant oils and incense were offered to the gods, and the smoke from burning incense was believed to carry prayers to the heavens. Each deity had specific fragrances associated with them, reinforcing the spiritual connection between scent and divinity (Dalby, 2000).

Perfumes held a unique place in the realm of sports and competition. During the ancient Olympic Games, winners were honoured not only with laurel crowns but also with copious anointments of fragrant olive oil. This tradition highlighted the significance of perfumes as a symbol of victory and accomplishment (Sweetman, 2018).

The interest in perfumes even seeped into the intellectual sphere of ancient Greece. Theophrastus, a pupil of Aristotle and a renowned philosopher, wrote extensively about plants and fragrances. His work, "Enquiry into Plants," includes discussions on the properties of various aromatic plants and the methods of extracting their scents, illustrating the Greek fascination with the science of fragrances (Theophrastus, Hort, & Lawson, 1916).

The Roman Empire, influenced by Greek culture, adopted and further amplified the use of perfumes. For the Romans, perfumes were a symbol of pleasure, luxury, and status. Their love for perfumes was reflected in their elaborate bathing rituals. Public baths were often infused with fragrant oils, offering a aromatic experience. The wealthy would have private bathhouses where the water was scented with roses, violets, or other perfumed flowers (Stoddart, 1990).

Roman society took perfume use to new levels, scenting not just their bodies, but also their homes, clothes, and even their pets. Scented candles were used to perfume the air, and furniture was often polished with fragrant oils. Perfumed garlands were a common accessory at feasts and public events (McGill, 2018).

The Romans used perfume in burial rites, perhaps inspired by the Egyptian practice. Funeral pyres were often filled with fragrant spices and aromatic woods, serving both a practical and symbolic purpose. The fragrant smoke was believed to help guide the spirit of the deceased to the afterlife, and the pleasant perfume masked any unpleasant odours (Stoddart, 1990).



McHugh, T. (2012). The Chemistry of Fragrances: From Perfumer to Consumer. Royal Society of Chemistry.

Dalby, A. (2000). Empire of Pleasures: Luxury and Indulgence in the Roman World. Routledge.

Sweetman, S. C. (2018). Sport and Recreation in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook with Translations. Oxford University Press.

Theophrastus, Hort, A. F., & Lawson, G. (1916). Theophrastus Enquiry into Plants. William Heinemann.

Stoddart, D. M. (1990). The Scented Ape: The Biology and Culture of Human Odour. Cambridge University Press.

McGill, S. (2018). Pliny's Natural History and the Flavian Templum Pacis: Botanical Imperialism in First-Century C.E. Rome. Journal of the History of Ideas, 79(1), 1-23.

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