Research And Reconstruction

Roman Shaving - The Tonsor

The study of Roman military equipment is well established and I find it very rewarding. Perhaps equally rewarding is to consider a small item of personal kit a soldier or civilian would have needed.

In Britannia volume XXII 1991, just before the excellent and seminal paper on the Roman Cavalry Saddle by Connolly and Van Driel-Murray, is a less well known paper “Tonsor Humanus: Razor and Toilet-knife in Antiquity by George C. Boon.

I have always enjoyed looking at razors and have made some bronze age versions. In Roman antiquity a man trusted the care of the body, his cura corporis, in part to the barber or tonsor. The rich enjoyed the service of a personal barber while others went to the tonstrina, a sort of barbershop.

Low status members of society could meet at an open air barbershop sitting on benches to exchange news. Soldiers would probably, like their 19th century counterparts, go to a colleague who was an ex-barber or a legionary skilled at the job. It would have been hard to shave oneself if not impossible.

Cutting hair and shaving would have been the barbers main job, but paint and perfume could be applied to the hair and creams and cosmetic sticking plasters, splentia lunata, applied to the skin. The man to be shaved would probably be sitting on a stool, draped in a cloth to keep his clothing clean.

Boon identified fixed bladed and folding toilet knives for cutting nails. These are often sold to re-enactors as razors or general purpose knives. My version comes from Augst, is from the 1st to middle of 2nd century AD and was made by the excellent Holger Ratsdorf. This is the cultellus tonsorius or barber’s small knife. These could be used to trim corns as well as nails, and where probably used for many other functions. I use mine to carve bone and antler. The healing of wounds by the licking of dogs was well established by the Roman period, and the use of dog’s head handles on these knives is interesting.

The tonsor humanus was distinct from the tonsor pecudum or sheep-shearer, although under Diocletian’s edict of AD 301 both received the same wage of two denarii per “customer”. Lucian mentions the basic tools of the trade were razor, blades, mirror, comb and cloth to wrap around the customer. These blades were used in pairs with considerable skill, although in the north-west of the Empire it seems shears were possibly used despite their disadvantage in pulling out hair.

I do not really wish to consider the mirror or comb here. A simple white metal mirror or even bronze would suffice, and a fine bone comb and case would be a special tool of the trade. But the razor does deserve some special mention if nothing else because of the way they are mis-interpreted.

Plutarch’s Theophratus calls the barbershop the “wineless symposia” and shaving must have taken some time. Water and hot towel could be used to soften the stubble, and the razor would need constant sharpening. There is a fine late Roman bronze razor from Silchester than looks easy enough to make, and well hardened by beating and well-stropped it would be fine for the job. Iron could be case hardened through carbonisation and the simple almost triangular razor with a curled handle was maybe the preferred choice of the early Imperial soldier. Their shape and steel content means they are often mistaken for fire steels.

The chisel like end of the razor is sharpened as is the case with the final broad bladed type I wish to consider, the chisel razor. The blade is chisel in shape clenched into a simple copper alloy terminal in the same way as a surgical scalpel. Dated to the end of the second century beginning of the third century the type has a relatively long life. They are often mistaken for spatulas to spread and smooth wax on writing tablets, and are sold to re-enactors as such. Yet in some cases their carefully concave ends are designed for fitting curved surfaces such as the limbs.

In terms of a craft to demonstrate in the camp a barber seems a relatively simple one to adopt. Not many reconstructed artefacts are needed, and shaving is a simple everyday activity that most people can relate to. Benches could be laid out on which the public could sit as in the tonstrina, and the symposia could begin.