@Simon_Perry on Twitter has pointed out a website of someone who’s a rather aggressive salesman. I’ve had to hand in my Pedantry badge that I earned in the cub scouts because my first reaction was that the champagne vinegar in this facecream isn’t likely to be natural. This is missing the point because as far as I can tell nothing sold by Totally Natural Skincare is totally natural. But there is a gem among the junk.
Cleopatras bath milk
Used by Cleopatra, except she used asses milk! A beautiful soothing and relaxing bath milk which nourishes the skin and releases its floral oils and cocoa butter in the warmth of the bath leaving you smooth as silk. This Bath milk also contains our own rose petal soap. thus cleanses as well as moisturising.
As sales pitches go “Used by Cleopatra, except she used asses milk!” is a classic — and not just because the product includes cocoa (from the Americas). You need to think about what bathing in asses milk means.
To be honest, I don’t know where the idea that Cleopatra bathed in asses’ milk came from. There’s no contemporary source that I know of that says it. Pliny the Elder writing around a century later said that women bathed their cheeks in it seven times a day to remove wrinkles. The key bit is “Poppaea hoc Neronis principis instituit, balnearum quoque solia sic temperans…” Natural History 28.183. Pliny says that Poppaea, wife of Nero first did this, and even filled her bath-tubs with the milk.
Nero was not fondly remembered by the Roman élite after he died, and neither was Poppaea. By saying that Poppaea introduced the practice, Pliny is not just saying it’s something that extremely vain people would do. Nero and Poppaea were considered moral dregs. The fact that Poppaea used whole baths of the stuff highlights her extravagant and wasteful nature. Even though the élites were wealthy, the pursuit and flaunting of wealth on personal effects was considered effeminate and unRoman. Instead Romans were supposed to flash their cash by putting on events for the the people, or building public works. If as part of those works, they had to have grand villas and employ the best sculptors to furnish them, then that was the way life went.
Cassius Dio (62.28) was scathing of Poppaea’s pursuit of luxury:
The extremes of luxury indulged in by this Sabina (Poppaea) O will indicate in the briefest terms. She cause gilded shoes to be put on the mules that drew her and caused five hundred asses that had recently foaled to be milked daily that she might bathe in their milk. For she bestowed the greatest pains on the beauty and brilliancy of her person, and this is why, when she noticed in a mirror one day that her appearance was not comely, she prayed that she might die before she passed her prime.
So if Poppaea invented the milk bath, why is it associated with Cleopatra?
Egypt was wealthy because of its agriculture. It was prestigious due to the antiquity of its civilisation. So the Romans had to find a flaw in Egypt to justify their rule. The flaw was in the moral character of its rulers. By saying Cleopatra bathed in asses milk, the later authors were saying something about the corrupt nature of the last of the Pharaohs. By association Mark Anthony’s relationship with Cleopatra sullied him. Bathing in asses milk might have said something about Cleopatra’s beauty, but it was something along the lines of “She was beautiful, just like a prostitute with plenty of make-up.”
So while Totally Natural Skincare aren’t saying this product isn’t exactly the same as used by Cleopatra, they’re implying it’ll have the same effect. Buy their products and you too can be just like an ancient whore.
Incidentally, if you’ve ever thought that bathing in asses’ milk doesn’t sound practical, you’re probably right. Seneca writing in the Controversiae recorded that brothels stank. Not just because of the cosmetics, but also from the cheap perfume used to try and hide the smell.