Did the Romans Have Tattoos?


Today, tattoos are all over the place; many musicians, artists, and rebellious teenagers have them, but so do teachers, doctors, engineers, and even priests. But tattoos aren’t strictly 20th- and 21st-century things; for example, there is evidence of tattoos on mummies from thousands of years ago. [1] But did the ancient Romans have them?

Some Romans had tattoos, but they weren’t symbols of status, religious devotion, or body art as they were in other cultures. Instead, Romans reserved their tattoos for slaves, criminals, and Roman soldiers. Everyday Roman citizens and the Roman elite didn’t have tattoos.

This article will dive more deeply into the practice of Roman slave tattooing and will discuss the tattoos given to Roman soldiers. It will also outline some of the most commonly seen Roman tattoos and their meanings.

Also see Did the Romans Know About Japan? to learn more.

Roman Empire tattoos
Did the Romans tattoo their slaves? See below

Did the Romans Tattoo Their Slaves?

Romans tattooed their slaves. Initially, they tattooed their foreheads, but Roman Emperor Constantine banned this practice sometime in the 4th century, insisting that a person’s face was formed after the divine image and that tattooing it would be an insult – a defiling act – to God.

After Emperor Constantine’s decree, the Romans still tattooed their slaves, but they confined the tattoos to the enslaved people’s calves or hands. [2] It’s interesting to note the differences in how tattoos have evolved over the years. 

Today, people pay – sometimes exorbitant amounts of money – to get tattoos. Tattooing is considered a modern art form, and tattoos are loved, celebrated, and appreciated for their beauty. 

However, for Roman slaves and criminals, tattoos were marks of shame, ownership, and degradation. 

In the essay “Stigma: Tattooing and Branding in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” C.P. Jones points out that the Roman word (originally Greek) for tattooing was “stigma” or “stigmata.” [3] The Greeks, and later the Romans, associated tattoos with uncivilized, barbaric customs. As such, they only used them on people they saw as “less than” – i.e., slaves and criminals. 

Tattooing them was a punishment and meant to shame and embarrass them. For slaves, especially, it was a way for their Roman masters to assert dominance over them and remind them that they owned and controlled nothing – not even their own bodies.

Also see Did the Romans Have Corn? to learn more.

SPQR Roman symbol
Did Roman soldiers have tattoos? See below

Did Roman Soldiers Have Tattoos?

Roman soldiers had tattoos. In fact, as far as most scholars can tell, military tattooing began with soldiers in the Roman military. The tattoos were usually on their hands, ankles, or arms, and they represented the mark of the SPQR and the soldiers’ specific military units. 

Although scholars don’t know precisely what they looked like, the tattoos were probably simple – a specific formation of dots marking the soldiers as members of their particular units within the Senatus Populusque Romanus (SPQR). [4] They received their tattoos after their training period ended, and they had become official soldiers. 

Soldiers were the only respected Romans who had tattoos. The gladiators also had them, but as well-liked and admired as they were, most gladiators were enslaved, and their tattoos were symbolic of their stations. [5]

Although people respected the soldiers, their tattoos still weren’t marks of honor. On the contrary, scholars believe that the Romans tattooed their soldiers for one very simple purpose: It made it easier for others to identify deserters on site. [6]

If a soldier fled from duty, their easily visible and recognizable tattoos would instantly mark them as what they were, and any average citizen could then report them as deserters.

Also see Did the Romans Have Iron? to learn more.

Roman Coliseum
What did Roman tattoos look like or say? See below

What Did Roman Tattoos Look Like or Say?

No one knows exactly what Roman tattoos looked like; however, scholars know that soldiers’ tattoos, while plain, marked and designated them as members of the army. As such, the design somehow represented the SPQR. Tattoos on slaves and criminals were different but just as simple.

Archeologists have ample evidence of tattoos from other cultures – notably the Egyptians – where mummified specimens visually prove how tattoos looked. Much less “proof” of this kind exists for the ancient Romans. 

However, a few things, such as surviving artwork, pottery, and even a well-preserved man – Ötzi the Iceman – give some indication of what tattoos looked like in that period. [7]

They were usually simplistic – dots, lines, or other geometric shapes like crosses or ‘V’s – and didn’t include much artistry. Remember, tattoos in ancient Rome served a practical – even demeaning – purpose; they weren’t meant to be beautiful or decorative.

Some scholars even believe that the Romans tattooed criminals with descriptions of their crimes. That allowed people to instantly know when they were in the same area as a criminal. It’s like Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, only much more permanent.

Although it’s hard to imagine what this would look like, it seems like the modern equivalent would be tattooing the word “Murderer” or “Rapist” across someone’s hands or forearms.

Also see Did the Romans Have Steel Swords? to learn more.

How Did the Romans Tattoo People?

The Romans used a mixture of leek juice, corroded bronze, and the bark of the Egyptian pinewood as tattoo ink and pins as needles. They would clean the skin of the person to be tattooed with leek juice or charcoal, then use the pin to prick out the design and fill the holes with ink. 

In her honor’s thesis from 2013, Dr. Victoria Frecentese traces the etymology of the word tattoo and outlines every definition of its lineage: 

“The etymology of “tattoo” in the Mediterranean accurately reflects the intention and mode of the practice. In Greek, the word used to denote tattooing practice is translated as to ‘prick,’ ‘sting,’ ‘stitch,’ ‘puncture,’ ‘embroider,’ ‘dot,’ mark,’ or ‘welt’ which mimics the tattooing procedures used.” [8]

Concerning Roman tattooing, she goes on to say, “The skin would either be punctured and dye inserted, or dye would be threaded through using needle and string.”

Consequently, the tattooing process was lengthy, painful, and probably less than sanitary. It did, however, get the job done. 

Could the Romans Remove Tattoos?

Evidence suggests that the Romans had a method of removing tattoos from the body. There were multiple ways of doing so, but the most effective was simply scrubbing the skin off layer by layer with something rough. The process usually took several weeks to complete.

Scholars call this tattoo removal process “primitive dermabrasion” and date it back to the first century AD. [9]

Conclusion

Ancient Romans had tattoos, but they weren’t decorative. Instead, Roman tattoos were imposed marks of someone’s status as a slave, criminal, or soldier.

References:
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