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Culture news
The Aroma of Antiquity
03.07.2007 16:58

fragrant_oils 7 March 2007 - 10 June 2007

The exhibition in the Rotunda of the State Hermitage is devoted to the culture of fragrances and aromas in Ancient Greece and Rome. The exhibition includes around 100 display items and embraces the time period from the 7th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D.

Among the Greeks, the word "aroma" meant pleasant-smelling fragrances, perfumes, spices and medicines, i.e., what we would today call cosmetics and perfumes. A good scent was extremely important for the Greeks and Romans. In hymns lauding the Greek gods it was mandatory to mention their aroma, which was an indispensable component of beauty and grandeur. Aromatic wreaths, fragrances in special miniature vessels and toilet articles imbued with aromatic oils were all presented as sacrifices to the gods of love and fertility and were dedicated to those who had passed away.

A great many fragrances were imported from the Orient, sometimes from very faraway countries that were linked to the Mediterranean Sea by Near Eastern trade routes. Such a long route made the perfumes of Antiquity truly priceless gifts.

In the State Hermitage's very rich collections of Antiquities, there are many censers for fragrances and flasks for aromatic substances created by the masters of Greece, Etruria and Rome. Some of these objects are true masterpieces and many of them are being exhibited now for the first time.


The perfumes of Antiquity had little in common with those of our day. They were liquid oily ointments or more dense pomades and balsams (syrupy mixtures of tars and etheric oils.) The favorite scents of the Ancient World were the aroma of rose, lily, iris, sage, thyme, marjoram, saffron, mint and anise. Fragrant ointments were applied to clothing, were rubbed on the body and were applied to the hair. Love for aromas contributed to the development of glass making, ceramics and the art of jewelry in Ancient Greece. Most of the ancient vessels for fragrances - aryballos, alabasters, balsam containers, lekythos, onyxes - were usually worn suspended from the belt. In funeral rites, they used lekythos filled with an aromatic substance.


Frankincense, myrrh and lavender were used in religious rites. They were burned, releasing a fragrant smoke. Our modern word "perfume" comes from the Latin per fumum, meaning "by means of smoke." The burning took place both on marble altars and on clay and bronze incense burners.


Every important event in the life of Classical Greece and Ancient Rome was marked by use of wreaths or floral garlands: the birth of child, a wedding, giving of sacrifices, victory in competitions or at war. For presentation of sacrifices to the temple of the goddess of love and beauty Aphrodite and to the Muses - Protectors of the Arts - they used myrtle, roses and violets. Wreaths made from ears of grain were for the goddesses of fertility, Demeter and Persephone. For the god of winemaking, Dionysus, there were wreaths of ivy, hops and grapes. Hermes, the protector of travelers, was offered wreaths from hyacinth and marjoram. For the gods of the forest, Pan and the satyrs, there were wreaths made from pine trees. Heracles was honored with wreaths from branches of olive trees or poplar. Laurel wreaths were sacrificed to the supreme god of the Greeks, Zeus, to the protector and soothsayer Apollo, to the protector of blacksmiths, Hephaestus, to the God of the Sea, Poseidon, as well as to Aphrodite and Dionysus. The ancient masters also produced skillfully made gold wreaths in imitation of vegetal wreaths. Some of these were masterpieces of the Ancient art of jewelry making.

An illustrated scholarly catalogue of the exhibition has been issued by the State Hermitage Publishing House.

The curator of the exhibition is Anastasia Bukina, a researcher of the Department of the Ancient World.

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