Home History What Did the Ancient Roman Perfume Smell Like?

What Did the Ancient Roman Perfume Smell Like?

Scientists have analyzed the composition of a 2,000-year-old Spanish perfume unearthed in Carmona, Spain.

by Hafsa Subhan
Scientists discovered ancient roman perfume

In the tapestry of ancient civilizations, the Romans have long been admired for the legacy they’ve left behind. But what about the more ephemeral aspects of their daily lives? Have you ever wondered about ancient Roman perfume?

Recent archaeological breakthroughs are providing us with fascinating insights into the realm of ancient Rome. The picturesque town of Carmona is nestled in the heart of southwestern Spain’s Seville province. An astonishing discovery was made there that has ignited the imaginations of Roman scientists alike.

Imagine a time machine transporting you to the first and second centuries A.D., when Carmona was a thriving municipality within the Roman province of Betica. The buildings, institutions, and customs here mirrored those of any great Roman city. Fast forward to 2019 when a building renovation project in Carmona unveiled more than just the foundations of the past. It unearthed a family mausoleum hiding a secret—a delicate, quartz crystal bottle with an intriguing, solid mass inside.

Join us on a journey through time and scent as we delve into the fascinating world of ancient Roman perfumes. 

The Roman Perfume Discovery in Carmona

Carmona: A Glimpse into Ancient Splendor

To understand the significance of the Roman perfume discovery, we must first explore the town of Carmona. It is nestled in the southwestern region of Spain, in the province of Seville. Carmona boasts a rich history that dates back millennia. However, it was during the first and second centuries A.D. that this town truly flourished. It was standing as one of the main municipalities within the Roman province of Betica.

The Family Mausoleum

In 2019, the spotlight turned once again to Carmona when a routine renovation project along its main road unearthed a discovery. Beneath the layers of time, the excavation team stumbled upon a well-preserved family mausoleum. It was a relic of the past that had remained hidden for centuries.

Within this mausoleum lay a treasure trove of history. Eight niches were discovered, each preserved, with two never having been used. Remarkably, this sacred space had remained untouched by grave robbers.

A Crystal Vessel of Secrets

Among the treasures hidden within these niches, one artifact stood out— a delicate quartz crystal bottle.  Inside this bottle lay a solid mass, shrouded in the unmistakable scent of antiquity.

The Analytical Odyssey

The study of this crystal bottle was in the capable hands of researchers from the University of Córdoba. They employed a range of analytical techniques and  embarked on an archaeological odyssey to uncover the secrets.

Patchouli: Ancient Roman Perfume

Patchouli smells like romans perfume scientist discovered

The outcome of this scientific quest was nothing short of astonishing. For the very first time, the precise scent of a Roman perfume, crafted some 2,000 years ago, was unveiled with scientific accuracy. The revelation echoed through the hallowed halls of perfumery circles alike: “The Romans smelled of patchouli.”


The Science Behind the Spanish Perfume Discovery

Analyzing the Aromas

To decipher the Spanish perfume, researchers employed a battery of analytical techniques. These included X-ray diffraction (XRD), scanning electron microscopy (SEM), dispersion X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDS), micro-Raman (Raman), and Fourier-transform infrared (FT-IR) spectroscopies. Additionally, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) was employed to identify the specific components that comprised the perfume.

The Quartz Vessel and Its Hermetic Secret

The quartz Roman perfume bottle was itself a marvel of craftsmanship. It was crafted from dolomite, a rare and luxurious limestone. What set it apart, however, was its hermetic seal—a dark, tar-like substance identified as bitumen. This seal was not merely ornamental; it was the key to preserving the perfume over millennia.

Dolomite and Bitumen: Guardians of Scent

Dolomite, known for its durability, ensured the vessel’s state of preservation remained “magnificent.” Bitumen, acting as the ultimate preservative, locked the perfume molecules in a time capsule through a process known as adsorption. Like carbon filters used in gas masks, bitumen behaved as a non-volatile, scent-trapping guardian. This remarkable preservation shielded the perfume from degradation over centuries.

Patchouli’s Rare and Alluring Presence

One component, the ‘patchouli smells like’ revelation is particularly fascinating. Because, during the Roman era, patchouli was a rarity. It was derived from the tropical plant Pogostemon cablin, native to Southeast Asia. It found its way to Rome through extensive trade networks, reflecting the globalized nature of Rome – Spain. The presence of patchouli in this ancient perfume suggests that the woman interred with it belonged to a privileged social class.

Perfume in Spanish – Ancient Rome

Ancient Roman perfume bottle

The Scribes of Scent

To understand the ancient Roman perfume, we turn to historical figures like Pedanio Dioscórides Anazarbeo and Pliny the Elder. These early scribes of scent meticulously documented perfume recipes. Dioscórides, a physician, compiled recipes with aromatic oils that served both perfumery and medicinal purposes. Meanwhile, Pliny the Elder delved into the detailed procedures of perfume creation. He highlighted the importance of balance and proportion in crafting the perfect scent.

Chasing Shadows in Perfumed Records

Recreating the ancient Roman perfumes presents a challenge. The historical records left behind by Dioscórides and Pliny, while invaluable, are akin to tantalizing fragments of a larger mosaic. Vague and incomplete, they leave the modern perfumer with riddles to solve. The proportions of components and the precise techniques for their preparation remain elusive.

Patchouli’s Journey to Ancient Rome

Roots in Southeast Asia

The story of patchouli begins in the lush, tropical landscapes of Southeast Asia. The Pogostemon cablin plant thrives here. Patchouli has long been cherished by indigenous communities for these leaves’ aromatic qualities. Its captivating scent was a well-kept secret, cocooned within the dense foliage of Southeast Asia.

The Trade Routes of Aroma

The odyssey of patchouli from Southeast Asia to Rome is a testament to the trade networks that crisscrossed the ancient world. Roman encountered this elusive scent, recognizing its potential value. Along the Silk Road and maritime trade routes, patchouli found its way into the bazaars of Rome.

Laboratory Alchemy Reveals the Essence

The culmination of this fragrant journey lies within the laboratory analyses. Through the precision of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), the distinct fingerprint of patchouli essential oil emerged. Among its many components, patchouli alcohol confirms the presence of this fragrance in the ancient Roman perfume.

Final Thoughts

Have you ever wondered how “perfume in Spanish” could evoke the essence of an era? Delve into the captivating world of ancient Roman perfumes and share your thoughts. Did this aromatic journey through time ignite your curiosity? Leave a comment and let us know which ancient scent you’d love to encounter.


What did Roman perfume smell like?

Roman perfume was a fragrant blend of various aromatic elements, including patchouli. It is an ingredient that has been identified as a key component in the perfume discovered in Carmona, Spain.

What did ancient Romans use as perfume?

Ancient Romans used a wide array of natural ingredients for perfumery, including essential oils derived from sesame, horseradish, almonds, and olive oil.

What did Romans use to smell good?

Romans used perfumes and scented oils to enhance their personal fragrance. The application of these fragrances was part of their daily grooming routine.

Did the Romans wear perfume?

Yes, the Romans indeed wore perfume. Perfumes were not only reserved for special occasions but were also an integral part of their daily lives.


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