Hairstyle is more than a fashion statement in Roman portraits.
If the features of her face identify this woman as an individual, her hairstyle helps place her in time. Elite women of the Roman Empire followed the hairstyle favored by the current empress. Scholars can match styles seen in portraits with images of the empress found on the coins of the realm. The hairstyle on this woman dates her to the time of the emperor Nero, around 60-70 A.D.
This woman’s hair reveals more than just the fashion of the time. It also tells us that she was a woman of wealth. She could afford to spend hours having her hair done, and must have had a servant to help her—she could not have created this look by herself. Elaborate hairstyles were an important status symbol for both men and women in the ancient Roman Empire.
Tight curls like these were formed with a tool called a calamister, much like a modern curling iron. Hair was wound around a solid cylinder of wood or metal. Another cylinder of hollow metal was heated on a fire, then wrapped around the hair to form the curl. It must have been a long and painful process.
Roman writers mocked women who chose fancy hairstyles out of vanity. But this woman was not vain, to judge from the expression on her face. It seems more likely that she wore the hairstyle to show her loyalty to the empress.