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Soap Making: The Romans and Celtics - 09/03/2013

The first definite and tangible proofs of soap making are found in the history of ancient Rome. Pliny, the Roman historian, described soap being made from goat's tallow and causticized wood ashes. He also wrote of common salt being added to make the soap hard. The ruins at Pompeii revealed a soap factory complete with finished bars.

While the Romans are well known for their public baths, generally soap was not used for personal cleaning. To clean the body the Greeks and then the Romans would rub the body with olive oil and sand. A scraper, called a strigil, was then used to scrape off the sand and olive oil also removing dirt, grease, and dead cells from the skin leaving it clean. Afterwards the skin was rubbed down with salves prepared from herbs.

Throughout history people were also known to take baths in herb waters and other additions to the bathing medium thought to be beneficial. It is well known that Cleopatra, who captivated the leaders of the Roman world, attributed her beauty to her baths in mare's milk. During the early century of the common era soap was used by physicians in the treatment of disease. Galen, a 2nd century physician, recommended bathing with soap would be beneficial for some skin conditions. Soap for personal washing became popular during the later centuries of the Roman era.

The Celtic peoples are also though by some historians to have discovered soap making and were using it for bathing and washing. Maybe do to increased contact with the Celtics by the Romans, using soap for personal washing care became popular.

It is also important to remember when writing a history of life styles there are no grand trends that get disseminated throughout the globe via mass communications such as we have today. Usage and knowledge of common skills and arts can vary from one locale to the next. When they are starting to use soap in the public baths in 3rd century A.D. in the major cities, the people in small villages are likely to be using the olive oil, sand, and strigil method. The Celtics might have been washing their faces daily with soap long before the Romans even went over the Italian Alps. Dates can be exact when dealing with events such as battles, births, and deaths. But not usage of every day items. "The state of the art" varies depending both on time and location.

There is an interesting legend surrounding the discovery of soap making. This legend accords the discovery of soap to the Romans so it must be a Roman legend to confront the Celtic claim to soap making. Probably both of these inventive peoples discovered soap making independently. The legend says soap was first discovered by women washing clothes along the Tiber River at the bottom of Sapo Hill. The women noticed the clothes became cleaner with far less effort at that particular location. What was happening? The ashes and the grease of animals from the sacrificial fires of the temples situated on the top of Sapo Hill mixed with the rain, making soap which ran down the slope in the streams of rain water giving the women a wash day bonus. You can see at a glance saponification, the chemical name for the soap making reaction, bears the name of that hill in Rome long ago, which caused one Roman washer women to comment to another, "My wash is cleaner than yours".


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