Real Men Don’t Wear Scent, Part I

“Suppose we go further,” said Callias, “and have some one bring us some perfume, so that we may dine in the midst of pleasant odours, also.” “No, indeed!” replied Socrates. “For just as one kind of dress looks well on a woman and another kind on a man, so the odours appropriate to men and to women are diverse. No man, surely, ever uses perfume for a man’s sake.”…

“That may do for young fellows,” observed Lycon; “but what of us who no longer exercise in the gymnasia? What should be our distinguishing scent?”

“Nobility of soul, surely!” replied Socrates.

“And where may a person get this ointment?”

“Certainly not from the perfumers,” said Socrates.

(Xenophon, Symposium)

There you have it.  Proof positive that the prejudice against men and scent is not limited to up-tight American WASPs of a certain age and background, but has in fact a long and pointed history.  Socrates believe that men should smell of “free labor and manly exercise”.

Bit of a party pooper, our Socrates.   “Free Labor and Manly Exercise.”  Sounds like a authoritarian campaign slogan.

But even Socrates had precedents.  A hundred years earlier, Solon the Lawgiver outlawed perfume entirely.  Well, more specifically, Solon forbade men from selling perfume.  Women?  No mention of it.  Perhaps there was an early Avon Lady movement,  since there’s always been money in the trade.  In any event, the law was dead letter by Socrates’ time and he was even asked if he wished to help bankroll a parfumeur start up.

He didn’t.  Mind you, this was the same fellow who made a point of finding nothing of interest in the agora, the shopping malls of ancient Greece,  so we can mark him off as a trouble maker from the get-go.

The Spartans, of course, had no use for the stuff,  considering perfume to be a waste of good oil.  In 361 BC their King Agesilaus travelled to Egypt (Egypt wanted to engage Spartan soldiers to help in war against Persia) and could not get with the program:

“They were amazed at how simple-minded this old man was — when they gave him presents of all sorts of food, Agesilaus kept only the flour, the calves, and the geese.  He gave the cakes, the candies, the perfumes, and all of the other rich things to the servants for their own use.”

What of Alexander the Great?  That man was noted for adapting to the cultures he conquered (he is the only foreigner to conquer Afghanistan, a feat he accomplished essentially by going native and marrying the daughter of a local chieftain – Washington, take note!).   In Persia, he adopted the habit of infusing his clothing with scent, then headed off to try subduing India.  Had he not died there, a youthful 33, who knows what western fashion might have been?

Rome during the Republic waivered between sensuality and stoicism.   It was one thing to burn incense in temples, since the Gods had their quirks, but back in the real world, well, there were limits.  Julius Caesar attempted to ban the importation of  “foreign essences”  on moral grounds.  No perfume for you!   (On the other hand,  he allowed his  soldiers to indulge in scent (unguentatos) if they had fought well.  Of course,  they were fighting in France….)

Rome in the era of the Good Time emperors like Caligula and Nero saw a dramatic rise in men’s perfume consumption, quite a bit of it by men like Caligula and Nero themselves.  Nero’s Golden House (think Spelling Manor) contained apparatus to let rose petals float down from a reticulated ceiling and liquid scent be misted alongside.  The room was ankle deep in delicate vegetation, and it proved all to much for even quite jaded Romans. Nero committed suicide, four men scrambled to get the crown, and when the smoke cleared, the gruff old soldier Vespasian was emperor.

In general, Vespasian was pretty easy going, but he had a blind spot when it came to scent.  He is recorded as having reversed a man’s appointment as a prefect on account of the fellow’s wearing perfume.  “Maluissem alium oboluisses, “ “I would prefer you smelled of garlic.”

(He was also the man who taxed urinals (stale urine being vital for getting togas to be their brightest whites) and answered his son’s objection with the observation that money has no smell. To this day, Italian conveniences are called vespasiani.)

Cleanliness should be next to godliness, but at times cleanliness is next to impossible.  Consider as an instance the galleys of the renaissance, warships whose scores of rowers were slaves chained to oar banks were too many to let wander about freely and so they were forced to sit in their own filth.  (Periodically, galleys were scuttled just long enough to let the sea water clear out the worst of the remains.)  It was said one could smell the approaching fleet before seeing it,  and so those lucky enough to be idle on board needed strong potions to mask the stench coming from below.  Pirates and invading armies had little choice but to wear perfume, and lots of it.  Perhaps it is no surprise that even the  toughest Mediterranean male is so widely associated with heavy scent.

This takes us up to about sixteen hundred.  Next time, the Modern Age.

(The picture, by the way, is Jean-Baptiste Regnault‘s 1791 painting, Socrates Tearing Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure. It was a year when France was just getting down to the serious business of revolution. By 1795, the classically trained Regnault was capable of even balder propaganda as Liberty or Death)

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4 Responses to Real Men Don’t Wear Scent, Part I

  1. Angie Jabine says:

    Tearing Alcibiades from the embrace of sensual pleasure indeed. Enflamed by jealousy, you mean.

  2. Pingback: Real Men Don’t Wear Scent, Part II | aperfumeblog by Blacknall Allen

  3. Bob Pegram says:

    Plato, Plato, Plato! Can we trust you to represent Socrates’ opinons?! You have been a bigger trouble maker than he ever was with your ‘School of Sophistry Advertisements’ that purport to recount a pleasant evening’s entertainment! I F (Izzy) Stone, retired from Washington D. C. muckraking, gave a good theory as to why Socrates was offed; he was trouble enough! See for starters. Leaving that aside, who’s to say that added perfumes would not have interfered with the smells wafting from the kitchen and later the table? If you wish to truely enjoy your feast, conflicting scents should be banished in my (male) opinion!

    Vespassiani eh? Non lo sapevo! Neither would I have known why! “A blind spot” sir? Don’t you mean rather that dear old Vespasian was anosmic to scents unrelated to good food?

    One final note: You’d think that a long distance ‘stink warning’ of naval warfare would have mandated a slight redesign of galleys such that the rowers’ area could be periodically flooded without scuttling the entire ship! Then again Roman engineering either never bothered to learn that aqueducts can follow terrain much more closely, so long as the long term declination of the path is sufficient to keep the water flowing or only had Very Weak Materials to withstand pressure. My guess is both…. The point being that one can use hoses and pumps to get seawater in AND out! Oh well, to get even further from the topic of scent: Romans had presses for their Togas, and used seal rings on wax with the requisite reversed lettering. A properly broken ring or ten and some ink and we could be reading really crummy Roman lit….. Perhaps we should be gratefull!!

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