Regale Unguentum: 
Parthian Royal Ointment
copyright Catherine Cartwright-Jones 2003
Kent State University

Pliny was a Roman scholar who wrote an encyclopedia of his world in the first century CE.  He mentions henna as part of  Regale Unguentum, the “Royal Unguent” for the Parthian kings. Parthia was an area of what later became Persia, and was formerly Assyria. 

“Royal Unguent” contained henna and a number of other spices and herbs:
ben (myrobalan), putchuk, amomum, cinnamon comacum (unidentified), cardamom, spikenard, zatar, myrrh, cassia, gum storax, ladanum, balsam, calamus, ginger-grass, tejpat, serichatum (unidentified), thorny trefoil, galbanum, saffron, nut grass, marjoram, cloves, honey and wine. 

There is neither reference to the source of his information, nor to the proportions of ingredients in this mix. There is little clear evidence of how this mix was used, except that it was for special ceremonial occasions.   However, if henna were to be taken as the primary ingredient, and the others as sources of tannins (myrobalan), of “terps” (all of the spices and myrrh) and acids (zatar and wine) with an agent for smoothing texture and slowing drying (honey), this would be a highly effective, sophisticated, fragrant and expensive “terped” henna mix for use in hair, beard, and on skin!

Some remaining ceramic Parthian figures show red tinting on hands and feet, indicating men stained their skin with henna during the Parthian period, lending weight to the probability that Royal Unguent was a henna mix as we understand it and meant to be used for body art.

Careful historians cannot place Pliny’s Royal Unguent to a period prior to his writing, since he doesn’t indicate a source.  However, an Assyrian bas-relief of a royal procession from Nimrud in 865 BCE at the British Museum still has traces of red colorant on the soles and toes of the king and some of his courtiers.   This can be interpreted to indicate that henna was appropriate for royal men’s feet on ceremonial occasions, and potentially places "Royal Unguent", if this can be interpreted as a henna mix,  in a much earlier period. 

If you are not familiar with the use of "terps" and other things in henna mixes, similar to "Royal Unguent", please visit Henna Page "How" Witchs' Brews and "Terps".


British Museum WA124563 
King and his Courtiers, North West Palace, Room 5 Panel 3, 865 BCE

Body Marking in Southwestern Asia
Henry Field
Peabody Museum, Cambridge, Mass, 1958, p 103 

Dangerous Tastes, the Story of Spices
Andrew Dalby, The British Museum Press, London, 2000, p 108

Origins and Development of Applied Chemistry
J. R. Partington
1935, p 424

Web resource for Pliny the Elder's  Encyclopedia:

Web resources for Parthia:

Return to the Encyclopedia of Henna Index
Can't find what you want here?  Try The Henna Page Main Index.