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
a number of other spices and herbs:
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.
Body Marking in
Dangerous Tastes, the
Origins and Development
Web resource for Pliny