by Adrienne Mayor (Wonders & Marvels contributor)
Today’s unwanted gang tattoos, names of ex-lovers, outgrown cartoons, misspelled mottoes, and other mistakes on skin are printed over with complex designs or erased by long sessions with a laser. Painful — but not as painful or risky as the procedures invented by ancient Roman doctors for removing demeaning tattoos.
Your visit would go like this: Clean the tattoo with natron and terebinth (turpentine). Bandage for five days. Day six: Return to the doctor, who pricks out the tattoo design with a sharp pin. He sponges up the blood and covers the mess with a layer of stinging salt. Now you run a strenuous mile or two to work up a lather and return to the doctor, who applies a caustic poultice of lye or powdered quicklime. Your tattoo will disappear in about 20 days. In its place, you’ll sport an ulcerated chemical burn that obliterates the old tattoo.
“I will tattoo you with images of hideous punishments suffered by the most horrid criminals in Hades!” This violent verse threatens revenge by tattoo, probably written by the poetess Moiro of Byzantium in about 300 BC. Around the same time, a woman named Bitinna summons a professional tattooer of criminals and slaves to bring his needles and ink to punish her unfaithful lover, in a Greek play by Herodas called “The Jealous Woman.” Tattoos today are decorative and voluntary, even if sometimes recklessly selected and deeply regretted later. But in ancient Greek and Rome tattoos were punitive, forcibly inflicted on slaves, prisoners of war, and wrong-doers. Tattooing captives was common in wartime. For example, in the fifth century BC Athens defeated the island of Samos and tattooed their Samian prisoners’ foreheads with Athens’ mascot the owl. Later, the Samians crushed the Athenians and tattooed their captives with the Samos emblem, a warship. In 413 BC, after Athens’ disastrous defeat at Syacuse, 7,000 Athenian soldiers were captured. Their foreheads were tattooed with the symbol of Syracuse, a horse, and they were sent as slave to work the quarries. Slaves were routinely tattooed and runaway slaves had sentences such as “Stop me, I’m a runaway” crudely gouged and inked into their faces.
These dehumanizing tattoos were not artistic or carefully applied: ink was simply poured into grooves carved in flesh with three iron needles bound together, with no thought of hygiene. There was copious bleeding; infection could be ugly. The indelible marks turned one’s body into a text recording forever one’s captivity, enslavement, or guilt. Naturally, there was a market for hiding or removing shameful tattoos, should one be lucky enough to escape a master or prison. Some opted for a painless approach: Grow long bangs to cover forehead tattoos. During the Roman era, pirates’ crews offered a haven for many criminals and runaway slaves. The dashing pirate scarf trick—tying a bandana around their foreheads—was invented to mask the tattoos of one’s old life.
About the author: Adrienne Mayor is a Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science, Stanford University. She is the author of “Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World” (2009); and “The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy,” nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.