TATTOOS IN CLASSICAL ANTIQUITY
Part of a thesis submitted to the Department of Classics in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a Bachelor’s Degree
at the University of Texas, 2003.
© Anne Kathryn Goetz
The reasons for which one might tattoo his body are varied. Currently, the most popular explanation is decoration. The tattoos themselves come in a myriad of different forms, colors, and subjects. These may range from religious icons to a portrait of a favorite pet. Since there is a certain bond among those who are tattooed, group identification may be a major motivation for tattooing. As a testament to this fact, prison tattoos are widely practiced as a method by which convicts associate themselves publicly with a gang. Tattoos bind outcasts together, partially because the practice is still regarded as socially unacceptable.
This same social disapproval was present in Greco-Roman times. Authors such as Herodotus, Xenophon, and Lysias describe tribes outside their personal social confines as employing tattoos to their fullest extent, in the form of full-body suits. These authors always express surprise that tattoos denoted high social status in these other societies. From this and many other authors, it can be concluded that in both Greek and Roman societies, tattoos held a more derogatory status. If fact, they were primarily practiced in a punitive capacity. There are numerous sources that refer to the use of tattoos to mark slaves, criminals, and prisoners of war. These marks were usually placed on the forehead for easy identification of these “undesirables,” until 316 AD when Constantine outlawed the practice and suggested tattoos be placed on the hands or calves. Akin to its use in slavery, tattooing was common among religions from eastern countries and in the temples of those religions when they were transplanted to Rome and Greece. Slaves were known to join these cults and place themselves in the service of the god rather than remain with their worldly master. The tattoos placed on the body upon entrance were used as markings that signified both ownership by the god as well as a membership in the cult group. Along the same lines, military soldiers and workers often tattooed themselves with the sign of their legion or one of many other significant marks, such as important battles in which they had fought. However, Constantine outlawed this practice during his reign after he converted to Christianity.
Ancient Greek and Roman societies viewed tattooing as a foreign and barbaric custom. Greeks first learned the art from the Persians who used it in its punitive capacity. They also frequently came into contact with peoples who tattooed their bodies in a decorative and regal fashion, such as the Thracians and Mossunoiki. Even though the Greeks viewed tattooing as a lower and unfit custom, these tribes saw it as a privilege often reserved for royalty and important persons. The Romans shared the view of tattooing as barbaric. When coming into contact with the Gallic and Briton peoples, Caesar tells of his battles with a strange people, blue with tattoos of many shapes. Despite Roman society painting the tattoo as vulgar, soldiers arrived back in Rome with tattoos adorning their arms and legs. These soldiers cast off the traditional view of tattoos being reserved for unwanted and undeserving people such as slaves and criminals and embraced the pure decorative nature of permanent body modification.
Among tattooed people today, decorative tattooing is celebrated with increasing frequency among various societies. While there is still a trace of the old social shame, the art of tattooing is in the process of gaining more respect and social acceptability. Now it is not uncommon to see both a grandmother and her grandchild sporting a trendy design.
Chapter 1: Early History
The early history of tattooing in the Mediterranean is widely unknown due to the scarcity of literature and physical evidence. Some speculate that ritual deep tissue cuttings were done as far back as the Stone Age as a form of relief for ailments or magical
exorcisms. However, these ideas are not based on facts.
Instruments of tattooing in the Upper Paleolithic (10,000 BC – 38,000 BC) have been uncovered in Europe and consist of a clay and red ochre disk with sharp bone needles inserted in the
top. To mark an individual, pigment was inserted into the disk, which functioned as a
reservoir, while the needles pushed it into the desired area of skin. Statues bearing incised markings were found with the
implements, thus leading to the conclusion of their function.
The earliest documented case of tattooing was discovered in September of 1991, when
archaeologists uncovered the “Iceman” in the Alpine mountains on Finail Peak between Italy and
Switzerland. When unearthed and dated, “Ötzi” was found to have lived in the Bronze Age (circa 3300 BC) and died while caught in a
blizzard. His body was subsequently covered with ice and perfectly preserved in the permafrost of a glacier. He was so well preserved that when hikers found the body, they thought it was a recently lost
climber. His tattoos were evident from the first sighting. Altogether, 42 distinct tattoos arranged in 14 groups of vertical lines or crosses adorn his
body. They consist of:
Four groups of vertical stripes on the lower back parallel to the left side of the spine. The upper and lower most groups consist of four marks while the two groups in the middle are made up of three each.
One grouping of four vertical lines on the lower back on the right side of the spine.
A cross on the inside of the right knee and calf consisting of inch long sections.
Three groups of three lines on the right ankle.
Seven short vertical lines on the left calf.
A cross and two groups of vertical lines, one of four and the other of two, on the left ankle
All the marks except the elements of the crosses ranged from 2.8 – 3.0 cm in length and 2 –3 cm in width.
Upon first inspection, it was thought that two concentric bands were tattooed around his left wrist, but it was later found that these markings were created by pressure from a wrapping around it.
This information, as well as proof of the marks as tattoos, was gained by photographing the body under infrared light. This yielded the fact that pigment was underneath the skin, thus disproving the earlier thought that the marks occurred from branding.
When Dutch investigators studied the pigment, they concluded that it was soot. Fowler believes the tattoo process of that time consisted of spreading soot on the area to be marked and puncturing the skin so that some of the pigment would enter the dermis.
This method differs from today’s technique, but is still feasible.
There is much speculation as to the meaning and purpose of the Iceman’s tattoos. One certain fact is that they did not serve a decorative purpose, as the bulky clothes he must have worn to survive in the winter climate would have covered them.
The markings could denote his rank or position in his tribe. Perhaps they show that he served as a shaman or religious
leader, for there have been correlations between tattooing and religious office in other cultures. However, the most probable and popular idea is that the marks served as remedies for
pain. Whether this is done as a preventative or curative capacity, the marks are placed upon the body in common places of pain such as the joints and lower back. Krutak remarks that the tattoos are close to traditional points of
acupuncture. The mummy was found to have arthritis, thus giving credibility to this
Tattooing was also accepted and often practiced in ancient Egypt. Literature presents limited evidence except for a line in the papyrus Bremer-Rhind, which reads, “Their name is inscribed into their arms as Isis and
Nepthys”. Gilbert explains, “The hieroglyph mentenu that is here translated as ‘inscribed’, has a very general meaning that may also be translated ‘etched’ or ‘engraved’. This may be in reference to tattooing.”
However, the most compelling evidence comes from excavated mummies. Due to the preservative nature of mummification, some bodies have been uncovered with tattoos still visible.
The same sorts of tattoos as the Iceman’s were found on the mummy of Amunet, an Egyptian priestess of the god Hathor at Thebes during Dynasty XI (2160-1994
BC). Parallel lines on her arms, thighs, and stomach, as well as an oval pattern below her navel were tattooed on her body.
Our knowledge of tattooing practices of the time tell that these marks were either made with golden
needles or an instrument of sharpened fish bones placed in a wooden
The function of Amunet’s tattoos is unknown, but could have served purposes similar to those of the Iceman’s. As a priestess, she must have been privy to religious rituals that might have involved tattooing, making the marks magical in nature. It has been suggested that the marks on her stomach might have been placed there to relieve pain or induce
pregnancy. The elliptical pattern on her lower abdomen strengthens this suggestion of a connection with fertility or sexuality, as it extends as far as her pubic
area. Similar patterns of marks are found on female statuettes dubbed “Brides of the dead” found in the tombs of male Egyptians. Their function was to arouse the man’s sexuality so that he would be ensured
resurrection, thus lending credibility to the sensuality of Amunet’s tattoos.
This sensuality is also seen on the mummies of two dancing girls found under the Hathepsut temple in
1922. These dancing girls were found to have an image of the god Bes tattooed on their thigh, the first non-geometric
pattern. These markings were identical to some found on wall paintings. Bes was the god of wild orgies and was represented as a mischievous little ape in the afore mentioned wall
paintings. However, these paintings depicted Bes’ image on both men and women, contradicting the trend of tattoos being restricted to women.
All of the Egyptian mummies found with tattoos have been female, thus leading some to speculate that these were marks denoting prostitution of some
kind. The stigma from our own culture that only “loose” women have tattoos has undoubtedly colored this perception. Nevertheless, Amunet was referred to as the “concubine to Mentuhotep II”, so this idea cannot be fully
Along with the “Brides of the dead”, Egyptian art provides some insight into the tattooing practice. The wall paintings containing dancing girls sporting Bes’ image furnishes just one example. Gilbert says:
Additional male and female mummies with tattoos have been discovered in Lybia, but the male mummies sport the most interesting
findings. Some were found to possess images of sun worship, while others were tattooed with pictographs of the goddess Neith. These mummies were found in the tomb of Seti I, dating from around 1300
BC. This find, with its proximity to ancient Egypt demands the reconsideration of the supposed restriction of tattooing to females.
During a similar time period as Amunet’s, the Israelites began cutting and marking their hands and arms when a family member
died. This occurred during a span of 2000 years (3500-1500 BC) and then tapered off about 1250 BC. Steward reports that Jewish “believers often had the tau… tattooed on their foreheads as a protective sign.” He goes on to say that this mark was linked to, “’mark of Cain’ (inscribed so that Cain would be kept alive to suffer for his
crime)…” However, Leviticus 19.28, stating, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on
yourselves,” effectively stopped the practice of tattooing by branding it as pagan.