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Greek and Roman Tattoos

Tattooing was only associated with barbarians in early Greek and Roman times. The Greeks learned tattooing from the Persians, and used it to mark slaves and criminals so they could be identified if they tried to escape. The Romans in turn adopted the practice from the Greeks, and in late antiquity when the Roman army consisted largely of mercenaries; they also were tattooed so that deserters could be identified.

Many Greek and Roman authors mentioned tattooing as punishment. Plato thought that individuals guilty of sacrilege should be tattooed and banished from the Republic.

Suetone, a early writer reports that the degenerate and sadistic Roman Emperor, Caligula, amused himself by capriciously ordering members of his court to be tattooed.

According to the historian, Zonare, the Greek emperor, Theophilus, took revenge on two monks who had publicly criticized him by having eleven verses of obscene iambic pentameter tattooed on their foreheads.

Hadrian's Roman soldiers 'had military tattoo'

'It's a little known fact, but it would appear that all of the legionaries and some of the auxiliaries on Hadrian's Wall would have had a tattoo', says Newcastle University's Museum of Antiquities Director of Archaeological Museums and Roman expert, Lindsay Allason-Jones.

The evidence comes from the Roman writer Vegetius, whose Epitome of Military Science, written around the 4th Century AD, is the only account of Roman military practice to have survived intact.

'Vegetius recorded that a recruit to the Roman army "should not be tattooed with the pin-pricks of the official mark as soon as he has been selected, but first be thoroughly tested in exercises so that it may be established whether he is truly fitted for so much effort",' says Lindsay. (Source: Flavius Vegetius Renatus, Epitome of Military Science, Chapter 8).

'We do not know what this official mark looked like. It was possibly an eagle or the symbol of the soldier's legion or unit', she said.

Lindsay has even unearthed evidence that the legionaries would have sported the tattoo on their hands. Aetius, the 6th century Roman doctor, recording that tattoos were found on the hands of soldiers, even documented the Roman technique for tattooing, which included first washing the area to be tattooed with leek juice, known for its antiseptic properties. Aetius even went so far as to document the formula for the tattooing ink, which combined Egyptian pine wood (especially the bark), corroded bronze, gall and vitriol with more leek juice. The design was pricked into the skin with pointed needles 'until blood is drawn', and then the ink was rubbed on. (see below)


The Latin word for "tattoo" was stigma, and the original meaning is reflected in modern dictionaries. Among the definitions of "stigma" listed in the Webster dictionary are "a prick with a pointed instrument", "a distinguishing mark …cut into the flesh of a slave or a criminal", and "a mark of disgrace or reproach."

The oldest known description of tattoo techniques together with a formula for tattoo ink, is found in Medicae artis principes by the sixth century Roman physician, Aetius. He writes:

Stigmates are the marks that are made on the face and other parts of the body. We see such marks on the hands of soldiers. To perform the operation they use ink made according to this formula:

Egyptian pine wood (acacia) and especially the bark, one pound; corroded bronze, two ounces; gall, two ounces; vitriol, one ounce. Mix well and sift.

Grind the corroded bronze with vinegar and mix it with the other ingredients to make a powder. Soak the powder in two parts of water and one part of leek juice and mix thoroughly.

First wash the place to be tattooed with leek juice and then prick in the design with pointed needles until blood is drawn. Then rub in the ink.

Early tattoo removal

Because of the disgrace associated with tattooing, Greek and Roman physicians did a brisk business in tattoo removal, and Aetius had a recipe for that. He wrote:

In cases where we wish to remove such tattoos, we must use the following preparations... There follow two prescriptions, one involving lime, gypsum and sodium carbonate, the other pepper, rue and honey. When applying firs clean the tattoos with nitre, smear them with resin of terebinth, and bandage for five days. On the sixth prick the tattoos with a pin, sponge away the blood, and then spread a little salt on the pricks, then after an interval of stadioi (presumably the time taken to travel this distance), apply the aforesaid prescription and cover it with a linen bandage. Leave it on five days, and on the sixth smear on some of prescription with a feather. The tattoos are removed in twenty days, without great ulceration and without a scar." Translated by C.P. Jones

Other Greek and Roman physicians had special formulas that they used:
Pigeon feces mixed with vinegar and applied as a poultice "for a long time"

The Greek philosopher Bion of Borysthenes (circa 300 B.C.) described the brutally tattooed face of his father, a former slave, as "a narrative of his master's harshness."

During the early Roman Empire, slaves exported to Asia were tattooed "tax paid." Words, acronyms, sentences, and doggerel were inscribed on the bodies of slaves and convicts, both as identification and punishment. A common phrase etched on the forehead of Roman slaves was "Stop me, I'm a runaway."

GREEK - 4th Century AD

The murder of OrpheusOver 40 painted vases dating from the fourth century AD portray the murder of Orpheus, who according to myth was inconsolable after the death of his wife, Eurydice. He thereafter avoided women and turned his amorous attentions to young men, whom he hypnotized and seduced with his music. The jilted fiancÉes and wives of these young men took revenge by hacking Orpheus to pieces with a remarkable variety of instruments, which included swords, scythes, lances, double-bladed axes, skewers, pestles and rocks. According to myth, Thracian women were tattooed to commemorate their victory over Orpheus, and it has been speculated that these tattoos also served to remind Thracian husbands what fate awaited them if they proved unfaithful.

Tattooing of Slaves and Criminals in the Roman Empire

As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, the tattooing of slaves and criminals was gradually abandoned. The Roman Emperor Constantine, who declared Christianity the official religion of the Empire in 325 AD, decreed that a man who had been condemned to fight as a gladiator or to work in the mines should be tattooed on the legs or hands, but not on the face, "so that the face, which has been formed in the image of the divine beauty, should be defiled as little as possible."

In 787 AD Pope Hadrian I forbade tattooing of any kind, and the popes who followed him continued this tradition. It is for this reason that tattooing was virtually unknown in the Christian world until the 19th century.

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