Last night I was at a friend’s place and one of those corny old Hollywood Roman epic films was on television. There was the inevitable scene where the empress (meant to be Nero’s wife Poppaea, I think) was shown bathing in a bath full of asses’ milk. I recall seeing similar scenes in films about Cleopatra and other queens in ancient times. So:
Is there actually any written contemporary evidence referring to this practice?
and, if there is:
What benefit was it supposed to impart to the bather?
Where on earth did the servants get enough asses to produce the milk?
the ideal skin color for women in many parts of the world is smooth, creamy, and light since skin like that not only looked nice, but probably ment that you were rich enough not to have to work heavily or out of doors. Pretty rich woman=desirable. I imagine that bathing in milk was supposed to lighten and soften the bather.
not sure if it actually happened or if it was one of those myths ancient historians liked to spice up their stories with. As for where they got all the milk, well, that would just be an example of how rich they were. Modern cows can produce quite a lot, but I imagine that getting enough lactating animals in ancient times to bathe in their milk could only be accomplished by getting a lot of animals. Never mind that the milk would have to arrive before it spoiled, no easy thing before refigeration and fast transport. So, the animals would have to be nearby. And then, milk is fairly valuable. Bathing in it would just be an ostentacious display, like treding your shoes with diamonds. All in all, I’m inclinded to believe that the bathing in milk thing was just made up to illustrate how rich and powerful these females were.
P.S. The two most famous Cleopatra movies — Claudette Colbert in 1934 or Elizabeth Taylor in 1963 — do have her bathing, but not in milk.
Colbert did play Sabina Poppaea bathing in milk in Cecil B. DeMille’s [iThe Sign of the Cross* (1932). Powdered milk was added to a pool of water for those scenes, but after they broke for lunch and came back, the hot studios lights had curdled the milk!
Obligatory: It’s hard to say whether it actually happened or if Cassius Dio made it up as political satire. I can’t remember the author now, but I have a vague recollection of another Roman historian labasting a prominant citizen’s wife because she performed on stage, doing all sorts of nasty things with a goose and some birdseed, supposedly. Could it have happened? Sure. Will we know one way or the other? Probably not.
Anyway, my point is that just because someone wrote it down a long time ago doesn’t mean it actually happened. But, this is the Straight Dope and we all already know that.
I do accept that Pullet. But at least the reference from Cassius Dio that **Walloon ** provided shows that the idea of bathing in asses’ milk as a symbol of feminine opulence was not a Hollywood invention, which is what I’ve generally assumed.
Oh, I agree that it is an old idea, Cunctator. Hollywood is not renown for inventing much, let alone that kind of symbolism. Simply expounding that just because Casius Dio said it happened doesn’t actually mean it did, but I see that we agree on that point.
I’ve got lotions that have lactic acid in them (which is derived from lactose). I’ve heard it theorized (mostly on the backs of the said bottles of lotions) that Cleopatra had good skin because of the lactic acid in the milk she bathed in.
But doesn’t lactic acid only occur after milk has soured a bit?
But no one in the ancient world claimed that Cleopatra bathed in milk. Whoever wrote that copy on the bath lotion bottle, like the OP here, saw that scene with Poppaea in Sign of the Cross and confused her with Cleopatra.