Perfume and power: Killing Eve and the Roman emperors

Brian Theng

Spoiler alert: I refer to a little snippet of episode four in the ongoing third season of Killing Eve and the 2019 film Parasite. If you have yet to watch them and wish to save them for the small screen, you don’t have to read on.

Two observations: first, smell is important. It shapes our perceptions of the things and people around us. Second, it’s pretty hard to convey a scent and its implications in written or visual media. For books, tv, and the movies, think Old Spice, ads by the likes of Chanel and Louis Vuitton (with their almost-formulaic ‘celebrity + catchy tune + indecipherable minute-long narrative + perfume’s name whispered at the end’), and this year’s Best Picture awardee, Parasite. In Bong Joon-ho’s film, the wealthy Mr Park’s disgust at the ‘basement smell’ of the Kim family and Geun-sae is not just an unmissable marker of the upstairs-downstairs divide, but also a catalyst for some stabbing at the film’s climactic ending. But while it makes for an impactful motif, I can’t quite claim to know how ‘it really is’ to be in those specific sensory situations.

But it’s also hard to imagine what sorts of things the ancients smelled, and what they themselves smelled like. On the one hand, we read a lot about these themes: epic and ritual are redolent with the ambrosial fragrances of gods and goddesses; Catullus memorably offered Fabullus a gift of perfume, one whiff of which and he’d have asked the gods to make him ‘all nose’ (quod tu cum olfacies, deos rogabis, | totum ut te faciant, Fabulle, nasum, Catull. 13.13-14). At the same time, archaeology has helped uncover elements of perfume production and fulleries, while sensory approaches help us rediscover daily living (See the edited volumes by Bradley and Betts): not all of it smelled good, it seems! On the other hand – and this may be an entirely personal disposition – the smellscapes of ancient Rome and Greece are much harder to envisage compared to say, the noisy crowds of Umbricius’ Rome in Juvenal’s third satire.

This is not to say that thinking about smell is pointless. It raises some important issues, as I hope to show. During a recent telly break to catch the latest season of hit tv show Killing Eve, an olfactory chord was struck, and I could hardly pass up the opportunity to nosey around some of our ancient sources. In episode four of the series, Villanelle’s return to London is heralded by a visit to a perfumery, to which she goes with a very specific scent in mind:

I want to smell like a Roman centurion who is coming across an old foe, who in battle once hurt him greatly. Since then the Roman centurion has become emperor and is now powerful beyond measure.

This is a bit reminiscent of the plot of Gladiator, but only a little bit. More to the point, Villanelle’s desire to smell powerful raises a whole host of questions about whether and how this was done by the Romans, particularly the emperors. (In an opposing manner, the smell of poverty in Parasite is not something the Kims ‘want’, but something they can’t get shake off). Potter (1990:180) lists three ways by which the Roman elite distinguished themselves: perfumes, the ‘natural odour of flowers’, and ‘the burning of incense and scented wood’.

One intriguing use of perfume is its employment in the literary/historical tradition to set up comparisons between Roman emperors and their successors. Here Nero and Otho are quite the pair. When decrying the expensive and luxurious use of perfumes, the elder Pliny (HN. 13.20-23) records that Otho had taught Nero to put scent on the soles of his feet (vidimus etiam vestigia pedum tingui, quod monstrasse M. Othonem Neroni principi ferebant). Plutarch relates that once Nero sprinkled ointment onto Otho; the next day, Otho one-upped the emperor, having the same scent gush out of golden and silver pipes (Plut. Vit. Galb. 19.3). Quite similarly, Suetonius records that Nero’s Golden House had dining rooms with pipes for similar purposes (Suet. Nero 31.2). I think these are vestiges of propaganda or perspectives that tied both these emperors together, less to legitimise the (short-lived) rule of the later one than to perhaps discredit the extravagant luxuries of both. Tying Otho and Nero together allowed the Flavians to brand themselves in contradistinction to the Julio-Claudians and the short-lived emperors of AD 69:

Vespasian, we are told, was disgusted at a young man reeking of perfume (adulescentulum fragrantem unguento) and so revoked his military appointment (Suet. Vesp. 8.3).

In these examples, scent isn’t evoked in merely incidental anecdotes; perfume played a subtle and crafty role in the personal and dynastic characterisations of the emperors.

Now what about an example of a centurion who became emperor? In the Maximinus of the Scriptores Historiae Augustae the claim is made that Maximinus Thrax was the first person from the body of soldiers to become emperor without being a senator and without a decree from the senate (Maximinus primus e corpore militari et nondum senator sine decreto senatus Augustus ab exercitu appellatus est, SHA Max. 8.1). This was in AD 235, and there were, of course, earlier military men who became emperor. Based on what the SHA write, Maximinus was a terrifying man – severe, gargantuan, and sweaty. I can’t find anything smell or perfume-specific, but if we had to hazard a guess of how he might have smelled to an old foe, we might say, ‘sweaty and scary’. But we can’t take any of this at face value. The SHA are notoriously unreliable and here, Maximinus’ portrayal as a sub-human monster seems inseparable from preconceptions stemming from his ‘barbarian’ heritage.

In the few emperors we’ve seen, smell and power are caught up in propaganda, the reliability of our sources, and race, knotty issues I can only raise and not discuss. They are reminders that smell, when used as a motif in cultural works, is deceptively simple but really quite powerful. This applies not just to the ancient world, but to the present-day culture we inundate ourselves with. Smell shapes the ways by which we construct and perceive distinctions in wealth, statue, and power. This holds true even if I cannot sense the smell itself. ‘Maybe something more woody?’, the perfumier replies Villanelle. I don’t really know what a ‘woody’ scent is; descriptions I have found on the internet are of no help. But that’s okay, because I sure don’t want to be smelling a Roman emperor who’s got a grudge against me.

Things I came across

*Texts are from the respective Loebs.

Betts, E., ed. (2017). Senses of the empire. Multisensory approaches to Roman culture. London & New York.

Bradley, M., ed. (2015). Smell and the ancient senses. London & New York.

Brun, J.-P. (2000). ‘The production of perfumes in antiquity: the cases of Delos and Paestum’. American Journal of Archaeology 104.2, pp. 277-308.

Charles, M.B., Anagnostou-Laoutides, E. (2013). ‘Unmanning an emperor: Otho in the literary tradition’. Classical Journal 109.2, pp. 199-222.

Lawless, S. (2020). ‘Common scents: how Parasite puts smell at the heart of class war’. The Guardian. Accessed online from

Mattingly, D.J. (1990). ‘Paintings, presses and perfume production at Pompeii’. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 9.1, pp. 71-90.

Moralee, J. (2008). ‘Maximinus Thrax and the politics of race in late antiquity’. Greece & Rome 55.1, pp. 55-82.

Potter, D.S. (1999). ‘Odor and power in the Roman empire’. In: J.I. Potter, ed., Constructions of the classical body, Ann Arbor, MI, pp. 169-189.

Stevens, B.E. (2016). ‘Smell and sociocultural value judgment in Catullus’. Classical World 109.4, pp. 465-486.

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