In today’s society, tattooing is a part of our culture – virtually worldwide. The practice has become about expressing oneself in a very personal manner and has become quite commonplace. It is not unusual to see a soldier sporting a torso full of inked designs, or a mother pushing her child on a swing as her full sleeve peeks out from below her cardigan. T-shirts plastered with the phrase “Tattooed and Employed” can be found in shops all over and even the most notable professionals can be found with artwork upon their bodies.
But, tattooing hasn’t always been about personal expression and freedom. The earliest tattoos were used as a pain management tool, being placed above-stressed joints and aged backs in small concessions of dots and lines. These were first discovered on a mummy named Otzi, better known as the Iceman, who was found on the Italian-Austrian border in the early 1990s. The ancient Egyptians only tattooed their women at the earliest points in their history – as a method of both pain relief from childbearing and protection from dubious men. While tattooing in these areas may have been considered culturally acceptable, if not even praised, the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations had an entirely different take on the practice.
It is thought that the art of tattooing – used loosely when referring to the oldest Greek and Roman tattoos – began in Greece, approximately around 700 BC. Unlike the Egyptians, however, the Greek used tattooing as a punishment, in the cruelest sense of the word. Slaves were marked with tattoos in order to make them easily identifiable if they tried to escape. Criminals would have their offenses inked into their foreheads or other easily visible locations. This not only made those held captive easily identifiable if they attempted to flee imprisonment but would continue their punishment even upon release.
The practice was so feared and despised by the Greek citizens that it appears in many Greek texts. Well-known Grecian authors and philosophers discuss the act of marking the unworthy in their works, detailing the atrocity that was Greek tattooing. Herodotus, a Greek historian who lived from 484 to 426 BC, wrote of those who received tattoos in Greece, describing criminals, slaves, and prisoners of war. On occasion, his writings tell us, individuals would be tattooed as a way of relaying secret messages through enemy lines. This, however, was the only acceptable form of voluntary tattooing. The Greeks had a firm belief that anyone who participated in the act of voluntary tattooing was a barbarian – such as the Thracian (Maenads) women, whose name roughly translates to the “Mad Women” or “Raving Ones.” Many other writers of the period discussed the use of tattoos in a disciplinary sense, as well. Xenophon, Aristophanes, Aelius Aristides, Aeschines, and Herodus have all mentioned the process in their works. Still there were some, like Plato, who encouraged the practice. He once wrote that thieves should have their offense marked on their hands and face, and those who were found guilty of sacrilege should be branded with a mark and banished from society. The historian Zonare wrote of a particularly nasty tale in which the Greek Emperor Theophilus used tattoos to punish two monks who publicly disparaged him. His drastic retaliation included having eleven verses of vulgar iambic pentameter inked across their foreheads and faces.
The Grecian method of tattooing as punishment was replicated in Roman society – but, as Romans tended to do, in a much larger fashion. They continued to ink their marks on slaves, criminals, and others deemed unfit by the Roman government. Slaves being exported in trade, for example, would have the words “Tax Paid” marked upon their foreheads. Many Emperors have been documented as participating in this direct form of punishment, including Julius Caesar, Cicero, Galen, and Seneca. However, it was Emperor Caligula that perhaps took this heinous act to the next level. Suetone, one of the early writers of the Roman Era, detailed events in which the sadistic, mad Emperor would erratically take it upon himself to tattoo members of his court – as if some form of past time or hobby.
Punitive tattooing continued into the war waged between Romans and Christians. A passage in the Biblical Book of Revelation refers to the “Whore of Babylon” who, as a slave of the Empire, had her undesirable habits tattooed across her face. There are also mentions throughout the historic text that speaks of Christians surviving Roman imprisonment and returning home where their tattoos were worn as badges of honor as they were upheld as heroes by their community.
As most injustices do, tattooing the face as punishment did finally reach its end when Rome entered into Emperor Constantine’s rule. As Rome’s first Christian Emperor, Constantine – who ruled from 306 to 337 AD – banned tattooing stating that man’s face was crafted in God’s image, and it was a sacrilege to deface it, regardless of the merit of the individual.
Tattooing, when done of one’s own free will, can be therapeutic and/or exhilarating, but when unwanted ink is placed upon one’s body, it can be a permanent reminder of horrors that have been inflicted upon that individual. While tattooing is now widely accepted, beloved, and almost obsessed over – and was once thought to be used for pain relief and protection – the practice during the Greek and Roman Era was considered to be the most horrific form of punishment inflicted upon those who were allowed to live. Tattoo culture has undergone many unique challenges and changes over its 5,000-year history, but its ghastly use during the Roman and Greek Eras should be considered some of the practice’s darkest days. Luckily, it left no blemish on the tattoo lifestyle of today!