Roman Fans

Bryony Spurway


Roman men and women loved using fans for a variety of purposes, both ornamental and practical. The use of fans came to Rome via the Egyptians and Greeks who, according to Euripides, derived their knowledge of them from "barbarous" countries - probably India and China. Few survive and our knowledge of them is derived from two main secondary sources: iconographic evidence such as murals, painted vases, and sculptures such as the Tanagra figurines (e.g. Standing Woman with Fan, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna); and literary sources such as Euripedes, Menander, Ovid, Martial, Strato and Suetonius. 

The Greek fan generally came in two forms: a small personal hand-held fan or a large fan with a long handle which was carried by slaves. There are occasional references to ripis or fire fans, but these were a form of bellows rather than a personal item.
"I fanned Helen’s cheeks and airy curls with a winged fan of round and graceful shape" says the character of the Phrygian Slave in Euripedes’ play Orestes.


By about 500 B.C. fans made of peacock feathers were in use. Some of these were probably only a tuft of feathers set in a handle whereas others would be arranged to form layers and patterns. The peacock was the sacred bird of Hera (Juno, to the Romans) and was held as a symbol of refinement and luxury. Later fans were made by stretching linen or silk over a frame shaped like a leaf. The first fans to imitate leaves were triangular in form and inspired by the palm leaf, though they later evolved to become more gently curved and leaf-like in appearance. Like many other Greek fashions, the fan was one of the many elements of culture absorbed by the Romans after the Greeks were conquered in the 2nd century BC. They were used in a variety of different ways.

(left: Tanagra figurine is in the Louvre. It is Greek and pre-dates the Roman period but is a good illustration of how a leaf-shaped fan would look).

The personal fan, known as a flabellum, was used both as a decorative ornament and to keep cool. It maintained the curved leaf shape of the Greek fan but was generally made of thin, delicately carved wood elaborately gilded and painted. Others were made of feathers attached to wooden or ivory handles, or of linen or vellum attached to a wooden frame. They could be triangular, circular or leaf-shaped and were rigid, unlike modern folding fans. Examples of these can be seen on painted Apulian vases such as the red-fugure volute krater held at the Getty Center, Los Angeles. Originally the patrician women of Rome were fanned by slaves, known as flabelliferae, for it was socially taboo for a highborn lady to fan herself. Later Roman women, however, carried their own fans for personal use. Nor were women the only users of flabelliferae: Suetonius wrote that the emperor Augustus instructed that he be fanned by a slave as he slept.
According to Ovid, a gentleman might also take a fan into his own hand and use it to fan a lady as a compliment. In his third Book of Love he writes of fanning the face of his beloved whilst she slept using one of the small hand-held fans known as tabellae. It should be noted that the word tabellae, meaning tablet or board, was used for a variety of different items by the Romans, including gaming boards, voting billets and waxed writing tablets. Since waxed writing tablets were often hinged using wire or leather (dypticha – two boards, trypticha – three boards) it is believed that the hand-held tabellae fans may possibly be the forerunners of the ‘broken’ or folding fan. 
Fans could also be used to drive away flies from people or food, whether intended for the dining table or offered in sacrifice. This sort of fan, or fly whisk, was known as a muscarium (Martial, xiv. 67) and was less rigid than the flabellum. The term also applied to fly whisks made from horse hair attached to a wooden handle.



For domestic use, great bunches of ostrich plumes tinted in various colours were suspended from gilded ceilings in upper class Roman villas. Fans were also used in cookery, whether preparing the food for general use or for ceremonial purposes. The 18th century Italian painter, Antonio d’Ercolano, in his inventory of classical features of the newly uncovered Herculaneum, depicts a sacrifice to Isis. A priest is seen fanning a fire upon an altar with a triangular flabellum, a style of fan that is still used in Italy today. This practice gave rise to the expression “to fan the flames of hope/desire” (Alkiphron, Letters).



Romano-British women are also known to have used fans. A sculptured tombstone (c. A.D. 250) in Carlisle Museum shows a woman holding a large round fan with radiating ribs. This style of fan can also be seen carved on a 4th century Roman sarcophagus at York, in which a pair of ivory handles were found and a reconstruction of the object was undertaken by archaeologists. Whilst there is little evidence for feather fans in Britain, it should be noted that feathers are unlikely to have survived in the archaeological record. However, the established trade routes between Britain and the Mediterannean, and the importation of other luxury goods, suggest that feather fans could have been imported. If this was the case they would have been considered expensive, luxury items used by the more wealthy Romano-British citizens. There is nothing to suggest that fans during the Romano-British period were a female preserve and, as in Rome, they may well have been used by men, slaves and in the home on a practical level as well as a status symbol.