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H - 49 : Musings about Hairstyles and Beards

Official Statue of Roman Emperor Augustus which was copied throughout the Empire

At times, my curiosity takes me to unexpected corners of culture and human behavior. Like my wondering as to why Roman leaders were cleanly shaved and wore their hair short whilst their adversaries had long hair and big beards. The Romans were exceptional. In China the Emperors wore long hair and beards, so did Hindu kings, the people from the central Asian steppes, the Pharaohs (with highly curated beards though) as well as German and Celtic tribes. In all these cultures, long hair and beards were a sign of wealth, power and fertility.

This 19th Century Portrait shows Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang

With a Long Beard and Long Hair in a Braid

Why were the Romans so different? And why did their style not last? After the Roman Empire disintegrated, long hair and giant beards returned as Europe’s fashionable hair style. You only need to look at Charlemagne to see how exceptional the period of short hair - no beard was. The long hair tradition lasted until early modern times. Ever noticed the giant white wigs English judges still wear? Or in the portrait of Louis XIV, the French Sun King?

There is no original Portrait of Charlemagne - this one is from

Albrecht Dúrer in 1512

In Europe, short hair only became the standard look for men with the First World War, when soldiers had to live in soaked trenches full of lice and other nasty insects. Shaving heads and beards was an answer to a health problem. The rite of shaving the heads of young recruits at the beginning of boot camp stays with us to these days.

Marines shaving their Heads for during Deployment

Due to my travel blog - in its 8th year now - I had a look at hundreds of ancient statues and murals in museums and on photos. This is when I noticed how different a bust of Augustus looks compared to other contemporary rulers. Cleanly shaved and sporting a short hairstyle, he looks like a modern European man.

Roman Emperors - here Trajan - kept the smart Look for 100 Years

Then Emperor Hadrian started the Tradition of a small Beard

My initial explanation was that wearing short hair and shaving beards must be the result of advances in technology. The Romans were master iron mongers. Their swords and spears were the finest you could buy. The way they used iron brackets to build giant structures like large temples, bridges or the Coliseum was not seen before. Roman iron was exported to India  The Romans were also master miners. Never had mining been done on this scale before (thanks to the slaves who had to work there).

Scissors were already known by Egyptians but a Luxury Product

Not surprisingly, iron tools started to replace bronze which was a luxury metal only nobles could afford. Iron tools including scissors and razors became ubiquitous though. They were affordable. There were so many barbers in Rome that the Roman Emperors had to regulate the trade. There must be some truth to my theory of linking hair style to the proliferation of iron tools. But technology alone does not explain why ancient elites outside Rome did not shave nor cut their long hair.

Roman Razor with Horse Head *Bronze) 3rd Century

This thought put me into a different direction. On ancient Egyptian reliefs and paintings, priests are bold and cleanly shaved. The ones who served the Gods and were closest had – apparently - to be pure and got rid of all their body hair. Also, the statues of Greek Gods are usually shown without body hair. Gods were pure. Body hair did not fit the bill for the Gods' aesthetically pleasing and idealized bodies. In a way they are images of human beings – if they were perfect.

Egyptian Priests had their bodily Hair fully removed to perform their Duties

Greek people believed Gods are Gods and humans are humans. Whilst Gods could meddle with humans and siren children, humans could not. They were at the merci of Gods. Other cultures had a different concept of deity. For the Persians, Egyptians and the Chinese, their supreme rulers – despite being humans - were Gods. A ruler who could take the life of thousands, build monuments that reached the skys and had subordinated kings must be of godly nature. The Greek encountered this concept in the Persian Wars in the early 5th century BC. Extraordinarily, the Greek city states were able to defeat God-Emperor Xerxes. Must have given them quite an ego boost.

The Persian King of Kings, Xerxes, with his great Hair & Beard

From here, it is not far to young Alexander, son of the Macedonian King Philipp II. He would later become famous as Alexander the Great. Schooled and raised by Aristotle, one of the greatest minds in antiquity, he must have been familiar with both Greek and Persian philosophy. If he, Alexander, was able to defeat a ruler who called himself God, was he not a God as well? Or at least someone who should look like a God? We know that he harbored such thoughts. Alexander always rode into battle without wearing a helmet – he was protected by the Gods and did not need one.

Alexander at the Battle of Issus in 333 BC - without Helmet

Alexander, who’s 334 BC campaign trail we sail along this summer, was the first known leader with well-groomed hair and no beard. In a way he looked like Apollo or Mars – certainly not a coincident for a man who knew how to cultivate his image. To today, the stories of Alexandre’s campaigns fascinate military leaders. A young man who beats a numerically far superior enemy was a case that every officer had to study. Of course they noticed how Alexander looked. Smart, cleanly shaved, stylish haircut. That Roman leaders not only tried to imitate Alexander’s deeds but also his looks should not come as a surprise.

Marble Bust of Alexander the Great with his clean Look

There is a far bit of speculation in all my musing though. Have not found much research on this subject (yet). The culture of clean shaving and short haircuts did not survive the Roman Empire. With its disintegration, government, business and culture became local. It was the time when the absence of large field armies forced every city to build its own defensive walls and when relatively small gangs of armed men like the Vikings could terrorize large swaths of territory. No large armies = no great leaders.

At the Battle of Issus, Darius III wore the classic Persian long Hair Style (Mosaique from the Hause of the Faun in Pompeii)

With the art of war also died the art of looks. Alexandre’s deeds were forgotten and only survived in a few books in remote monasteries. Also, in Christianity, there was no place for people who believed that they were God. Long hair and long beards were in again. Until a young French General thought that short hair and a clean shave would look smart when he became Emperor Napoleon. He restored the Roman Eagles as symbol for his divisions and Alexander’s smart clean look as a symbol for supreme leadership.

How we believe Vikings looked like (Sven Lindauer, Historical Artist)


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