On beards

Santa Claus is famous for his; today’s hipsters accessorise them – but the fashion for facial hair can be traced all the way back to Ancient Rome.
father Christmas beard roman
Father Christmas seems lost in this illustration but at least his beard is keeping him warm. Credit: Keith Corrigan/Alamy Stock Photo
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A few Christmases ago, a new kind of seasonal accessory was showcased on social media – a series of little green and red baubles dangling from the hairs of a young man’s beard. Somewhere between ridiculous and inspired, the look – a clear sign we had reached peak hipster – is yet to become mainstream. Given the number of beards still about, however, it can only be a matter of time. 

One could be forgiven for thinking that beards are as commonplace now as they were in ancient Greece. A spin around any museum containing antiquities will show you that everyone from Socrates to Pericles sported a beard of some kind. No one who sculpted the surviving busts of Homer had ever seen him, still less known that he existed but, as with Father Christmas, it was a fair assumption that a man of his time would also have been hairy-faced. 

The heroes of Homer’s epics are for the most part unshaven, as one would expect of men in war, though as Homer-fanatic Alexander the Great realised, beards could be very dangerous in battle. The Macedonian allegedly went so far as to have his men chop off their beards, warning that an enemy might easily grab hold of one in the field. 

The Romans followed the Greeks in wearing beards until about 300 BC when the first barbers entered the city. According to the writer Varro, who amusingly wove the snippet into a passage of his De Re Rustica on sheep-shearing, the razor-wielders came over from Sicily at the invitation of a junior Roman politician. Such was the significance of their arrival on facial fashions they were commemorated on a public monument at Ardea, just south of Rome.

Since that time, it became usual for men in Rome to shave – and even to depilate their bodies – although there were always exceptions. Young men could sport facial hair for some years before enjoying their first snip as part of an important coming-of-age ceremony. Emperor Augustus was twenty-three before he shaved for the first time. Beards were often also sported by members of the military, as in earlier times, and by prisoners and mourners as well. When Cicero left Rome for exile in 58 BC after Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus joined forces under the First Triumvirate, he was so heartbroken, that he stopped shaving.  

The same period there was a vogue for beardettes among some suave young men in Rome. Caelius Rufus, associated with the circle of poets Cicero dismissed as ‘a bit too new,’ perfected something akin to face topiary in the 50s BC. Garden topiary, incidentally, was all the rage in the late Republic. Catullus, who was friends with Caelius (at least until he was cuckolded by him) was very much a follower of fashions associated with the déclassés. In one of his poems, he smirks at a woman having sex in public with a ‘half-shaven cremator.’ Wealthy young men like these groomed their little beards in an attempt to look edgy and streetwise. Theirs was the closest thing to today’s hipster beard in intention if not in length. 

It was not until Hadrian became emperor in AD 117, however, that beards really took off across the empire. Hadrian was not the first emperor to have worn one; Nero is among those depicted as bearded in ancient art. But Hadrian’s beard was considered especially significant politically and culturally. Some said he grew it to conceal imperfections on his skin; his hair was so thick and curly that it amply covered his jaw. But whether that was true or not, his beard spoke most volubly to his subjects in Rome of his intense philhellenism and of his admiration for Greek intellectuals, in particular.

The scholar Paul Zanker, who has written extensively on Hadrian’s beard, notes that the emperor purposely departed from the model of the old unkempt Greek philosopher beard. Far from being long and straggly, Hadrian’s was neat, and highly stylised. It tickled his neck but not his chest. It was evidently considered attractive enough, for it sparked a trend, with men hastening to throw away their razors. They emulated the emperor’s look much as modern fashionistas snap up coats and handbags modelled by royals today. 

Interestingly, the fashion did not die with Hadrian, but carried on down the line of his successors. Lucius Verus, who ruled from AD 161 to 169, must have been a particular sight. It was said that he combed gold dust through his hair to make it blonder. This must have trickled lightly down through his facial tresses as well. Today’s bauble-beard wearers take note. 

Nor were beards strictly for men only. Pliny the Elder recorded a curious anecdote about a woman from Argos in Greece who, shortly after marrying a man, developed a beard, and consequently married a woman instead. A false beard, meanwhile, has been discovered in a Scythian grave in the Altai Mountains. 

All of which would suggest that beards, like Christmas, are here to stay. Much more in fashion than out of fashion historically, they have been appropriated by a wide range of people, from those who couldn’t care less about personal grooming to ardent dandies, much like the trendy young men who dared to sport them in late Republican Rome. Their ancient owners would feel right at home in London’s East End this December.    

Daisy Dunn

Daisy Dunn is the author of In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny. Her women-led history of the ancient world, Pandora’s Revenge, will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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