the beards of the ancients -- 9/20/16

Today's selection -- from One Thousand Beards by Allan Peterkin. Beards of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans:

"We know the most about the Egyptians, as they fastidiously recorded their habits on papyrus and in tombs. For them, removing body hair was essential as it was seen as base and bestial, but they nonetheless embraced the beard as a status symbol. The beards of kings were usually square-shaped and grew the longest (bigger was better), but were also braided, painted, dusted with gold, oiled, and perfumed. An upward pointed curl on the end was reserved for gods, though pharaohs after death became gods and were thus afforded the same flip. Later on, for special occasions like the flooding of the Nile, both kings and queens enjoyed wearing lavish fake beards made of gold and silver called pastiches, which were strapped behind the ears like a Halloween mask. Queen Hatshepsut (circa 1480 BC) wore a dazzling plaited variant which left no doubt as to who was boss. Never again would bearded ladies command so much respect. Slaves of course were clean-shaven, so as to be readily identified -- a good example of the presence or absence of facial hair being an immediate signifier of stature and status, a much-recurring theme over time. ...

Bust of Marcus Aurelius

"In contrast to the Egyptians, the Greeks were generally hairy and bearded until the rise of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), who initi­ated a longstanding clean-cut trend when he instruct­ed his soldiers to remove all traces of the beard because of its potential to be grabbed in hand-to­-hand combat.

"Despite this reasonable (or unreasonable) pre­sumption, which probably had more to do with [Alexander]'s vanity than anything else, we now mostly associate the Greeks with their fine beards -- from Zeus and his god-cronies to those philosophers who sat under olive trees, stroking their beards and pon­dering life. Socrates was known as the 'bearded mas­ter,' which subjected him to much ribbing in Aristophanes' Clouds. Hair had tremendous significance for the ancient Greeks, particu­larly after death. It was cut, torn, or burned by grieving relatives, and the locks of the dead were hung on the door by stricken mourners. ... Generally, Greek slaves were the only shorn baldies, once again to conve­niently indicate servitude and to prevent escape. Upper-class Greek boys did not cut their hair until their beards started to grow, at which point it was cut and sacrificed to Apollo, Greek men competed fiendishly over the coif and elegance of their beards -- whoever had the most skilled trim-servant was victor. ...

A recent beard.
Courtesy of the editor's wife)

"Early Romans were also a hairy lot, though they issued repeated statements that their beard styles were less 'effeminate' than the Greeks. ... Young Romans would let their fuzz-beards grow until they reached the age of majority, at which point they would shave it off and consecrate it to the gods. Emperor Nero ... plac[ed] his whiskers in a gold box encrusted with pearls. As in many societies, Romans in mourning would let the beard grow wild and unruly. ... The Romans also knew a thing or two about shaving, as they were the first to use warm water, shaving cream (which was oily), and the straight razor. Tarquin, who built the Roman sewer (Cloaca Maxima), apparently thought beards unsanitary and is credited with bring­ing the first razor to Rome. The upper classes had their own in-house shave-slaves, but barber shops ready to serve the populace sprouted everywhere. As is still the case, they were the hub for gossip, socializing, and getting the latest gladiator scores. Scipio Africanus is thought to be the first Roman to shave on a daily basis, but he did this obsessively, not once, but three times per day. If we survey the habits of various emperors, we find that Caligula would often wear a faux beard made of gold for special occasions. Hadrian, Antonius Pius, and Marcus Aurelius all sported formidable full beards, while Emperor Julian apparently grew one as a symbolic repudiation of Christianity. Commodus (161-192 AD), known as the Idle Emperor, had so much time on his hands that he brought back routine shaving. He also proved the adage about devil's work, because as an uproarious joke (and a sadistic one at that), he enjoyed taking over a barber shop, pretending to be a barber, and cutting clients' noses off."


Allan Peterkin


One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair


Arsenal Pulp Press


Copyright 2001 by Allan Peterkin


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