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Hair styles in Ancient Rome

Hair dos

The manner in which the hair was worn definitely played an important role for both men and women throughout the history of Rome. As well as being the subject of fashions it could also be used as a symbol of beauty, virility, class and/or intellect. Consequently we find the likes of Julius Caesar and Augustus clean shaven with short hair whilst one or two centuries later we find the intellectual philosopher-emperors Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius depicted with healthy 'philosopher' beards.

Yes the philosophers were the one class of person which resisted the temptations of fashion throughout history and enjoyed their beards throughout - particularly the Stoics (Marcus Aurelius being one). They still keep it up nowadays I think.

Likewise high society women could wear the most elaborate hair arrangements in accordance with the latest fashions. Jewelry and hair were the two things through which women could really show off their worth and social standing. Women could also wear ribbons and other ties in their hair called Vittae and Fasciae. These could  actually be wound around the whole body and act as a sort of corset.

Another interesting possibility was a sort of wig which could be worn by either men or women called a Galericulum, similar to the Galerum of the priesthood but with hair applied to it like a wig.

The ability of barbers and general hair-cutting wasn't at the greatest of levels so much so that even the whimsical emperor Nero eventually left his hair to grow long at the nape in the manner of youngsters and dandies. Some say in the manner of the chariot races who Nero admired greatly.

During the four hundred or so years in which the fashion was to go clean shaven the length of hair varied sometimes straight down over the brow almost to the eyebrows, rather like a recent fashion in the UK. Other times it might be kept shorter or indeed completely shaven. Even then it was deemed more attractive to be clean shaven rather than partly bald.

When style shifted back towards long hair and beards it went to the extreme so much so that in the time of Hadrian it was not unheard of for men to have pig-tails both front and back. As wild as this might sound we shouldn't forget the 18th and 19th century habit of long wigs with curls which are still worn by judges in the UK to this day.

Towards the end of the empire fashion looked back to the great days of Caesar and Augustus. A number of Roman Emperors such as Constantine for example preferred to go beardless possibly as a last fashion statement against the invading (and bearded) barbarians. By the middle ages the beard was back with a vengeance. Who knows, it is possible that cutting yourself with an old oxidised (blunt) razor was recognised as being a little dangerous?

The barber

The earliest fashion was to have a healthy beard. Shaving would be limited to keeping hair and beard in a more or less tidy (?) state and was probably carried out by one's own wife. I question the word "tidy" as we can imagine that in the earliest shepherd-days of that village by the river, the "styling" would have been more akin to that of an unkempt bird's nest....

Roman barbers were called "tonsores". Although razors "novalculae" were well known since the earliest days of Rome: bronze razors for shaving have been found dating as far back as the eighth century BC - ie before the official founding of Rome.

A clean shave became more fashionable during the Punic wars against Carthage and General Scipio is on record as having been the first to have such a habit. The first tonsores (barbers) arrived in Rome around the the third century BC together with the other Greek influences and treasures discovered during the invasion of the Greek colonies of southern Italy. However we can easily imagine that the habit, particularly that of the rich Patricians, would have been to have a personal slave act as secretary, assistant and barber. The richer you were the more slaves you might have to assist you in your daily duties.

Given the relatively low level of shaving technology we can imagine that the result of shaving with a sickle shaped piece of bronze was approximate at best and downright dangerous at worst. And yet, a clean shave was an extremely popular habit throughout the most florid period of ancient Roman civilisation. An alternative to this was actually pulling the hairs out one at a time or waxing them off. Ouch!

What actually went on in barber shops - tonstrinae - is simple to guess and is in fact confirmed by archeological findings: basic cosmetics, some simple tools for other small medical interventions such as pulling of teeth and playing dice to pass the time. I like to think of the famous Barber of Seville being pretty much a replica of his Roman peers; gossip, talking about women, betting and arguing over the races.

Great men, rulers and Emperors such as Cicero, Caesar, Augustus and Vespasian are all clean-shaven. Vespasian was actually completely bald. Caligula had a fixation with his baldness which led him to a series of ludicrous persecutions of the follically challenged. Nero had a fixation with the arts and chariot races and loved to have a forward brushed cut in the style of the famous chariot racers.

It wasn't until the second century AD that we notice successive emperors such as Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, Caracalla and many others portrayed with a full beard again.

Their courts naturally followed suit and the fashion stuck for many years to come. It wasn't only a matter of fashion of course: the beard had always been strongly associated with philosophy and wisdom and political propaganda happily ran its course and associated this image of wisdom with that of the emperor.

Towards the dying days of the empire there was a shift back towards "proper" hair cuts and shaving: in memory of the good old days when the empire's might was at its greatest.

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"Hair styles in Ancient Rome" was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for - Rome apartments