Have you noticed how the fashion in men’s facial hair keeps changing? You can almost tell which decade a particular style of beard comes from. History has some famous examples (William Shakespeare, Charles Darwin).
Just over nineteen hundred
years ago there was a time and person to whom a specific change in beard
fashion can be attributed. The year was 117 AD and the man was the Roman
emperor Hadrian (76-138), pictured below. It was because he was the emperor that his preferred
style of beard became fashionable.
In the main Romans
considered beards as “un-Roman”. Around the empire there were various
traditional hair styles used by the inhabitants of the conquered nations (think
Asterix the Gaul), but if you wanted to be considered a citizen of the Roman
Empire you were clean-shaven. Some younger male Romans had neatly-trimmed
beards, perhaps as a sign of reaching manhood. Older Romans tended to have no
beard at all.
Roman emperors had
preferred to be depicted as clean-shaven, as can be seen from their coins and
statues. Below is a composite of the depictions of emperors in chronological
order. Note the absence of beards before him and the preponderance of beards
In pre-imperial times
beards were common. As the empire expanded Romans began to see themselves as
superior to the conquered nations, and to have a beard like their conquered
people meant they were just as inferior as them. So, beards became of sign of
barbarity and uncivilised communities.
The words “barbarity” and
“barbarian” were Greek in origin and meant someone who didn’t speak Greek. They
“babbled”, and the Greek for that was “barbaros”. The meaning was extended to
any behaviour that was considered un-Greek and uncivilised. Ironically, it was
the Greeks who influenced Hadrian in his choice of un-Roman “barbaric” facial
ven though the Romans had
a low opinion of anyone with a beard they hero-worshipped the ancient Greek
philosophers who were always depicted with bushy beards. Most of these
philosophers followed the traditional practise of having beardless boy-lovers,
and had themselves been boy-lovers to older men.
This boy-lover tradition
appealed to Hadrian. In general the Romans were opposed to such relationships
but Hadrian was living during a period of Hellenisation in the empire which was
to blossom during his reign through his influence.
This Hellenisation was
actually sparked by Greece itself. There was a move among the Romanised Greek
aristocracy to re-adopt the dress and styles of earlier ages to re-assert their
Greekness. Through Roman influence the Greeks were also generally beardless,
but around the beginning of the first millennium they began start to dress like
ancient Greeks and grow beards. These became popular even among the populace.
Big, bushy philosopher beards were everywhere, and you didn’t need to be a wise
philosopher to grow one.
Hadrian knew Greece well.
He had spent time in Athens as Archon, the appointed ruler, in 112 following
the death of his mentor Sura. There were some political machinations against
Sura’s supporters and Hadrian seems to have been pushed off to Greece to keep
him out of Roman politics (he had been made a Roman consul in 108). This
actually worked in Hadrian’s favour, and by the time the political situation
had died down and he was recalled to Rome he had become enamoured of the Greek
way of life. Perhaps this was when he began to grow his beard.
Hadrian’s political career
got back on track on his return to Rome. He became a trusted companion and
military commander to the emperor Trajan. When Trajan died on 7th August 117
Hadrian was popularly acclaimed as his successor. Hadrian kept his beard,
neatly trimmed and fashionably styled. Beards were back! His Hellenisation of
the Roman Empire was just as popular.
For almost a century
Hadrian’s successors had beards of various lengths. Even the teenage emperors
such as Elegabalus had wispy beards. The only ones who didn’t were Emperor
Geta, and Diadumenian who was made co-emperor at the age of 9 by his father
Emperor Macrinus. They were both killed the following month. From the reign of
Elegabalus’s successor, Severus Alexander, onwards beards came and went. When
the Roman Empire was converted to Christianity by Emperor Constantine the Great
in 313 beards went out of fashion once more. Very few emperors were depicted
with facial hair after that.
Who knows what would have
happened if Hadrian didn’t keep his beard. Perhaps beards would never have
become “civilised”, after all the Roman Empire continued for about another 300
years after his death and its influence would have lasted well into the
so-called Dark Ages. Maybe beards never would have become popular. Who knows?
For people like myself
with some form of facial hair we have much to thank a gay emperor for turning
the beard from the facial adornment of barbarians into the fashionable style
for the respectable and civilised gentleman. What’s more, next month’s Movember
charity (where men grow beards to raise awareness and funds for male cancer
research) may never have been invented.