Saturday 26 October 2019

Hadrian's Beard

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 after him.

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 hair.

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.


  1. Dear Tony:

    Great article. Thanks! Please see my current Facebook page (2021). I'm a fan of Hadrian et al. and am working on something at this moment. ("John Kendall Pepper Jr" on Facebook.)

    Please keep up your interesting, important work if you can. People like to know this -- especially gay men (esp. in this case). (I realize this article is from 2019, but most people who have not read it will learn something new.) Thank you again.

    -- John P in Miami, FL

  2. Many thanks for your kind comments. I always try to find the more unusual side to history, the bits that get overlooked or obscured by politics. There's more to lgbt+ history than politics.