The beards of Emperors

Column inches across the world have been devoted to the ongoing question of Berlusconi’s hair transplant, and now that Bill Gates has weighed in on the issue (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jan/28/bill-gates-silvio-berlusconi-hair), fresh life might have been given to the farce.

The exasperated Silvio must look back to the glory days of imperial Rome wistfully; Not only was public prosecution of an Emperor absolutely impossible, not only was autocratic rule given for life, but the imperial hairstyle was spared the ridicule poured on the modern day equivalent.  In fact, such was the respect accorded to the imperial do that historians and archaeologists today are able to date statues based on which imperial figure’s hairstyle is being copied. Elongated bun on a female bust, hair drawn down on both sides of the head? Ah, that’ll be an attempt to emulate Septimius Severus’ wife, Julia Domna. Must be, ooh… end of the second century AD then.

However, lest Silvio envy his forerunners too much, it should be pointed out that there were limits. Julian the Apostate was Constantine the Great’s nephew, but instead of following the family trend of slipping towards Christianity, he developed a secret neo-platonic pagan zeal under the guidance of his tutor. Fully aware of the semiotics of beard growth, Julian revealed his secret religion upon his ascension to the throne and unleashed his newly unfettered whiskers on the world. In his short two year rule, the beard would grow into such a source of controversy that when the Emperor wrote a satire defending his controversially austere lifestyle, it was his beard which he named it after.

I’m going to go a bit off topic now, but this is probably the only post I’m ever going to write about imperial beards, so I quickly want to weigh in on the most famous of them all: Hadrian’s. Firstly, if anybody can tell me where the idea that it was grown to cover warts and scars originates from, I’d be extremely grateful. I often see it written, but it just doesn’t seem to ring true. Secondly, the idea that the beard was grown out of philhellenism is an old one, but I’ve seen it rejected by people recently. Instead, they argue that as an ex-military man, Hadrian got into the habit of not shaving whilst on camp. However, I can’t think of any other ex-Emperor with a military past (Trajan, Vespasian, etc) who had kept a beard as top dog, and the only bearded representation of an Emperor earlier than the man in question that springs to mind is a statue of the decidedly unmilitaristic Nero.  In fact, the original theory still holds plenty of water; Hadrian had lived in Athens before becoming Emperor (even becoming archon, or chief magistrate), and he maintained his ties to the city throughout his reign. His interests proudly displayed his love of all things Greek: architecture, poetry, philosophy and, of course, beards.

*If anyone’s interested, the Misopogon or ‘Beard hater’ is available here: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/julian-mispogon.html

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3 Responses to “The beards of Emperors”

  1. Mike R Says:

    There should be more research concerning the facial hair of the emperors – Didn’t Augustus let his beard grow in his grief over the loss of his legions in Teutoburg forest?

    • Samuel Says:

      Is that so? A beard would have been the only thing which might have improved Brian Blessed’s “Where are my Eagles?” scene in I, Claudius. Perhaps I was too rash to say this was to be my only blog entry on imperial beards.

  2. rileymike7 Says:

    Wasn’t Brian Blessed born with a beard?…Maybe this is digressing slightly…

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