Beards of Bygone Eras
By Dylan Siebert
Labyrinth, Issue 92 (2005)
Excerpt: One very important trendsetter from antiquity was Alexander the Great, who is most famous for conquering most of the ancient world near the end of the fourth century BC (his empire stretched from modern-day Greece through Turkey, Iraq, and Iran). Alexander, born into the royal family of Macedon, is always depicted in sculpture as a dreamy-eyed youth with impossibly good physique and not a single hair on his chin.
He was also an indomitable general, and is said to have ordered his soldiers to shave off their beards so that enemies couldn’t grab them in the heat of battle. This made good tactical sense, but it also prevented his soldiers from appearing more manly than himself. Alexander, after all, ascended to his father’s throne at age twenty, and perhaps he simply hadn’t yet had the time to cultivate a fine crop of facial hair.
After Alexander, clean-shavenness became the hippest thing since leather sandals, at least in Macedon. It wasn’t until the Romans conquered Macedon and its neighbouring Greek states in the second century BC, making them into Roman provinces, that shaving really began to catch on in Italy. The Romans may have beat the Greeks militarily, but in terms of fashion they were slaves to their eastern counterparts. As the poet Horace put it, “Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit”- “conquered Greece took her fierce master captive”.
Romans of the Late Republic ate up Greek culture as fast as they could import it: theatre, poetry, philosophy, bread (Romans had hitherto been accustomed to a large quantity of porridge in their diets), and, most importantly to this investigation, slaves with attractively smooth cheeks. A whole new world of style began to appear in opposition to the traditional Roman ideal of manliness in the face of Celtic invasion, which required a manly (bearded) face. Some older Roman poets were very upset by these tumultuous cultural changes (as older poets always are) and retreated from mainstream society in order to compose odes to the good old days, when real men ate their grits and grew their beards long and wild.