Hirsute heroes of history. Illustration: Kate Hazell

What your beard says about you (and the Romans and the Greeks)

Beards have meaning—now as they did in antiquity
November 13, 2018

Some years ago, frolicking by night in the streets of London’s Shoreditch, I happened upon a merry band of bearded youths. This facial-hair fashion had yet to reach the heights of ubiquity that it has achieved today. These young men were the outriders: hipsters; whittlers of spoons; riders of the fixed-gear bicycle.

We discoursed on the subject of beards and the hirsute boys earnestly informed me that their chosen mode had nothing to do with fashion, nor with the recent global financial crisis, nor with deep-seated anxieties about the very meaning and nature of masculinity brought forth by the rise of fourth-wave feminism and a new pressure on gender itself. Growing a beard had simply occurred to each and every one of them spontaneously. It was just one of those things.

Ha! I thought. These boys, with their fisherman’s jerseys, know nothing. As Meryl Streep’s fashion magazine editor, Miranda Priestly, pointed out contemptuously in The Devil Wears Prada, every choice made in relation to our modes of outward show—whether hair or beards or clothes—relates to a web of factors societal, political and aesthetic. And this applies not only to those who take considered pride in their fashion choices, but also to those who pointedly don’t. Beards have meaning—now as they did in antiquity.

Beard-spotting in the classical world is fun, because beardiness, by and large, follows wonderfully strict rules. Go to a decent museum, apply your eyes to its collection of Greek pots, and you will see that butch deities (Zeus, Poseidon, Ares and the like) almost invariably have a long, pointy beard.

You can see owners of such long, pointy beards occasionally roaming the streets of Athens to this day, and even imagine for a moment that the thunderbolt wielder is once more among us. Dionysus—god of theatre, revelry and wine—sometimes has a beard and sometimes does not, but that’s just typical of the kind of metrosexual, non-binary, hard-to-pin down person that he is.

Maturity and manliness

Beards—whether adorning the faces of gods, mythical heroes or regular chaps—are a sign of maturity and manliness. Ancient Greek philosophers are almost always given a big, none-too-groomed bushy number on their portrait busts; they tend to have an air of the Victorian patriarch about them, and look as if they are too busy having important thoughts to have visited the barber.

Fast-forward out of classical Athens a century or so to Alexander the Great, though, and suddenly he’s beardless—a live-fast, die-young mortal version of the also clean-shaven, youthful Apollo, god of the lyre. During the Roman republic and early years of the Roman empire beards were evidently not the thing: the many gorgeous portrait busts of important men from the period show them almost universally clean-shaven.

Suddenly, though, beards came back with a vengeance in the 2nd century AD, when Hadrian took to sporting one—as did all his successors, right up until Constantine in the 4th century, who for no apparent reason took to shaving.

Why did Hadrian buck the clean-shaven trend? Plutarch, the later writer, thought it was because he wanted to hide scars on his face; other people have decided it was because he wanted to seem especially “ancient Greek.” That’s entirely possible: he was a great aesthete and collector of beautiful Grecian things, and he had, in the Greek style, a male lover, the (beardless) Antinous.

Whatever the case, it was what Vogue might call “a moment.” Just as today’s chaps are definitely having a Hadrianic moment.