The Rise and Fall of Hair
The Roman Empire saw many changes from the dawn of the Augustan age to the end of Hadrian’s reign (27 BC - 138 CE). The lightest among these being representations of hair in Imperial portraiture. Roman emperors took great pains in deciding how they were portrayed in images that would be reproduced and distributed throughout the vast empire. A pattern eventually emerged in this chaos of royal succession. How one styled their hair could greatly predict the outcome of their reign. This article does not claim to be an extensive history of the events during this period. We will be looking at key iconography used in portraiture as clues to the wearer’s persona, political career, and reputation.
The Augustan Age - aka the “Gold Standard”
The first emperor of this new age and one that many would emulate was Augustus. Augustus (ruled 27 BC - 14 CE) came to power at the end of the Roman Republic during the height of Verism, extreme and strict realism. The position of first emperor meant setting the standard for a whole new movement of portraiture. “The portraits of Augustus are of considerable interest because they break completely in style and iconography with the portraits of the Republic. During the Republic, men of influence were men of age and experience, whose careworn features mirrored their lifelines.” Augustus faced the unusual problem of being a young man ruling in an age previously dominated by older men. He did not have the wrinkles that come with age, that signified wisdom.
Augustus chose to represent himself with a short cap of comma-shaped curls. “The artistic advisers of the day skillfully played down his defects and stressed the qualities of his face: they made the eyes enormously large and impressive, arranged his hairstyle with care, and handled his features with great sensitivity.” This hairstyle was probably similar to what he naturally wore and not meticulously planned out. “It is perhaps worth quoting the only description that we have of his physique, given us by Suetonius: ‘He was negligent of his personal appearance; he cared so little about his hair that to save time he would have two or three barbers working on it together.’”
Breaking with tradition, Augustus also chose to be portrayed as a youthful thirty-two-year-old emperor until he died. The wrinkles that came with age never made their way to any of his likenesses. These qualities all lend themselves to create a portrait of a fervent new emperor with the energy and vigor to run his vast empire. The idealized style of portraiture he created was also used by every member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. This was not only for identification purposes among his heirs; it also became a tool used to associate themselves with Augustus’ accomplishments.
Augustus’ counterpart, and model of female portraiture, was Livia. “Women’s depiction in public portraiture in the age of Augustus is in itself a striking and indeed almost shocking event. In the long years of the Republic, only one woman… was voted a public statue in Rome.” Mirroring her husband, Livia is depicted as youthful and ageless in her portraiture. Hairstyles of courtly women did not change in the revolutionary way that men’s had from Republican styles. The nodus that Livia wears carried over from the style of upper-class women of the Republic, but now it was also adopted by free women. “The so-called nodus coiffure began to be worn by women of the upper classes in about 40 B.C. In this hairstyle, the hair at the top of the head is parted on both sides and combed into a roll or nodus over the forehead. The hair at the sides of the head is combed over and behind the ears and fastened in the back.” Livia only made slight modifications to the Republican style. The hair framing her face became more waved and patterned to create distinction and a few loose ringlets escape around the sides of her face. “The relative simplicity of this innovative hairstyle [the nodus] contrasts sharply with the elaborate sectioned hairstyles worn by Cleopatra… and may, in fact, be seen as a deliberate repudiation of oriental extravagance in general.” Instead, this classical look was based on Greek portraiture and mirrored what Augustus accomplished in his own portraiture.
The Julio-Claudians - the Age of Tyrants
Augustus struggled to find an heir but eventually settled on Tiberius. Tiberius (ruled 14 - 37 CE) was Livia’s son from her first marriage and therefore not a blood relative of Augustus. During his rule, Augustus stressed the importance of a family lineage in reliefs and various other propaganda around the empire. The Julio-Claudian style continued to display, “Augustus’s profound belief in the aristocratic family united not only by blood but by fictional visual association as well as his insistence on a classical idealizing style that tended to drain its subjects of their individuality.” However, an unintended consequence of his long reign was the death of his first then second choice of successor. To ensure a smooth transition once emperor, Tiberius adopted the same cap of hair with comma curls his stepfather wore. While Augustus’s curls were longer, Tiberius wore his shorter and evenly trimmed across his forehead. Characteristics of Tiberius’s hair are the row of triple locks in the center of his forehead and longer hair at the nape of his neck. Tiberius is also depicted with a much wider forehead, a Claudian trait. This combined with his large eyes make his face seem unbalanced, something that was not present in the idealized Augustan portraiture. The resulting look - features with unique qualities styled to project a biological connection as Augustus’s rightful heir. The styling also gave continuity to Tiberius’s reign and a desire to be remembered as a ruler just as successful as his predecessor.
Tiberius’s death (and end of power) was met with rejoicing by the public. There was hope that the chosen heir would be an improved and less violent leader. Which leads us to Caligula (ruled 37 - 41 CE). To acknowledge his familiar lineage, he decided to keep the wide Claudian forehead and Julio-Claudian locks in his portraiture. He began to distinguish himself by wearing his hair in thicker locks that were much more undercut than Tiberius’s portraits. His “coiffure features a central part and parenthetical comma curls on either side of the forehead.”
Depictions of hair in sculpture also start to take on a stylized, plasticity quality during his reign. This could be related to the fact that Caligula, while young, was going bald. He “was obsessed by his own appearance and was extremely self-conscious about it. Caligula was bald; he would not have anyone look at him from above, and tried every known remedy to recover his hair…. The obsession with hair runs right through because the physiognomical theorists had laid down that one’s hair was just as important an indication of character as one’s eyes.” His portraiture is again an idealized version of himself, keeping the unrealistic trend of portraiture popular.
As he aged, Caligula started to change his hairstyle. He portrayed himself with long sideburns, perhaps to distract from the receding hairline. There is also an asymmetry to some of his portraiture that could suggest his madness. While Tiberius’s modifications to the Julio-Claudian style proved successful in establishing an “image” linking to the glory of Augustus, Caligula’s were not. Unlike those before him, he chose to be worshiped as a god while still alive. He was a cruel tyrant and was eventually assassinated with the damnatio memoriae (Latin for "condemnation of memory", that a person is to be excluded from official accounts) issued after his death. This unfortunate end persuaded the next ruler to make a more dramatic change in portraiture.
After Caligula’s assassination, Claudius (ruled 41 - 54 CE) reluctantly took the throne; uncle to the deposed emperor and considered a laughing stock. A change needed to be implemented in Imperial portraiture to set Claudius apart from Caligula’s negative image but still play on the positive Julio-Claudian family traits. To distinguish himself and call attention to his mature age, we see an end to the trend of eternal youth. Claudius kept an idealized body type (he never lost that six-pack) but his face represented a more realistic style. “Claudius is represented as a man in his fifties with bags under his eyes, sagging jowls, furrows in his forehead, and creases in his cheeks and neck.” His hair remains in the signature Julio-Claudian cap of short comma curls. Stylistically they resemble the curls of Augustus, while in length they mimic the short crop Tiberius chose to wear. Claudius effectively combines the look associated with good emperors while ignoring any reference to Caligula. And it worked, the reign of Claudius is considered successful and he was divined after death like Augustus.
The last of the Julio-Claudian emperors was Nero (ruled 54 - 68 CE). He came to power after the suspicious death of his adopted father, Claudius. “The first emperor to break with the established Augustan tradition was, as one might have expected, Nero, who openly, and very obviously in his portraits, favored a return to the Hellenistic ruler cult which Augustus had tried to avoid.” Rulers before Nero played with individualizing the Julio-Claudian type, but never completely broke with the style. Rebelling against tradition, Nero’s wore his hair long in the front. Having no biological link to Claudius he did not have the wide Claudian forehead to show off. His hair “consists of curls combed leftward in a parallel pattern broken only over the right eye where they change direction.”
Another interesting addition is the long sideburns that meet to make a beard under his chin. The sideburns of Caligula look tame in comparison to the ones here. The interest in plasticity and deeply undercut waves also reemerge. As you can guess, this complete break in portraiture, combined with the slight reference to Caligula correlate to disastrous effects. Like Caligula, scandal and violence surround his memory. After Nero’s suicide, there was celebration and the Senate tried to eradicate his portraiture by issuing another damnatio memoriae.
While the Julio-Claudian age saw only subtle variations to the coiffures of men, the hairstyles of women began to grow in volume. Throughout the rule of Tiberius not much changed. The classical Greek style was still at the height of fashion. A portrait of Antonia the Younger shows waves that slightly cover the ear and come together to form a knot at the base of the neck. The nodus that Livia wore is completely gone now, but the loose curls around the face are still a popular fashion. “During the principate of Caligula, this simple hairstyle was elaborated by the addition of a cluster of corkscrew curls below the part and above the ear… Each curl was accentuated with a drilled hole that emphasized the plasticity and texture of hair.” This follows Caligula’s own interest in creating a more defined sense of texture in his own portraiture.
While Claudius was in power these corkscrew curls grew more in popularity. The wave pattern of Antonia the Younger is confined to just the top of the head as the tight curls take up the majority of the sitter’s head. “Long, circular curls also sometimes fell on the shoulder, and the hair was gathered at the nape of the neck and twisted in a double knot.” Indeed, this style became so embraced by women that they eventually cut the hair on the side of their faces short and arranged them in large bundles of corkscrew curls. This can be seen in portraits of Agrippina the Younger. The style continued throughout Nero’s reign as well. These elaborate hairstyles acted politically similar to the way Livia’s did during the Augustan age. They are the antithesis of natural. “To the ancients, ‘natural’ was a term of opprobrium, suggesting a lack of civilization and social control – a state close to beasts and barbarians.” Curls grew tighter and hair gained more volume in an attempt to look as styled and unnatural as possible. While Nero was pioneering a new style of portraiture for himself women’s portraiture remained the same from that of the late Claudian period.
The Flavian Dynasty
The rise of the Flavians saw a revolutionary change in the style of Imperial portraiture. Vespasian (ruled 69 - 79 CE) rose to power after a series of short-lived emperors. A portrait type like the Julio-Claudians was not smart politically with the disastrous rule of Nero still at the forefront of the Empire’s mind. Therefore, Vespasian looked back to the Roman Republic style for inspiration. While not as hyper-realistic as Republican Verism, the Imperial portraiture of the Flavians embraced a realistic depiction of themselves that not only showed their age but their personalities as well.
Vespasian’s portraiture broke away not only from the classical idealization of the past dynasty but also from the stigma of receding hairlines. He did not try and hide the fact that he lost his hair with age. “His hair is combed in thin strands down over his forehead and grows relatively long on his neck, undoubtedly a holdover from the Neronian original.” There is more confidence now in depicting the emperor as a strong military leader instead of a living god. Artists of the court incorporated Vespasian’s aging into his portraiture as time went on instead of freezing him as a young man. We can watch his hair continue to thin as his popularity continued to rise. At his death, Vespasian is named a divus and a biological son takes the throne for the first time.
The depictions of Titus (ruled 79 - 81 CE) in Imperial portraiture greatly resemble his father. Even with a full head of hair, it is obvious that Titus is a younger version of Vespasian. His hair recedes a little at his temples, but he makes up for that with a head full of short, crescent-shaped waves. These waves do not bear resemblance to the Julio-Claudian curls and are combed from right to left. He is remembered for his aid after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 and the fire of Rome in 80. His reign also saw the completion of the Colosseum. After Titus unexpectedly dies his brother Domitian came to power and significantly alters the Flavian portrait type. Domitian (ruled 81 - 96 CE) reverted back to the Julio-Claudian style of portraiture in part because of his balding hair. Unlike his father, he did not embrace his hair loss and sought to cover it up. “He went bald early in life and seems to have taken it very hard, as others had; he considered it a personal insult if any reference was made to bald men. In his portraits he always appears with a good head of hair, sometimes rather formally arranged, suggesting the wig that he in fact wore.” Domitian embodies several of the Julio-Claudian traits in his portraiture. He has the protruding upper lip of Caligula and “most importantly, strands of hair are arranged across his forehead in comma-shaped locks that are slightly indented to create the Neronian tiara effect.” These changes and choice of allegiance did not prove advantageous for Domitian. Cruel and paranoid, he was the only member of his family to receive the mark of damnatio memoriae.
The women of the Flavian dynasty did not have the lack of hair problem afflicted on the men. The tight corkscrews of the late Julio-Claudian dynasty take prominence in female imperial portraiture. Curls grow in volume to create a dome-like effect on top of the sitter’s head. Examples of this in the early Flavian period are the portraits of Marcia Furnilla, wife of Titus, and Julia Titi, daughter of Titus. The coiffeur of Marcia Furnilla shows a more stylized version of curls with drilled spots to accentuate the texture of the curls. Julia Titi’s hair differs slightly from this one. While the drilled technique is still being used, her hair is not as patterned and symmetrical in design. Julia also retains the center part in her portraiture while her mother favors a singular, unbroken gathering of hair. Both mother and daughter have the rest of their hair “braided in long strands that are fastened in a bun placed high at the back of [their] head.”
In the late Flavian period, Domitia, the wife of Domitian, mirrored her husband’s aspirations for more hair (and power) by continuing the dome fashion but on a much greater scale. Her hair was arranged in a peak instead of a dome to add more height. “The corkscrew curls are individually carved and form a fairly regular pattern of spirals. In this case, the drill holes are located in the center of some curls and as a border around others.” This fashion for the peaked hairstyle continued to the next court with more elaborations added for complexity. “These complex styles cannot be created by the wearer herself: at least one hairdresser is needed to arrange the hair and take it down… In Roman antiquity, the ubiquity of slaves meant that all but the most destitute had someone at their command to do their hair.” Hairstyles became a marker of wealth as much as power.
Nerva-Antoine Dynasty - Two of the “Five Good Emperors”
Trajan (ruled 98 - 117 CE) came to the throne after the civil war following Domitian’s death. This begins the reign of the Nerva-Antoine dynasty and the period of the “Five Good Emperors.” The pattern of altering the style Imperial portraiture to disassociate from the rule of a bad emperor was still on-trend. Trajan looked to the Julio-Claudians for his portraiture instead of the Flavians. While Vespasian and Titus were good rulers, Domitian soured the line. Instead of depicting himself as an aging older man, as the Flavians, Trajan is idealized and ageless. His hair is arranged in long strands that come straight down his forehead with a slight separation in the center. “What is most significant about Trajan’s cap of hair is that it is not Vespasian’s bald pate, nor Titus’s short but curly coiffure, nor even Domitian’s late Julio-Claudian tiara. The individual strands are arranged in a pattern of comma-shaped locks over the emperor’s forehead, a style reminiscent of early Julio-Claudian times.” This was a deliberate attempt to try and associate himself with Augustus instead of the Flavians.
Pompeia Plotina, Trajan’s wife, continued to wear the vertical hairstyles that became popular during the Flavian dynasty. A break with this style though was the abandonment of the corkscrew curls. Her straight strands liken her to that of her husband’s. “Plotina’s hair, like her husband’s, forms an arc over her forehead, the arc made up of small comma-shaped locks of identical shape and length. The rest of her smooth hair is gathered in a knot placed high on her head and spread out like a fan.” This fan-shaped knot mimics the shape created by the corkscrew curls during the Flavian dynasty. “Among upper-class women, it was the Roman empresses in particular whose coiffures were so influential on the hairstyles of other women in the empire. … Evidently, her [Plotina] hairstyle failed to make much of an impression on Roman women, as it was hardly ever imitated.”
Hair continued to see major changes during the rule of Hadrian. Hadrian (ruled 117 - 138 CE) was the first Roman emperor to wear a full beard. “This element, new to Roman emperors, is not just a mark of Hadrian’s philhellenism, although the general effect is to make him look rather like a Greek hero; it is rather the result of a great deal of learned, even metaphysical, controversy as to how a ruler should appear before his subjects.” While Hadrian continued the trend of remaining ageless in portraiture everything else in his appearance is the opposite. Along with his full beard, Hadrian wore his hair in curls. The curls do not have the same stylized drills that were seen in previous eras. Here the curls are more similar to the style used in Titus’ portraiture. “Hadrian’s characteristic arrangement of the hair, with the curls combed lightly upwards on the forehead suggests the Emperor’s vanity.” Court artists began experimenting more with the contrasting textures of Hadrian’s curly beard against his smooth skin. This the first time that an emperor made such a drastic change to his portraiture after a previously successful reign, and the first time such a change did not backfire. Visually, we can consider Hadrian’s reign a success since his predecessors Antoninus Pius and later Marcus Aurelius both kept his curly hair and full-bearded face.
Like her husband, Vibia Sabina drastically changed women’s hairstyle. She completely did away with the vertically that dominated past dynasties. “Sabina’s wavy hair is parted in the center and brushed back over the tops of her ears and fastened in a loose bun at the back of her head. This simple but lovely coiffure is an approximation of the hairstyle worn by Greek goddesses.” While the hairstyle is different, Sabina follows the example of previous empresses by mimicking their husbands’ style. She transforms herself into one of the Greek goddesses that her husband was so fascinated by. Together they became the hero and heroine of their own Greek play.
From Augustus to Hadrian, Roman Imperial portraiture went through many fashions and phases. In the beginning, a full head of hair was an emperor’s most important asset and the source of much anxiety. Later, the importance of hair for men would recede; in contrast, women’s hairstyles became highly structured. The period under discussion ends with the return of greater attention to detail in men’s appearance. While hairstyles saw periods of rising and fall, what remained constant was the implications of an emperor’s chosen coiffure. His character is revealed in his allegiance to certain styles of the past and how he reworks them.
This is an edited version (if you can believe it) of a larger paper about portraiture in the Roman Empire. All research and writing © 2019 Stephanie Khoury.
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Do it yourself! Flavian-Trajanic Hairstyle “How To” video - Janet Stephens on Youtube