Today most militaries have pretty detailed rules and regulations regarding beards and haircuts. But what about the Romans? Could Roman soldiers rock beards or were there regulations in place that forced the soldiers to shave?
There is no evidence of any regulations that prohibited Roman soldiers from having beards. Roman fashion developed from wearing beards during the 5th and 4th century AD to clean shaves since the 3rd century BC to having well-groomed beards in the second century AD. These different fashions were set by the generals and emperors and adopted by the soldiers.
Let`s find out more!
Were Roman soldiers allowed to grow beards?
First of all, there is one problem with asking if Roman soldiers could grow beards. When we look at Roman history we have a period of around 1.000 years from around 500 BC to 500 AD. And that doesn`t even count in the time of the early Roman kings, more on the Roman kings and how Rome was founded here.
But more on how the fashion of wearing beards changed over time later. For now, I would like to focus on the question of if any pieces of legislation prevented Roman soldiers from growing beards.
There is no evidence of any official regulations regarding beards or haircuts in the Roman army. But it seems likely that some sort of unofficial standard was enforced not only to make the soldiers more presentable but also in an attempt to increase hygiene and reduce the risk of parasites like lice and all the connected diseases.
There are actually a lot of archaeological discoveries that make it seem highly likely that some sort of grooming was done not only by officers but also by regular soldiers.
A clear indication of widespread grooming is countless combs, hair clippers, and razors that have been funded in and around the sights of Roman army camps. It seems likely that the regular soldiers of a contubernium either shaved each other or that the slave that each contubernium had would shave the soldiers and also cut their hair.
The officers on the other hand, just like wealthy Roman civilians, would probably either have personal barbers, usually in the person of a specially trained slave, or would visit civilian barbers in the settlements that would develop around each permanent Roman army camp.
For more information on these camps, what role they played in the Romanization of the provinces, and what the fact that Roman soldiers were prohibited from marriage had to do with that, I would like to recommend you my article here.
So no, as far as we can say there were no regulations regarding beards and haircuts in the Roman army.
That by the way is supported by the depictions of Roman soldiers for example on the Trajan`s Column. There you can see depictions of soldiers with different haircuts and different types of beards.
Having said that, the Trajan`s Column was built in 112/113 AD by the emperor Trajan. Later emperors like Hadrian would also be depicted with beards while generals from the time of the Roman Republic were often depicted with completely shaved faces.
And that brings us to the question of how the fashion of having beards developed over the course of Rome`s existence and who influenced these changes in fashion.
How did the fashion of wearing beards develop & under which influences?
Have you ever noticed how fast fashions are changing nowadays? A few years ago almost nobody had a beard but now suddenly everybody is eager on growing a beard. And while one might think that these kinds of fast changes in fashion are a modern phenomenon they also happened in Antiquity.
During the early days of Rome, the 5th and 4th century BC, it was common to have a beard. Many of the old Roman kings like Numa Pompilius are actually depicted with a beard!
And even after the Romans had expelled the last king, more on the shocking reason for that here, beards remained a common sight in Rome until the second century BC.
The man who is usually connected with establishing the fashion of having a clean shaved face is the important general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (235-183 BC). Roman writers also claim that barbers first appeared in Rome during the 3rd century.
Speaking of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus. Have you ever wondered why Roman names could be so long and why some, like Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, had Africanus in their name although they were not from Africa? Here you can find out more about how Roman names worked and the meaning of „Africanus“.
But apart from having an impressive name and defeating Hannibal at Zama, Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus was also known for shaving every day! He was probably the first public figure that did that and would set a pretty successful trend.
Since Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus was an extremely successful general, his fashion of getting a clean shave would quickly be adopted by his soldiers. Because of him the clean shave would soon become fashionable and would remain so until around the second century AD.
Emperor Hadrian who lived from 76 to 138 AD would then end that fashion of having a clean shaved face and would instead set the fashion of having a beard. Hadrian was actually the first emperor (with exception of Nero) who would have a full beard. It is not entirely sure if Hadrian grew that beard to hide his natural facial blemishes or if it was a sign of his fondness for Greek culture. And although we do not know why Hadrian grew his beard we know one thing.
Emperor Hadrian (76 – 138 AD) ended the fashion of clean-shaven Romans that had been started by Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus in the 3rd century BC. All emperors from Hadrian to Constantine the Great were bearded.
And since generals and emperors were role models regarding fashion it is safe to assume that many soldiers and citizens would pick up the fashion of growing beards. But these beards were not just allowed to grow wildly, they were carefully groomed!
Scruffy beards were only worn during times of grief. Outside of these grieving phases a Roman, at least a Roman who could afford it, would carefully groom his beard since neglected beards were seen as a sign of poverty or grief.
Now it is also important to mention that all these fashions, the clean-shaven face as well as the perfectly groomed beard were ideals that could only be archived by the upper class. The lower Roman classes just like the Roman soldiers could probably not afford daily shaves or regular visits to the barber.
So I think it is safe to assume that even during times when the clean-shaven face was fashionable most poor Romans would probably have a three-day beard or would at least not shave every day. That was probably reinforced by the fact that getting a shave back then was not really comfortable. There are actually several accounts that complain about the painful procedure that had to be endured at the hands of the local barber.
Having said that, at least the first shave was seen as an important milestone in the life of a young Roman man.
The significance of the first shave in the life of a Roman
Traditionally a young Roman would have his first shave at the age of 20. That first shave was celebrated as the moment when the boy became a man. After his beard was shaved the young man would sacrifice the beard to the gods.
I hope you enjoyed our trip to ancient Rome.
If you want to learn more about the daily life of the average Roman soldier I would like to recommend you my article here where I talk about the diet of a Roman soldier and if Roman soldiers were really vegetarians (like it is sometimes claimed).
And for more information on the accommodation of Roman soldiers both on a campaign and in permanent camps, I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
H.J. Höper: Alltagsleben römischer Legionäre (1985).
M. Junkelmann: Die Legionen des Augustus: Der römische Soldat im archäologischen Experiment (1986).