Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

IT HAS been claimed that beards are now back in fashion. Pogonic fashion certainly changed in the ancient world.

For the most part, beards were de rigueur; the difficulty of shaving saw to that. No one shaved himself - the iron instruments were far too crude - and only water (not soap or oil) was used.

So it required care and time to ensure a safe, clean shave. The Roman emperor Augustus took work to the barber's. The satirist Martial claimed that the barber Eutrapelus was so slow that a second beard had grown by the time he had cut the first. Some people preferred depilation to shaving. We hear of men rubbing their faces with various sorts of pastes and resins, including ass's fat, bat's blood and powdered viper. Cutting the first beard was a rite of passage, signalling the change from youth to maturity. Nero deposited his first beard in a golden casket and offered it to Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill.

Alexander the Great (died 323 Bc) was the first great trendsetter. He went cleanshaven, and Greeks promptly followed suit. About 200 Bc Romans did the same, probably to differentiate themselves from other 'barbarians' and show how 'Greek' and therefore how cultured and civilised they were. Pliny the Elder says that Scipio Africanus (236-183 BC) was the first Roman to shave clean. …

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