29 July 2007

Hairiness Makes the Man

Now it's time for another look at the The Curious Case of Elagabalus' Beard.

When we left the murdered emperor, as you may remember, the Senator and historian Cassius Dio had just given us this titillating bit of gossip about Elagabalus:
He worked with wool, sometimes wore a hair-net, and painted his eyes, daubing them with white lead and alkanet [a red-dyed ointment used to colour faces, similar to modern rouge]. Once, indeed, he shaved his chin and held a festival to mark the event; but after that he had the hairs plucked out, so as to look more like a woman.
And I wrote in rebuttal: Greeks and Romans liked to believe that all orientals devoted themselves to luxury: that they stayed indoors in their self-indulgence, were thus pale and unmanly, and never seen by anyone except their eunuchs and wives. Elagabalus had proved himself not to be a Roman; therefore he was a Syrian, and depraved, extravagant, and feminine.

This is how it works.

The naked Greek, captioned as saying "I am Eurymedon" -- referring to the river where the Greeks won a major victory over the Persians in the early 460's BC -- strides forward holding his erect penis as if to penetrate the terrified Persian archer (who says, "I stand bent over") pictured on the other side of the vase.

It could hardly be clearer: We can bugger the Persians because they are softies and begging for it.

Real men do not present their bottoms to other men. That is what women do ('softies' by definition), as do luckless slaves (having no choice) and barbarians, too. Fair of face, white, clean-shaven, woman-voiced, soft, pretty: the man who looks like a woman will sexually perform like a woman -- a passive sodomite. Even if an emperor, the oriental is the opposite of 'hairy-rumped', 'hard' westerners, who are penetrators by nature. Hairlessness and softness indicates effeminacy, and are signs of the penetratee.

Admittedly, the depicted Persian is bearded, but the bent-over rear-entry posture makes the point. As do some lines from Athenian comedy:
Envoy: "Only those Persians are accounted MEN who drink the hardest, and who eat the most."
Athenian: "And we consider [such men] cock-suckers and buggers."
Indeed they did.
[Elagabalus] set aside a room in the palace and there committed his indecencies, always standing nude at the door of the room, as the harlots do, and shaking the curtain which hung from gold rings, while in a soft and melting voice he solicited the passers-by.
Or, as Aristophanes would have put it so prettily, he was a "young shaver of his hot-tempered anus."

There is no evidence for this unknowable predilection. But Elagabalus certainly wasn't hairless on the outside. For, as the picture at the top of this post shows, he had a moustache.

The problem is, as Adrian Murdoch observed on Bread and Circuses, that “There is no [other] image in the whole history of the empire showing a Roman wearing a moustache on its own. Indeed ... there is not even a Latin word for ‘moustache’.”

Whereupon, David Derrick of Toynbee convector, commented, "The Dying Gaul has a rather nice moustache. But he's not Roman or even Greek...."

In search of moustaches

The kingdom of Pergamum in western Asia Minor became a centre of Greek learning under its kings Attalus I (241-197 BC) and Eumenes II (197-159 BC). Hordes of Gauls had invaded Asia Minor and had become the terror and scourge of the whole region. Attalus I early in his reign gained an important victory over these fierce tribes, and this victory was commemorated by extensive groups of sculpture. The Dying Gaul belongs to this series. That the man represented is a Gaul is proved by what is known from literary sources of the Gallic peculiarities – the stiff, pomaded hair growing low in the neck, the twisted collar or torque, and the moustache worn with shaven cheeks and chin.

So, third-century B.C. Gauls wore moustaches. Barbarian!


This bronze of a Parthian prince is thought to represent Surena (more correctly, Eran Spahbodh Rustaham Suren-Pahlav, born in 84 BC). The name Surena, under which he appears in the classical sources is his hereditary title, meaning 'of the House of Suren'.

Plutarch, in the Life of Crassus, tells us that

Surena was an extremely distinguished man. In wealth, birth, and in the honor paid to him, he ranked next after the king; in courage and ability he was the foremost Parthian of his time; and in stature and personal beauty he had no equal. When he travelled about the country on his own affairs, he was always accompanied by a baggage train of 1,000 dromedaries; 200 wagons carried his harem; 1,000 armored cavalry and still more light armed cavalry acted as his escort.... He had, as an ancient privilege of his family, the right to be the first to set the crown on the head of the king of Parthia at the coronation.

This Surena 's greatest claim to fame, however, is that he beat the Roman commander Crassus at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC , one of the worst defeats of a Roman army in all their history (20,000 dead; 10,000 captured) -- they will not suffer a worse defeat until 300 years later, in the time of Zenobia.

Even this victory of the soft over the super-hard does not dent the stereotype and Plutarch adds in a slightly puzzled voice: the delicacy of his looks and effeminacy of his dress did not promise so much manhood as he really was master of; his face was painted, and his hair parted after the fashion of the Medes ..."

So, first-century BC Parthian noblemen wore moustaches. Oriental!

The Heavenly Twins

I'm pleased as punch to have discovered Syrian moustaches too -- and at Palmyra, no less (thanks to the extraordinary number of funerary portraits from tower tombs and the underground built tombs). While most Palmyran men are clean-shaven, a fair number are bearded and some very few wear only moustaches: still, just from books in my own library, I found two good examples from the second-century AD.

Azizu, one of the Heavenly Twins who protected the caravans, is shown on the relief to the left (precisely dated by its inscription to 154 AD) with a moustache. He and and his twin, Arsu, were usually pictured as two moustached men in military dress, with broad swords strapped at the waist and long spears in hand. The Palmyrans likened them to the stars which guided caravans across the desert night: Arsu the camel-rider rises, and, as he falls away, Azizu on horseback comes into sight.

Where the good gods lead, mortals are sure to follow. This bas-relief of a young man is from the second half of the same century. On the flat background to the right of the figure's head, an inscription gives his name, Atetan son of Corbulon, and the single sad word, "Alas!". Following a Roman tradition, Atetan wears a ring with a wide band set with a round stone on the little finger of his left hand, a custom that became popular among both men and women after the year 150.

So, second-century AD Palmyran godlets and men wore moustaches. Oriental!

As Palmyra is less than 100 miles (160 km) across the desert from Emesa, ancestral home of the 4 Julia's, it is reasonable to suppose that Elagabalus was following a local, eastern custom when (briefly, it seems) he wore a moustache. That wouldn't have mattered if he hadn't also danced instead of walked and worn silk gowns instead of togas.
You give the name of sodomite to those who either put on a little perfume or dress in garments a little too dainty. You ought not, therefore, when rigged up in that fashion, to be in such a flutter .... or take about in your train lovers with shaven chins and posteriors...
Taken together, it was lethal. He was Oriental, no doubt about it.

Off with his head!


  1. Absolutely fascinating post!

  2. Judith - What do you make of this?



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