Movember Musings: male hair grooming in Greek antiquity

This Movember, Dr Stavros Paspalas, AAIA Director delves into the the tangled history of hair.

It has long been recognised that, cross-culturally, body modification, in addition to clothing and headgear, is an important means by which individuals send messages about themselves to others in their communities or have a certain status imposed upon them by those who wield coercive power. One of the most frequent forms of body modification was the grooming of one’s hair, cranial and body. The various societies which we study as “Ancient Greece” were no different in this pan-human experience.

We can gain insights into this topic through the preserved written and epigraphic sources as well as via the iconographic record. Indeed, there is a great deal of material at hand and only a small sample can be presented here. We should also be alive to the fact that attitudes to the grooming of one’s hair changed through time and space over the centuries of Greek antiquity. Greek society was not static, as the historian Thucydides (1.6) was well aware when he wrote that of old Athenian men would bind their long locks with golden cicadas, a practice not followed in his own day.

Achilles cutting off a lock of his hair in mourning over the body of Patroclus. Engraving by P. Lombard, 1660, after A. van Diepenbeeck. Wellcome Collection, 38319i (public domain)

Homer, as is often the case, offers us an insightful entry point to our topic. Achilles, despite all the hardships involved in fighting an active campaign, takes great care of his long, luxuriant hair. The Greeks’ foremost warrior at Troy is characterised by his luxurious locks which he grew long because his father Peleus, had vowed to the Spercheios river, back in Thessaly, that Achilles would dedicate them to him. On Patroclus’ death Achilles realised that he would never return to do so and cut his cared-for locks at his friend’s funeral, thus acknowledging his own, soon-to-be-fulfilled, fate (Iliad 23.141-153).

Peleus’ vow on behalf of his son highlights the major role that hair played in religious rites which marked milestones, including maturation rites, in the lives of both young males and females, though we are better informed about the former. Either individually or in groups, boys and adolescents (or sometimes their parents) would dedicate their locks either in thanks to deities (or heroes and heroines) for divine gifts granted or in the hope of future benevolence and protection. These acts could take place at major points in a boy’s life such as may have occurred as part of the koureion ceremony at Athens where he, along with his peers, would sacrifice an animal to Artemis (a goddess with a special interest in the rearing of the young, both animal and human) and, if our late sources are to be believed, dedicate some of his hair.

Indeed, the nexus of words to which the term koureion belongs intertwines the cutting of hair and youthful males, best exemplified by the seventh- through to early fifth-century statues known as kouroi, which are indeed known for the careful attention their creators (reflecting the commissioners’ desires no doubt) paid to rendering their intricate and long hair-dos. The hair of their female counterparts are also similarly sculpted, and the sculptor of a sixth-century relief from the island of Kos expended similar care in his portrayal of the flowing hair of an hetaira, a female companion, in a symposium scene.

Three views of a marble statue of a kouros (youth) ca. 590–580 B.C. Metropolitan Museum 32.11.1 (public domain)

In the archaic period long, attentively groomed hair on males could be seen as a marker of status as the kouroi exemplify, and as does the famous representation of Sarpedon’s corpse on a krater of c.510. We may be reminded that the Spartan warriors, as Herodotus (7.208.3-209.3) informs us when retelling the events at Thermopylae, wore their hair long, proudly. Though granting too much attention to one’s coiffure did not always meet with approval. A few decades earlier than the battle of Thermopylae the philosopher Xenophanes (F6) could castigate his fellow citizens of the East Greek city of Colophon as “…they went to the agora wearing purple cloaks, no less than a thousand in general, boastful, glorying in their beautiful hair, drenched in unguents curiously wrought in scent.” It is clear that Xenophanes’ view was not shared by all his countrymen. How much time it is appropriate for one to spend on one’s hair was, as it still is, a continually negotiable question, but one with important social, and potentially political in certain circumstances, ramifications. In late fifth-century Athens young elite men could register their rebellious inclinations by growing their hair long in the Spartan fashion (e.g. Aristophanes Knights 532; Wasps 466).

Sarpedon’s body carried by Hypnos and Thanatos (Sleep and Death). Attic red-figured calyx-krater signed by Euxitheos (potter) and Euphronios (painter) c.510 BC. (Wikicommons)

It is of note that Attic vase-painting, which provides us with thousands of images, also offers insights into ancient coiffures, as we saw in the case of the Sarpedon krater. Hair could also be used to highlight the nature of divine characters, most clearly in a representation of about 470-460 of the wild Boreas, god of the North Wind, where his beard and hair are shown as pointed, icicle-like, locks. Beards, of course, were de rigeur for adult males in ancient Greece and their grooming attracted attention (e.g. Aristophanes, Wasps 476). De rigeur, that is, until Alexander the Great came along and the option of shaving one’s facial hair became respectable in certain quarters. Prior to that it was typically looked at with censure. In the seventh century the poet Archilochos from Paros could write (fr. 114 W) that he did not care for generals who are proud of their locks and are partly shaved, though we are not certain where the shaving Archilochos envisaged took place. Dio Chrysostom (Or. 33.63-64), writing centuries later, in the Imperial period, could imagine, with opprobrium, men in the past shaving various, and all, parts of their bodies. And, indeed, R.R.R. Smith has argued that the wide range of ways in which the pubic hair of kouroi is represented reflects the various modes in which the young men of the period actually presented themselves, with the aid of a razor.

Marble portrait of Alexander the Great © The Trustees of the British Museum, 34669001 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

With the exception of pubic hair Attic vase-painters very rarely showed other body hair, though a small number seem to have had a preference of doing so, specifically the Brygos Painter and the Foundry Painters, the works of whom date c. 480-470. Very few others broke the convention of focussing on the head and the pubes regarding hirsute matters. This also appears to be the case with sculpture, though we should always remember that painted embellishments may have rendered details now not immediately apparent. It is of interest to note that of the many figures sculpted on the reliefs of the Great Altar from Pergamom only some of the rebellious and soon-to-be-defeated Giants are shown with body hair.

The way men groomed their hair mattered in Greek antiquity. Even the small number of cases I have highlighted provide a range of approaches to hair care, focussing on the more elaborate. We may envisage that those who patronised barbers in the Athenian Agora (Lysias 23.3) may not have undergone such a full treatment and a lot of grooming may have occurred at home as well. Regardless, one’s hair-do and body hair treatment were primary media through which a man could make his mark.

Further reading: 

Leitao, D.D., “Adolescent Hair-growing and Hair-cutting Rituals in Ancient Greece/ A Sociological Approach” in Dodd, D. and Faraone, C.A. eds., Initiation in Ancient Greek Rituals and Narratives. New Critical Perspectives, London, 2003, 109-129. 

Smith, R.R.R., “Pindar, Athletes, and the Early Greek Statue Habit” in Hornblower, S. and Morgan, C. eds., Pindar’s Poetry, Patrons, and Festivals: From Archaic Greece to the Roman Empire, Oxford, 2007, 83-139, especially 112-116.  Stewart, A., Faces of Power. Alexander’s Image and Hellenistic Politics, Berkeley/Los Angeles, 1993, especially 73-75 for Alexander and facial shaving. 

Dr Stavros Paspalas is Director of the AAIA. His research interests include the Greek world’s links with Lydia and the Achaemenid Empire, the archaeology of the northern Aegean during the Archaic and Classical periods, and the Early Iron Age Aegean. He is involved in a number of field projects, notably in the Zagora Archaeological Project which he co-directs with Professor Margaret Miller and Associate Professor Lesley Beaumont, both of the University of Sydney. He worked for many years on the excavations at Torone and on the Australian Paliochora Kythera Archaeological Survey. He has published on the cultural exchanges between Greece, especially Macedonia, and its eastern neighbours, ceramic studies, and matters related to the iconography of the ancient world.


Dr Stavros Paspalas – Director
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