U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove, whom my wife Alice and I were delighted to meet at her 2009 University of Georgia book-signing, published a short piece in The New Yorker a while back titled "Found Sonnet: The Wig." Her perky closing couplet concludes a litany of girly dos: "Passion Wave, Silk Straight, Faux Mohawk, Nubian Locks, Noble Curl: Cleopatra, Vintage Vixen, Empress, Hera, Party Girl."
Dove’s writings frequently reveal her familiarity with classical culture and myth, and this little poem reminds me of just how important the proper hair-do has always been, even in ancient times. The ubiquitous statues of Greco-Roman goddesses like Hera (the Roman Juno) and Aphrodite/Venus were constant reminders of standards of beauty worth aspiring to. Greek divinities, African queens, Roman matrons, and even virile generals all understood the necessity of sporting just the right coif.
Roman ladies typically kept their hair long but cinched up in a variety of styles. Young women commonly wore buns or top-knots. Hairdressers, often household slaves, assisted with combing, applying oils, curling with irons, sectioning, and holding tresses in place with hair-pins. Flowers, ribbons, pearls, and jewels added pizazz for those who could afford them.
During the imperial period, elaborate beehive do’s piled high with masses of braids and curls became popular (think Marge Simpson, wife of the classically dubbed Homer). The first-century love poet Ovid recommended the style for short women especially, advising them otherwise to keep seated at parties to conceal their brevity. Like Americans in the 1960s who went crazy for the Jackie Kennedy bouffant (and men who opted for a JFK look), women often emulated the hairstyle of the empress.
Maryland stylist and archaeologist Janet Stephens has researched and published extensively on Roman women’s coiffures, and expertly recreates Roman hairdos for her clients at Baltimore’s 921 Salon and Spa. If you want to try this at home, Stephens provides step-by-step styling videos for Cleopatra cuts and others on her YouTube channel.
If an ancient matron’s hair wouldn’t cooperate, there were plenty of wigs to choose from. Some of Italy’s dark-haired beauties believed that gentlemen preferred blondes, and pricy wigs were made from the golden tresses of barbarian slave girls captured in Rome’s northern provinces. One could also resort to bleaches and dyes. Blonde and henna were favorite colors, but there were risks. Ovid laments that one of his lady-friends had tried to dye her own hair, only to have it all fall out and leave her bald.
It wasn’t just the gals who were concerned with their coifs. In earliest Rome, men sported shaggy beards and long hair. But by the third century B.C., short cuts and shaved faces became the fashion and the wealthy imported barbers from abroad. Personal grooming was important to many men, an obsession for some. Rich Romans had slaves to shave their faces and trim their hair (many specimens of razors, scissors, and polished metal mirrors survive). The less well-off went to barber shops, which then, as often nowadays, were favorite hangouts and gossip parlors.
The barbers (from Latin barba/beard) were called tonsores, which meant literally "clippers" and is source of our words TONSORial, for the barber’s craft (a TONSORial nightmare is a bad-hair day), and TONSure, for the shaved patch on the heads of some monks and other churchmen. Beards only came back into fashion when the emperor Hadrian, in the second century A.D., decided to grow one to conceal a facial disfigurement.
Most barbers were male, but some were women. Besides "a shave and a haircut," services for men included curling, nail-trimming, armpit plucking, and depilation (though shaved legs were generally regarded as effeminate). The most sought after barbers became quite rich. The second–century A.D. satirist Juvenal complains indignantly that the man who trimmed his beard when he was young had since amassed wealth rivaling that of Rome’s patricians.
The Romans had no "Hair Club for Men," but baldness was a worry then as now. An infant born hairless might be lovingly called Calvus/bald, which became an aristocratic Roman family name and is source of English CALVin. But to end up bald as an adult was for many an embarrassment, and calvus became a common insult.
Julius Caesar’s ancient biographer, Suetonius, reports that the general was "rather persnickety" in his grooming habits. Always neatly trimmed, shaved, and plucked, he was extremely self-conscious about the "deformity" of his baldness, which he tried to conceal with a Trumpian comb-forward. His own soldiers called him a "bald f---er," which was all the more embarrassing as his name was connected with the word caesaries, "long, flowing hair." The senatorial honor he treasured most, Suetonius says, was the right to wear a laurel wreath at all times, thus further covering up his shiny pate.
I can imagine Caesar in the 1960s, in the audience with his Egyptian date, grooving to the lyrics of the tribal rock musical "Hair": "They'll be ga ga at the go go, When they see me in my toga." Fantasizing, he sings along: "Darlin’, give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair, shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen"— a hairy, waxen, flaxen prayer I’ll bet was in Dove’s head somewhere when she penned her "Vintage Vixen."
— Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is "Ubi Fera Sunt," a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, "Where the Wild Things Are," ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.