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Friday, April 24, 2020

When in Rome: Hairstyles of the Rich and Famous

Missing your trips to the hair stylist? You can select your next style from 400 years of Roman coiffures. Remember that sculpture was normally polychromed to appear as lifelike as possible so let your imagination run wild as you peruse the possibilities!


Etruscan, Cinerary Urn, 160-140 BCE,
terracotta with traces of polychrome,
Museum Purchase, 1926.19

In the Museum's Roman Gallery is the Cinerary Urn, 160-140 BCE, from a tomb near Chiusi in central Italy. The old gent, reclining on top in a pose of eternal banqueting, is a fine example of late Roman sculpture in that he is naturalistically portrayed in a style known as verism. Derived from the Latin words for “real or “true” (verus), verism emphasized the solemnity and gravity of the person portrayed in a “warts and all” fashion.

Our old gent’s appearance is clean-shaven with short hair combed forward, which became the fashion since the coming of a Sicilian tonsor (barber) around 300 BCE to Rome. One thing you’ll notice is that Roman men never parted their hair, while this was common with women’s hair.

Men’s faces were shaved with iron or bronze razors with little more than water to soften the beard. Hair was cut with “spring” scissors, which resembled wool shears; pivoting types were not made until the first century CE though not in common use. The ordeal of being shaved and shorn was required for admittance to the Senate, as no beards were allowed.


Roman, Bust of Venus, first century BCE,
white marble, Museum Purchase, 1914.57

Thought to be a head and neck of a young Venus carved in a Greek style, the Bust of Venus, first century BCE, was made to be inserted in a full-length statue. She has ideal Greek features including the “Greek profile” with a straight nose bridge. Not Roman per se, she does illustrate the typical parting of the hair in both Greek and Roman women’s hairstyles.


Roman, Portrait of a Roman Matron, marble, 
circa 40-30 BCE, Museum Purchase, 1978.78

Another example of late Republican verism is along the east wall of the Roman Gallery. With male heads to either side, a respectable Roman matron stands in a niche just as she would have in her necropolis tomb.

To make sure everyone would know she was up-to-date with the latest style, her hair was done up in a “nodus”; a style popularized by Augustus’s sister Octavia. The hair was divided in three sections with the sides tied back in a bun and the center section looped back on itself creating a pompadour-like effect. As her head is veiled, we can only see the rolled-up hair.

One theory for Octavia’s adoption of the nodus was to compete with Cleopatra VII, who wore a royal crown and made off with her husband, Marcus Antonius. Big hair gives you power.


Roman, Caligula (Caius Caesar Augustus Germanicus)
37-40 CE, marble, Museum Purchase, 1914.23

Caligula (12-41 CE) was born Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus and earned his nickname meaning “Little Boots” from a little soldier’s outfit he wore traveling along with his mother on his father’s military campaigns.

After Caligula’s great grandfather, Octavian defeated Marcus Antonius at the battle of Actium, he took possession of what was to become the Roman Empire. Octavian, now called Augustus, credited his victory to the god Apollo and decided to create a personal image based on that god.

Augustus choose to adopt a Classicizing style of sculpture in the spirit of the canon or rule of Polyclitus merged with traditional Republican verism. The ultimate purpose was to project youth, beauty, and benevolence. The style is known as Julio-Claudian referring to the Julian (Augustus) and Claudian (Livia) families. The hallmarks of the style are a cap-like hairstyle combed forward into comma like curls on a broad forehead and a “V”-shaped face. All male family members until Claudius used this style to give themselves an air of legitimacy.

Is the WAM portrait a good likeness? Suetonius described Caligula as “… very tall and extremely pale, with a huge body, but very thin neck and legs. His eyes and temples were hollow; his forehead broad and grim ... his face was naturally forbidding and ugly.” As the upper classes hated Caligula, it would be natural for Suetonius to exaggerate negative aspects of Caligula’s appearance. Losers do not get to write history.


Roman, Emperor Nero, 64-68 CE, marble,
Museum Purchase, 1915.23

Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors was sort of an odd man out in terms of hair. A great enthusiast of chariot racing, Nero decided on a style in favor with charioteers who were themselves popular athletes. He even added a penchant for sideburns to complete a look. WAM’s Emperor Nero, from 64-68 CE, has a recessed area above his bangs, which would have cradled a radiate crown or laurel wreath. There are square holes at the ears that also may have been involved with some sort of headgear.

With the death of Nero, the succeeding emperors rejected the Julio-Claudian style and reverted to the republican virtue of verism. This lasted through the Flavian Dynasty down to the reign of Trajan. Hadrian (117-138 CE), a devoted Grecophile, added a beard to his image, an affectation that continued in fashion through to the reign of Constantine the Great (307-337 CE). Hair was grown longer in the second and early third centuries and often appeared quite curly.

We hope you enjoyed this in-depth look at select Roman hairstyles. Once WAM reopens to the public, please visit our Roman Gallery to see these impressive sculptures, and coiffures.



—By Mark Mancevice
    Worcester Art Museum docent
    April 24, 2020

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