Hair loss and Masculinity in Ancient Rome; or Why do Eunuchs not go bald?

It might not be so surprising to discover that the anxieties of balding are not unique to the modern man. The Roman historian Suetonius is known for his vivid and merciless portrayals of the Roman Emperors. His Julius Caesar combs his thin strands of hair forward to cover his thinning scalp and delights in the opportunity to don a laurel wreath, a discreet wig. Otho too wore a wig to deceive onlookers but supposedly dilapidated his entire body becoming, in Suetonius’ eyes, “as fastidious about appearances as a woman”. Domitian shortly after him even authored a manual entitled Care of the Hair. It was not just women who were fastidious about their appearances. Hair, or the semblance of hair, was a sign of youth, power and good health, and baldness was acceptable only amongst the philosophically inclined. Roman men did all they could to hide their receding hairlines. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the sculpted portraits we find of Julius Caesar, Otho and Domitian all feature a luscious curly head of hair.

Hair was an indicator of many things, including wealth and occupation, age, marital status, profession and ethnicity. In an early account of the Britons, their barbarity is epitomised in their appearance. They wear their hair long and have every-part of their body shaved except for their head and upper-lip, compared to the cropped Roman-style. Hair-anxieties would also concern the free-status of Roman citizens, for slaves often had their heads shaved and their hair was used to make wigs for wealthy Romans. Eumolpius, a character in Petronius’ Satyricon, declaims a little dirge on hair, after he is forced to shave his head in disguise. Speaking of his lover’s lost beauty he cries:

Poor wretch, a moment ago thy hair shone bright and more beautiful than Phoebus (the sun) and the sister of Phoebus. Now thou art smoother than bronze or the round garden truffle that is born in rain, and turnest in dread from a girl’s mockery

(Satyricon, 109)

The two men, Eumolpius and Giton, then proceed to stick locks of hair back onto their shaved heads to reclaim their former beauty. The text is a satirical and absurd account, but Petronius is no doubt playing on existing anxieties.

Seeking to explain the causes of balding, medical writers throughout the Greek and Roman periods looked for explanations within the body. For Aristotle in the 4th century BC, baldness was caused by a change of temperature, likened to the shedding of leaves in autumn, which affects the head first, being the coldest part of the body. For a man, this cooling is exacerbated by sexual intercourse, which ejects vital heat from the body. Aristotle concludes that women do not go bald because they don not produce semen and eunuchs don’t go bald because they “change into the female condition” (Generation of Animals V). For Galen, the explanation rather lies in moisture, with dryness on the scalp causing hair loss, bypassing women and eunuchs due to their moist heads (!).

Seneca interestingly adds to this discourse when discussing the moral depravity of contemporary women. The philosopher claims that whereas Hippocrates (a 5th century BC Greek medical writer) remarked that women never lost their hair or suffered pain in the feet, nowadays “they run short of hair and are afflicted with gout” (Epistle 95). The reason, Seneca writes, is that women are acting like men: staying up late, drinking too much, wrestling, partying and having too much sex. By acting in an extravagant way, in Seneca’s eyes, such women are thus condemned to suffer the diseases of men, losing the privileges they previously had. Balding is thus configured as a particularly masculine affliction, associated – for Seneca, mind – more with lifestyle, rather than ‘gender’.

But aside from trying to find the root cause of baldness, we find ample evidence for the treatments and solutions used by men and women alike. Celsus’ work On Medicine prescribes turpentine-resin with fennel, caustic oil and repeated shaving (On Medicine, 6.4), whilst a work of Galen, attributed to Cleopatra, suggests dry linseed with fine flax, dried cabbage, clover root or cedar oil. Others tried more indirect methods, which is where the terracotta votives, shown above, come in.

Anatomical votives were common and have been found all over Roman Italy, with various body parts supposed to represent the area afflicted: everything from feet and eyes to uteruses. Votives such as those shown above were left at religious healing sanctuaries as offerings to the gods, particular those associated with medicine such as Asclepius. These two votive scalps are both made of terracotta and the darker of the two has been painted. Their shape displays the lush curls similar to those on Roman sculpted portraits, a healthy head of hair with no sign of thinning. Whilst the purpose or intention of the object remains unclear, perhaps allowing it to be used for any head-related malady, the focus of the curls suggests that the ailment in question might have been hair loss.

Balding men and their anxieties supplied the Satirists of Rome with a fruitful supply of vivid caricatures, typifying the indulgence and decadence which plagued their age. Martial, who took delight in the mockery of others, wrote a short epigram on such men:

Your hairs are carefully disposed

Lest your bald pate should be disclosed

But winds lift them in wavy drifts,

Moved in a blur of constant shifts.

How can you have so little hair,

Yet have it show up everywhere?

(Epigrams, 10.83)