I have spent much of the last few years thinking about ancient facial hair. Given the current fashion of guys in their twenties growing out as impressive beards as possible, an attempt to explain 1300 year old facial hair is a somewhat amusing project to be working on.
The project in question is looking at a change in the way the seventh century Emperor Herakleios portrayed himself. In 629, the year after the end of one of the more brutal wars in ancient history, Herakleios changed his image on his coinage rather dramatically.
For most of his reign, Herakleios had looked something like this:
But in 629 his facial hair had grown to epic proportions:
This was a rather strange decision on Herakleios’ part. No Roman emperor had ever portrayed himself with facial hair on the scale that Herakleios did in 629.
There were bearded Roman Emperors from time to time. But they tended to look more like Marcus Aurelius does here:
So one of my projects in the last couple years has been to try and explain what the heck is going on when a Roman Emperor grows out a handlebar mustache.
This has involved looking at a rather astonishing assortment of facial hair images ranging from Jesus or David to Persian and Parthian Kings.
By far, the closest images I have been able to find to Herakleios’ appearance is a much earlier (2nd Century) coin image for the Parthian Kings and a much later (10th century) statue of an Armenian king.
Now, I am going to stop here, given that I need to save my full attempt to explain this for an academic article (One that I really should be writing instead of this blog post) and it all gets complicated pretty quickly. But I do think that one lesson that can be taken from this gallery of mustachios is that the current fad may not in fact have reached “peak beard” the way the news articles have said. The abundance of facial hair has a good deal of filling out to do before it reaches Herakleian levels.