The barnet formula

ndany European museums have large collections of Roman material, reflecting the relative prevalence of material culture in the Roman period compared to the periods before and after it. Many visitors looking at the Roman material are interested in things like coins, jewellery and luxury goods, but I also often see people standing in front of the portrait busts, staring into the faces of those depicted, person to person across two thousand years.

Looking at these busts as sources of evidence, one things that strikes is the wide range of hairstyles on view, and the changes to hairstyles over time. Changing fashions in hairstyles may seem like a rather frivolous topic but as with clothing and other ‘fashions’ they do reflect wider changes in political, economic and cultural landscapes.

So looking at one of the really key figures in the Roman empire, the first de facto emperor himself, his image became his calling card throughout the empire. His short neat hairstyle reflected the severe hairstyles of the Republican era from which Octavian/Augustus emerged*.

This bust of Augustus, in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum Köln, shows this short neat hairstyle. What is interesting about this particular example of the Octavian/Augustus portrait is that some time later, probably in the fourth century, a beard and moustache were added to the face. This reflects the mores and fashions of the fourth century, as this was just not the done thing in Augustus’ time.


The nods to the Republican style subliminally associated Augustus with the values of the Republic, values that must have seemed to have been fast disappearing. And the severity of the hairstyle sent out the message that Augustus was a serious young man, bringing stability to the empire after the period of chaos and division that accompanied the decline of the Republic. Almost as if Augustus was re-establishing the high Republic, although in fact he was actually ending it once and for all.

There was an exhibition examining Augustus’ use of this image at the Grand Palais in Paris last year. You can find my little write up and a few pictures here.

In the main, the Julio-Claudian Emperors adopted a variation on this theme. Hair was short and neat, chin was beardless. Here’s Claudius (in the Praetorium, Cologne) looking rather butch and manly, as befits an Emperor of Rome. Not quite the Clau- Clau- Claudius of Derek Jacobi.


But the hairstyles of later male busts reflected the changing fashions of the Empire.  Emperors began to hail from places other than Rome, or (Latium), and they wore their hair in styles that were less dictated by upper-class Rome and the Republic. Different looks became fashionable as high status families adopted the styles of those leaders of fashion, the Imperial Family.

A step change in fashions came with the Emperor Hadrian, a Spaniard by birth. Not only did Hadrian wear his hair a little longer, curly and a bit more flowing, he also wore a beard, reflecting his love of Greek culture (in Römisch-Germanisches Museum Köln).


Septimius Severus, the North African Emperor of the third century, has quite a different look again. His African roots are played up in his style, with a very thick and curly hairstyle and full beard (Römisch-Germanisches Museum Köln).


For women hairstyles were explicitly associated with age and marital status, wealth and social status. The style-setters were often, again, the Imperial family with many well-off women adopting the styles of the Emperor’s wife or daughters.

This cameo (from the Rijksmuseum van Oudehen) shows Livia, Augustus’ wife with the typical hairstyle of the first centuries BCE/CE. Called the nodus style it involved parting the hair into three sections, gathering up the two on the sides to make a bun at the back of the head and looping the central section into a sort of puffy fringe in the middle.


Later on, Flavian styles became increasingly elaborate, particularly for the elite with high arching crowns of hair, often curled and built up using hairpieces. This tomb-bust of a lady, from the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, shows a relatively restrained version. They could get really quite over the top.


These hairstyles demonstrated a woman’s status, that she had time to devote to her appearance and personal servants (slaves). An ordinary lower status woman would have been less able to devote her time and energy to this level of personal grooming, particularly if she was obliged to work for a living.

This (below, from Römisch-Germanisches Museum Köln) is Julia Domna, the Syrian wife of Septimius Severus. You can always recognize her by her distinctive ‘helmet hair’ hairstyle. Although she was the wife of the Emperor, I don’t know how widely this one ever caught on in Rome as, as a foreigner, her hairstyle is quite different to the elite Roman women from Italian families. Again, this hairstyle must have taken quite some time to construct.


And alongside the ‘Roman’ hairstyles and Roman lifestyles, the older tribal traditions remained strong throughout the Roman period, and some people still chose to be depicted as members of their tribes. As these images are often found on tombstones or in funerary contexts, the choice may have been made by the surviving loved-ones of the departed, but in any case, tribal identity remained strong.

These ladies, members of the Germanic Ubii Tribe, are shown wearing these large traditional headdresses (worn only by married ladies) (l-r, Praetorium, Cologne; Römisch-Germanisches Museum KölnRömisch-Germanisches Museum Köln).

This is despite the fact that the Ubii were long-time allies of Rome, fought with Rome against the Batavians and other enemies, and may be considered thoroughly Romanized. In death, if not in life, tradition, history and ancestors won out over bath-houses, plumbing and paved roads!

Just to end, I’ll show my Roman allegiances with this badly altered photo of me with a massive Flavian ‘do’. It’s pretty awful, but it amused the chums and demonstrates wot a laydeee I am. Pip pip.

big hair


*Incidentally, Augustus’ Republican hairstyle is the sort of hairstyle currently being rocked by George Osborne. “I’m very serious, but a bit funky”, says his hairstyle, whilst the state of him at PMQs suggests late nights and an expensively-maintained coke habit. I’ll leave you to decide the truth of the matter.


3 thoughts on “The barnet formula

  1. I am currently projecting ‘serious man of substance’ with my clean-cut patrician republican look. Unfortunately undermined by the flip-flops……

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