How to grow your beard, Roman style

Septimius Severus, one of the bearded Roman emperors (193-211). Source: Wikipedia
Septimius Severus, one of the bearded Roman emperors (193-211). Source: Wikipedia

For those who have missed it: male facial hair is currently in fashion. While almost none of my students sported a beard five years ago, it now looks as if they all do (the real proportion is probably 25%, but this is not the point of this post). Beards go in and out of vogue, and have done so for centuries. Thus, the first Roman Emperors, and those who emulated them, were clean shaven or had short beards, but from the middle of the second-century CE, wearing a beard became all the rage.

Ancient medical texts offer us some useful advice on how to care for precious facial hair. Thus Galen (second century CE) and Aetius (sixth century CE) transmit recipes to ‘blacken’ (that is, dye darker) the beard. These involve metallic ingredients that have been calcinated. But perhaps the most interesting series of recipes for the beard come from a treatise attributed to Galen, but not actually by Galen: The Remedies Easily Procured (De Remediis Parabilibus):

Preparations to grow locks of hair and the beard, if hair is falling out: mix beet with myrtle oil and maidenhair (polytrichion) and anoint the hair. Or crush equal amounts of maidenhair (adianton) and gum-ladanum with grape-seed oil, myrtle oil or mastic oil and anoint. Another: gum-ladanum with Aminaean wine and myrtle oil, crush together until it has the consistency of honey and anoint the head in the bath. It is best to use maidenhair (adianton), which some call ‘polytrichion’ (literally, many-hairs), mix a seventh part with gum-ladanum and anoint. (Pseudo-Galen, Remedies Easily Procured 3, 14.502 and 580 Kühn)

Maidenhair. Source: Wikipedia
Maidenhair. Source: Wikipedia

As the author explains, the plant that works best in promoting beard growth is that called adianton by most people in ancient Greek. Other people, however, called it polytrichion, that is, the ‘many-hair plant’. That plant is a fern known as ‘maidenhair’ in English and Adiantum capillus-veneris L. in botanical Latin. That is, the name in all three languages refers to the alleged effect this plant has on hair growth.

The other interesting ingredient in these pseudo-Galenic recipes is ladanum/ledanum, which is the gum produced by Cistus shrubs. The historian Herodotus (fifth century BCE) is the first to tell us the tale of how this gum was gathered in Arabia, the land of perfumes:

But ledanum, which the Arabians call ‘ladanon’, occurs in manner which is even more amazing [than cinnamon]. For the best smelling thing comes from the most stinky one. For it is found in the beards of he-goats, where it occurs in the same way as gum from a tree. It is used in many perfumes, but the Arabians mostly use it as incense. (Herodotus, Histories 3.112)

Herodotus makes it sound as if ladanum grows in the beards of he-goats. The pharmacological writer Dioscorides, several centuries later, gave a much more plausible account: the gum is so greasy that it sticks to the beards of goats, male or female – Dioscorides is not sexist towards goats! – when they graze on the tree that produces ladanum. Dioscorides also tells us that ladanum prevents hair from falling off, but does not single out beard hair. It is probably the story that ladanum ‘comes from’ the beards of goats that gave rise to the belief that it is somehow good for human beards.

Gents, next time you groom your beard, do give a thought for those Arabian goats growing gum in their goatees!





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