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Domitian on Haircare

Detail of The Braschi Antinous - Vatican Museums
 
Katie Farrar / Storyteller

Detail of The Braschi Antinous - Vatican Museums

There’s no doubt about it: in antiquity a full head of hair was prized by the Romans. 

The Braschi Antinous - Vatican Museums

Both Julius Caesar and Emperor Caligula famously suffered from baldness (capillo raro). Caesar was so conscientious of his thinning hair that he was overjoyed when wearing a laurel crown because the leaves hid his receding hairline.  We are told by Roman author and senator Suetonius that baldness was such a touchy subject for Emperor Caligula, he made the act of looking down on him from above a crime...punishable by death!  

The horrors of hair loss reached new heights (!) in the era of Emperor Domitian.  Domitian was the son of Emperor Vespasian and the brother of Titus, the conquerors of Judaea in 70 CE.  Historians often describe Domitian as "crazy and unbalanced". He was socially awkward and preferred solitude.   

Like Caligula, Emperor Domitian was very sensitive of his baldness and official portraits continued to show him with flowing locks of hair until the end of his reign.  Suetonius tells us that Domitian was tall and well-built, except for his hammer-toes, and lost his hair only later in life. He took as a personal insult any reference, joking or otherwise, to bald men.  

It comes as a quite surprise, then, to learn that Domitian wrote a short manual called “On Haircare” (Sulla cura dei capelli), which he published with a dedication to a friend.  He wrote by way of mutual consolation:

'Yet my hair will go the same way, and I am resigned to having an old man's head before my time. How pleasant it is to have good looks, yet how quickly that stage passes!'



If ancient libraries included a self-help section, Domitian’s manual undoubtedly would have been a good reference point for Roman men! 

 

About the Author


Katie Farrar is a California native with a severe case of wanderlust. After graduating with a degree in Art History and Comparative Literature, she moved to Rome as a Fulbright scholar in 2009 and devoured every book on Baroque Rome she could get her hands on. Katie began working in tourism in 2010 and hasn't looked back since. Many art historians teach in classrooms; Katie is one of the lucky few that teaches right in the beautiful streets of the Eternal City.

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