Wednesday, September 08, 2004


Barbarians and Beards

Robert Hendrickson, QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, 2nd edition (New York: Facts on File, 2004), has this to say about the origin of the word barbarian (p. 53):
Barba means "beard" in Latin, and when the Romans called hirsute foreigners barbarians they were strictly calling them "bearded men," though the word shortly came to mean, rightly or wrongly, "rude, uncivilized people." A barber was, of course, one who cut beards or hair. The barber pole outside barber shops today has its origins in the ancient barber's duties as a surgeon and dentist as well as a hair cutter. It was first the symbol of these professions -- a blood-smeared white rag. However, barbarian may have Greek origins.
This is misleading and incorrect. The derivation of barbarian from Latin barba is totally bogus, a folk etymology. The word barbarian is indubitably (not just possibly) Greek in origin, preceding even Homer (cf. barbarophonos at Iliad 2.867). Anyone who didn't speak Greek sounded like they were saying bar-bar, and by definition any non-Greek was a barbarian. The protest by the Stranger in Plato, Statesman 262c-d (tr. Benjamin Jowett), against this classification only shows how widespread it was:
The error was just as if some one who wanted to divide the human race, were to divide them after the fashion which prevails in this part of the world; here they cut off the Hellenes as one species, and all the other species of mankind, which are innumerable, they include under the single name of 'barbarians,' and because they have one name they are supposed to be of one species also.
The Romans adopted the word barbarus directly from Greek barbaros, and applied it by extension to anyone who was not a Greek or Roman, although every Greek worth his salt probably felt in his heart of hearts that the Romans were barbarians, too, just as today supposedly cultivated Europeans look down their noses at upstart, boorish Americans.

The Romans wore beards during certain historical periods and were clean-shaven in others. In general, they wore beards before the second century B.C. and after the 2nd century A.D. Between those two periods, a smooth chin was the rule, although younger, foppish men sometimes went bearded, and poor men often couldn't afford the two bits for a shave and a haircut.

Varro, On Agriculture 2.11, writes:
To be sure, it is said that barbers first came to Italy from Sicily in the 453rd year after the founding of Rome, as a public inscription at Ardea testifies, and that Publius Titinius Mena imported them. The statues of men of old prove that once upon a time there were no barbers, because those statues usually have long hair and beards.

omnino tonsores in Italiam primum venisse ex Sicilia dicuntur p. R. c. a. CCCCLIII, ut scriptum in publico Ardeae in litteris exstat, eosque adduxisse Publium Titinium Menam. olim tonsores non fuisse adsignificant antiquorum statuae, quod pleraeque habent capillum et barbam magnam.
Pliny the Elder, Natural History 7.59.211, gives much the same information:
The next agreement between the two races [Greek and Roman] was in the area of barbers, but it came later to the Romans. They came to Italy from Sicily in the 454th year after the City's foundation, brought by Publius Titinius Mena, as Varro says. Before that the Romans were unshaven. Africanus the Younger first started the custom of being shaved daily. The deified Augustus always used razors.

sequens gentium consensus in tonsoribus fuit, sed Romanis tardior. in Italiam ex Sicilia venere post Romam conditam anno CCCCLIIII adducente P. Titinio Mena, ut auctor est Varro; antea intonsi fuere. primus omnium radi cotidie instituit Africanus sequens; divus Augustus cultris semper usus est.
The prolix antiquarian Aulus Gellius gives more background in that chapter of his Attic Nights (3.4) which deals with the fact "that it was the custom for Publius Africanus and other patricians of his day to shave their chin and cheeks before reaching old age:"
In the books which we read concerning the life of Publius Scipio Africanus (adopted son of Paulus), we note that, after he had celebrated a triumph over the Carthaginians and had been censor, when he was charged before the people by the tribune Claudius Asellus (whom Scipio had removed from the ranks of knights when he was censor), he didn't stop shaving his beard or wearing white, and he didn't assume the normal costume of defendants even though he was charged with a crime. But since at that time it is a fact that Scipio the Younger was less than forty years old, we were surprised that the story of the shaved beard had been recorded thus. However we learn that other patricians of that period, of the same age, also were accustomed to shave their beards, and for that reason we see many statues of the ancients fashioned thus, not only of old men but middle-aged ones as well.

Quod P. Africano et aliis tunc viris nobilibus ante aetatem senectam barbam et genas radere mos patrius fuit. In libris, quos de vita P. Scipionis Africani compositos legimus, scriptum esse animadvertimus P. Scipioni, Pauli filio, postquam de Poenis triumphaverat censorque fuerat, diem dictum esse ad populum a Claudio Asello tribuno plebis, cui equum in censura ademerat, eumque, cum esset reus, neque barbam desisse radi neque non candida veste uti neque fuisse cultu solito reorum. Sed cum in eo tempore Scipionem minorem quadraginta annorum fuisse constaret, quod de barba rasa ita scriptum esset, mirabamur. Comperimus autem ceteros quoque in isdem temporibus nobiles viros barbam in eiusmodi aetate rasitavisse, idcircoque plerasque imagines veterum, non admodum senum, sed in medio aetatis, ita factas videmus.
The beardless fashion lasted from the time of Scipio Africanus Minor (2nd century B.C.) to the reign of the emperor Hadrian (2nd century A.D.). During this era, the day when a young Roman first shaved his beard was a day of celebration, but some carried the celebration to extreme lengths. Dio Cassius
(48.34.3, tr. E. Cary) reports:
When Caesar now for the first time shaved off his beard, he held a magnificent entertainment himself besides granting all the other citizens a festival at public expense.
Dio Cassius tells a similar story about Nero (61.19, tr. E. Cary):
Later he instituted a new kind of festival called Juvenalia, or Games of Youth. It was celebrated in honour of his beard, which he now shaved for the first time; the hairs he placed in a small golden globe and offered to Jupiter Capitolinus.
In the Life of Hadrian (26.1) attributed to Aelius Spartianus in the Historia Augusta, we learn why beards became popular once again:
He was tall in stature and elegant in appearance. His hair was curled with a comb. He grew a full beard to cover natural blemishes on his face, and he had a rugged build.

statura fuit procerus, forma comptus, flexo ad pectinem capillo, promissa barba, ut vulnera, quae in facie naturalia erant, tegeret, habitudine robusta.
Philosophers were the exception to this ebb and flow of fashion. They always sported beards. It was almost part of their uniform. Pliny the Younger in his Letters (1.10.6) describes the philosopher Euphrates thus:
Add his stature, handsome face, long hair, full white beard -- although these things are accidental and empty, yet they win much reverence for him.

ad hoc proceritas corporis, decora facies, demissus capillus, ingens et cana barba; quae licet fortuita et inania putentur, illi tamen plurimum venerationis acquirunt.
The philosopher Epictetus was inordinately fond of his beard, if we can judge from the following exchange (1.2.29, tr. W.A. Oldfather):
"Come, then, Epictetus, shave off your beard." If I am a philosopher, I answer, "I will not shave it off." "But I will take off your neck." If that will do you any good, take it off.
Lucian in The Fisherman 31 (tr. Lionel Casson) points out the shallowness of this fad among philosophers for beards:
On the other hand, I noticed many who were not philosophers for the love of it but simply hungered for the public acclaim they could get out of it. In what was obvious and common and easy for anyone to ape -- I mean length of beard, impressiveness of gait, and cut of clothes -- they were a very good facsimile of men of virtue.
What these passages amply demonstrate is that the Romans did not regard a beard as a characteristic of barbarians. They recognized that growing a beard was a matter of taste, in favor during certain periods, out of favor at other times. At all times there were some who, for one reason or another, bucked the trend.

If you still suspect that there must be an etymological connection between barbarians and beards, I suggest you consult Calvert Watkins' Indo-European Roots, published as an appendix to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, under the roots baba and bhardha.

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