Physiognomy, the art of interpreting and judging an individual’s character based on their physical appearance, was frequently utilised during the Roman period, and is attested in numerous works of ancient literature. In Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars, for example, each biography includes a physical description of the emperor in question and while the physical appearances of the ‘good’ emperors are described in relatively positive terms, those of the ‘bad’ emperors are described in negative terms, with the aim of making it clear to the reader that their flawed appearance is indicative of their flawed character. Suetonius describes the emperor Domitian as having been handsome when young but in time succumbing to the ‘disfigurement of baldness’. The term used, deformis, can be read as ‘departing either physically or morally from the right shape or quality’: thus Domitian’s loss of hair is not only his loss of beauty but also his loss of virtue.
Certainly, baldness, thinning hair and hair loss were highly undesirable in ancient Rome and are frequently referred to as disfigurements and defects in ancient literature. It is not surprising, then, that we should rarely see them depicted in portraits, and that a variety of methods were utilised to disguise them. Why, though, were they so reviled?
In this paper, I will focus on two ancient treatises devoted to hair or the lack of it, Dio Chrysostom’s In Praise of Hair and Synesius’ In Praise of Baldness, and examine the discourse surrounding hair and hair loss in order to establish the extent to which it is possible to view baldness as facial disfigurement, to understand why that was the case, and to recover the experiences of sufferers.