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Complexion of the roman emperors
#1
Hi there!

I was following in Facebook a discussion about roman emperors. Someone claimed that "about ten roman emperors were described as light skinned blondes with blue eyes". I started to think about it and the only famous roman who I know with these attributes was Sulla. I asked about more info about these "blond" emperors an was told vaguely only to "check the literature". I know it was fashionable sometimes to put "gold dust" or some other substance to your hair but still, where is the evidence?
Virilis / Jyrki Halme
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#2
There are a couple of remarks in Suetonius: Augustus is described as having 'subflavum' hair, and 'his complexion was between dark and fair' (Augustus, 79). Nero also has 'subflavo capillo'.

Trouble is, we don't quite know what 'flavum' looked like - it's usually translated as 'blonde', but compared to the mediterranean norm it could have meant any lightish colour... 'subflavum' would be a less distinct tone, presumably!
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#3
I know that much later Roman medieval authors are indeed describing many antiquity Emperors as blond ones(even those I never imagined with certain colors) but how reliable their later reports are and if they based it on much older sources is uknown to me.
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#4
The Roman family name Ahenobarbus meant brassy-beard, so light colouring must have existed. Today there are dark Scandinavians and light Italians, there is no reason to believe that this did not also occur in Antiquity.
Martin

Fac me cocleario vomere!
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#5
http://www.thermenmuseum.nl/activiteit/o...r-augustus
A exhibit I worked on, we had the German forensic instituten make reconstrúction on octavian augustus as came to age. And hè was'nt blond.
AgrimensorLVCIVS FLAVIVS SINISTER
aka Jos Cremers
member of CORBVLO
ESTE NIX PAX CRISTE NIX
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#6
If you agree with the trading capabilities of bronze age peoples, there was long range trading across the Mediterranean and further afield. Trade could have introduced a mixture of physical types.
Richard Campbell
Legio XX - Alexandria, Virginia
RAT member #6?
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#7
Thanks guys. I know it is totally plausible to have blond, blue-eyed emperors but I was looking for literary evidence. Wink
Virilis / Jyrki Halme
PHILODOX
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#8
According to Suetonius Nero was malodorous, his hair light blonde and his eyes blue, Domitian was bald and ruddy. The Historia Augusta describes Lucius Verus as blond and he sprinkled gold-dust in his hair. When contemporary writers describe other physical attributes of emperors than pale colouring, such as a paunch, or baldness or spindly legs, then I think it is safe to conclude that the subject had more typical Mediterranean colouring.
Martin

Fac me cocleario vomere!
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#9
A couple of mentions of the hair and complexion of later emperors:

Ammianus (Book 14,27,28) describes the Caesar Gallus as having (in the Loeb translation) 'soft golden hair' (flavo capillo et molli) - although once again the word used is flavum, which might not be 'blonde' or 'golden' as we think of it.

This might be the originof the idea of the emperor Julian being blonde too - as in Ken Broeders' Apostata. I don't know if there's any other source for Julian's colouring...

An anonymous Life of Constantine (Constantine Byzantinus, BHG 364), which is late and contains many errors, but which might draw on an earlier source, says of Constantine 'his complexion was ruddy' and 'his hair was naturally tawny' - the Greek word usually translated as 'tawny' appears to be either xanthos or xanthothrichos ('yellowiest', used by Dio for Boudica!) so could mean blonde or reddish, perhaps. John Malalas seems to confirm the emperor's 'ruddy' complexion.

* [Edit] I notice that Plutarch gives Sulla 'golden hair' and 'grey eyes', and Cato the Elder also has 'grey eyes' and 'reddish hair'. I would guess that 'golden' and 'reddish' are once again variants of xanthos. Caesar, according to Suetonius, has 'black' eyes, hair colour not recorded.
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#10
According to my elderly dictionary, the adjective flavus, -a, -um means 'yellow, flaxen, gold coloured' and is the Latin equivalent of the Greek xanthos. Moreover, all words containing the element flav- imply yellow or gold colour.
Michael King Macdona

And do as adversaries do in law, -
Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.
(The Taming of the Shrew: Act 1, Scene 2)
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#11
To add to my post above, my Greek dictionary defines xanthos as 'yellow of various shades, golden or pale yellow; also red-yellow, chestnut, auburn'. Expressed in this way, it seems to imply that the redder shades are a secondary meaning.
Michael King Macdona

And do as adversaries do in law, -
Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.
(The Taming of the Shrew: Act 1, Scene 2)
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#12
I think that Renatus might be right, and that Flavus describes not blond hair, but red hair.
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#13
Quote:I think that Renatus might be right, and that Flavus describes not blond hair, but red hair.
I don't think that I would go that far. The general consensus of my dictionary and Lewis & Short is that flavus means yellow or golden. Neither has subflavus but both have instead sufflavus which my dictionary defines as 'yellowish, flaxen'.
Michael King Macdona

And do as adversaries do in law, -
Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.
(The Taming of the Shrew: Act 1, Scene 2)
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#14
Quote:flavus means yellow or golden... sufflavus... my dictionary defines as 'yellowish, flaxen'.

True, although the application of these terms to hair colour probably varied a lot more in practice, and our modern 'blonde' might be too narrow a definition. The Greek xanthos seemed to connote a spectrum of shades from sandy brown to reddish, and was used to describe everything from honey to cooking meat!

Here's Flora, from the famous fresco in Stabiae - perhaps an example of 'subflavus/sufflavus' hair?:

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#15
Without having my books around to actually find examples, I would say that xanthos should be understood as 'fair' but for Greeks this would most usually mean blonde or blondish (light reddish even today would often be called blonde by the uninitiated in the art of hair dying...). Especially in late Roman and Byzantine years, the word is almost certainly identical in meaning to 'blonde'. We have the xantha gene (blonde nations) and many other clear examples. Even in ancient Greece, I would say that the word would predominantly be used as 'blonde' and I am pretty sure that I have come across red haired individuals and peoples clearly described by other words.
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