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Spartan mustache NOT shaven!!!

17/11/2016

It’s a widely held concept, coming probably from the popular history books that there was a tradition for the Spartan Homioi to shave their mustaches at least once a year.

This is based on a bronze statuette from a Laconian workshop that was found in Dodona and depicts a warrior wearing an “illyric” helmet. He is having a beard but not a mustache. But another statuette of the same period and origin depict a warrior with a mustache. Why the difference?

statuetes

Close ups of the Dodona warrior statuettes, products of a Laconian workshop (Author’s archive)

While Plutarch’s Life of Agis and Cleomenes is more widely known, a little less known version, translated by John & William Langhorne in 1770, is describing the two kings separately. In section 9.3 it says: “Hence it was that the Ephors (as Aristotle tells us), when they entered upon their office, caused proclamation to be made, that the people should shave the upper lip, and be obedient to the laws, that they might not be under the necessity of having recourse to severity. As for the shaving of the upper lip, in my opinion, all the design of that injunction is, to teach the youth obedience in the smallest matters.”

All these created the General concept that the Archaic and Classical Era Spartans did not have mustaches because the law forbade it. It is possible though that his is an oversimplified generalization.

The prototype Greek text in Plutarch’s work uses the word “keiresthe” (“th” as in Thursday) which is the infinitive of the verb “Keiromai” which means to shorten or limit something by clipping it. The verb to cut in Greek is also “kopto”.

moystax

If we check the original text in Aristotle fragment 539 we se the phrase: “mi trephein mystaka” which means in Greek not to overgrow a mustache.

aristotelis-539

One is to wander because Greek art rarely if ever shows men with overgrown moustaches. Or at least so most people think because impressive mustaches appear in Greek fashions from the Bronze Age.

maskofagamemnon

Mask of Agamemenon from National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Source : wikimedia commons

It can be argued here that Ancient Greek Art depicts what was idealized or fashionable and that not every body appeared in the limited number of forms that we see in our modern era museums or books. There are examples of really impressive mustaches in ancient Greek Statues though, that they are usually worn with a beard.

ancient-beard-styles

Ancient Greek impressive mustaches. Source: beardstyles101.com

In ancient Greek language the verb to shave is “xyro” and it can be found in any Ancient Greek language wordbook both ancient and modern.

shaving-word

From Liddell-Scott Word book

If the Ephors of Ancient Sparta ordered the shaving of the mustache why at least one of the ancient sources does not use the verb “xyro”. As MacDowell wrote in his work Spartan Law “…the power of the Ephors was tyrannical. They did not enforce written laws, imposed penalties on any contact which they considered wrong.” There was no law on mustaches. “The Ephors simply ordered it on their own authority” according to MacDowell. As shown above the Ephors were NOT ordering mustaches to be shaved but rather to be clipped and for no other reason than because they could do so.

Well, imagine a common soldier elected to the office and then being able to go to his former superior officer, who might have mistreated him once, and ordered him to clip his mustache. Or imagine some Homios who expected to be subjected to the penalty and shaving his mustache beforehand and thus cheating an Ephor of his chance to impose his authority. What ever the case the mustacheless Spartans cannot be taken as a fact.

Sources:

Spartan Law – D.M.MacDowell, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh 1986 pp 110,111

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon

http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0057

Plutarch. Lives, Volume X: Agis and Cleomenes. Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. Philopoemen and Flamininus. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Loeb Classical Library 102. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1921.

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