World Coins

A diversity of beards on coins ancient to modern

Editor's note: this is the first part in a story about beards on coins by Steve Roach. The story originally appeared in the May monthly issue of  Coin World.

Beards are a statement and a symbol of masculinity, a vestigial trait from a time when humans had more hair on their bodies.

Cultural attitudes toward beards vary. Some religions such as Islam generally require males to grow a beard, and in the United States, men’s penchant for beards has come and gone. 

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In ancient Egypt beards were sometimes adorned with gold thread and a metal false beard was used by kings and queens, such as on King Tutankhamen’s glorious gold mask; the false beard is seen even on children’s coffins. Queen Hatshepsut wore a false beard to make herself appear more pharaoh-like following the death of her husband, the Pharaoh Thutmose II. 

In India a long beard has been a symbol of wisdom. Ancient Greeks viewed a beard as a sign of virility and beards moved in and out of fashion during the Roman Empire. 

In the early 19th century United States beards were rarely seen on wealthy men, as it signified a certain lack of grooming and cleanliness, but as the century moved on, the beard grew in popularity. 

Think of Abraham Lincoln. Today, the image that we have of him is with a beard, yet he adopted this late in life. Before him, no U.S. president regularly had a beard. Beards reemerged during the hippie movement in the 1960s and more recently a full beard has been popular with young men, and today there is a certain “lumbersexual” look — think plaid shirts, long beards and a general aura of outdoor ruggedness that is popular. 

These trends have been reflected on coins through history and a sampling of beards on coins reveals a diverse topical collecting area that ties into history and social movements. How we perceive beards on a man needs to be put in a framework of time and place, and a beard is one of many tools a man has to present himself to the world. 

Beards in the ancient world

Men have long been concerned with the hair on their face. Archaeologists have found ancient tweezer-like implements crafted from bones and primitive razors crafted from flint. For early man, beards had an adaptive advantage in that it kept someone warm and may have added a bit of intimidation to predators and enemies.

As technology developed and blades were crafted, shaving became an act of cleanliness. Greek historian Herodotus recorded that Egyptian priests would shave their whole body every day, to avoid lice, among other things. A priest’s beard could grow when he was in mourning, but Herodotus didn’t understand Egypt’s problem with hair. His contemporaries in Greece were proud of their beards

In ancient Greece, beards represented wisdom and status. Statues of high ranking officials and gods would show a full, flowing beard and Zeus and Heracles were often depicted with massive beards. Ancient Greek men, not immune to vanity, would use heated tongs to curl their beards, and contemporary statues and coins both inspired and reflected men’s beards. 

Alexander the Great, however, strongly encouraged his soldiers to shave their beards, presumably to give an enemy less to grab onto. Until that time — which historians date to Sept. 30, 331 B.C., when Alexander the great prepared his soldiers for a key battle for control of Asia — a cleanly shaven face had been a sign of youth or even effeminacy. Alexander would also fashion his image into that of Heracles, as youthful and beardless, and expect his soldiers to do the same.

In Rome the styles would change frequently, with men following the emperor’s beard choice. Public sculpture and coins helped disseminate the image that an emperor wanted to convey to both his immediate subjects and around the world. 

Since Roman coins enjoyed a global circulation at the time, an emperor was careful in crafting his image. An emperor was seen in one of three ways usually: in the battle dress of a general, in the traditional Roman civilian costume of a toga, or nude and fashioned as a god. 

Beards had a symbolic purpose beyond fashion. For example, Nero hosted games in A.D. 59, when he was 21, commemorating the shaving of his beard for the first time as a symbol of his transition into manhood. 

Hadrian (A.D. 117 to 138) was the first Roman emperor to wear a full beard, popularly interpreted as a nod to ancient Greek culture.

Today, it is common to differentiate between Greek (beard) and Roman (no beard) by this signifier, although the blending of cultures in the ancient world make creating a strict dichotomy impossible. A contemporary literary source says that Hadrian’s devotion to the beard was more utilitarian: the Historia Augusta claims that he wore a beard to hide scars on his face.

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