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Saturday, October 22nd, 2005, 08:43 AM
Extracts from INDO-EUROPEAN ORIGINS: The Anthropological Evidence. About the pigmentation in the Italics.

By John V. Day


Much of Roman culture had its origins in Classical or Hellenistic Greece, an so Rome cannot challenge Greece in providing anthropologists with abundant source material from myths and traditions about the colouring of heroes and deities. Yet, in comparison with Greece, Rome provides far more information about the physical appearance of great historical figures. This more than compensates for Roman mythology’s drawbacks.

Still, this section does begin with a brief look at traditions about Roman deities. Among the few gods given flavus ‘fair’ hair by poets are Apollo (Ovid, Amores 1.15.35), Mercury (Virgil, Aeneid 4.559) and the effeminate Bacchus (Seneca, Oedipus 420), while Roman knew the Greeks’ chrysanthemum chrusokóme-literally, ‘golden hair’- as Jupiter’s Beard (Dioscorides, Materia medica 4.55). Among the many goddesses given flavus ‘fair’ hair are Amora (Ovid, Amores 1.13.2, with croceis ‘saffron’ hair at 2.4.43), Bellona (Silius Italicus, Punica 5.220), Diana (Statius, Thebas 2.238), Minerva (Ovid, Amores 1.1.7, 1.1.8; Fasti 6.652) and Venus (Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 8.237). One of the few deities who has caeruleus ‘dark’ hair is Pan (Ovid, Metamorphoses 11. 158). But in portraying many deities with fair hair, the Romans simply followed Greek models, as even Günther admits (1966: 156, 158).

As for mythical figures, caeruleus ‘dark’ hair is given to Cyane (Ovid, Metamorphoses 5, 432) and Tisiphone (Statius, Thebais 11,66), and niger ‘black’ hair is given to Ausone (Ovid, Metamorphoses 7.289) and Romulus and Remus (Ovid, Fasti 6.652). Again, many Romans mythological figures have light hair from Greek models being copied (Günther 1966: 156, 158; Schrader 1917-29, I: 547), and not because Romans created then in their own likeness.

Yet Günther argues that Virgil’s Aenid did use ancient traditions and purposely depicted such founders of Latium as Aeneas and Camers with fair hair, preserving a distant echo of Nordics who Indo-Europeanized Italy (1966: 157). Actually, Virgil never calls Aeneas ‘fair-haired’, but he does liken his beauty to silver or marble set in yellow gold (Aenied 1.592-3), an image, as Ogle (1929-30:29) points out, borrowed from Homer’s description of Odysseus (Odyssey 6.231) Indeed, Virgil took many elements from Homer for his Aeneid (Beye 1993:230-1), wich might well explain his fair-haired heroes.

For Günther, two other Latin works reflect traditions about Romans in earlier times, when many had fair hair (1966: 156). First, the Sibylline Oracle describes Roman soldiers as xanthà kárena ‘fair heads’ (14.346). Yet this Book 14 perhaps dates to the 7th century AD, a time when many Romans soldiers had German origins, and the passage concerned might well be describing events in Egypt, where fair-haired northern Europeans would be highly conspicuous (Brennecke 1976: 135; Collins 1986: 452; Rzach 1923: 2164; Scott 1915-16: 224). Second, in a nostalgic poem about the Second Punic War of 218-201 BC, written in the late 1st century AD, Silius Italicus acclaims Roman soldiers who are so young that their cheeks have no flava lanugo ‘fair down’ (Punica 2.319); elsewhere, he describes youths who are flaventiaque ‘fair of face’ (Punica 16. 486). As Spaltenstein (1986: 137) remarks, however, these fair-bearded young Romans take a few fair-bearded heroes described by Virgil (Aeneid 10.324) and Ovid (Metamorphoses 6.718) and, being mythical, they disclose less about real-life Romans than borrowed ideas of Greek heroes.

Some place great stock in Roman personal names as indicators of Roman appearance. But these ell us only that pigmentation varied. Of the cognomina, many referred originally to dark (ater, fuscus, niger) or light (caeruleus, candidus, flavus, rubber, rufus) skin, hair or eyes (Günther 1966: 153-4; Kajanto 1965: 226-30), although most cognomina were inherited regardless of appearance, as with names originally signifying caesius ‘grey-blue’ eyes (Jax 1938: 61 n. 161). Of the family names, some also originally indicated colouring, and over two hundred important Romans inherited the family name of Flavius ‘fair-haired’ (Sieglin 1935: 53), even though such family names, like cognomina, cannot reveal which hair and eye colours were most common. Calling a child ‘fair-haired’, say, might mean that fair hair is distinctive, and therefore scarce.

As for admired hair colours, Snowden argues that lovers in Latin poetry favour the dark hair that prevailed among Romans in real life (1983: 76). But Jax amasses evidence to show that, certainly from the 1st century BC onwards, Roman poets give attractive women dark hair less often that light hair of various shades, such as flavus, fulvus and rutilus (1938: 27-8). Two examples are the attractive women with flava hair in Horace (Odes 1.54) and with fulva hair in Propertius(Elegiae 2.2.5). For men, Horace – perhaps dark-haired himself- implies that black hair is a mark of beauty (Ars poetica 37); Odes 1.32. 10-11), and it si noteworthy that two references to men who dye their hair specify that their white hair turns to black (Martial, Epigrammaton liber 3.43.2, 4.36.1). Like many peoples, Romans, to judge by one maxim, distrusted redheads (Delcourt 1965), who must have been rare.

Turning to eye colours admired by Romans, although Blümmer argues that Latin ligerature rarely emphasizes dark eyes (1892:57), Jax shows that poets clearly prefer women to have niger ‘dark’ eyes (1938: 28-9). For exemple, the attractive women with dark eyes in Propertius (Elegiae 2.12.23) and Plautus (Poenulus 1113), while Catullus notes that one woman is called pretty despite not having dark eyes (43.2). Similarly, Terence mentions a girl and a man who have caesius ‘grey-blue’ eyes only to ridicule them (Heautontimoremenos 1062; Hecyra 440). Poets praise the eyes of men rarely, and whereas Horace implies that dark eyes are a mark of beauty is a man (Ars poetica 37; Odes 1.32.10), Plautus disparages a man who has subnigris ‘darkish’ eyes (Mercator 640).

Many women combine dark eyes with fair hair, wich hints a the widespread use of hair dyes, and texts confirm this. Even in the mid-2nd century BC Cato the Elder noted that Romans women were dyeing their hair rutilus ‘reddish-fair’ (Origines 7.10), and later writers often refer, sometimes with invective, to dyes that colour hair blonde or reddish (Martial, Epigramaton liber 5.68, 8.33,20, 14.26.1; Propertius, Elegiae 2.18 d 27-8; Tertullian, De cultu feminarum 2.6.3; cf. Goold 1990: 124-5). In addition, many fashionable Roman women –and not just prostitutes, pace Mieses (1919:31) and the scholia to Juvenal (Wessnes 1931: 81) – wore wigs made from the Germans’fair hair (Balsdon 1974; 258). Romans prized women who had dyed blonde or naturally fair hair, deriving their ideals in part from Hellenistic fashions, in part from admiring supposedly unsophisticated Germans and, in all probability, also from the associations of fair hair with youth (Jax 1938: 27-8, 42; Thompson 1989; 131-2)

More useful evidence comes in the descriptions of Roman historical figures. One sample of aristocrats is offered by the descriptions of two great figures from the Republic, Cato the Elder and Sulla, and the earliest 19 emperors from Caesar up to Commodus, who provides a useful break at the end of the Age of the Antonines in AD 192 (cf. Canter 1928). Among these earliest 19 emperors, Gaius (known as ‘Caligula’), Otho, Tinus, Nerva, Trajan and Marcus Aurelius have no reports about their hair colour before greying or their eye colour.

Nevertheless, we have reports about the pigmentation of Cato the Elder, Sulla and the remaining 13 emperors. Cato the Elder had purrón ‘re’ hair and glaukómmaton ‘grey eyes’, according to a satire that probably appeared in his life time and was the source of Plutarch’s description of him with hupópurros ‘reddish’ hari and glaukós ‘grey’ eyes (Plutharc, Cato Maior 1). Sulla had chrusoton ‘golden’ hair and glaukós ‘grey’ eyes (Plutarch, Sulla 2,6). Caesar had nigris ‘dark’ eyes (Suetonius, Divis Iulius 45). Augustus had subflavum ‘fairish’ hair (Suetonius, Divis Augustus 79) and glauci ‘blue-grey’ eyes (Pliny, Naturalis histories 11.143). Tiberius had caesi ‘grey-blue’ eyes (Pliny, Naturalis historia 11.142-3). Claudius had glaukóphtalmos ‘grey eyes’ (John Malalas 10.317). Nero had subflavo ‘fairish’ hair and caesius ‘grey-blue’ eyes (Suetonius, Nero 51). Galba had caeruleis ‘blue’ eyes (Suetonius, Galba 21). Vitellius had glaukòs ‘grey’ eyes (John Malalas 10.335). Vespasian had oinopaeis ‘wine-coloured’ eyes (John Malalas 10.336). Dominitian had xanthòs ‘fair’ hair and glaukòs ‘grey’ eyes (John Malalas 10.340). Hadrian was kuanochaita ‘dark-haired’ (Sibylline Oracle 5.49), a description perhaps inspired by a picture, and had glaukóphtthalmos ‘grey eyes’ (John Malalas 11.366). Antonius Pius had oipahes ‘wine-coloured’ eyes (John Malalas 11.366). Verus had flaventium ‘fair’ hair (Historia Augusta, Vita Veri 10.7; cf. Barnes on the value of this biography). Coommodus ad xanthe ‘fair’ hair (Herodian 1.7.5) and hupóglaukos ‘greyish’ eyes (John Malalas 12.371).

But another small sample, that of Latin authors, perhaps has dark colouring. Ovid refers to his own hair as nigras ‘black’ (Tristia 4.8.2) and Propertius, too, refers to his own hair as nigras ‘black’ (Elegiae, 3.5.24). Like the Roman emperors above, both Ovid and Propertius seem to have come from the upper classes. In addition, Terence may have had a fusco ‘swarthy’ complexion, if Suetonius or his source can be believed. But Terence, just possbibly from Carthage and a former slave, may have received his swarthiness and his origins retrospectively from his name or Afer, ‘the African’ (Couissin 1953: 252-3). Virgil, supposedly from a minor family in northern Italy, also had an aquilo ‘swarthy’ complexion (Suetonius; Virgil 8), and when Juvenal (7.226-7) mentions readers using a discoloured Horace and a sooty Virgil, the scholia understand this as an allusion to their nigris ‘dark’ colouring (Wessner 1931: 134). From southeast Italy, Horace may have had the lowest status of these poets, being the son of a freedman. Leaving aside these vague and conceivably unfounded references to the swarthy complexions of Terence, Virgil and Horace still leaves Ovid and Propertius with black hair, though in both contexts Ovid and Propertius are regretting that old age has turned their nigras hair white, and they might be using nigras more as a contrast with white that as literally ‘black’. Unfortunately, this erodes the value of their seemgly valuable testimony about their own pigmentation. Perhaps they are following the Classical Greek poets, who, according to Irwin, use mélas for black hair ‘infrequently and usually in contrast to the white (leukós) hair of old age’ (1974:91).

It seems that early Roman aristocrats often had light eyes, as shown by the first seven emperors from Caesar to Galba, of whom one has an unknown eye colour, one has dark eyes, and five have blue to greyish eyes. As for colouring in general, the descriptions of emperors seem consistent, given that light-haired Caucasoids usually have light eyes: of the five emperors with fair or fairish hair, one has an unknown eye colour and four have light eyes, just as red-haired Cato the Elder and golden-haired Sulla both have grey eyes.

Although Feist argues that the contemporary interest in Sulla’s golden hair points to the scarcity in Rome of light colouring (1915:426), he forgets that Sulla was aged about 50 when Plutarch reports his becoming consul, and even in modern England few men have golden hair at 50. On the other hand, sources cannot prove, pace Isaac, that ‘the Romans and other Italian peoples, at the beginning of the historical period were predominantly blond’ (1971: 405; CF. Hentschel 1924-5, II: 111). The descriptions available establish only that early historical Roman aristocrats often had fair and usually had grey or blue eyes. Yet, as Virchow notes, Romans writers were astonished by the many Celts and Germans with fair hair and blue eyes (1874: 33), wich suggests that in Rome only the aristocracy, a small minority of the Roman population, held many who had such light colouring.