Monday, October 6, 2008

Whites all Over Earth by Karl Earlson

Pigmentation of the Early Roman Emperors
Karl Earlson

In the table given below, I have compiled all of the known data concerning the pigmentation of the early Roman Emperors. This list begins with Augustus (27 BC-AD 14), the first Emperor, and ends with Commodus (AD 180-192), the last ruler of the Antonine dynasty. It proved convenient to end the list at this particular point, because information about Imperial hair and eye colour becomes much more scanty, after the reign of Commodus. Also, most of the Emperors who succeeded Commodus, were not of purely Roman ancestry. Therefore, their colouring would not furnish us with any worthwhile discoveries, in relation to the appearance of the Roman-Patrician ruling class. Here then, are the results of my investigations:

Emperor Reign Hair Colour Source Eye Colour Source
Augustus 27 BC-AD 14 "blond-haired" (subflavum) Suetonius, 79 "grey-eyed" (glauci) Pliny, XI, 143
Tiberius AD 14-37

"grey/blue-eyed" (caesii) Pliny, XI, 142
Caligula AD 37-41 "golden-bearded" (aurea barba) Suetonius, 52; cf. Sieglin (1935) 105

Claudius AD 41-54 "grey/white-haired" (canitieque) Suetonius, 30 "grey-eyed" (γλαυκόφθαλμος) Malalas, X, 246
Nero AD 54-68 "blond-haired" (subflavo) Suetonius, 51 "grey/blue-eyed" (caesis) Suetonius, 51
Galba AD 68-69 "grey/white-haired" (μιξοπόλιος) Malalas, X, 258 "blue-eyed" (caeruleis) Suetonius, 21
Otho AD 69

Vitellius AD 69 "redheaded" (πυρράκης) Malalas, X, 259; cf. Sieglin (1935) 110 "grey-eyed" (γλαυκός) Malalas, X, 259
Vespasian AD 69-79 "grey/white-haired" (πολιός) Malalas, X, 259 "wine-coloured eyes" (οινοπαης τους οφθαλμούς) Malalas, X, 259
Titus AD 79-81 "blond-haired" Sieglin (1935) 109

Domitian AD 81-96 "blond-haired" (ξανθός) Malalas, X, 262 "grey-eyed" (γλαυκός) Malalas, X, 262
Nerva AD 96-98 "grey-haired" Day (2001) 106

Trajan AD 98-117 "golden-haired" (caesaries) Sieglin (1935) 109

Hadrian AD 117-138 "dark-haired" (κυανοχαιτα) Sieglin (1935) 112 "grey-eyed" (γλαυκόφθαλμος) Malalas, XI, 277
Antoninus Pius AD 138-161 "grey/white-haired" (πολιός) Malalas, XI, 280 "wine-coloured eyes" (οινοπαης τους οφθαλμούς) Malalas, XI, 280
Marcus Aurelius AD 161-180

Lucius Verus AD 161-169 "blond-haired" (flaventium) Sieglin (1935) 110

Commodus AD 180-192 "blond-haired" (ουλόξανθος) Malalas, XII, 283; cf. Sieglin (1935) 106 "grey-eyed" (υπόγλαυκος) Malalas, XII, 283

As can clearly be seen from this, there was a predominance of fair characteristics, amongst the Roman ruling class.

Of the 18 Emperors from Augustus to Commodus: 9 had blond or red hair; 5 had grey or white hair; 3 had no recorded hair colour, and just 1 (Hadrian), was referred to as dark-haired.

Of the 18 Emperors from Augustus to Commodus: 9 had blue or grey eyes; 2 had "wine-coloured eyes" (whatever that may mean), and 7 had no recorded eye colour.

Although several of the Emperors were white/grey-haired old men, we still possess information which depicts a few of them as light-eyed. If records had been made during their youth, it is likely that they would have been called fair-haired as well. Of the 9 Emperors who had fair hair, 5 are listed as also having light eyes, whilst the remaining 4 have no noted eye colour. Remarkably, only Hadrian is called dark-haired, but even then, he was still described as being light-eyed. Strangely enough, for whatever reason, we possess absolutely no description at all of the "philosopher Emperor" Marcus Aurelius.

The precise meaning of "wine-coloured eyes" remains troublesome, and no completely satisfactory explanation of this term has ever been offered. Some scholars have suggested that it may mean "warm brown eyes," but this is mere supposition on their part. [Day (2001) 105.] For the time being, we will treat this term neutrally. Therefore, with this notable exception, there seem to be no references to dark eyes.

It is surprising how detailed and complete our records are concerning these facts, but there are some important lacunae in our knowledge, and we may offer some speculations as to why they occur. For instance, Tiberius' hair colour does not appear to have been recorded. This may be due to the fact that he was largely bald by the time he became Emperor. [Scarre (1995) 28.] Similarly, Otho was fond of depilating himself, and often wore a wig, as Suetonius affirms. [Scarre (1995) 61.] Also, his reign was relatively brief, and thus there may not have been sufficient time for a record of his eye colour to be made.

It is interesting that we possess more data about hair colour, than eye colour. As Day has noted, accurate observations of eye colour are rather rare, because irises have smaller surface areas than head-hair and exposed skin, often making them less noticeable. [Day (2001) 54.]

The fact that the records are comparatively complete, totally undermines the notion that the Emperors were brunet, like the majority of Romans during the Imperial Age, or that their pigmentation went unrecorded, because it could simply be assumed that they were dark-complexioned, and thus akin to the masses.

All of this augments the findings of Wilhelm Sieglin, who compiled a list of 27 blond-haired Roman gods and goddesses, 10 blond Roman heroes and heroines, and 63 blond Roman historical figures, many of whom were Patricians. [Sieglin (1935) 136.] It also confirms the theories of Hans F. K. Günther, who argued that the frequent use by the Patricians, of names such as Rufi, Flavi or Fulvi (indicating fair hair), and Caesulla or Ravilia (indicating light eyes), demonstrated their strongly Nordic racial affinities. [Günther (1957) 151-152.]

This work is merely a fraction of the information that exists on this subject. Many of the Roman Emperors were also tall, fair-complexioned, etc., but this study at least offers some highly revealing facts. In conclusion, this data demonstrates a marked tendency towards light features among the Roman Patricians.


Malalas = John Malalas, Chronographia.

Pliny = Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia.

Suetonius = Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum: Divus Iulius, Divus Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Divus Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Divus Vespasianus, Titus, Domitianus.


Day, J. V. (2001) Indo-European Origins (Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of Man).

Günther, H. F. K. (1957) Lebensgeschichte des römischen Volkes (Pähl: Verlag Hohe Warte).

Jeffreys, E., M. Jeffreys & R. Scott (1986) The Chronicle of John Malalas (Melbourne: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies).

Scarre, C. (1995) Chronicle of the Roman Emperors (London: Thames and Hudson).

Sieglin, W. (1935) Die blonden Haare der indogermanischen Völker des Altertums (Munich: J. F. Lehmanns Verlag).

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