An ancient Greek vase depicting warriors with long flowing locks. Credit: public domain

In ancient Greece, hair was an important indicator of class and place of origin. Notably, Spartan men were known for their long, flowing hair, which became linked to ancient warriors of antiquity.

While many would not associate long, beautiful hair with the famous austere warriors of ancient Greece, maintaining their hair was very important to the Spartans.

Men probably wore their hair long for centuries in Greece, as Homer, writing around the 8th century BC – and telling much earlier stories – often described men as “long-haired” (κᾰρηκομόωντες).

In the sixth century BC. BC, long hair was common among most men across Greece, not just Spartans. But by the fifth century, most non-Spartan men in ancient Greece began cutting their hair to a more moderate length.

Athenian men and women often wore their hair in a knot, which was tied with a gold clasp that looked like a grasshopper, called a “tettix”. The particular hairstyle was called krobylos.

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After the end of the Persian Wars, which lasted until 449 BC, many men across Greece began to cut their hair short, which was considered both more masculine and distinctive of Persians, which had long hair.

Previously, a man’s long hair was associated with wealth and status in Athens, while slaves had their hair cut close.

The Spartans, however, continued to keep their hair long, and non-Spartan men across Greece who were sympathetic to the famous ancient warriors also wore their hair long.

The hairstyle differed according to the regions of ancient Greece

According to Oxford classicist RRR Smith, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus’ famous “mythical story” entitled “The Battle of the Champions”, which was probably an amalgamation of mythical elements and fuzzy facts from the past, was written in part to explain the Spartan tradition of keeping long braids.

In the story, he details a battle between the Argives and the Spartans in which the two groups decided to offer their best 300 men to fight rather than have their entire armies face each other.

After vicious fighting, in which both sides claimed victory, the Spartans were victorious and took the city of Thyrea from the Argives.

Herodotus notes that after losing Thyrea, the Argives were so distraught that they decided to always keep their hair short from then on, and only grow it back when they recaptured Thyrea.

For their part, the Spartans, who had probably always had short hair before, decided to celebrate their victory by now keeping their hair long.

In reality, the battle took place around 546 BC. BC, a time when it was common for most men to have long hair, regardless of their origin. Herodotus, however, was writing at a time when long hair was most associated with the Spartans, and most other Greek men cut their hair short.

This mythical version of what was probably a real battle helped explain the different cultural attitudes towards male hair length across Greece.

The ancient Greek historian, biographer and philosopher Plutarch is a rich source regarding men’s hairstyles in ancient Greece.

In his famous work “Parallel Lives”, written in the 2nd century AD, telling the life stories of famous Greeks and Romans, Plutarch frequently mentions cultural attitudes regarding hair.

In his chapter on Alcibiades, the Athenian aristocrat who defected to the Spartans, the Persians, and then back to the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War, Plutarch describes how the young man’s appearance and pleasures changed when he joined the Spartans.

He notes that after pledging allegiance to the Spartans, Alcibiades kept his hair long, took baths in cold water, and ate meals of “black broth”, the famous Spartan meal made from pork meat and blood. .

This description serves to highlight the differences between Spartan and Athenian culture. Presumably, the men of Athens kept their hair short, bathed in warmer water, and did not eat “black broth”.

As boys, Spartans kept their hair quite short and started to grow it out when they reached puberty. Hair was incredibly important to Spartan men and women, and many scholars believe that both men and women wore similar hairstyles in Sparta – a top knot on the crown of their heads.

In Athens, however, boys had long hair as children and did not cut it short until puberty. This haircut was considered an important step towards adulthood and was treated as a sacred rite, with offerings made to Heracles and other deities.

Spartan men combed their hair before battle

Spartan men were known to take great care of their hair, especially before battle. In his account of the Battle of Thermopylae, Herodotus describes a famous scene in which a Persian spy approaches the Spartan camps to obtain important information to pass on to his superiors.

While spying, the Persian soldier comes across an unexpected sight – while some men were exercising, many were combing and grooming their long hair.

When he relayed this information to the Persian King Xerxes, the leader found it quite amusing and believed that his troops would have no trouble slaughtering such men.

Still, his adviser warned him that the Spartans were probably preparing to fight, as it was their custom to comb their hair before battle.

The scene is referenced in the last stanza of English poet A. E. Housman’s moving work “The Oracles”, which reads:

“The king with half the East at his heels is driven from the morning lands;
Their fighters drink the rivers, their arrows drink the air.
And whoever’s left has to die for nothing, and there’s no coming home.
The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.

In his biographies of Spartan rulers Lycurgus and Charrillus, Plutarch mentions that long hair that was well groomed on a man was incredibly important. It is said that Lycurgus claimed that good hair could make a handsome man even more beautiful – and an ugly one even more terrible.

When asked why Spartan men wore their hair long, Charrillus reportedly replied that hair is “the cheapest of ornaments” (τῶν κόσμων ἀδαπανώτατος).