Just over a year ago, I wrote this post in which I disparaged the idea that Ptolemy I Soter could be responsible for the claim that Alexander forced his men to shave after almost losing an unnamed battle (but perhaps that of Issus) when a Persian soldier realised he could kill Macedonian soldiers more easily by grabbing hold of their beards and throwing them to the ground first.
I happened to return to the issue in April this year, here. A few months on, I still maintain that the idea of Alexander almost losing a battle because of his men’s beards is nonsense.
However, I have come across evidence to suggest that there really was a tradition that Alexander made his men shave in case their beards were used against them by their enemies.
I haven’t made an exciting new discovery. If you know your Plutarch, you will know which text I am about to quote. It comes from his Life of Theseus. In Chapter 5, Plutarch tells us about a tribe called the Abantes who were experts at close-order combat. He writes,
… in order to deny their enemies a hand-hold on their hair, they cut it off. No doubt Alexander of Macedon understood this, too, when he gave orders to his generals, so we are told, to have the beards of their Macedonians shaved, because these offered the easiest hold in battle.
I wonder: Plutarch’s assertion seems a very reasonable one. Could he be representing a true tradition and St Synesius, not so much a fake one, but a tradition that saw the original information – perhaps Ptolemy’s – embellished to the point where fiction overtook reality?
I was never fond of the Macedonians long hair in Oliver Stone’s Alexander film. As far as I was concerned, only barbarians had such flowing locks; depicting the Macedonians with them was just another absurdity in a film that already had several.
However, He Has A Wife You Know may just have put me right. In this post, the author focuses mainly on beards, but links both them and long hair when he writes,
For the Greeks facial hair, and in particular beards, denoted masculinity. Find any Greek vase depicting Greek men and you’ll witness this simple rule, beardless males are youths, those with beards are men. For a society that prized masculinity as highly as it did the very symbol of that was something quite sacred, beards weren’t to be messed with.
I have to be a bit careful here as I really don’t know much about Macedonian social customs. For all I know, the Macedonians liked having long hair and beards but did not attach the same significance to them as Greeks did.
However, while they formed a distinct society to the men down south, the two did share some important customs (e.g. religion) so it is not beyond the realms of possibility – perhaps we may say it is very likely – that they both looked at long hair and beards in the same way, too, as masculinity was definitely very important to both. If so, I owe Oliver Stone an apology.
And that is the beauty of the internet. It helps you to learn, to write, to discover, to correct, and ultimately, to improve.