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 the ancient warriors in antiquity.
While many would not associate long, beautiful hair with the famously austere warriors of ancient Greece, maintaining their hair was very important to the Spartans.
Men likely wore their hair long for centuries in Greece, as Homer, who was writing around the eighth century BC and retelling stories that were much older often described men as “longhaired” (κᾰρηκομόωντες).
In the sixth century BC, long hair was common amongst most men across Greece, not just the Spartans. But by the fifth century, most non-Spartan men in ancient Greece began to cut their hair to a more moderate length.
Men and women in Athens often wore their hair in a knot, which was secured with a golden clasp that looked like a grasshopper, called a “tettix,” which also translates to cicada. The particular hairstyle was called krobylos.
After the end of the Persian Wars, which lasted until 449 BC, many men across Greece began to crop their hair short, which was seen both as more masculine and as distinctive from the Persians, who had long hair.
Previously, long hair on a man had been associated with wealth and status in Athens, while slaves had their hair closely cropped.
The Spartans, however, continued to keep their hair long, and non-Spartan men across Greece who were sympathetic to the famous ancient warriors wore their hair long as well.
Hairstyle differed by region across ancient Greece
According to Oxford classicist R.R.R. Smith, ancient Greek historian Herodotus‘ famous “myth-history” entitled “The Battle of the Champions” which was likely an amalgam of mythic elements and hazy facts from the past, was written partially to explain the Spartan tradition of keeping long tresses.
In the story, he details a battle between the Argives and the Spartans in which both groups decided to offer up their best 300 men to fight rather than having their whole armies battle it out.
After vicious fighting, throughout which both sides claimed victory, the Spartans proved victorious and took the town 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 that time on, and to only grow it back when they took back Thyrea.
For their part, the Spartans, who presumably had always had short hair before, decided to celebrate their victory by keeping their hair long from then on.
In actuality, the battle took place around 546 BC, a time when it was common for most men to have long hair, regardless of where they were from. Herodotus, however, was writing at a time when long hair was most associated with Spartans, and most other Greek men cropped their hair short.
This mythic version of what was likely a real battle helped to explain the different cultural attitudes toward hair length amongst men across Greece.
Ancient Greek historian, biographer, and philosopher Plutarch serves as a rich source regarding males’ hairstyles in ancient Greece.
In his famous work “Parallel Lives,” which was written in the second century AD, telling the life stories of famous Greeks and Romans, Plutarch makes frequent mention of cultural attitudes regarding hair.
In his chapter on Alcibiades, the Athenian aristocrat who famously defected to the Spartans, Persians, and then back again 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, upon 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 of meat and pig’s blood.
This description serves to highlight the differences between Spartan and Athenian culture. Presumably, men in Athens kept their hair short, bathed in warmer water, and did not eat “black broth.”
As boys, Spartans kept their hair quite short, and began to grow it long when they reached puberty. Hair was incredibly important for both Spartan men and women, and many scholars believe that 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 only cut it short when they reached puberty. This haircut was seen as an important step toward adulthood, and was treated as a sacred rite, with offerings made to Herakles and other deities.
Spartan men combed their hair before battle
Spartan men were known to care for their hair a great deal, particularly before battle. In his telling of the Battle of Thermopylae, Herodotus describes a famous scene in which a Persian spy approaches the Spartan camps to gain important information to pass onto his superiors.
While spying, the Persian soldier comes upon an unexpected sight. While some men were exercising, many were combing and tending to their long hair.
When he relayed this information to the Persian king, Xerxes, the leader found it quite funny and believed that his troops would have little trouble slaughtering such men.
Yet, his advisor warned him that the Spartans were likely 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 heel is marched from lands of morning;
Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air.
And he that stands must die for nought, and home there’s no returning.
The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.”
In his biographies of Spartan leaders Lycurgus and Charrillus, Plutarch mentions that long hair that has been well-cared for on a man was incredibly important. Lycurgus is said to have claimed that beautiful hair could make a beautiful man even more beautiful — and an ugly one even more terrible.
When asked why Spartan men wore their hair long, Charrillus is said to have responded that hair is the “the cheapest of ornaments” (τῶν κόσμων ἀδαπανώτατος).