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A Second Coming of Age: Ritual Shaving as a Roman Rite of Passage

Timothy M Warnock

University of Pennsylvania

This paper examines a previously overlooked coming-of-age ceremony for Roman males – the first shaving of the beard, or barbatoria. I argue that this ceremony, distinct from the legal assumption of the toga virilis, constitutes a parallel rite of passage. It was a formative socio-religious ceremony, not confined to Roman citizens, that marked a male’s transition into full adult manhood.

There has been a great deal of study and debate over how Romans understood life stages and coming of age (Eyben 1993, Kleijwegt 1991, Wiedemann 1989). However, much of this work focused on the behaviors of Roman males in their teenage years and early twenties, never accounting much for coming-of-age ceremonies nor how Roman society culturally constructed the identification between a youth and an adult via physical appearance. Scholarship on Roman life stages has benefitted from the life course approach, emphasizing that an individual’s role and reception change with age, an idea articulated by Harlow and Laurence (2002). Furthermore, the matter of coming-of-age ceremonies and delineation of life stage based on presentation has been studied in relation to the assumption of the toga virilis (Davies 2005, Dolansky 2008). Such scholarship has helped to highlight the importance of visual presentation and socio-religious ceremonies in Roman perception of age and the catalogue of duties, obligations, and behaviors entailed therein.

While dress has been well-treated, scant attention has been paid to the highly visible trait that was so crucial in perceptions of age: facial hair.  This paper reconstructs the socio-cultural importance of the coming-of-age ritual of the barbatoria. Although the term itself is only explicitly attested in Petronius (Satyricon 73.6.2), the best description of the ceremony appears in Suetonius’ Nero, in which he describes Nero’s first shave: barbam primam posuit (12.4). This same passage reports that the ceremony involved a sacrifice, the placing of the shaven hair into a box, and its consecration on the Capitol. In the Satyricon, Trimalchio keeps his first shavings in a box in the household lararium, suggesting some variance in practice and that this ceremony was not confined to Roman citizens (29.8.4).

I will argue that there were two distinct coming-of-age ceremonies: one legal and associated with citizenship, the other social and unrestricted by legal status. Nicolaus of Damascus reports that Augustus assumed the toga virilis at the relatively common age of fourteen (4.8-10). However, Cassius Dio informs us that Augustus did not shave his beard for the first time until he was twenty-three, an age supported by epigraphic evidence (48.34.3; CIL 09, 06604). Ovid (Tristia 4.10.58), Juvenal (Sat. 8.166), and Martial (11.39) all speak of the first shaving in the absence of the toga virilis. Roman males, then, underwent two distinct coming-of-age ceremonies. That they might have happened at different ages changes how we understand male life stages in Roman culture. A male might receive his toga virilis and thus be eligible for participation in public life well before he was considered fully adult, as signified by his first shaving.

It is clear from the literary evidence that the presence of pre-barbatoria facial hair, characterized by its downy nature, was essential in delineating younger males from fully adult ones (Juv. Sat. 8.166; Ov. Fasti 3.59-60; Apuleius, Met. 5.8.3; Mart. 10.42; Cicero, ad Atticum Given the visibility of this kind of facial hair, I argue that the barbatoria was a formative moment in a Roman male’s life, as he would have been perceived by his family, himself, and the community to be fully adult. It represents a deeper cultural marking of male coming-of-age in which all classes and statuses participated. While assuming the toga virilis might have marked entry into public life, the barbatoria was the marker of physical adulthood.

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Roman Cultural History

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