Skip to main content

Body Hair and Lost Morality in Juvenal’s Satires

Recent decades have witnessed growing interest in body language in Roman Satire (Gold 1998, Miller 1998, Larmour 2007). Though hair has been a satiric topos since the time of Lucilius (30.1058), the connection between body hair and moral discourse in Juvenal has received practically no attention in modern scholarship. This paper explores Juvenal’s use of body hair imagery in relation to his moral condemnation of the corrupted mores of contemporary Rome. I argue that Juvenal treats barba, capilli and pili as a symbol of the lost morality which characterized the mythical era of the Roman maiores, imagined as a Hesiodic Golden Age (Singleton 1972). Juvenal critiques society throughout his corpus by comparing the irreversible moral decline of Rome to an idealized, heroic past in which Roman citizens were all hirsuti, barbati or capillati.

I begin by showing how Juvenal conceives hair and beard as a characteristic trait of the virtuous ancestors of the Romans. The link between barba, capilli and moral excellence is established in numerous sections of the Satires (16.31–32, 5.30, 8.16–17). During the glorious Republican past, in which barbers were unknown (Kaufman 1932), the “hairy” appearance of magistrates and commanders ensured that image of virility which also constituted a mark of virtus and frugalitas. Juvenal draws a sharp demarcation line between an incorrupt past and the moral degeneration of the present, in which Rome has been invaded by cinaedi who dare to display in public their shaved and smooth skin.

Secondly, I investigate how Juvenal conceptualizes the relationship between body hair, sexuality and gender roles. The author frequently criticizes the unmanly habits of modern Romans (2.11–12, 2.41, 2, 95–96, 9, 12–15), who conceal their homosexuality in public, but unleash their perverted proclivities when no one sees them. Furthermore, in satires 6 and 9, which focus more precisely on issues related to sexuality and gender roles (Braund 1992, Johnson 1996, Fögen 2000, Bellandi 2003, Nappa 2018), the absence of beard and long hair becomes the shameful mark of gender subversion. Emancipated women rotate their disheveled hair as frenzied maenads in the rites of the Bona Dea (6.315–317) and choose effeminate, beardless eunuchs as their lovers, preferring them to their legitimate husbands (6. 366–369).

Finally, I demonstrate that Juvenal associates body hair with ethical discourses on luxury and extravagance. The moralistic poet establishes a connection between barba, capilli and an old, lost ideal of Roman frugalitas which Juvenal calls Romana paupertas (6.295), the only bulwark against the luxuria and libido that conquered the Roman state after its expansion in the Mediterranean. In shaping such notions, Juvenal calls upon the myth of the Golden Age (13.54–59), a time when the first men paid due respect to those endowed with barba, a symbol of reverentia senilis. Juvenal’s conceptions of body hair operate thus as “flexible stereotypes” to isolate and discuss a wide range of values, analyzed through the contrast between the corruption of contemporary Rome and an abstract, mythical past of forgotten morality.