Hair and the Heir: The Politics of Shaving in Eighth-Century Italy

In the year 788, Pope Hadrian I (r.772-795) wrote to Charlemagne about an extremely urgent matter. Duke Arichis II of Benevento (r.754-787) had changed his hairstyle. This grooming alteration set off alarm bells in the papal court and Hadrian begged the Frankish king to do something about the situation. It was not matters of taste and style that bothered the Pope, but the possibility of a far more serious political crisis. 

Charlemagne’s famous conquest of the kingdom of the Lombards in North Italy in 774 had left more than a few loose ends in the Peninsula. His ability to project influence in the south was very limited, where the Lombard duchy of Benevento remained the predominant power. The Duke of Benevento, Arichis II, had proclaimed himself Prince in 774, and positioned himself as a leader of the Lombards throughout Italy. Arichis was particularly dangerous because his wife was the formidable Adelperga, the daughter of Desiderius, the last king of the Lombards (r.756-774). His family thus represented a potential alternative to Carolingian rule in the Peninsula. Arichis was involved in a number of plots to drive the Franks out of Italy. Charlemagne’s patience, never particularly good, seems to have snapped and in 787 he marched south and besieged Capua. Arichis was forced to surrender his younger son Grimoald as a hostage and give the Frankish king a great deal of money. Charlemagne’s name appears on Arichis’ coinage and charters after this point.

However, as many of his descendants were also to realise, Charlemagne’s writ in southern Italy only had force in his presence, as the letter which we began with written by Hadrian within a year of the Frankish king leaving Capua reveals. The Pope included a report from a Capuan priest that Arichis was looking for friends outside of Italy to counterbalance Frankish power. After Charlemagne had left Capua, Arichis had sent messengers to the Byzantine Emperor, Constantine VI (r.780-797), then under the regency of his mother, Irene (who later ruled as Empress, 797-802). Constantinople’s power in Italy was not what it had been, but it retained Sicily and had influence in the region. Following Charlemagne’s conquest of the Lombard kingdom, they had given refuge to Adelchis, son of Desiderius and Arichis’ brother-in-law.

According to Hadrian, Arichis asked Constantine and Irene for military support, the title of Patrician and with it the Duchy of Naples, and for Adelchis, presumably as an ally and rallying point for anti-Carolingian sentiment. In return he would recognise imperial authority, symbolised by his hair. He promised ‘that he would conform fully to the usage of the Greeks in both hairstyle and dress under the emperor’s authority’. This offer was accepted by Constantinople, who sent two envoys who ‘bore with them vestments interwoven in gold as well as sword, comb and scissors for making him a patrician’.

As this all suggests, hair was really important in this period, as it has been in all time periods, including our own. What the hairstyle that Arichis adopted actually looked like is unclear. Given that, unlike the beardless and moustachioed Carolingians, contemporary images of Byzantines depict neatly trimmed beards and hair that rests just above the shoulder, I’m inclined to suspect that Arichis may have grown a beard. Facial hair had a particular significance for the Lombards. Writers such as Isidore of Seville (Etymologies 9.2.95) and Paul the Deacon (History of the Lombards 1.9) attributed the name ‘Lombard/Langobard in Latin’ to their ‘Long-Beards’. As this and the idea of ‘Greek style’ indicates, hair could be a really important element in communicating and constituting ethnic identity in the early medieval world.

The Franks had their own political traditions with hair. The Merovingian dynasty were famously identified by their long uncut hair and flowing beards which indicated their right to rule. After overthrowing the Merovingians, the Carolingians differentiated themselves from the dynasty they had displaced by adopting a new style, complete with short hair and frankly ludicrous moustaches. The latter element features heavily in one of my favourite books about medieval history, Paul Dutton’s Charlemagne’s Mustache (2004). The moustache appears to have been an innovation by Charlemagne emulating his hero, Theoderic the Great (r.475-526). Theoderic was an interesting model for Charlemagne, as a king who had managed to rule Italy as both a Roman and a Goth. The Frankish king acquired a statue of Theoderic, complete presumably with moustache, and placed it at his palace at Aachen.

These Frankish and Lombard hirsute histories had combined a generation earlier. Charlemagne’s father, Pippin the Short (r.751-768), had been sent as a child to have his first haircut by King Liutprand of the Lombards (r.712-744). This very important milestone was conducted in this manner not because of the reputation of Italian barbers, but as a means of securing an alliance between Liutprand and Pippin’s father, Charles Martel (effect ruler of the Franks, 718-741). It speaks to the intense political significance that came with the adoption of the hairstyle of another.

Arichis was not to enjoy his new look for long. Indeed, by the time Hadrian had sent his letter, Arichis was already dead, having passed away in August 787. This led to a problem with the succession. Arichis’ heir, Grimoald, was still Charlemagne’s hostage. When his mother, Adelperga, who had become regent in Benevento, sent envoys to the Frankish king, asking for his release, Hadrian was amongst the voices counselling against his return. Charlemagne ultimately took the other route, and released his captive to assume his father’s position in Benevento as Grimoald III (r.788-806).

Writing in the ninth century, the Lombard historian Erchempert notes that Charlemagne released Grimoald on condition ‘that the Lombards were to trim their beards, and to always write his name on the charters and coins’, a statement of Carolingian control marked in their facial hair. When that same year Adelchis landed in Italy with Byzantine soldiers, he was defeated by a presumably clean shaven Grimoald with the backing of Frankish arms. But Carolingian influence was short-lived once the threat of Adelchis was removed. Charlemagne’s name did not long remain on Grimoald’s coins and charters and his sons were to campaign against Benevento in 792. Given the similarity between Grimoald’s image and that of his father on their coins, we might be forgiven for suspecting that the Frankish haircut didn’t last very long either.

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