The Matter of Constantine's Beard
Created | Updated Aug 30, 2007
The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great did not have a beard. However, Orthodox Christian iconography of (Saint) Constantine insists on depicting him with one. Why this confusion?
The Emperor Hadrian was the first of the Roman Emperors (ruling from AD 117-138) to wear a beard as a matter of public policy. His hairiness was revealed gloriously on all of his statuary and myriad other forms of public art. When Hadrian's image was received in some dark corner of the Empire, the subjects there knew that Hadrian was a bearded man, and was therefore new and different. The old stodgy Roman ways of the Emperors before him had been replaced by Hadrian's beard and all it represented: a love of Greece and Greek things, like boyfriends and elaborate marble villas and fine art.
Hadrian's beard started quite a fashion in Rome (as Emperor's hairstyles often did), and soon all of his male courtiers sported beards. His successors continued the tradition of beardedness to hearken back to what a good Emperor Hadrian turned out to be. In short, Hadrian was a famously bearded fellow.
Antinous was the aforementioned boyfriend of Hadrian. He went everywhere Hadrian went, and his omnipresence was reflected in artwork of Hadrian. If Hadrian was depicted in the foreground, the lithe hairless boy behind him was undoubtedly Antinous. Hadrian had statues of Antinous commissioned and he placed them around his villa at Tivoli. When Antinous 'accidentally' fell overboard on a cruise up the Nile, Hadrian mourned him by naming the nearest town after him: Antinoopolis. Hadrian loved Antinous very much.
Constantine I (who ruled AD 324-337) did not have a beard. He went to great lengths to show his hairless face throughout the Empire. Huge beardless statues of Constantine were made in Constantinople, and small beardless portraits of Constantine were minted on coinage and sent all over the Roman world. Constantine (it bears repeating) did not have a beard.
He was so beardless that when he realised how much worse the quality of the artwork had become in his own time as compared to the time of, say, Hadrian, Constantine stole the art from the now lost Arch of Hadrian and had his beardless face recarved onto Hadrian's body. How do we know this? The scenes of Constantine giving grand speeches to groups of courtiers show quite clearly that those courtiers were bearded. Of course, we could believe that Constantine's court rejected three centuries of tradition and chose a hairstyle for themselves that went completely against the fashion tendencies of the Emperor himself, were it not for one other small detail. There, behind the recarved face of Constantine, in every stolen image from the lost Arch, stood the lithe, hairless figure of Antinous.
It is no secret that Constantine was quite an influential figure in the public acceptance of Christianity. Though Constantine has been regarded as little more than just a swell guy in the Western tradition (such as Roman Catholicism and all of its offspring), he has been elevated to the level of a saint in the Eastern tradition. Eastern Orthodox Christianity not only views Constantine as a saint, they hold him up as one of the best, most noble and honoured kinds of saints. He is the godfather of Christianity, the man whose godly inspiration saved them all from being maimed and tortured and fed to lions and such. He is a man whose lead (despite his tendency to think he was the Sun God incarnate) they all must follow.
Eastern Orthodox Christians retain an ancient form of artwork called iconography, used to depict the likenesses of its saints. In all of his icons, Constantine has a beard.
To be fair, every Orthodox male saint who lived past puberty is shown with a beard. The beard is considered a vital part of Orthodox tradition. However, to ignore that Constantine spent money while he was alive proving to the world just how beardless he was seems somehow wrong.
When asked to explain this discrepancy between the historical record and the highest form of Eastern Christian art, one Orthodox Christian simply stated, 'It is his heavenly beard.'
So, there it is. Constantine, beardless in life, has been granted his full, lush Orthodox beard in heaven. May we all be so lucky.