He must have been an admiral, a sultan or a king… beards, beards, beards.
We're celebrating National Coin Week with a series of posts by our National Numismatic Collection team. See our previous posts about fantastic beasts, goddesses, and military money.
I think by now most of the people in my life are aware of the fact that I heavily support good facial hair. That appreciation for follicles and my love for the Byzantine Empire proved to be a pretty fun union for exploring the National Numismatic Collection's Byzantine holdings. But what about the coinage of the rest of the world?!
Here are five world leaders who tried to inspire their people toward success through waxed, braided, and oiled ringlets. Cultures east and west of Byzantium shared a similar love for a scruffy leader or a well-oiled chinstrap on a king. Beards on military leaders conveyed strength and wisdom, and encouraged troops to follow their wearers.
About a century before the foundation of Byzantium, the Sasanian Persians rose as a force against the Roman Empire led by the Shahanshah Ardashir I. Frankly, Ardashir's beard alone must have been considered a force against the Roman Empire! His meticulously curled and coiffed tresses were as impressive to me as his prowess in battle as he tried to reunite the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Though Herodian leaves it out of his narrative of the Persian and Roman battles for Mesopotamia, it's probably a safe guess that Ardashir's confidence to take on the armies of Alexander Severus is due in no small part to his buxom beard.
Unlike his adversary, Alexander Severus wore scruff, a soldier's beard. Rather than meticulous curls, his follicles were trimmed close to the face, a no-fuss look that might have left him energy to focus on rallying his troops in Syria to hold off the advancing Sasanians and their gloriously bearded leader. Perhaps Alexander's beard was too short, as he could not quite lead his men to victory. Though he lost the battle, a final invasion never came from Ardashir, who instead focused his tresses on stabilizing his Sasanian legacy internally.
Beautiful beards were not just a favored accessory of antiquity. Humbart I of Italy chose to compliment his crown with the KING of all mustaches. The walrus (or the Sam Elliott) commands respect while hiding the true feelings mouths can convey. Humbart was a staunch supporter of the Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany as well as the Italian imperial expansion into North Africa. He had dubious expansionist goals—much like how his mustache expanded past his mouth.
A well-placed mustache can change the tides of war. General Maharaja Sir Ganga Singh sure proves that in my book. He had incredible precision, both in his finely waxed face fuzz and his leadership skills. Singh introduced a plethora of reforms to Bikaner, including legislation which stopped child marriages. Singh brought railways and electricity to his state and established a partially democratic system of elections for municipal positions. In his very first year as ruler, the general and maharaja dealt with the famine of 1899 by creating food programs and an irrigation system for his region. As the only non-white member of the British Imperial War Cabinet, Singh and his curled whiskers demonstrated to the rest of the world what revolutionary facial hair could inspire.
It seems obvious to me to conclude this list with a man whose facial hair was named for him! The Franz Joseph is a slight twist on the mutton chop, and has a more dignified and angular shape than the Winfield Scott. Joseph's diligently groomed locks mimicked his rigid and firm position as emperor of Austria, and king of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia. His strictly poised beard and understanding of his role as ruler made him a powerful leader. This mentality led to a contentious relationship with his nephew—and heir apparent—Franz Ferdinand. At the death of his nephew and the onset of World War I (which happened a century ago this year!) Joseph was, for the first time, forced to step back from leading. Joseph's grandnephew Charles I ascended the throne as the Great War began to spiral across the globe. Franz Joseph died within the year and his kingly tresses could no longer offer finely groomed rigidity to Europe.
Beards have and have had a prominent place in many militaries both past and present. This year's National Coin Week focusing on military themes in numismatics provides the perfect opportunity to use numismatics to explore the winners and losers of great historic battles based upon their facial hair of choice. To see more fabulous follicles check out my first facial hair blog post on Byzantine beards—it's alliterative and hairy, who doesn't love that?
Emily Pearce Seigerman is a museum specialist with the National Numismatic Collection. While she does not wear a beard herself, she was born into a bearded family, married a bearded man, and really enjoys schnauzers and German shorthaired pointers.