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Bill Thayer

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p328 Coma

Unsigned article on pp328‑330 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

COMA (κόμη, κουρά), the hair.

1. Greek. In the earliest times the Greeks wore their hair long, and thus they are constantly called in Homer καρηκομόωντες Ἀχαιοί. This ancient practice was preserved by the Spartans for many centuries. The Spartan boys always had their hair cut quite short (ἐν χρῷ κείροντες, Plut. Lyc. 16); but as soon as they reached the age of puberty (ἔφηβοι), they let it grow long. They prided themselves upon their hair, calling it the cheapest of ornaments (τῶν κόσμων ἀδαπανώτατος), and before going to battle they combed and dressed it with especial care, in which act Leonidas and his followers were discovered by the Persian spy before the battle of Thermopylae (Herod. VII.208, 209). It seems that both Spartan men and women tied their hair in a knot over the crown of the head (comp. Aristoph. Lys. 1316, κομᾶν παραμπύκιδδε, with Hor. Carm. II.11, in comptum Lacenae more comas religata nodum: Müller, Dor. IV.3 §1). At a later time the Spartans abandoned this ancient custom, and wore their hair short, and hence some writers erroneously attribute this practice to an earlier period (Paus. VII.14 §2; Philostr. Vit. Apoll. III.15 p106, ed. Olear.; Plut. Alc. 23).

The custom of the Athenians was different. They wore their hair long in childhood, and cut it off when they reached the age of puberty. The cutting off of the hair, which was always done when a boy became an ἔφηβος, was a solemn act, attended with religious ceremonies. A libation was first offered to Hercules, which was called οἰνιστήρια or οἰνιαστήρια (Hesych. and Phot. s.v.); and the hair after being cut off was dedicated to some deity, usually a river-god (Aeschyl. Choëph. 6; Paus. I.37 §2). It was a very ancient practice to repair to Delphi to perform this ceremony, and Theseus is said to have done so (Plut. Thes. 5; Theophr. Char. 21). The ephebi are always represented on works of art with their hair quite short, in which manner it was also worn by the Athletae (Lucian, Dial. Mer. 5). But when the Athenians passed into the age of manhood, they again let their hair grow. In ancient times at Athens the hair was rolled up into a kind of knot on the crown of the head; and fastened with golden clasps in the shape of grasshoppers. This fashion of wearing the hair, which was called κρωβύλος, had gone out just before the time of Thucydides (I.6); and what succeeded it in the male sex we do not know for certain. The Athenian females also wore their hair in the same fashion, which was in their case called κόρυμβος, and an example of which is given in the following figure of a female taken from Millingen (Peintures Antiques, plate 40). The word Corymbium is used in a similar sense by Petronius (c110).

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p329 On vases, however, we most frequently find the heads of females covered with a kind of band or a coif of net-work. Of these coiffures one was called σφενδόνη, which was a broad band across the forehead, sometimes made of metal, and sometimes of leather, adorned with gold: to this the name of στλεγγίς was also given, and it appears to have been much the same as the ἄμπυξ (Pollux, VII.179; Böttiger, Vasengemälde, III. p225; Ampyx). But the most common kind of head-dress for females was called by the general name of κεκρύφαλος, and this was divided into the three species of κεκρύφαλος, σάκκος, and μίτρα. The κεκρύφαλος, in its narrower sense, was a caul or coif of net-work, corresponding to the Latin reticulum. 
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	It was worn during the day as well as the night, and has continued in use from the most ancient times to the present day. It is mentioned by Homer (Il. XXII.469), and is still worn in Italy and Spain. These hair-nets were frequently made of gold-threads (Juv. II.96; Petron. 67), sometimes of silk (Salmas. Exerc. ad Solin. p392), or the Elean byssus (Paus. VII.21 §7), and probably of other materials, which are not mentioned by ancient writers. The persons who made these nets were called κεκρυφαλοπλόκοι (Pollux, VII.179). Females with this kind of head-dress frequently occur in paintings found at Pompeii, from one of which the preceding cut is taken, representing a woman wearing a Coa Vestis. [Coa Vestis.] (Museo Borbon. vol. VIII p5).

The σάκκος and the μίτρα were, on the contrary, made of close materials. The σάκκος covered the head entirely like a sack or bag; it was made of various materials, such as silk, byssus, and wool (comp. Aristoph. Thesm. 257). Sometimes, at least among the Romans, a bladder was used to answer the same purpose (Mart. VIII.33.19). The μίτρα was a broad band of rich cloth of different colours, which was wound round the hair, and was worn in various ways. It was originally an Eastern head-dress, and may, therefore, be compared to the modern turban. It is sometimes spoken of as characteristic of the Phrygians (Herod. I.195, VII.62; Virg. Aen. IX.616, 617; Juv. III.66). It was, however, also worn by the Greeks, and Polygnotus is said to have been the first who painted Greek women with mitrae (Plin. H. N. XXXV.9 s35). The Roman calantica or calvatica is said by Servius (ad Virg. Aen. IX.616) to have been the same as the mitra, but in a passage in the Digest (34 tit. 2 s25 § 10) they are mentioned as if they were distinct. In the annexed cut, taken from Millin (Peintures de Vases Antiques, vol. II pl. 43), the female on the right hand wears a σάκκος and that on the left a μίτρα.

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With respect to the colour of the hair, black was the most frequent, but blonde (ξανθὴ κόμη) was the most prized. In Homer, Achilles, Ulysses, and other heroes are represented with blonde hair (Il. I.197, Od. XIII.399, &c.). At a later time it seems to have been not unfrequent to dye hair, so as to make it either black or blonde, and this was done by men as well as women, especially when the hair was growing gray (Pollux, II.35; Aelian, V.H. VII.20; Athen. XII p542D; Lucian, Amor. 40).

2. Roman. Besides the generic coma we also find the following words signifying the hair: capillus, p330caesaries, crines, cincinnus, and cirrus, the two last words being used to signify curled hair. In early times the Romans wore their hair long, as was represented in the oldest statues in the age of Varro (De Re Rust. II.11 §10), and hence the Romans of the Augustan age designated their ancestors intonsi (Ov. Fast. II.30) and capillati (Juv. VI.30). But after the introduction of barbers into Italy about B.C. 300, it became the practice to wear their hair short. The women too originally dressed their hair with great simplicity, but in the Augustan period a variety of different head-dresses came into fashion, many of which are described by Ovid (de Art. Am. III.136, &c.). Sometimes these head-dresses were raised to a great height by rows of false curls (Juv. Sat. VI.502). The dressing of the hair of a Roman lady at this period was a most important affair. So much attention did the Roman ladies devote to it, that they kept slaves especially for this purpose, called ornatrices, and had them instructed by a master in the art (Ov. de Art. Am. III.239; Suet. Claud. 40; Dig. 32 tit. 1 s65). Most of the Greek head-dresses mentioned above were also worn by the Roman ladies; but the mitrae appear to have been confined to prostitutes (Juv. III.66). One of the simplest modes of wearing the hair was allowing it to fall down in tresses behind, and only confining it by a band encircling the head [Vitta]. Another favourite plan was platting the hair, and then fastening it behind with a large pin, as is shown in the figure on p14.

Blonde hair was as much prized by the Romans as by the Greeks, and hence the Roman ladies used a kind of composition or wash to make it appear this colour (spuma caustica, Mart. XIV.26; Plin. H. N. XXVIII.12 s51).

False hair or wigs (φενάκη, πηνίκη, galerus) were worn both by Greeks and Romans (see e.g. Juv. VI.120). Among both people likewise in ancient times the hair was cut close in mourning [Funus]; and among both the slaves had their hair cut close as a mark of servitude (Aristoph. Aves, 911; Plaut. Amph. I.1.306; Becker, Charicles, vol. II p380, &c.; Böttiger, Sabina, vol. I p138, &c.).

Thayer's Note:

To the archaeologist the most interesting feature of women's hairstyles, especially in the Roman period, is that they changed every bit as often as they do today; so that finding the statue of a woman is a lucky event for anyone interested in dating archaeological remains. Our dictionary has missed an opportunity here; with any luck, I'll make good the deficiency at some point — not soon, unfortunately — and provide a little gallery of hairstyles with their dates. (Someone else had done a pretty good job of it already, but with the continued shrinking of the Web, the page has permanently vanished.) The alert student exploring the Web for Roman portraits should at any rate keep an eye out for the coiffures: there's a big difference between this and this.

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Page updated: 1 Jul 13