Hairstyles and medieval southern Italian politics

This unusual but true story of hairstyles and politics takes place in eighth century southern Italy. In 758 Arichis II became duke and later prince of Benevento which is located about 40 miles inland from Naples. Benevento was the premier Lombard principality in Southern Italy at the time with a rich cultural life and stability of governance. Arichis even built a magnificent ducal church in Benevento and named it Sancta Sophia in imitation of Justinian’s infamous church in Constantinople (the Hagia Sophia).

Despite the ascension of the principality it was eclipsed by an even greater power; the Holy Roman Empire now ruled by Charlemagne. He had defeated the Lombard kingdom in the north and brought Rome and the Papal territories under his authority. He had also brought Arichis’ son and designated successor Grimoald to the north to ensure the Principality of Benevento behaved well. The Pope at that time, Hadrian I, opposed the Lombards who had encroached on the territory of the Papal States, was happy to have Frankish support. Now Benevento was under direct threat from Charlemagne and there was little Arichis could do except rely on the fortification of both Benevento and the principality’s second city Salerno on the coast.

To make matters worse for Benevento, Arichis died in 787, while his son and heir remained a forced guest of Charlemagne in the north. Fortunately Adalperga, Arichis’ widow and mother of Grimoald, was a clever woman and managed to convince Charlemagne to free Grimoald despite the advice otherwise from some of his advisors and Pope Hadrian. It seems this was done to project the Holy Roman Empire’s claim to the lands in southern Italy that were being fought over with the Byzantine Empire which controlled Calabria and Apulia in southern Italy as well as the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.

As part of this agreement to release Grimoald, the Beneventans were to recognize Carolingian hegemony through the minting of their coins, in charters and in their barbering. They were supposed to adopt the hairstyles of the Franks. This last and unusual condition seems to be put in place because in the year before Arichis died, Charlemagne had begun to invade neighboring Capua, and in an act of temporary submission Arichis handed over hostages including Grimoald and a promise of 7,000 solidi in tribute annually. However as soon as Charlemagne returned to the north, Arichis quickly revealed his lack of good faith and asked the Byzantines for aid and, most shocking to Pope Hadrian who had always insisted that those wicked Lombards could not be trusted, he reportedly promised to adopt Byzantine hairstyles and clothing!

Grimoald seems to have had better faith than his father, at least for a while, which was evident from his siding with the Franks to oppose his uncle’s invasion of a combined Byzantine-Lombard force. However Benevento seems quickly to have reverted to old ways and any mention of Charlemagne on charters and coinage seems to have disappeared and apparently the Frankish hairstyles as well! Grimoald was known for having said “I was born free, and, God willing, I shall remain free forever!” By 812 Charlemagne and Byzantine Emperor Michael I reached a truce, and upon Charlemagne’s death two years later, his successor Louis the Pious seems to have lost interest in southern Italy.

So what were these hairstyles that became the subject of diplomatic intrigue? Byzantines reportedly wore their hair mid length radiating from the crown of the head, partially covering the forehead and puffing out at the nape of the neck. By the eighth century beards were also coming into fashion. The Franks of Charlemagne’s day reportedly preferred a more Roman look with short hair and the royals also sported mustaches in contrast to their predecessors the Germanic Merovingians which had a more pagan style with long hair and beards. Unfortunately I was unable to find any detail on Lombard hairstyles.

I hope you found this episode of hairstyle diplomacy as entertaining as I did. If you would like to read more about ninth century politics in southern Italy I suggest reading Barbara M. Kreutz’s Before the Normans. If you’ve enjoyed the post follow the blog as more posts on southern Italy will be published soon.

The photo is of the Sancta Sophia in Benevento courtesy of Flickr user seleniamorgillo and subject to use under the conditions of the Creative Commons.


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