Ye Olde Grooming Disasters: Punishment Shaves

Ancient Spartans who showed cowardice in battle had their beards forcibly shaved off—and they're not the only civilization who used shaving as a punishment.


In modern Western society, having someone else shave your face is considered to be a luxury. But it wasn’t always this way: Many cultures throughout history valued their facial hair so much that having someone else forcibly chop it off was one of the worst punishments imaginable. Ancient Sparta, for example. The Spartans had a legendary culture of toughness (you’ve no doubt seen the extravagant celebration of shirtless, bearded violence that is 300) and fittingly for a culture hopped up on testosterone, every man of age was expected to grow a large, manly beard. Athenian playwright Antiphanes, in fact, claimed that for a Spartan, having a mustache was a delight that ranked right alongside sharing a good meal with beloved friends.

Unfortunately for any less-than-courageous Spartan, the pride they felt towards their facial hair could sometimes be used against them. “The peculiar punishment reserved for those who had shown cowardice in the face of danger included the obligation to ‘shave part of their moustache (hypene) and allow part of it to grow,’” says Duncan C. Campbell in his book, Spartan Warrior 735—331 BC. If a Spartan warrior couldn’t pull off the half-stache, you can go right ahead and assume it’s impossible.

In Russia, meanwhile, a religious love of facial hair fills a good chunk of the country’s history. Notable (and apparently terrible) Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible once claimed, “Shaving the beard is a sin the blood of all martyrs will not wash away. It would mean blemishing the image of man as God created him.” Which is why it came as an unpleasant surprise when Peter the Great, who ruled over Russia from 1682 to 1725, ordered that all his subjects (excluding clergy and peasants) shave their beards in an attempt to mimic the more advanced West. Anyone who refused to do so was personally shaved by police officials on sight.

But it gets worse: To spread his war on facial hair even further towards the Russian boundaries (and to make a little extra cash), Peter also imposed an annual “beard tax” upon anyone who planned to keep their whiskers. The poor could keep their facial hair for a yearly sum of only two kopeks (a relatively insignificant sum), but a well-off merchant could expect to hand over 100 rubles (equivalent to several thousand USD today) just for the privilege of keeping their beard. Upon paying the tax, the hairy-chinned subject would receive a copper coin that read, “tax paid,” which could be held aloft to keep police officials—and their razors—at bay.

A religious love of face fuzz was hardly new, however. Even in the earliest days of Christianity, a man’s beard was seen as a symbol of piety—that is, his commitment to the faith. As with the Spartans before them, this respect for their beards was often used against them: To mock the apostle Peter, those who crucified him shaved both his head and his beard, as described by David L. Eastman in his book, The Ancient Martyrdom Accounts of Paul and Peter. This event eventually led to what we think of as the classic monk’s hairstyle, as those who decided to devote themselves to a monastic life underwent what’s called tonsure—shaving a circular patch of hair on the crown of the head—in memoriam of Saint Peter.

Not all symbolic facial hair removal has been strictly punitive, of course. The Ancient Germanic tribes were known—and rightly feared—for their massive beards, and while they didn’t perform punishment shaves as such, they did enforce a strict rule that made shaving a momentous—and bloody—event in a young man’s life. Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus explained the ritual in his book Germania:

“As soon as they arrive to maturity of years, they let their hair and beards continue to grow, nor till they have slain an enemy do they ever lay aside this form of countenance by vow sacred to valour. Over the blood and spoil of a foe they make bare their face. They allege, that they have now acquitted themselves of the debt and duty contracted by their birth, and rendered themselves worthy of their country, worthy of their parents.”

In other words, a Germanic man wasn’t allowed to shave until he had killed an enemy in battle. Unfortunately for any weak or unskilled warrior, that could mean a lifetime of punishment in the form of forever wearing a long and itchy beard. But hey, at least they didn’t have to deal with prickliness, razor burn or ingrown hairs, so that’s something.