Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 2-2 (November 2010)Ton Derks; Wouter Vos: Wooden combs from the Roman fort at Vechten: the bodily appearance of soldiers

6 Comb uses in a community of soldiers

Assuming that the wooden combs from Vechten were mainly used by the soldiers, how then do we explain their significance? Even if the previous section has learned us that in the Roman period combs were hardly relevant for constructions of male identity, that of course does not exclude that men used combs for grooming their hair on an everyday basis. Moreover, from Martial’s mocking question (Mart. 14.25) what purpose a comb would serve for a baldy, we may infer that normally men were indeed habituated to comb their hair. In the same way, Juvenal’s comment that the hair of centurions in the Roman army – who counted as physical, uncouth and philistine – rather remained ‘untouched by the comb’ (Juv. 14.194) is best read as a satiric remark, the implication being that civilised men normally would comb their hair (cf. Pers. 3.77; Lee & Barr 1987, 112 f.; Courtney 1980, 578 f.). We come back to this below.


Fig. 8: Broad-bladed iron razor with dolphin-shaped bronze handle and imprint of a lost double-sided comb in wood or bone from a barber’s grave at Cologne (after Friedhoff 1991 , pl. 88.2)

Apart from styling, the double-sided comb with a coarse and fine row of teeth was perfectly suitable for cleaning, especially delousing. Once the hair had been disentangled with the coarse side, it could be cleaned from dust, soil, sebum, dandruff, and parasites like lice and nits with the fine side. Lice were a problem in antiquity (cf. Mumcuogly 2008) and in their recently published book on Roman toilet implements in Britain, Hella Eckhardt and Nina Crummy (2008, 32) rightly posit that “[i]n the absence of shampoos, combs were the main implements for cleaning the hair and scalp, and for removing lice” (cf. however Plin., HN, 28.163, who discusses recipes for the treatment of infected hair). That combs were indeed used for this purpose has further been proven by entomological research, which in a number of cases led to the discovery of remains of head lice (Pediculus humanus) caught in the combs.[17] Army camps would have had large numbers of troops living together in a small area and infestations of lice (and other parasites) may have been as common as among comparably accommodated communities from more recent times.[18]

Men could also use combs to groom hair on their chin and cheeks, i.e. to comb or trim their beard (Plaut., Capt. 268; Juv. 14.216). A barber’s grave from Cologne, which contained a complete set of equipment consisting of two sets of shears, a razor, a towel and at least one double-sided comb (fig. 8) (Haberey 1932; Friedhoff 1991, 192; Boon 1991, 25 f.), proves that the practice of trimming the beard “over the comb” (per pectinem) was indeed well-known in even the remotest provinces of the empire. But the assumption that soldiers in a Roman fort used a comb for this purpose is not without problems. Apart from the basic question whether each soldier trimmed or shaved his beard himself or had this done by a barber (tonsor), with the exception of Niederbieber, no Roman army camp has produced shears in any substantial numbers (Haberey 1932, 130, note 3, mentions four single blades; Gaitzsch 1982, 37 reproduces six and gives another three of a different type, all from Niederbieber). As long as it remains unclear whether the low numbers are simply just a matter of preservation (shears are mostly of iron, which does not survive very well) or represent a true picture, it seems safe not to assume that every soldier had his own pair of shears. So even though we do not want to exclude the option of soldiers incidentally using a comb when trimming beards, most combs from Roman forts are unlikely to have been used for this purpose on any regular basis.[19]

If Roman soldiers, just like the warriors from the preceding and following periods, were used to combing and grooming their hair and beard, why is it so difficult to materially identify these grooming habits? One important difference between the late prehistoric and medieval warriors and the Roman soldier is the latter’s institutional embedding in an imperial army. As Paul Treherne argued, the goods and practices that sustained the lifestyle of the heroic warrior exhibited a fundamentally personal character (Treherne 1995, 128). The arena of the warrior was the personal combat scene rather than the battlefield, the social context of his warlike activities consisted of the personal retinue of a warrior elite rather than a state army and his armoured and well-groomed body formed the natural expression – if not the very ‘embodiment’ – of his personal achievements as a warrior rather than an adopted uniform. As part of this emphasis on the aesthetics of the adorned body, the Homeric, Celtic and Frankish warrior grew his hair long and delighted in its grooming (Treherne 1995, 126). The Roman soldier, however, was part of the professional army of an empire and the bond between him and his regiment was “an impersonal one, relating soldier to institution rather than soldier to soldier” (Manning 1991, 458). As a consequence, the soldier’s bodily appearance may have been dictated by disciplinary rules set by the army authorities rather than by personal choice.

As army psychologists teach us, the strike power of a state army is at least as much dependent on the morale, cohesion and esprit de corps of its constituent units as on the personal war exploits of the individual soldier (Manning 1991; Driessen 2005). Good commanders will try to strengthen these values by taking care of the unit’s physical and mental health as well as by cultivating a sense of unity and community. The latter may be enforced by the imposition of a shared culture, including cultural practices such as military parades and unified forms of bodily appearance. In particular, in a large and multi-ethnic army such as that of the Roman empire, a shared culture may urge the individual soldier to identify with the overarching institution and find a source of pride in being part of it. The number of combs retrieved from military settlements such as Vindolanda and Vindonissa suggests that in the Roman period, just as in the early modern and contemporary state armies (cf. Cruse 2007, 151 ff discussing, inter alia, the 85 combs found on board of the Mary Rose, King Henry VIII’s flagship which sank off Portsmouth in 1545), the comb had become a standard item of the soldier’s equipment.[20] It became the indispensable tool for bringing the body in compliance with the army’s disciplinary rules regarding physical appearance. The visual image of unity that resulted from it may have had two effects. While it may have increased awe and fear on the part of the enemy, it fostered pride and contributed to a feeling of invincibility on the part of the Roman soldier.