Men make gods in their own image; those of the Ethiopians are black and snub-nosed, those of the Thracians have blue eyes and red hair.


The house of Marcus Fabius Rufus, on the so-called Vico del Farmacista, is the largest domestic dwelling so far excavated in Pompeii. It has four separate levels and appears to have been continuously occupied from the time of the Roman conquest of the then–port of Pompeii, in 80 BC, up to the destruction of the city in AD 79. M. Fabius Rufus (whose body may very well be one of the four found within the house, and whose name was preserved for us in a piece of scurrilous below-stairs graffiti) was but its final owner; over its 160-year history the house had many others, all of whom contributed in some way to the layout and decoration of its rooms—opening up doorways here, closing them there, enlarging this room, repainting that. Then came the eruption of Vesuvius, with its earthquakes and choking blizzards of ash; and when archaeologists finally opened up the house of M. Fabius Rufus, they found the earthquakes of the eruption had partially demolished a wall in Room 71 and revealed behind it another, the style of whose fresco decoration dates it to the century before.

The fresco shows a woman standing between two partially opened doors. She has large eyes, a delicately rounded mouth, and a fashionably piled-up hairstyle; she holds a child against her shoulder (he’s maybe a year old, an elongated Roman putto, held against his mother with his back to us and his naked rump bared endearingly to posterity); she wears what has been interpreted as a royal diadem, and her hair is a warm, or one might say a reddish, brown. Recent research suggests that the woman is intended to be Cleopatra, in the guise of Venus Genetrix, the mother-goddess of the Roman world, and that the child should be identified as her son Caesarion, born in 47 BC, whose father, so his mother claimed, was Julius Caesar.13

The identification of the woman is based upon her likeness to two marble busts of Cleopatra, one now in the Vatican (which may also once have been completed by the figure of a child), the other in Berlin; the presence of the diadem; and the fact that the two half-open doors and the rest of the frescoed scene around her seem to allude to the appearance of the temple to Venus Genetrix, set up by Caesar in the Forum Julium in Rome in 46 BC. The temple was graced with a gilded statue of the goddess, widely and scandalously reputed to have been modeled on Cleopatra herself, who was in Rome from 46 to 44 BC. The thinking is that on Caesar’s assassination, in 44 BC, and the accession of his official heir, his great nephew Octavian, as the Emperor Augustus, the then-owner of the house hid the fresco behind a wall to cover up his own Julian sympathies.14 Thus, intriguingly, the history of red hair and the world of Roman real-politik cross paths. But is any of this proof, as has been claimed, that Cleopatra was a redhead?

Or to put it another way, what, and who, is red? One person’s unmistakable red is another’s vaguely chestnut, and even that authoritative-sounding quote from Xenophanes is not as undisputable as it appears: Xenophanes wrote in ancient Greek, and some authorities translate his “red” as “fair.” Moreover, his writings have come down to us only via their use in the writings of others. The quote was preserved, five centuries after Xenophanes (c. 570–c. 475 BC) worded the original thought, in the work of Clement of Alexandria, a founding father of the Christian church. That so-called portrait of Cleopatra in the house of M. Fabius Rufus is the result of a similar process of transmutation. Judging by her official likeness on the coinage of her rule, Cleopatra herself had neither large eyes nor a rounded mouth. The coins show instead a woman with a long nose, almost hooked, and a sharp, knowing smile. Also, Cleopatra was a native of Egypt, obviously enough, a country that lies well below the forty-fifth parallel, which makes the possibility of her being a natural redhead unlikely. Then one has to remember the Egyptians used wigs, some of which, recovered by archaeologists, have proved to be made from the reddish fibers of the date palm. They also dyed their hair. In fact they seem to have applied as many colors, gels, and waxes to their hair as we use today. The mummy now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo of the great pharaoh Ramesses II, who ruled Egypt some 1,200 years before Cleopatra, has dyed red hair. Ramesses died in 1213 BC, at the age of ninety, and his own hair by this point was white, unsurprisingly, but either before death, or as part of the embalming process it was dyed with henna.15 One might speculate that this emulated its color in life, but this would be speculation only. In fact red hair seems to have had something of a conflicted history in Egyptian culture. Red was the symbolic color of Set, the god of violence and disorder and lord of the hostile desert (there is supposedly an Egyptian prayer to Isis, begging for deliverance from “all things evil and red”16 ). Before Ramesses’s family, who were followers of Set, came to power, supposedly every year a redheaded male was burned alive as a sacrifice, or so the Roman chronicler Diodorus Siculus, writing more than a millennium later between 60 and 30 BC, informs us. These commentators and chroniclers of the ancient world are the only speaking witnesses we have, but with all of them, their words come to us as light from a dead star, distorted as echoes, sometimes as little more than static, down a long, long line from far away. We cannot know all of the details or sometimes indeed any of the circumstances in which they were writing; we can only guess, and to use these sources to reconstruct that ancient world is to be a detective—almost an archaeologist—yourself. None of this is as black and white as it may first appear.

But back to Cleopatra. What the fresco in Pompeii records, therefore, is not the appearance of an actual woman but the appearance of a statue. It is a sizable and significant step away from the living, breathing, original. Rome was 150 miles from Pompeii, not too far a journey, by any means, for a painter on a commission. Statues in the ancient world were rarely left in that blanched state of seashell whiteness in which we see them today. Once carved, they were often painted, and the grandest were gilded, too. So the coloring of the figure in the fresco may record the original coloring of the now-lost statue, or it may simply bear testimony to the paints available to the painter. The palette of the ancient world was limited to earth colors, mineral pigments, or vegetable dyes, but no matter what the painter intended, the iconic force of his subject would still overpower its actual appearance. The eye of the beholder is all. With so many of those names on website lists of historic redheads, the one thing that they all have in common (aside from the fact that we are most unlikely ever to be able to reach an indisputable conclusion as to their hair color) is that they all behaved as if their hair should have been red. We look at this Pompeian fresco, and we see not a woman with reddish-brown hair, we see Cleopatra, Caesar’s mistress, lover of Mark Antony, the queen who hazarded a kingdom and chose death over conquest, an archetype to which this book will return over and over again: the flame-haired seductress, exotic, sensual, impulsive, passionate. We see her hair as red because we want to do so. What other color would it be?

So who were the redheads of the ancient world? How real, or not, were they?


The kingdom of Thrace, if such a set of tribal territories can be so referred to, existed from roughly 1000 BC to the final dissipation of the Roman Empire some 1,700 years later. It sat across the western side of the Black Sea and stretched down to the Aegean, over an area that now includes most of Bulgaria and parts of Turkey and Greece. The Thracians were horsemen and warriors, and early contact with them, as both Greece and later Rome would discover, tended to be very bloody indeed. Even their war dances were violent enough to leave the odd participant lifeless. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Thracians believed that “to live by war and plunder is of all things the most glorious.”17 When as a Thracian you weren’t occupying yourself with that, you might perhaps be indulging in a popular drinking game, consisting of standing on a rock, with your head in a noose. One of your friends kicked the rock away and then the trick was to be quick enough with your Thracian short-sword to slice through the rope before you throttled—a sort of Thracian Russian roulette.18

The Greeks were recruiting Thracian mercenaries into their armies as early as 600 BC, by which time they had a strip settlement of Greek trading posts along the Thracian coasts. Alexander the Great, three hundred years later, would do the same, both fighting the Thracians and signing them up. To this day, a common explanation for the unexpected appearance of green eyes or red hair in a child in Afghanistan or Kashmir is the onetime presence of Alexander’s troops in those regions more than two thousand years ago, and who is to say such hand-me-down folklore doesn’t still preserve some kernel of genetic truth? The Thracians were as prized as troops as they were feared as enemies. In 73 BC Rome found itself facing an internal revolt led by the gladiator Spartacus, a Thracian from the border tribe of the Maedi with a Roman military background (the Roman chronicler Plutarch gives us a wealth of this familial detail on him but, maddeningly, fails to record the color of his hair). In addition to their military skills, the Thracians were superb metalworkers in bronze and gold, and they also had a highly evolved belief system covering the underworld and afterlife, as evinced by their elaborately decorated tombs. They lent much of this mythology to the Greeks in turn, although the gods of Thrace seem to have been even darker and less tractable than those of Olympus. The Thracians were also, notoriously, within the ancient world, “barbarian.” Not only did they disdain speaking Greek, they also refused to give up the traditional structure of their society, rejecting the whole idea of creating and living in cities, and remained in their small tribal communities. “If they had one head or were agreed among themselves,” Herodotus observes sadly, “it is my belief that … they would far surpass all other nations. But such union is impossible for them.”

To the north of Thrace, at the top of the Black Sea, were the lands of the Scythians, equestrian tribespeople with an origin as far back east as Iran. There is also Biblical mention of the Scythians, in Colossians 3:11: “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free,” which sounds as if the Scythians are being used as an even more extreme example of barbarism. They too were noted warriors, feared as archers in particular, and flourished from around the seventh century BC to the fourth century AD. Not losing sight of the fact that ancient writers used the term “Scythian” pretty broadly (as, perforce, do archaeologists today), Herodotus is our guide here as well. Writing of a city, Gelonus, in the northern part of Scythia, he describes its people, the Budini, as “a large and powerful nation: they have all deep blue eyes [or gray, depending upon translation] and bright red hair.” It’s thought that the Scythians, specifically the Budini, might have been the ancestors of the Udmurts of the republic of Udmurtia in Russia, on the Volga River.19 Why is this thought? Because ever since the anthropologists of the nineteenth century encountered them, the Udmurts have been celebrated as among the most redheaded people on earth, with almost as high a percentage of redheads in their population as the Irish and the Scots. They still are. The Udmurts and the area around Udmurtia on the Volga are the hotspot on the map of European redheads, north of the Caspian Sea.

This is intriguing enough. Even more so is the possibility that the backstory of the Scythians, as it were, might reach even farther eastward, as far as Tibet, Mongolia, and the border of modern China, and that the ancestors of the Scythians might be linked with the civilization of the Tarim Basin, and the Tarim mummies.

The history of red hair is tied to the history of human migration, of one people encountering another, or even “an other,” and each of these encounters adds another layer to the cultural response to red hair, right down to the present day. Red hair is an unmistakable and very convenient marker of these encounters and is tied in particular to four great human diasporas. Those of the Celts, the Vikings, and the Jews are to come. But let’s begin with the first of these four key diasporas: that of the tribes who made the journey across the Middle East to the shores of the Black Sea, and then settled the valley of the Danube (which may itself have acquired its name from a Scythian loanword). If you were to stretch the history of these people eastward, rather than west, and back in time, back beyond the Thracians and Scythians, back even beyond the reign of Ramesses the Great, you would reach the grasslands of central Asia where, it is believed, the history of red hair began. And if, thousands of years ago, rather than trekking west, you had turned east, you would eventually have reached what is now the Taklamakan Desert, in the Tarim Basin.

Almost everything about the civilization of the Tarim Basin and its discovery by Western archaeologists sounds as if it should have come straight out of Indiana Jones. There are the stories of the first European explorers who reached the area, to begin with: Nikolai Przhevalsky, who gave his name to Przewalski’s Horse, and whom internet mythology would have as the father of Joseph Stalin; or Albert von Le Coq, a German beer and wine magnate who began studying archaeology at the age of forty, whose expeditions were financed by none other than the German emperor Wilhelm II, and who ended by shipping more than seven hundredweight of artifacts back to Berlin, convinced that the presence of red-haired, blue-eyed figures in the frescoes he chipped, carved, and sawed out of caves in northwest China meant he had discovered a new Aryan heartland; or Sir Aurel Stein, who owed his knighthood as much to the role he played as a spy in the “Great Game,” the battling-out between Britain and Russia for influence over Central Asia, as he did to his archaeological discoveries. These early archaeologists discovered the ruins of settlements, orchards, and oases that had once been shaded by poplar and tamarisk trees and watered by rivers that had run dry centuries before, all now buried under the sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert (the name can be translated as “You go in, but you don’t come out”). And, at various graveyard sites around the rim of the Tarim Basin, they also discovered the Tarim mummies themselves, hundreds of them at least, almost perfectly preserved by the cold, dry climate, a climate so perfectly suited to mummification that it has preserved even the bodies of ancient mice in the remains of ancient granaries. What these Tarim mummies reveal is the fact that, in what is now western China, in the province of Xinjiang, bordered on one side by the ’Stans, and on the other by Mongolia, from at least 2000 BC to roughly AD 200 there lived a people of almost modern height with fair skin and blond hair, and in a couple of cases at least, as reported in the authoritative history of these discoveries, with actual red hair. They had angular, Caucasian features and light-colored eyes set in very un-Asian recessed eye sockets. And, they wove, wore, and maybe traded textiles that link them to the tribes of Celtic Europe.20 Basically, 4,000 years ago, there were people living in western China who looked as European as the tribes living at that time around the Seine or the Thames. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder (AD 23-78) who, like M. Fabius Rufus, also perished in the eruption of Vesuvius (Pliny the Elder was both corpulent and asthmatic, and couldn’t make it to safety through the pumice fall), included a description in his Natural History of these people of western China, given to him in turn by a diplomat from Taprobane (modern-day Sri Lanka), who was visiting the Emperor Claudius:

These people, they said, exceeded the ordinary human height, had flaxen hair, and blue eyes, and made an uncouth sort of noise by way of talking, having no language of their own for the purpose of communicating their thoughts.

The “uncouth sort of noise” may have been a very early Indo-European language, which scholars now refer to as Tocharian. The people speaking it are given the name “Seres” in Pliny’s account, or “people of the land of silk.” This is a very big clue as to how and why contact might have existed between the people of the Tarim Basin and those of the Black Sea and even farther into Europe: Tarim was on the Silk Road, one of the most important global trading routes that has ever existed.

We think of our planet as being divided into continents and countries, each of which is the place of origin for people of a specific appearance: African, Eurasian, Caucasian, and so on, but this is simply how the world looks to us at our moment in time. Thousands of years ago, these boundaries might not have been the same. Our ancestors were intrepid and tireless explorers; it may have been 2,500 miles from Cornwall to the shores of Phoenicia, but trade existed between the two. It may have taken seven months to travel overland from the Hindu Kush, between Pakistan and Afghanistan, to China, but the journey was made. (Clearly, so was that—more than 7,500 miles—between Sri Lanka and Rome.) And if goods were being traded, it would be very strange if tribal alliances and marriages weren’t taking place as well.

The Scythians left tomb-mounds, known as kurgans, across the whole of Eurasia, from the Ukraine to the Altai mountain plateaus between Mongolia and Siberia. Many of these have proved to be rich in the most exquisite examples of metalwork, in gold and bronze. They have also yielded up human remains, which in turn have revealed that the Scythians belonged to a haplogroup, R-M17, that is much more closely related to people living now in eastern Europe than it is to those of central Asia, and which would have given them fair skin, blue or green eyes, and light-colored hair.21Hence the link suggested between the ancestors of the Scythians and the ancestors of the fair-skinned, Caucasian-featured mummies from Tarim. This also raises at least the possibility that those unexpected red-haired, green-eyed children of Kashmir and Afghanistan record not the later passing of Alexander’s troops in the 320s BC but are perhaps reminders of an even more ancient lineage of some of the earliest redheads on the planet. What the tombs of the mobile, nomadic Scythians, who kept their art small and portable, have not so far rendered up is much in the way of paintings that shows us how these people depicted themselves. The tombs of the Thracians, however, have.


Some hundred miles east of Sofia, almost exactly in the center of modern Bulgaria, there is a valley containing no fewer than three hundred Thracian tumuli, or tomb-mounds. One of these is the so-called Ostrusha tomb, dating to 330–310 BC. Like most such tombs, its funerary bed is now empty (the reputation of the Thracians as metalworkers and the lure of Thracian gold meant many tombs were robbed from a very early date), although in this case its original occupant might not have been buried alone. When the tomb was opened, the skeleton of a horse was found inside it, with a knife rusting on its chest, suggesting that the poor beast was led in there and killed by being stabbed through the heart, in order to accompany its master to the Thracian heaven depicted above the bed, on the ceiling.22

The coffered ceiling of the Ostrusha tomb is extraordinary. Carved out of solid rock, it is divided into square fields, deeply inset, with both the framing borders and the central square being appropriately decorated. The coffers are painted with scenes of mourning (one, for example, shows the goddess Thetis mourning her son the Trojan hero Achilles—also a redhead, according to some accounts) and of the journey into the afterlife, and in coffer 32, there is the head and shoulders of a young woman [Fig. 4]. Her head is tilted to the left, as if looking down on the funerary bed, and she is extremely fair of face, even with the damage 2,300 years have inflicted on the fresco. She has skin like a rose petal, an air of gentle, clear-eyed calm that still catches the heart, and she has red hair. It is possible to conjecture that in this setting she represents Demeter or her daughter, Persephone. Both goddesses had powers within the cycle of life, death, and rebirth and were intimately connected with the notion of the turning of the year, and it is natural to see the young woman’s red hair as symbolic of fire, of the low winter sun, of sunsets and sunrise, of returning life, of winter and spring.

One hundred miles or so farther east of Ostrusha, toward the coast of the Black Sea and close by the village of Alexandrovo, is another tomb. This too dates to the fourth century BC. Its configuration differs from that in Ostrusha—there is no coffered ceiling; instead in cross-section it resembles an igloo, with a tumulus of earth mounded up over it. You enter through a low, narrow tunnel, as did the treasure hunters who discovered the site as recently as December 2000, and in the main chamber of the tomb, as you stand upright, you see above your head the frescoed decoration of a whole year’s worth of hunting scenes. The quarry are boars and deer, depicted as the huntsman thrusts his spear down their gullet or the hounds leap upon their backs. The hunters are shown wearing short tunics, or warmer trousers and boots (one reason for seeing these scenes as taking place in different seasons).23 One hunter is on horseback, and it has been conjectured that he is the “hero” figure, who might have been buried here. In that case, who are the others? One scene shows a chubby man with a prominent belly, stark naked, enraged and armed with an axe, charging toward a deer twice his size. Another hunter, heavier muscled—he has been described as soldierly—stands with spear raised, ready to deliver the coup de grace to a boar. This hunter’s legs are bare and might be interpreted as sunburned; his hair is dark, but when it came to the beard, the artist deliberately changed his palette and painted the beard red.

You can go badly astray in trying to read the ancient world as if it were our own. Archaeologically, it is clear that the Alexandrovo tomb must have been opened at least twice; it also contains the remains of what might have been a stone couch, or might have been a table. The decreasing height of the passage into the central chamber, with the frescoed hunt eternally circling its ceiling, might suggest that the chamber itself was used as a temple, and it and the couch/table inside it were for ceremonies and rituals lost to us. But the scenes and details are so specific—the portly naked man in such furious pursuit of that deer, and the red-bearded “soldier”—that they tempt one to another explanation: that they and the man on horseback hunted together, that they would have recognized themselves and the events in these scenes, and that on the rider’s death, for a period, his friends gathered here, and drank, and feasted, and remembered. And this is what they looked like. And one of them had a red beard.


Herodotus is the man to provide some context here. Herodotus was born c. 484 BC (so a little after Xenophanes’s long life came to its end), in what is now Bodrum in southern Turkey. Thrace would have been no more remote and its customs no less known to him than those of Canada are to the United States. Around 450 BC Herodotus was in Thrace, and in his Histories he describes the various habits of the various Thracian tribes. Some, he says, practiced polygamy, with the most favored wife following her husband to the grave and, indeed, fighting for the privilege of doing so. He details with relish how the Thracians kept “no watch” on their maidens “but leave them altogether free,” and how unwanted children—possibly, one imagines, the resulting unwanted children—would be sold to slave traders. He also describes their funeral rites and their worship of Dionysus. Thrace was reputedly the birthplace of Orpheus, the musician whose songs were so sweet they could divert rivers, coax trees to dance, and almost freed his dead wife, Eurydice, from the underworld. It was also the site of his death, torn limb from limb by Thracian women supposedly in the throes of Dionysian ecstasy.

You can also, of course, go wildly astray by taking the words of Herodotus at face value, as was noted by writers from Plutarch to Voltaire and as is still debated today. Where Thrace is concerned, though, he seems to have known what he was writing about. And for the Greeks, with their city-states and hierarchy of gods and government, and in particular the Athenians, with their strict notions of order and their rigid seclusion of women to the home, the Orpheus story must have been the perfect Thracian myth. It is inescapably violent and full of both transgressive females and the terrifying mysteries of the afterlife. Thrace both appalled and entranced the Athenians. And it was their single greatest source of slaves.

Besides their depictions of themselves in their tombs, the other means by which we know what the Thracians looked like is from their appearance in Greek art. Thracian women (when not pursuing Orpheus) shuffle slipshod and disconsolate around many a Greek vase. Their hair is shorn short, and their limbs are decorated with tattoos. To the Greeks, who punished escaped slaves with tattoos or branding, this was a sure sign of servitude, but to the Thracians themselves, ironically, these rosettes and dotted lines, these whorls and stylized animals (twiggy-antlered stags seem to have been a particular favorite) were signs of noble birth.24 Thracian men are depicted as warriors, sometimes fallen, sometimes not. They sport pointed beards, they wear cloaks decorated with bands of geometric patterns and caps that Herodotus informs us were made of fox-skin. There is obvious potential here for confusion between the color of a fox-skin cap and that of the hair of the head, similar to the confusion engendered between the Qizilbash warriors of thirteenth-century Anatolia and their crimson headwear. In the case of the Thracians, it may also reflect a connection made in the ancient world between the behavior of the animal—supposedly cunning, sly and untrustworthy—and the character ascribed to redheaded barbarians of whatever tribal identity. As the third-century Physiognomonica would have us believe, “The reddish are of bad character. Witness the foxes.” (Of course now it is used of redheaded women in the sense of the 1967 Hendrix song “Foxy Lady,” and is thus part of another of those historical associations of red hair with a shelf life of millennia.) But the Thracians are also sometimes shown, unmistakably, as redheads, as with King Rhesos of Thrace, a supporter of the Trojans in the Iliad. King Rhesos was late getting to Troy (a little local trouble with those pesky Scythians); then before he had so much as set foot on the battlefield, he was done to death in his tent by Diomedes and Odysseus, who stole his famous horses, too. His death is shown on a black-figure vase now in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles (Fig. 5). Rather less elevated is a little terracotta figure of a runaway slave from the British Museum in London (Fig. 6). It’s thought to have been made in Athens, at about 350–325 BC, so the same century as the Alexandrovo tomb. It’s no more than five inches, or about thirteen centimeters, high, and it shows a chubby little man, this time sitting on an altar. His shoulders slouch, his left hand grasps his left knee, and his right is raised to his ear, as if he is hard of hearing, or perhaps (given the open wail of his mouth), someone has just clipped him around the head, and here he is, scrambled atop the altar, claiming sanctuary, wailing and bemoaning his lot.

These little terracotta sculptures were traded all across the Classical world, from North Africa to southern Russia. They were the Toby-jugs (or maybe today the bobbleheads) of ancient Greece: cheap, coarse, and dispensable. Scenes of tragedy, such as the death of King Rhesos, were reserved for pottery of the grander sort—the black-figure vases, for example, which were intended for those who could appreciate them. Figures such as this runaway slave derived from comedy and were intended to appeal to the common sort. And they reflect exactly the “Three Stooges” slapstick aesthetic of Greek comic drama. On stage, our runaway slave would have had a red leather phallus bouncing between his legs under his miniskirt-length tunic (it makes this little figure even more poignant, that his manhood has been broken off). The grotesque expression of the mask he wears would have spoken to his audience of the primitive and ungovernable nature of his emotions. And his hair, or rather the wig attached to his mask (and even now on the terracotta, traces of pigment remain), his hair would have been red.

The Greeks liked lists. They liked the world ordered and subdivided. In the second century AD, the Greek scholar and rhetorician Julius Pollux compiled one of the world’s first thesauruses: a dictionary arranged not alphabetically but by subject matter. Within this, the Onomasticon, he includes descriptions of the seven different slave types in Greek drama, and four of the seven have red hair. On stage, the names of their characters repeat the same message: Pyrrhias, a slave in Menander’s comedy Dyskolos, (“The Grouch”), whose name means “Fiery.” In the comedies of Aristophanes no fewer than five different slave characters in five separate dramas share the same name: Xanthias, meaning “Goldy,” or “Red.”

It seems unlikely, to say the least, that every slave in every Greek household was a Thracian redhead. Red hair is still recessive; it would have been at least as much of a rarity in the ancient world as it is today. But in a phenomenon that repeats throughout history, this clearly made no difference. Where “other” is concerned, we focus upon its epitome to the exclusion of every other detail. One thing comes to stand as a symbol for all, and this one characteristic, red hair, came to stand for an entire class, if not in fact an entire nationality. The association was created; at some subconscious societal level it was accepted, and it stuck. Red hair, in the ancient world, equaled “barbarian”; then via the Greek stage and figures such as our little terracotta runaway, it began to equal “clown.” You can trace a line of development from these primitive slave characters of the Greek stage to the white-faced, red-haired clown of the circus big top to Ronald McDonald, unnerving children across the planet (and originally incarnated by Buttons, Ringling Brothers’ red-wigged clown); to the rather more endearing Obelix, Asterix the Gaul’s red-pigtailed bosom buddy in the cartoon books by Goscinny and Uderzo. It is as if we are watching two redhead archetypes, the ungovernable savage and the comic buffoon, coming into being before our eyes. In fact, it is not even as if. We are.

All freeborn people, as the historian Sandra Joshel puts it, are defined by their physical integrity. So to insult their appearance is to insult both their social standing and personal identity. But slaves had no personal identity. They were identified only by the work they might be fit for, like so many differently sized tools in a tool kit: this one has a singing voice. This one would make a good plowman. This one could be a wet nurse. This one could work with vines. And they had no ethnicity either, so red hair no longer marked you out as Thracian; it marked you out instead as disempowered, subservient. The good slave was one who accepted this and subsumed their own identity; the “bad” slave, and the one who got the most laughs on stage, was the one who insisted on retaining a human personality—always a bad one.

The pseudoscience of physiognomy, in which personality is inferred from physical characteristics, also held great appeal to the Greeks. Here was another way of getting the world to measure up. Aside from its views on foxes, the Physiognomonica (a treatise now fittingly attributed to an author known as the “pseudo-Aristotle”) relates how those with very fiery hair (agan purroi) are rascals (panourgi), while very white skin (agan leukoi) was a sign of cowardice (is this a third stereotype, of the redheaded man as wimp, coming into being?). But then nothing about red hair in the Greek world was good: in The Clouds Aristophanes has his Chorus grumble that the state is now in the hands of “men of base metal—foreigners and redheads,” and Aristophanes created more sympathetic slave characters, such as Xanthias in The Frogs, written c. 405 BC, than most. Otherwise slaves in Greek drama were grumbling, self-pitying, oversexed (masturbation in the Greek world was a vice of slaves and foreigners), uncouth, dim-witted, clownish, lazy, dishonest, and petulant. And, on stage at least, they had red hair.


The Roman encounter with the redheaded world tended to be at the sword’s point, rather than within the theatron.

Red hair is liminal, as has been said (this of course only contributes to its status as “other” to begin with). It’s out on the edge, geographically as well as genetically, with an undisturbed gene pool giving it, as a recessive gene, the best chance of coming up. It’s like blackjack: if you’re playing the same cards over and over, sooner or later, you’ll get a natural twenty-one. If there truly were unusually large numbers of redheads in Thrace, this might be why; all those separate tribes unable to agree, or presumably to intermarry, between themselves. You find redheads throughout Europe, but as a rule of thumb you find them in greater numbers the farther north you go. By far the longest-lasting of the tribal civilizations encountered by the Romans was that of the Celts, whose lands, at their greatest extent (depending on where you place the borders of the Celtic language, and where you place the borders of what was, and was not, Celtic in the first place) can be said to have reached from Ireland to Poland, as far north as the Hebrides, as far south as what would become Genoa. As the Roman legions marched and conquered and pushed the borders of the Empire ever up into the Celtic heartlands of Germania and Gaul, they encountered more and more redheads among the peoples they subjugated. Caesar’s Gallic campaigns of 58–51 BC alone are estimated to have added a million slaves to the Roman Empire. And although there is a notion that blond- or red-haired Celtic slaves were prized, and although they may have been so, as novelties, there is little evidence that the individual slaves themselves were regarded as being of any extra worth at all. Rather the reverse, in fact. The philosopher Cicero (106–43 BC) writes of British slaves, “I think you would not expect any of them to be learned in literature or music.” You can almost hear the sniff of disdain.

But contact with these Northern tribes did lead to the recognition that people who looked so similar must be connected in some way. Here is Tacitus (AD 61–after 117) on the tribes of Britain, and he’s worth quoting at length because here, finally, history has allowed the historian to catch up, and Tacitus is reflecting upon events within his own living memory. The original invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar in 55 BC led to conquest under the Emperor Claudius in AD 43 and was followed by decades more of on-and-off campaigning. Indeed Hadrian’s Wall, which marked the outermost northern border of the Roman world, was begun only in AD 122. In his life of the Emperor Agricola, Tacitus writes:

Who were the original inhabitants of Britain, whether they were indigenous or foreign, is as usual among barbarians, little known. Their physical characteristics are various, and from these conclusions may be drawn. The red hair and large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia point clearly to a German origin…. Those who are nearest to the Gauls are also like them, either from the permanent influence of original descent, or, because in countries which run out so far to meet each other, climate has produced similar physical qualities. But a general survey inclines me to believe that the Gauls established themselves in an island so near to them. Their religious belief may be traced in the strongly marked British superstition. The language differs but little; there is the same boldness in challenging danger, and, when it is near, the same timidity in shrinking from it. The Britons, however, exhibit more spirit, as being a people whom a long peace has not yet enervated. Indeed we have understood that even the Gauls were once renowned in war; but, after a while, sloth following on ease crept over them, and they lost their courage along with their freedom. This too has happened to the long-conquered tribes of Britain; the rest are still what the Gauls once were.

Not quite as long-conquered as Rome might have thought.

The counties of Suffolk, Norfolk, and Essex, in the east of England, exist under what Tacitus describes as a “sky obscured by continual rain and cloud.” The shoulders of the fields are dotted with Bronze or Iron Age tumuli that predate even the Romans, the churches are mostly medieval, the towns are small, the villages are tiny. The landscape dwarfs the people. It feels old. The skies go on forever, and dwarf everything. And as every East-Anglian schoolchild knows, in Roman times these were the homelands of the Celtic tribe of the Iceni, and of their queen, Boudicca. To such children (I was one myself) Boudicca’s chariots, with the terrifying scythes mounted Persian-fashion on their wheels, ready to cut down her enemies, are every bit as real and realizable as the tractor in the next field, grumbling home.

It was Rome’s policy to move from subjugation to colonization to integration, and there were native Britons, especially in the south and east of the country, who accepted the conquest, the changed state of their world, recognized the emperor in Rome, and prospered and grew rich on Roman loans. Boudicca’s husband, Prasutagus, was one of these. At the same time, again according to Tacitus, all the tensions one would expect in a newly conquered territory were present: there were Roman veterans living around the colony of Camulodunum, now Colchester in Essex, who had taken over native lands and homesteads and were especially hated, while even Roman slaves found in the native population people they could patronize and insult. Then Prasutagus died, the loans were called in, his lands taken away from his family, his wife was scourged, his daughters raped, and in AD 60 the Iceni rose in revolt. And thus Boudicca has come down to us, in the words not of Tacitus this time but of a later historian, Cassius Dio. He describes her as “possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women…. In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of red hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colors over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch.”

Again, the evidence has to be sifted. Cassius Dio lived AD 155–235, so his account is certainly not as contemporaneous as Tacitus, and shows it, in its elaboration. What both sources agree upon is that the Iceni and their neighbors the Trinovantes joined forces, and with Boudicca at their head swept down on Camulodunum, then on the new trading post of Londinium, and then Verulanium, present day St. Albans, too, and razed them to the ground. Eighty thousand Roman citizens are thought have perished before the rebellion was put down, and in fact both Cassius Dio and Tacitus speak of the distinct possibility of the island of Britain being lost to Rome altogether.

Cassius Dio, like Xenophanes, wrote in Greek, and that one word, “red,” in his description of Boudicca is also translatable as tawny, or as reddish-brown. Nor is there any evidence that scythe-bearing chariots were used by the Britons. Yet in the sculpture set up in 1902 on the corner of Westminster Bridge and the Victoria Embankment in London, there Boudicca is, in all her stern-browed Victorian glory, with knives a yard long protruding from the hub of her chariot’s wheels. And, right up to Marvel Comics’ Red Sonja, red hair has been indispensable to the image of the indomitable, ferocious, and usually voluptuous female barbarian. Because, again, what other color could Boudicca’s hair be? In her case it speaks of her unvanquished determination, her patriotic courage (one reason why she was so popular with the Victorians), her non-Roman-ness. Red hair meant Celt, it meant Gaul, it meant Thracian. Sometimes, indiscriminately, it meant all three.

The Capitoline Museum in Rome contains a sculpture now known as The Dying Galatian, but for centuries after it was unearthed in Rome in 1623, it was known as The Dying Gladiator, or The Dying Gaul. It’s a Roman marble copy (that process of historical transmutation again) of a lost Hellenistic original, thought to have been cast in bronze and commissioned by Attalus I, king of Pergamon in Turkey from 241 to 197 BC. It shows a naked warrior, half-lying on his shield. Scattered about him are his sword, his belt, his war trumpet. Around his neck there is a twisted, Celtic-looking torque, and his hair is in the short, punky, lime-washed spikes that must, one imagines, be just as it would have appeared and exactly as the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, who wrote between 60 and 30 BC, describes it.25 The man’s head is bent; he props himself up on one arm. There is a wound, a sword-thrust, bleeding, under his right breast, and the sculptor somehow managed to catch the one still, central moment, when the man knows death is upon him but has not yet tumbled beneath it. Lord Byron saw the sculpture and was moved to include it in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

I see before me the Gladiator lie:

He leans upon his hand—his manly brow

Consents to death, but conquers agony …

… his eyes

Were with his heart, and that was far away;

He reck’d not of the life he lost nor prize,

But where his rude hut by the Danube lay,

THERE were his young barbarians all at play,

THERE was their Dacian mother—he, their sire,

Butchered to make a Roman holiday—

All this rush’d with his blood—Shall he expire,

And unavenged?—Arise! ye Goths, and glut your ire!

But the dying warrior is not a gladiator, nor a Goth, nor a Gaul. He’s a Thracian, and we are back where we began.

The commission from Attalus I for the original bronze is thought to have been in celebration of his victory over a force of marauding Thracians who had settled in Galatia, in the highlands of Anatolia, and from there created such terror that they were able to extort tribute from as far afield, apparently, as the kingdom of Syria. Livy—the final Roman chronicler in this chapter—describes them thus:

Their tall stature, their long red hair, their huge shields, their extraordinarily long swords; still more, their songs as they enter into battle, their war-whoops and dances, and the horrible clash of arms as they shake their shields in the way their fathers did before them—all these things are intended to terrify and appal.

In fact he puts these words into Attalus’s mouth, as he exhorts his troops to action against the “Gauls.” By the time Livy was writing, in the first century BC, it didn’t matter if you were Gaulish, Celt, or Thracian. You had red hair, you were barbarian—that was all.

In 2014 workmen digging in the center of Colchester, down through the layered past, down to the level of the two-foot-thick seam of blackened rubble that still marks where Roman Camulodunum stood and burned, unearthed a horde of gold jewelry—the treasured possession of some Roman woman, hidden under the floor of her home as Boudicca’s warriors descended on the town.26 The floor of the room in which it had been hidden was strewn with the remains of food, carbonized by the heat of the fire that had destroyed the building; and mixed in with this were fragments of human bone—a piece of jaw; a piece of shin. The reality of Boudicca’s attack on Camulodunum is grotesquely at odds, as these things always are, with an image of fierce and indomitable courage, with Byron’s notion of innate nobility, refusing to bow beneath the oppressor’s yoke. The actions of Boudicca’s troops were as savage as anything perpetrated today, with particular brutality meted out to the Roman women she took captive: dragged to ancient sacred groves outside the town and mutilated with a vindictiveness that it seems almost impossible to countenance any one woman inflicting on another (purportedly the Roman women’s breasts were cut off and sewn to their mouths), and then they were killed. We don’t know the fate of the woman who once lived in this building in Roman Colchester, but she would have been no more an equal being to those she hid her jewelry from than they would have been to her. And she did not live to retrieve it.

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