What Color Was Alexander the Great's Hair?

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What Color Was Alexander the Great's Hair?

Alexander Mosaic Depiction of Craterus saving Alexander from a Persian lion from Pella, Greece
Alexander 3rd century B.C. Mosaic Depiction of Craterus (right) saving Alexander (left) from a Persian lion, at Sidon in 333. From Pella Museum, in Greece. CC Flickr User miriam.mollerus

Everyone seems to want a stake in Alexander the Great, even those focused on hair color. Most often arguments erupt over whether, because he was a Macedonian (like the Ptolemies in Egypt, including Cleopatra), Alexander counted as a true Greek. Another popular topic is whether he should be numbered among the gay men of antiquity. Here we'll address the less provocative question of whether the world's gingers can stake a claim in Alexander the Great.

The Classics-L mailing list [Classical Greek and Latin Discussion Group ] was discussing a question like ones on the topic of appearance I've received in email, but unlike me, they came up with an answer of sorts. Based on the responses on the list, here are references from antiquity that address the question of Alexander's hair color, and more specifically, whether or not Alexander was a redhead.

Aelian on Alexander the Great's Hair Color

Aelian was a Roman rhetoric teacher of the second to third century A.D. who wrote in Greek. His most important writings were De Natura Animalium (Περὶ Ζῴων Ἰδιότητος) and Varia Historia (Ποικίλη Ἱστορία). It is in the latter that he refers to Alexander the Great's hair color and says it was yellow, according to this translation:

Book XII Chap. XIV.
Of persons excellent in Beauty.

"They say that the most amiable and beautiful amongst the Greeks was Alcibiades; amongst the Romans, Scipio. It is reported also that Demetrius Poliorcetes contended in Beauty. They affirm likewise that Alexander Son of Philip was of a neglectful handsomness: For his Hair curled naturally, and was yellow; yet they say there was something stern in his countenance.

On the Cassics-L list, it was mentioned that translations for the Greek adjective include "reddish blond."

Pseudo-Callisthenes on Alexander the Great's Appearance

The story of Alexander is full of heroic elements making it fit for embellishment. The Alexander Romance is a term referring to collections of stories about the romantic hero. A court historian, Callisthenes (c. 360-328 B.C.) wrote about Alexander, but some of the legendary material originally attributed to him is considered spurious, so it is now labeled Pseudo-Callisthenes. [See: The Greek Alexander Romance, by Pseudo-Callisthenes, Richard Stoneman.]

Pseudo-Callisthenes labels Alexander's hair "lion-colored," or as we might say, "tawny."

Pseudo Callisthenes 1.13.3 translation

"For he had the hair of a lion and one eye was blue; the right one was heavy lidded and black, and the left one was blue; and his teeth were sharp as fangs, and he looked upon a defensive attack the same as a lion would."

Plutarch on Alexander the Great's Appearance

Plutarch writes that Alexander was fair, but doesn't say he had red hair.

Plutarch's Life of Alexander (Section 4)

"4 The outward appearance of Alexander is best represented by the statues of him which Lysippus made, and it was by this artist alone that Alexander himself thought it fit that he should be modelled. 2 For those peculiarities which many of his successors and friends afterwards tried to imitate, namely, the poise of the neck, which was bent slightly to the left, and the melting glance of his eyes, this artist has accurately observed. 3 Apelles, however, in painting him as wielder of the thunder-bolt, did not reproduce his complexion, but made it too dark and swarthy. Whereas he was of a fair colour, as they say, and his fairness passed into ruddiness on his breast particularly, and in his face. 4 Moreover, that a very pleasant odour exhaled from his skin and that there was a fragrance about his mouth and all his flesh, so that his garments were filled with it, this we have read in the Memoirs of Aristoxenus.

So it appears Alexander was a blond, rather than a ginger. However, lion-colored might not really be tawny, but a strawberry blond or red-colored mane -- lion hair that is generally darker than the rest of the lion. If strawberry, one could argue that the dividing line between (strawberry as a shade of blond) and red is arbitrary and culture-dependent.