What Color Was Alexander the Great's Hair?

Illustration of Alexander the Great, being taught by Aristotle
Illustration of Alexander the Great, being taught by Aristotle. Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

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. 

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

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 (Book XII, Chapter XIV) that he refers to Alexander the Great's hair color and says it was yellow, according to this translation:

"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.

This Classics Listserv notes 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.

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

"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

In Plutarch's Life of Alexander (Section 4) he writes that Alexander was fair "passing into ruddiness" but doesn't say specifically that he had red hair.

Apelles...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.

So it appears Alexander was a blond, rather than 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.

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Gill, N.S. "What Color Was Alexander the Great's Hair?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/alexander-the-greats-hair-color-116833. Gill, N.S. (2020, August 27). What Color Was Alexander the Great's Hair? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/alexander-the-greats-hair-color-116833 Gill, N.S. "What Color Was Alexander the Great's Hair?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/alexander-the-greats-hair-color-116833 (accessed March 23, 2023).