For the emperor’s beard / om des keizers baard

Arjen Robben and the Emperor Julian.

Arjen Robben thinks the World Cup third place play-off is a lot of fuss about nothing and should be abolished:

De troostfinale tegen Brazilië is er volgens Robben een ‘om des keizers baard‘. “Die kan me gestolen worden. Er telt maar één prijs en dat is wereldkampioen worden. Ik wil niet hard zijn, maar deze wedstrijd mogen ze wat mij betreft afschaffen.”

A Dutch language association, Onze Taal, makes two suggestions. One is that there’s German parophony at work – Kaisers Bart/Geissenbart (emperor’s beard/goat beard) – and recalls that goat hair is worthless. The other says why fight about the emperor’s beard when he’s not trading anyway:

De uitdrukking komt waarschijnlijk uit het Duits, waarin um des Kaisers Bart streiten voorkomt. Dit is volgens het Groot Uitdrukkingenwoordenboek van Van Dale (2006) mogelijk een verbastering van um den Geissenbart streiten (dus om de ‘baard’ van een geit). En dat zou weer een vertaling zijn van het Latijnse de lana caprinia rixari (‘ruziemaken over geitenwol’, een zinsnede uit de Epistulae van Horatius). In het desbetreffende hoofdstuk stelt Hortius quasi-serieus de vraag aan de orde of je geitenhaar ‘wol’ zou mogen noemen, net als een schapenvacht. Deze discussie ging later symbool staan voor een nutteloze discussie in het algemeen. Van Dale (2005) geeft bij de lana caprina dan ook de betekenis ‘over niets (ruzie maken)’.

Een andere verklaring gaat wél uit van de baard van een keizer. De oorsprong zou dan de volgende gedachte zijn: als je speelde om des keizers baard, speelde je om iets waarop je geen enkel recht kon laten gelden, oftewel: om iets wat geen enkele reële waarde had. F.A. Stoett noemt deze laatste verklaring.

Gesteld dat het om een echte keizer ging in deze uitdrukking, welke zou het dan zijn? Het Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal houdt het op “de witte baard van Karel den Groote of de roode van Frederik Barbarossa”.

There is probably something in all that, and the way that ideas flow apart and then together means that the two suggestions are not necessarily mutually exclusive. But my hunch is that its ultimate origin is in the Emperor Julian’s rejection by the Antioch oligarchy in 362-3, which Julian or his ghostwriter in the Misopogon spun as a rejection of good government on the grounds of a bad beard:

Throughout the whole city, then, you both uttered and listened to all the jests that were made about this miserable beard of mine, and about one who has never displayed to you nor ever will display among you the sort of life that you always live and desire to see also among those who govern you. Next with respect to the slanders which both in private and publicly you have poured down on my head, when you ridiculed me in anapaestic verse, since I too have accused myself I permit you to employ that method with even greater frankness; for I shall never on that account do you any harm, by slaying or beating or fettering or imprisoning you or punishing you in any way. Why indeed should I? For now that in showing you myself, in company with my friends, behaving with sobriety, — a most sorry and unpleasing sight to you — I have failed to show you any beautiful spectacle, I have decided to leave this city and to retire from it; not indeed because I am convinced that I shall be in all respects pleasing to those to whom I am going, but because I judge it more desirable, in case I should fail at least to seem to them an honourable and good man, to give all men in turn a share of my unpleasantness, and not to annoy this happy city with the evil odour, as it were, of my moderation and the sobriety of my friends.

For not one of us has bought a field or garden in your city or built a house or married or given in marriage among you, or fallen in love with any of your handsome youths, or coveted the wealth of Assyria, or awarded court patronage; nor have we allowed any of those in office to exercise influence over us, or induced the populace to get up banquets or theatrical shows; nay rather we have procured for them such luxurious ease that, since they have respite from want, they have had leisure to compose their anapaests against the very author of their well-being. Again, I have not levied gold money or demanded silver money or increased the tribute; but in addition to the arrears, one-fifth of the regular taxes has been in all cases remitted. Moreover I do not think it enough that I myself practise self-restraint, but I have also an usher who, by Zeus and the other gods, is moderate indeed, as I believe, though he has been finely scolded by you, because, being an old man and slightly bald in front, in his perversity he is too modest to wear his hair long behind, as Homer made the Abantes wear theirs. And I have with me at my court two or three other men also who are not at all inferior to him, nay four or even five now, if you please.

And as for my uncle and namesake, did he not govern you most justly, so long as the gods allowed him to remain with me and to assist me in my work? Did he not with utmost foresight administer all the business of the city? For my part I thought these were admirable things, I mean mildness and moderation in those who govern, and I supposed that by practising these I should appear admirable in your eyes. But since the length of my beard is displeasing to you, and my unkempt locks, and the fact that I do not put in an appearance at the theatres and that I require men to be reverent in the temples; and since more than all these things my constant attendance at trials displeases you and the fact that I try to banish greed from the market-place, I willingly go away and leave your city to you. For when a man changes his habits in his old age it is not easy, I think, for him to escape the fate that is described in the legend about the kite. The story goes that the kite once had a note like that of other birds, but it aimed at neighing like a high-spirited horse; then since it forgot its former note and could not quite attain to the other sound, it was deprived of both, and hence the note it now utters is less musical than that of any other bird. This then is the fate that I am trying to avoid, I mean failing to be either really boorish or really accomplished. For already, as you can see for yourselves, I am, since Heaven so wills, near the age “When on my head white hairs mingle with black,” as the poet of Teos said.

The Antiochians may well have muttered something resembling barba non facit philosophum behind their hands:

To Herodes Atticus, the ex-consul, renowned for his personal charm and his Grecian eloquence, there once came, when I was present, a man in a cloak, with long hair and a beard that reached almost to his waist, and asked that money be given him εἰς ἄρτους, that is, “for bread.” Then Herodes asked him who on earth he was, and the man, with anger in his voice and expression, replied that he was a philosopher, adding that he wondered why Herodes thought it necessary to ask what was obvious. “I see,” said Herodes, “a beard and a cloak; the philosopher I do not yet see. Now, I pray you, be so good as to tell me by what evidence you think we may recognize you as a philosopher.” Meanwhile some of Herodes’ companions told him that the fellow was a vagabond of worthless character, who frequented foul dives and was in the habit of being shamefully abusive if he did not get what he demanded. Thereupon Herodes said: “Let us give him some money, whatever his character may be, not because he is a man, but because we are men,” and he ordered enough money to be given him to buy bread for thirty days. (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights)

If only Júlio César Soares de Espíndola, the gloriously misnamed Brazilian goalie, would grow a beard before baldie Robben faces him Saturday.

Some of the early adage collections, e.g. Hernando Núñez de Guzmán, have Herod’s philosopher begging in the company of a she-wolf. Where she came from I do not know, but add a tin whistle and you’ve got a modern heroin junkie perroflauta.

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Last updated 10/07/2014

Antioch (1): Antioch on the Orontes was an ancient Greek city on the eastern side of the Orontes River.

Arjen Robben (1): Arjen Robben]; born 23 January 1984) is a Dutch professional footballer who plays for German club Bayern Munich.

Aulus Gellius (1): Aulus Gellius was a Latin author and grammarian, who was probably born and certainly brought up in Rome.

Julian (emperor) (1): Julian, also known as Julian the Apostate, was Roman Emperor from 361 to 363, as well as a notable philosopher and author in Greek.A member of the Constantinian dynasty, Julian was orphaned as a child.

Kaleboel (4307):

Misopogon (1): The Misopogon, or Beard-Hater, is a satirical essay on philosophers by the Roman Emperor Julian.


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