As is often the case with ancient figures, much is known about their actions and writings, but far fewer details were recorded about their physical features and dress. This is the case for Aristotle. We know he was born in 384 BCE in the village of Stagira, within the Chalcidice Peninsula in Greece, and grew up around the court of the Macedonian kings. We know that at around seventeen years old, Aristotle journeyed to study under Plato in Athens. He stayed there until Plato died in 348/347 BCE, at which point Aristotle sailed across the Aegean Sea to sojourn at places such as Lesbos and Assus. Yet, by 343 or 342 BCE Aristotle was called back across the sea by King Philip II of Macedon to tutor the young military genius, Alexander the Great. After Alexander succeeded his father as king in 336 BCE, Aristotle soon left his royal pupil to return to Athens in order to begin lecturing at the Lyceum. He remained there until Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BCE. Fearing persecution because of his links to the Macedonian court, Aristotle relocated to Chalcis, where he died in 322 BCE. During his life, Aristotle is thought to have written around 200 separate works, covering virtually all available fields of study in ancient Greece, but most of these texts, unfortunately, have been lost. Despite the existence of this ample amount of biographical information about Aristotle, knowledge regarding the physical details of the philosopher—how he looked and dressed—remains much less prevalent.
Only one ancient source seems to have briefly discussed the appearance and fashion sense of Aristotle. This unique scholar was Diogenes Laertius (c. 3rd century), a biographer who specialized in philosophers. During his research, Diogenes Laertius perused the writings of other 4th-century figures, searching for references to Aristotle, be it praise, criticism, or simply legal documents (such as Aristotle’s will). For Aristotle’s appearance, Diogenes Laertius found only one source. This was a book called, On Lives, written by a certain Timotheus the Athenian. Little is known, unfortunately, about this particular Timotheus and his book. Nevertheless, it is from this source that Diogenes Laertius obtained information as to how Aristotle might have presented himself to his students and peers. Even so, the quote leaves much to be desired. Diogenes Laertius wrote: “he spoke with a lisp, as we learn from Timotheus the Athenian in his book On Lives; further, his calves were slender (so they say), his eyes small, and he was conspicuous by his attire, his rings, and the cut of his hair” (Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 5.1). This, sadly, is the most descriptive ancient quote we have about Aristotle’s personal traits and his appearance.
We do not know exactly what Aristotle wore, or how he wore it, but he was apparently very particular about his wardrobe. Due to his upbringing around the Macedonian court, perhaps he brought some elements of Macedonian fashion with him to Athens when he arrived at the city to study at the age of seventeen. Whatever the case, he evidently chose and arranged his garments with the intention of being “conspicuous,” or, put more simply, he wanted to stand out from the crowd. Along with dressing well, he also wanted his hair to be fashionable and tidy. As for jewelry, according to Diogenes Laertius and his source, Aristotle enjoyed wearing rings and was conscientious of how he displayed them. From the quote, we also learned that Aristotle might have had a lisp, and his lifestyle was healthy enough to keep him fashionably slender. It is an incomplete picture, to be sure, but such details add a glimmer of humanity to the man who we otherwise know only through his written thoughts.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Portrait of Aristotle, by René Boyvin (c. 16th century), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).