Monday, 7 March 2016

What did the Romans wear?

If you said ‘a toga’, go to the back of the class; well, part-way, anyway. Very few Romans wore togas. Women in the later Republic and Empire, for a start, and children of any sort; slaves couldn’t wear them, nor could any male who was not a Roman citizen (cives) as opposed to a Roman subject (peregrinus), until that distinction was abolished in AD212 by Caracalla. Lastly, any soldier or later in the empire, any civil servant, as they dressed like soldiers. This leaves a small group of elite males.

Horace says in one of his Satires ‘let’s face it: outside Rome, the toga is seldom worn’. Even in Rome, people were often not kitted in their toga. Suetonius tells a story about Augustus that he was on one occasion walking through the Forum Romanum, when he saw a group of men talking and all were wearing Gallic-style cloaks (braccae). He went to them and berated the group, then went home and promulgated a law  that men in the Forum must always wear a toga. In other words, you wore a toga to perform being Roman (Suetonius, Augustus 40.5).

In earlier times, Roman adult citizens of both sexes wore togas of undyed wool; this could be homespun with relative ease, and a simple warm garment fits the Roman self image of toughness and simplicity; after all, Romulus and the earliest settlers had been shepherds.

But when Roman officials came to Tarantum to demand that city’s surrender in 282BC, which led to the Pyrrhic Wars, the Tarantines thought they looked so ridiculous, they not only laughed at them, someone actually shat on one of the delegation’s toga (Cassius Dio 9.39, discussed in Mary Beard’s Laughter in Ancient Rome, pp.4-6; also in Dionysius). Tarantum was the source of the best regarded wool, which was, we should assume, why Rome wanted the city and why they turned up dressed in wool. Most wars are about the control of resources.

We can see a distinction between clean and dirty in the production of clothing; wool and leather were dirty trades. Raw wool is laden with lanolin, and must be fulled, which involves soaking the fleece in noxious but effective products, notably human urine, which was taxed. This was a commercial industrial process performed in a fullonica, illustrated by the Fullonica of Veranius Hypsaeus at Pompeii, where we can see pieces of wool being hung up to dry on tenterhooks.

Fullonica of Veranius Hypsaeus, Pompeii

 Leather, used for belts, shoes and helmets, is also a dirty trade. Anciently, human faeces were used, along with brain material from animals. Both trades were therefore located away from where people lived, down wind where possible and certainly downstream from where water was extracted for clean trades and agriculture.

Roman women stopped wearing togas around 200BC and changes to the men’s toga, with denotations of social rank, also took place This seems to coincide with the moment the Greeks first paid attention to Rome, and probably for the same reason: the Battle of Zama. The defeat and annexation of mighty Carthage made many Romans very rich for the first time. Their women could afford to stop making their own clothes and buy fashionable Greek styles. The Romans at the same time stopped writing their literature in Greek and stopped wearing shapeless, styleless clothes; there was a change to both text and textiles. Cato the Elder complained (in Latin) that when he was young, women made the family’s clothes, but now they just bought them, and consequently the world was going to the dogs.

It did remain a potent symbol of citizenship marriage that a married woman (matrona) should be portrayed as someone who spun wool. Maybe some of the poorer ones still did, but the rich dropped that as soon as finances permitted. Women are regularly depicted on monuments spinning clothes as a sign on modesty and acceptance of the mos maiorum. This was clearly an ancient mode: ‘cloth’ derives from Greek ‘Klotho’, the spinner, one of the three Fates.

Klotho, one of the Fates, with her distaff

We can see the trope of woman as spinner on the tombstone of Regina, found at South Shields, County Durham. You can see she is portrayed spinning, with balls of wool by her left foot. But she probably never  did it; as the wife of a wealthy Syrian merchant she wouldn’t have considered it worthy, but it was a symbol of respectability.

Tombstone of Regina of the Catuvellauni, as a Roman matrona, spinning wool

From Carlisle comes this devotional statue group of three mother goddesses, all in short dresses and offering refreshments, including what look like half baguettes. This is from a Roman civitas capital not far from the western end of Hadrian’s Wall, and so quite marginal, but it does show alternative forms of dresses for females.

Three mother goddesses from Gaul, with short skirts 

Slaves wore loins cloths for outdoor work; most slaves worked as field hands. We can see this on a terracotta tile showing two slaves roped together around the neck and held by some kind of overseer, who from his trousers was probably a Gaul or German. Urban male and female slaves wore a tunic (tunica) to the knees with short sleeves. This was a practical garment, but by contrast, the toga, being rather impractical, was a marker of citizen rank. No doubt rich Romans dressed body servants quite well as a form of potlatch (Wow! If they dress their slaves better than I can clothe myself, how rich can they be?).

Slaves in loincloths, with overseer in trousers
The toga could be embellished with a wide purple stripe (toga laticlava), worn only by senators and certain magistrates. Purple dye, extracted from the murex, a small mollusc found in the Levant. Its rarity and the difficulty of its extraction made it a perfect symbol of wealth. In Greek ‘Phoenicia’ meant ‘land of purple dye’, and the Punic name for the same area ‘Canaan’ meant the same. While a senator might be able to afford a toga with a wide purple stripe, all-purple togas (toga trabea) were reserved for statues of gods and emperors.

The word togatus carried connotations of civilian status as soldiers wore a sagum cloak of unwashed, lanolin-rich and thus waterproof wool, dyed red.

Some senior priests wore a toga picta, possibly of Etruscan origins (although it does seem that anything we can’t understand about the Romans is dumped in the bin marked ‘probably of Etruscan origin’). This had coloured patterns sewn on to it and seems to have resembled the ornate robes of High Church Anglican and Roman Catholic priests.

Official in a toga picta
Roman prostitutes sometimes wore togas, once respectable women dropped them. It enabled shoulders and legs to be seen and was easily removed, a sign of sexual availability. Women at toga parties in the US (dating back only to 1953 and popularised by the movie ‘Animal House’) would appear to use it for much the same purpose.

In truth, a typical Roman male would wear a tunica, with a woollen cloak (laena) over it.
Man in tunica and laena, buying a potion from a rather Chinese looking sorceress; from Pompeii
In the following scene from Pompeii of customers buying loaves at a bread shop, they appear to be wearing a longer laena and leather shoes, perhaps hobnailed boots. The boy on the right is barefoot.

Bread shop in Pompeii; note the laena and hobnail boots
Women’s dress became more complex as Roman women became less the helpmeet of their husbands or fathers and more trophies to be exhibited, with the principle that the more elaborate the clothing, the less likely the wearer was to do actual work in it. Typically over a tunica, a woman wore a floor-length stola, over which was a palla, a kind of shawl. Her only underwear would be a strophium, a breast band. Layering was very In, even then.

Underwear (induti), seems to be cognate with the Indian ‘dhoti’, which derives from Sanskrit for ‘clean’. What your mother said about going out in clean underwear seems to have been universal. Kilt-wearing soldiers regularly wore them for practical reasons (unlike the Scots regiments of the 19th century, so took pride in not wearing underwear, an early instance of ‘going commando’).

Romans wore sandals with hobnails (solea, hence the sole of a shoe) much of the time, alternatively the soccus, a laced shoe without hobnails, which shows you how technology has hardly changed in 2000 years. The calceus was a hobnailed boot, worn only by Roman citizens. A Roman citizen would often be buried in his hobnailed boots, and so they became a marker to archaeologist that the person buried was a pagan. Heavy-duty ones worn by soldiers were called caligae, from callus, hardened skin.

Solea with hobnail soles
Egyptian socks
Supposedly barbarian people wore trousers, and in colder climates, so did the Romans. The Roman army by the fourth century AD is described in detail by Ammianus when parading before Constantius II on one of his rare visits to Rome. They wore trousers. However, trousers were considered barbarian wear and often (as in  Persian trousers) effeminate. Honorius took time out from losing to the Goths to pass laws against men wearing trousers when in Rome (Theodosian Codex 14.10.2-3).

Sumptuary laws (Sumptuariae leges) assigning types of clothing to rank and citizenship were frequently passed and just as frequently ignored. It is always the marker of an oppressive society that laws are passed on such matters. Officially, this was to stop the numerous lower levels of society from bankrupting themselves in social competition. But when the question is how many purple stripes do you have on your toga it’s about social repression.

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