Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.08.42

Jonathan Edmondson, Alison Keith (ed.), Roman Dress and the Fabrics of Roman Culture.   Toronto/Buffalo:  University of Toronto Press, 2008.  Pp. xvii, 370; plates 56 p.  ISBN 978-0-8020-9319-6.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Jonathan Mannering, King's College, Cambridge (
Word count: 3207 words

How dress emblematised social and civic status for Romans is the question of interest for this book. Fourteen scholars contribute individual chapters which are grouped into three parts, and which engage with the role of dress in the construction of masculinity, femininity, and (primarily imperial) culture. An introduction written jointly by Edmondson and Keith offers concise background to the recent history of dress studies (esp. pp. 1-7), which suggests the ways in which matters of gender, ethnicity, class, social psychology and political empowerment are woven into sartorial discourse. The collection itself exemplifies the range of cultural insights available from the study of dress. Chapters may be read individually according to the reader's particular interest, but the collection also works as a concerted whole, showcasing major scholarly methodologies (historical, anthropological, archaeological, literary critical) as it explores various aspects of Roman dress to varying degrees of specificity. Chapter titles are listed at the end of this review. The book provides ample figure illustrations, as well as an Index Locorum and comprehensive General Index which will facilitate anyone researching specific topics; typographical errors are occasional but unproblematic.

Part 1 features five chapters on the theme 'Investments in Masculinity'. The basic equation between a man's vestment and his civic identity in Roman culture is made by Jonathan Edmondson in Chapter 1, in which the toga is construed as the iconic symbol for male Romanness in the public sphere. An array of textual evidence attests the power of public dress to define the civic body from the time of the Republic through the Empire. As the primary signifier for communal identity, the toga is also, as Edmondson argues, a tool for social exclusion and control. Fundamental distinctions between citizen and non-citizen (foreigners, exiles, those classed as infames), and finer distinctions amongst the hierarchies of status within the civic body (senatorial, magisterial, military, religious) could be articulated and maintained through dress. Edmondson's strongest claim is that dress codes were enforced not only by emperors but also by self-regulation within the civic body itself. In writings historical, forensic, and satirical, the masculine toga and feminine stola were appealed to as the common thread of Roman tradition and hence as the symbol of moral authenticity and civic mindedness -- whether or not the toga and stola were at all times in use in point of historical fact. The conciseness of Edmondson's panoptic view of Roman dress codes throughout the centuries (cf. the 200-year skip on p. 36) can occasionally gloss over historical and interpretive gaps. Such efforts, in this as well as subsequent chapters, to stitch together the many tears in the historical record can result in a synthetic refabrication of lost social and cultural experience. Nonetheless the first chapter features thorough ascription of all historical events to their textual sources, and is critically valuable for establishing the sartorial vocabulary on which the following chapters can and do rely.

In Chapter 2, Fanny Dolansky focuses on the rite of passage in which the freeborn Roman male enters into manhood by dedicating his childhood toga praetexta and donning the pure white toga virilis. Dolansky is candid about her attempts to draw together the various strands of evidence from across five centuries and throughout the Roman provinces in order to fashion an idealised reconstruction of the ritual (p. 48). Of most importance, the choice of date for the ceremony resided with the family, most likely the father, and was not strictly determined by the boy's age or even pubescence, though most boys partook of the ritual in their mid-teens. The boy would accept the new toga inside the house in the presence of his entire family, and would proceed to a civic space to present his new attire and new adult self to the community, most likely with an attendant act of sacrifice. By reconstructing this rite of passage, Dolansky attests a dynamic apparently unique to Roman ritual practice: here, a socio-religious celebration is set not according to state calendar but rather initiated independently by the household for the recognition of its power and resources by the community.

In Chapter 3, Michael Koortbojian argues that male Roman portrait statuary reflects a uniquely Roman preoccupation with displaying one's individuality by, somewhat paradoxically, conjoining a veristic representation of one's head to a bodily repertory of generalized, institutionally sanctioned symbols for public honours. The exception to prove this rule is the radical statuary representation of the newly deified Julius Caesar, whose semi-nude figure clashed with the togate practice and, hence, representational principles of the traditional Republican cursus honorum (although this crucial point is only made clear at the end of the chapter). A fuller sampling of counterexamples from Greek and Hellenistic portrait statuary might have brought Koortbojian's claim for the uniqueness of Roman iconographic practice into higher, contradistinctive relief.

The practicalities of wearing a toga are investigated by Michele George in Chapter 4. George sifts through the satirical ironies of Martial and Juvenal to reveal the possible disadvantages to wearing the toga, particularly as experienced by the socially disadvantaged group of clientes. Enfranchised with civic rights but not independently wealthy, Roman clients occupy an intermediate position in society. For clients in satirical representations, the toga becomes a symbol not of empowerment but of subordination to their inconsiderate patrons; the toga is portrayed as a cumbersome, stifling and constricting morass of fabric which must nonetheless be lugged across town at the crack of dawn for the morning salutatio in the hopes of a meager handout. To acquire the toga without sufficient personal resources is to step onto a hierarchical ladder with limitless social gradients, one marked by unending social frustration which could, as George shows (pp.103-7), reduce the free man to a position of virtual slavery. The privileges and austere nobility of the ideal toga are quickly dampened by George's sweat-inducing account. George includes significant quotations from the respective authors, but the Latin itself is missing.

In Chapter 5, masculine dress is examined with regard to a still more marginal social group, the gladiator, and with regard to an even more extreme form of clothing, namely its virtual absence. Michael Carter considers the figure of the agile retiarius, whose freedom of movement came by virtue of his light weaponry (trident and net) and minimal protective gear. In exposing his scantily clad body and, significantly, his face to the public gaze, the retiarius was a prime target for satirical attack as well as more general disapproval; his gracefulness and near nakedness were taken as signs of a lewd character, one familiarised with Greek gymnastics, and even akin to the corrupt and corrupting cinaedus. It may have been possible to take the argument beyond an equation between style of fighting and quality of character. Given that armament classification strongly connotes ethical traits, then a gladiatorial combat may also be seen as a struggle between moral sensibilities (which Carter comes close to saying on p. 119). If, then, a retiarius defeats a more heavily armed opponent (e.g. secutor, or myrmillo), does effeminate lasciviousness necessarily triumph over manly restraint, or is this an opportunity for the audience to reevaluate what constitutes Roman militaristic valour? Carter does take care to acknowledge the limits of the evidence, respecting the wide differences in time, place and milieu from which our various sources come; helpfully, Latin is included.

The feminine counterpart to these studies on masculine attire is delivered in Part 2, 'Fashioning the Female'. Chapter 6 complements Chapter 2 in its aim and method as Kelly Olson attempts to reconstruct the appearance of the Roman girl (unmarried, 18 or under). The literary and material records supply scarce information on this topic, although Olson notices discrepancies between textual and artistic representations of young girls, since items of clothing and ornamentation which are mentioned in texts are rarely extant on reliefs or statuary. I would question Olson's conclusion that artistic representations of young girls are less prescriptive and more descriptive than literary representations (pp. 149-50), since both media tend to idealise their subjects. One point of interest is the function of the breast-band (strophium) in moulding the shape of the young girl to the desired body type of small breasts and wide hips (p.143); it would seem that women, if only for a fixed period of their lives, were under even greater pressure than men to conform, quite literally, to the social and cultural ideals enforced by the characteristic restrictiveness of Roman clothing.

The restrictive side of feminine attire is also the topic of Chapter 7, in which Elaine Fantham endeavours to disentangle a knot both semantic and pragmatic: just what is the difference between vittae and fibulae, and exactly how were these used to cover a woman's head and bind her hair, whether in ritual or in everyday practice? Portraiture is of little help in answering these questions, and in spite of Fantham's scrupulous efforts to distinguish the two according to literary accounts (pp. 164-66), the precise meaning of vitta seems to be interchangeable with that of infula. The purportedly plain, secular vitta can at times substitute for the more elaborate, ostensibly sacred infula (metrically recalcitrant in dactylic verse except for the nominative). Some resolution might be found if this question were approached by asking how ritual practice, in contrast to poetic convention, may determine the use as well as meaning of objects.

In Chapter 8, Leslie Shumka interprets the beautifying arts of cosmetics and ornamentation as the tools for feminine self-design, and posits these as the feminine analogue to the arts of rhetoric and writing by which men fashioned their own characters. In exhaustive detail Shumka catalogues the Roman woman's toilette as it can be known from literary and, primarily, mortuary culture of Roman Italy (though examples of the latter are difficult to date with precision). Revealed is a mundus muliebris which offered seemingly limitless choices for cultus (dress and grooming) and ornatus (adornment) which could be used for the construction of a unique yet traditionally defined female identity, from the time of birth to old age and beyond death. Aspirations to beauty were figured in divine termsrelating to Venus, and one occupation apparently available to women was that of ornatrix, beautician and, thus, maker of women (p. 185). It is through this ornamental vocabulary that women could be endowed with respect and prestige; the visible maintenance of the body seems to have provided women with the opportunity to design their character for public acknowledgment and evaluation, at once of and apart from their domus.

A literary ornatrix, of a sort, is the center of Chapter 9, in which Alison Keith reads Sulpicia in her dual role as first-person maker of poetry as well as third-person object of elegiac discourse ([Tib.] 3.8-18). In these poems by and about Sulpicia, clothing functions as a polyvalent figure for her poetics, and supplies a metaphorical language rich for poetic production. This chapter's area of enquiry is one of the more contained in the monograph, but Keith attests the ongoing contestation over socio-cultural meaning of clothes; a virtuous character can be manifested through a state of near undress, when pretense is cast aside like so much metaphorical clothing. It may have been helpful for anyone unfamiliar with Sulpicia had her biographical details (pp. 196-97) been introduced at the chapter's beginning, but this chapter's clear focus on the workings of literary poetics ties the previous chapters on Roman women to the following and final part of the book, which reflects on the interpretive possibilities wrought by the fusion of material and literary texts.

Part 3 shifts focus from gendered dress to 'The Cultural Poetics of Dress'. In Chapter 10, Riemer Faber analyses the exordium to the pseudo-Vergilian Ciris (written sometime between first and fourth centuries), in which the dedicatee, a certain Messala, is literally woven (intexere) into the fabric of the poem qua metaphorical robe (peplos). Faber locates this passage within the literary history of the woven garment as textual metaphor, marshaling a host of Greek and Latin precedents. As Faber unpacks the implications of personal in-vestment in the Ciris, this particular exordium is shown as conflating the bearer of the literary garment with the subjects depicted on the garment, as well as entwining the dedicatee with matters of literary and political history, cosmology, philosophy, physics, religion and divinity. This dense yet detailed chapter captures the poetics of thematic in- and overlay on these imaginary peploi, and demonstrates how the binding power of literary metonymy assimilates a subject to its object to the point of indistinction.

The semiotic possibilities of robes in panegyric poetry, touched on in Chapter 10, are the main focus of Chapter 11, in which Michael Dewar considers both the bestowal of actual robes by emperors on consuls as well as the dedication of literary robes in the form of panegyric poems to emperors from the end of the fourth to the beginning of the fifth centuries. In the writings of Ausonius, Dewar charts the changes in the political significance of traditional Republican attire that occurred under imperial influence (cf. discussion on the consular trabea, pp. 219-23). But it is in his readings of the sartorial ecphraseis in the panegyric poetry of Claudian that Dewar covers much political intrigue in great detail. In the process of tethering political events to events portrayed on these textual robes, Dewar shows that the intricate web of imperial and family connections can be accessed through the depictions on these imaginary robes, but also, and more fundamentally, that these sartorial ecphrases become the site for numerous, even conflicting interpretations by virtue of the instability of their allegorical associativeness. In the imperial political system where public dialogue was effectively closed down, it was the language of praise that could provide, paradoxically, alternative vehicles such as these ecphrastic robes for heterodox political thinking to proliferate amongst the audience who consumed these poems. A discourse marked by such polyvalence of meaning imperils any straightforward notion of 'propaganda' in imperial panegyric.

Chapters 12 and 13 mesh neatly in their explorations of the fraught meanings of Roman dress in the provinces of North Africa during the second and third centuries. Keith Bradley reads Apuleius' forensic apologia (delivered either in 158 or 159) for what it has to say about the ethical implications of personal appearance and deportment before an audience which can not have been fully reconciled to Romanness. Apuleius disrupted local networks of power in the city of Sabratha (outside Carthage) when he married a wealthy and influential widow, and eventually had to defend himself against a charge of practicing magic. His distinctiveness as an educated outsider left him vulnerable, and Apuleius had to deflect suspicions about his character arising from his alleged good looks and eloquence (Apol. 4.1). Adducing evidence from Apuleius' Met., Roman rhetorical theory and epitaph inscriptions, Bradley teases out the unfavourable responses to Roman idiom that could be had by a populace undergoing cultural transition. A more vocal form of resistance to Roman culture is evidenced in T. Corey Brennan's chapter on Tertullian's knotty treatise De Pallio. Urging his fellow Carthaginians to forsake the Roman toga, Tertullian advocates a change of dress to effect a change in sensibility, and extols a return to wearing the Greek-style pallium, symbolic of philosophy and once favoured in Punic times, in connection with the adoption of Christian religion (6.2.5). This is the first and only explicit reference to the Christian faith, and from its climactic rhetorical position in the last sentence casts the retro style of the pallium as revolutionary in its import, but it is only at the end of Brennan's chapter that the ways in which Biblical allusions are woven into Tertullian's suasory deliberation are considered, and then only in passing (p. 266). The specific ways in which cultural sensibilities can be constructed as alternatives to Romanness seem underanalysed in this the penultimate chapter.

Late antiquity is the time frame for the final chapter, as Guy P. R. Métraux considers the complex ways in which attitudes towards nudity changed under the growing influence of Christianity across the empire. Taking into account a story of spectacular martyrdom in the early third century, the establishment of a visual continuum established between Venus and Roman matronae in third and fourth century mosaics, as well as a tale of demonic possession in the fifth century, Métraux charts the general shift in public opinion away from classical nudity, though even in the fifth century nudity could be sacralized in certain media (p. 282). Métraux views the gradual concealment of the naked (female) form as a development in prudery, but does not consider how other social movements and political events might have contributed to a culture of shame surrounding the human body. Furthermore, the preceding thirteen chapters tell against Métraux's larger claim that late antiquity saw an 'increase' in visual significance to clothing and accessories (p. 273), as there was never a time sartorial choice was not a prominent part of the process of contesting and negotiating social, cultural and political meaning at Rome.

The aims and interests of this collection are far-reaching, and parts of certain chapters could read like a generic guidebook; for a book on sartorial fashion, argumentative claims could have been put with more flair. But this comprehensiveness does lay a foundation for further questions to be addressed. One problem which was touched on by several authors but which warrants concerted study is the misappropriation of status and identity via the wrongful assumption of clothing; once clothing has been codified and publicly accepted as a sign of power, when is it the case that you are not what you wear in the eyes of others? The complex significance of the color purple, its ability to betoken sacral apotropaic power, censorial authority or licentious opulence, deserves fuller explication. And I am still perplexed by the toga praetexta, which distinguished men of high political office but was also worn by freeborn boys and girls before they entered adulthood. This collection will be an essential resource for anyone interested in the cultural weavings of material and literary texts, or how matters of aesthetic choice can become entwined with moral conduct.

Table of Contents

Part 1 Investments in Masculinity

1. Jonathan Edmondson, Public Dress and Social Control in Late Republican and Early Imperial Rome

2. Fanny Dolansky, Togam virilem sumere: Coming of Age in the Roman World

3. Michael Koortbojian, The Double Identity of Roman Portrait Statues: Costumes and Their Symbolism

4. Michele George, The 'Dark Side' of the Toga

5. Michael Carter, (Un)Dressed to Kill: Viewing the Retiarius

Part 2 Fashioning the Female

6. Kelly Olson, The Appearance of the Young Roman Girl

7. Elaine Fantham, Covering the Head at Rome: Ritual and Gender

8. Leslie Shumka, Designing Women: The Representations of Women's Toiletries on Funerary Monuments in Roman Italy

9. Alison Keith, Sartorial Elegance and Poetic Finesse in the Sulpician Corpus

Part 3. The Cultural Poetics of Dress

10. Riemer Faber, The Woven Garment as Literary Metaphor: The Peplos in Ciris 9-41

11. Michael Dewar, Spinning the Trabea: Consular Robes and Propaganda in the Panegyrics of Claudian

12. Keith Bradley, Appearing for the Defence: Apuleius on Display

13. T. Corey Brennan, Tertullian's De Pallio and Roman Dress in North Africa

14. Guy P.R. Métraux, Prudery and Chic in Late Antique Clothing

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