BMCR 2002.08.13

The World of Roman Costume

, , The world of Roman costume. Wisconsin studies in classics. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994. xviii, 272 pages : illustrations ; 29 cm.. ISBN 029913850X. $24.95.

The book consists of a collection of thirteen papers on Roman dress and clothing written by participants in a 1988 National Endowment for the Humanities seminar. The seminar, based at the American Academy in Rome, was led by Larissa Bonfante, one of the editors of this paperback reprint of a book first published in hardcover in 1994. The aim of the book is to explain the components of Roman dress and their meaning to better understand those who wore them initially. The individual authors follow a variety of methodological approaches to the topic, including archaeological, philological, anthropological, and historical.

There are four main sections to the book: Roman Garments, Hairstyles, Accessories; Roman Costume and Literary Evidence; Roman Costume and Geographic Questions; Reconstructions. Clothing types under discussion range in date from the Late Republic to the Late Empire, and come from geographical regions both near and far from Rome, including areas as remote as Asia.

The emphasis of the seminar and the resultant papers included in this volume was on the religious, social, and political significance of Roman dress. Bonfante introduces the topic with a short essay that points out importance of the study of dress and costume, an area that has often been neglected in the mistaken notion that it is a frivolous aspect of cultural studies. Costume history, however, seems to be enjoying a revival with the recent appearance of dissertations on particular items of ancient dress, such as the Greek peplos; costume bibliographies on the Internet; as well as conferences on various aspects of the subject.1 Bonfante gives a brief historiography of the study of ancient dress and a review of literary citations by Roman authors on the significance for a Roman of clothing as an indicator of rank, status, office or authority. The evidence for Roman costume is based on both literary references and artistic representations as well as on those rare, occasional remnants of actual garments that have survived.

In the first paper “The Toga: From National to Ceremonial Costume,” Shelley Stone traces the form and evolution of that quintessential Roman article of clothing, the toga. Using both literary and visual evidence, Stone relates in a systematic manner the historical changes in toga styles from the first century B.C. to the fifth century A.D. This article alone is worth the price of the book, being extremely useful to those of us who, as museum curators, are faced with dating many works on the basis of clothing styles. Originally, both men and women wore the toga, but by the second century B.C., the toga was worn over a tunic and reserved for adult males. In fact, by the Augustan period, an adult female wearing a toga was considered to be a prostitute. While it eventually fell out of favor as regular wear, the toga survived throughout the empire as a ceremonial garment and was always to be worn by Roman men conducting public business. Changing forms of decoration applied to the toga communicated the status of the wearer. Stone generously illustrates the text with images of monuments of the various periods and reconstruction photos and drawings of the draping of the toga and its evolving shape.

In a perfect segue, Judith Lynn Sebesta, in “Symbolism in the Costume of the Roman Woman,” sets her exploration of the religious and social symbolism of the dress of aristocratic woman against a brief account in the first paragraph of what is known about the status and function of the various forms of toga worn by men. She then follows with an explanation of the costumes of women at seven different ages or social stages of life. These seven categories include: “puella ingenua” (freeborn girl), “nupta” (bride), “matrona” (matron), “mater familias (mother of the family), “vidua” (widow), “innupta” (adult unmarried woman), and “adultera” (adultress). While she relies primarily on literary references for reconstructing the dress appropriate to each life stage, some visual evidence is also offered. My only criticism of the paper is that more illustrations would have been helpful; there is only a single image, a statue of a woman wearing a stola.

Both literary and visual evidence is used to describe the wedding dress of the Roman bride in the third paper, by Laetitia La Follette, titled “The Costume of the Roman Bride.” The special clothing and coiffure of the bride supported the meaning of the ritual, which is interpreted as an initiation into womanhood and her new status as wife. The tunica recta was the first piece of clothing put on by the bride and has associations with past Etruscan nobility. A veil and a six-tressed hairstyle were also archaic elements shared with the most powerful priestess of Rome, the Flaminica Dialis, and with the Vestal Virgins. A spear was used to ritualistically part the hair into these six divisions and La Follette suggests that its use had a symbolic function as an empowering talisman, which would ensure a harmonious, convivial and fertile match.

Judith Lynn Sebesta, in “‘Tunica Ralla, Tunica Spissa’: The Colors and Textiles of Roman Costume,” gives a chronological account of what is known from a variety of literary references about the preferred colors and textiles for clothing beginning in the regal period, the eighth to sixth centuries B.C., through the early Imperial period. The major fabric in all periods was wool, with lamé, linen, silk, cotton, muslin and damask used in varying degrees at different times. A wide range of colors and hues was available with both the dye and textile industries fully developed by the late Republic. Sebesta ends her article with a discussion of dyes and mordants, with a cautionary note that modern attempts at reproducing the colors of Roman dyes, while a worthwhile pursuit, can only give approximate results because we know little about how the various dyes were produced by the Romans and because of the great variations in textile fibers and their absorption of dye.

Ann M. Stout opens her article, “Jewelry as a Symbol of Status in the Roman Empire,” by pointing out the tension that existed for Romans between their desire for sumptuous jewelry manufactured from gold and gems and the lingering republican values of simplicity and modesty. Throughout Roman history, sumptuary laws regulated the wearing and use of jewelry. The literary citations for this restraint are at odds, however, with the physical remains of opulent jewelry and with the many visual representations of women bedecked with multiple necklaces, earrings, hair adornments, brooches, rings, bracelets and armlets. Stout’s article is one of the longer offerings in this volume and as such would have benefited from division headers, either by category of jewelry type or by historical chronological divisions. She discusses both aspects in the first part of her paper but then devotes most of the paper to a comparison of surviving pieces of jewelry to those worn by the sixth-century Byzantine emperor Justinian and empress Theodora and their entourage as pictured on contemporary portraits on coins and on the mosaics in San Vitale at Ravenna. By this time two types of jewelry in particular had evolved to become associated with the imperial insignia of imperial power and authority, the jeweled brooch and a jeweled diadem that becomes a crown.

Ample illustrations of actual specimens of surviving footgear, representations of footwear in the visual arts, and reconstruction drawings of footwear make Norma Goldman’s article, titled “Roman Footwear,” an especially helpful resource. We have an invaluable book on Greek footwear, but its Roman counterpart is yet to be written.2 Until that time, this article will suffice admirably. After a brief initial discussion of the leather and tanning industry, Goldman organizes her paper by categories of footwear, and includes bare feet, perones, soleae, sandalia, sculponeae, crepidae, carbatinae, calcei, caligae, boots, cothurni, socci, socks. The final shoe type to be discussed, the sewn low strap or latchet shoe, makes its appearance in the early Byzantine period. As with clothing types discussed in the previous articles it is clear that the Romans fashioned footgear suitable for all occasions, for all ranks of society, and for different professions.

The section of the book on Roman costume and literary evidence begins with a paper by Julia Heskel examining references to clothing in the speeches of Cicero. Titled “Cicero as Evidence for Attitudes to Dress in the Late Republic,” it analyzes the types of garments and costumes mentioned in the speeches and their contexts in order to bring out the way Cicero made use of religious, social, and historical connotations to make his argument. Most dress references are criticisms of certain types of clothing seen as inappropriate to the occasion under discussion in a particular speech. These inappropriate clothing types include Greek dress, degrees of undress including complete nudity, transvestism, and mourning. Thus, by inference, the appropriate dress code of late republican society is revealed.

Henry Bender, in “‘De Habitu Vestis’: Clothing in the ‘Aeneid’,” investigates clothing terms significant to Vergil’s narrative and its multinational cast of characters. In particular, Bender discusses the mitra, tiara, infula, vittae, tunic, amictus, laena, chlamys, palla, and toga. It is the mention of these garments in special, symbolic usage in the Aeneid that Bender posits was an intention to foreshadow the importance of these garments in Augustan Rome. He notes that there are parallels between the dress of the figures on the Ara Pacis and the costume of several important characters in the Aeneid.

A similar reading of Josephus by Douglas R. Edwards in “The Social, Religious, and Political Aspects of Costume in Josephus,” reveals much about the attitudes and assumptions of both Romans and Jews in first century A.D. Palestine. Josephus’ literary use of dress reflects his involvement both in the status seeking world of first century Roman society and in the traditional Jewish world from which he came. Josephus, an aristocratic Jew, uses dress and ornamentation to reveal an integration of Jewish traditions and belief systems with Roman imperial views and values.

Bernard Goldman, “Graeco-Roman Dress in Syro-Mesopotamia,” deals with Roman influence on dress in western Asia from the first century B.C. through the fourth century A.D. Draped Graeco-Roman dress was adopted by many peoples in this area, in contrast to Iranian Parthian fitted costumes. Goldman focuses his investigation on three principal cities in western Asia: Palmyra, Dura-Europos, and Hatra. Sufficient material remains of monuments from these civic regions reflect the changes in costume brought about by Roman influence. He discovered that the degree of Roman influence on native dress varies with the geographic area: the closer an Asian city is to the Mediterranean or to a major trading route, the more the Graeco-Roman features predominate. Usage is also affected by status, occasion and gender; for example, Goldman found that women tended to wear more Western dress.

Lucille A. Roussin, in “Costume in Roman Palestine: Archaeological Remains and the Evidence from the Mishnah,” compares actual material remains of textiles found in the Cave of Letters near En-Gedi in the Judean desert with literary sources to reveal that the daily dress of the Jews during the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods reflected a fusion of Graeco-Roman dress and Jewish religious traditions. Jewish costume remained distinctive, however, so that Jews remained recognizable by their clothing. Social distinctions, religious traditions and rituals, and political and national issues were all factors in the changing clothing styles of the Jews of the first and second centuries A.D.

Richard A. Gergel studies the breastplates on imperial cuirassed statues as a type of historical relief in his article, titled “Costume as Geographic Indicator: Barbarians and Prisoners on Cuirassed Statue Breastplates.” His continuing interest in the cuirass has led to the identification of a great many standard symbolic, mythological, and allegorical figures. In this paper, the nationality of barbarian captives and geographic personifications are distinguished on the basis of their dress. Sometimes these figures provide information with which to determine the protagonists, location and outcome of a specific military encounter. Approximately six hundred complete and fragmentary examples of cuirassed statues have survived, providing a rich archive for documenting the course of Roman territorial expansion throughout the Mediterranean basin. Gergel examines six principal breastplate types that range in date from the Augustan through the Trajanic periods in order to identify the national origin of barbarians and captives depicted in the compositions. Comparanda for the identifications are drawn primarily from numismatic sources. By the reign of Hadrian, territorial expansion had stopped and so the cuirassed statue breastplate ceases to be a valuable document of military victories. Cuirassed statues continue to be produced into the late empire but the breastplate compositions lose this sense of specificity.

A highlight of the NEH summer seminar on Roman costume, which was the genesis of this volume of papers, was the construction of eighteen costumes by Norma Goldman. The reconstructions were based on depictions of clothing in paintings, sculpture, and mosaics, which were seen by the seminar participants on site and monument visits. Goldman, in her article titled “Reconstructing Roman Clothing,” shows the results of this field research, and she illustrates her paper liberally with photographs of seminar participants modeling the costumes, visual images from monuments, and reconstruction drawings. She even includes patterns for some of the garments so that others may profit from her experience of costume restoration and try it for themselves. Goldman helpfully divides her discussion of the eighteen garments into those put on over the head (tunic, peplos, stola), those draped around the body (palla, flammeum, tebenna, toga, pallium, paenula, cucullus, lacerna, laena, paludamentum), and undergarments (subligaculum, strophium, indusium. From the expressions on the faces of the costumed participants in the photographs it appears that they heeded the advice Goldman gives at the end of her article, that those who undertake to reconstruct ancient Roman costumes should enjoy the experience!

This slim volume is such a valuable addition to clothing studies that I am reluctant to criticize anything about it. Included in it is even a list of the contributors with their titles and institutional affiliations, something that is frequently lacking in publications of collected papers such as this. Actual postal and e-mail addresses would have enhanced this listing. The list of illustrations in the front pages would have been more useful if it had repeated the source information contained in the captions under each image in the text. As it is, it consists only of such a brief title in most cases, that one must turn to the particular image in the text to tell what it is. The glossary of clothing and costume terms is limited to those contained in the book, but is still quite useful. The bibliography contains both ancient sources and modern works, but is by now somewhat outdated (nothing past 1992). An index completes the volume. All in all, this is a highly useful and informative handbook on the dress of Roman men and women of various levels of society throughout the long history of ancient Roman peoples.


1. Dissertation: M. Lee, “The Myth of the Greek Peplos,” 1999 Diss. Bryn Mawr College; electronic bibliographies: one on ancient Greek costume compiled by Linda Roccos,, another on Roman costume compiled by Judith Sebesta,; conferences: “The Clothed Body in the Ancient World,” The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK, January 17-19, 2002.

2. K.D. Morrow, Greek Footwear and the Dating of Sculpture, Madison, Wis., 1985.