BMCR 2017.07.23

Gifts of Clothing in Late Antique Literature

, Gifts of Clothing in Late Antique Literature. London; New York: Routledge, 2016. viii, 203. ISBN 9781472435736. $149.95.


This is a revision of a PhD dissertation successfully submitted at the University of Nottingham in 2013. The title is slightly misleading because the focus is actually far more specific than it suggests, on gifts of elite male clothing in particular rather than that of any other group, and not just on any items of elite male clothing, but on three items of clothing that had a special association with secular or religious authority—the trabea, the chlamys, and the pallium. The main argument is that when ancient authors described the gifting of these items in Late Antique literature, they generally did so in order to discuss ideas concerning the nature and transfer of authority. This is not an original argument in itself, but the author analyses a large variety of texts from across the Late Antique period in order to establish this much more firmly than previously.

An introductory chapter is followed by four chapters dealing with the main substance of the argument and a final chapter drawing the conclusions together. Each of the four main chapters is clearly and carefully subdivided into about seven parts so that it is easy to follow the stages of the argument throughout. After outlining its main argument, each chapter concludes with a detailed analysis or ‘case study’ of a particular passage or example in proof of this argument. The final chapter is followed by comprehensive bibliographies of ancient and modern sources and a single index listing people, places and key terms or topics. There are also three black-and-white figures.

The first of the main chapters, ‘Threads of history: Clothing gifts in Greek and Roman society before Late Antiquity’, sets the historical and cultural context for the discussion of the symbolism of gifts of clothing during Late Antiquity. As one might expect, therefore, it proceeds in chronological sequence surveying the occurrence and symbolism of gifts of clothing during the Homeric period, in Classical Greece, during the Hellenistic period, and during the Roman Republic. It concludes with a case study from the early Roman Imperial period, a discussion of the significance of gifts of clothing in the poetry of Martial.

The second chapter, ‘Weaving a tranquil work of peace? Clothing gifts in Late Antique diplomacy’, examines the role and symbolism of gifts of clothing in Late Antique diplomacy. It begins by describing how a woven textile could act as a symbol of peace, partly because of its nature as a whole drawing strength from the harmony of its individual threads, and partly because of the identity of its main agents and centre of production, women in a domestic setting. It then examines how gifts of clothing could be used to intimidate, because of what they say about the wealth and sophistication of a society that could afford to produce or acquire such things, and the damage that it could inflict should it decide to withhold them from others. The role played by such gifts in the Romanisation of those who received them is then examined, before turning to the manner in which such gifts also rendered those receiving them subordinate to those giving them. The exceptional rarity of gifts of clothing in diplomatic contacts with the Persian Empire is also analysed. The concluding case study focusses on the role of clothing in the investiture of King Tzath of the Lazi by Justin I in 522 as described by John Malalas.

The next chapter, ‘Portable portraits: Consular trabeae and figural decorations in Late Antiquity’, turns from relations without the empire to those within the empire, focussing on the significance of the gifts of highly decorated trabeae to newly promoted consuls, particularly the gift by the emperor Gratian of a trabea decorated with a portrait of his deceased father-in-law Constantius II to Ausonius of Bordeaux upon his consulship in 379. The chapter begins with a consideration of figural decoration on clothing more generally, then discusses the nature and identification of a trabea, and investigates whence consuls normally obtained their consular garments. It next surveys the two main sources of evidence for figural decorations on trabeae, the consular diptychs and the literary evidence, chiefly of Ausonius, Claudian, and Sidonius Apollinaris. The concluding case study consists of a detailed study of Ausonius’ poem of thanks to Gratian for his trabea.

The fourth chapter, ‘Clothing gifts in late antique Christian contexts’, argues that Christian authors described gifts of clothing for the same reasons as did their secular contemporaries, to discuss the nature and transfer of authority, although, in this case, from one Christian leader to the next, and spiritual as well as temporal power. The chapter begins with a discussion of the development of a new Christian motive for gifts of clothing, Christian charity in fulfilment of the commands of Christ and the model of the saints. It then discusses the development of a new kind of gift, clothes or parts as clothes venerated as relics because of their alleged contact with Christ or his saints. An examination of the disasters that could occur when those who were unworthy of such items came into possession of them occurs next. There follows a discussion of the symbolism involved in the successful gifting of clothes from one worthy possessor to another, with due emphasis on the biblical model provided by the prophet Elijah’s gift of his cloak to his successor, the prophet Elisha. Finally, the case study investigates two contradictory accounts of the manner in which the Egyptian monk Antony, normally regarded as the founder of eremitic asceticism, disposed of his pallium, the first by bishop Athanasius of Alexandria in his Vita Antonii, the second by Jerome in his Vita Pauli, in order to highlight their different literary aims.

Rollason’s arguments are generally convincing, but some minor criticisms are possible. She explains her decision to focus on the giving of clothes rather than of other items such as coins, jewellery or silverware on the basis that ‘the general meanings of these other items do not appear to be markedly complex’ (p. 56), or as she again puts it, ‘the multi-layered symbolism inherent in clothing is not found in these other diplomatic gifts’ (p. 80). This is simply untrue. These other items also took a distinctive Roman form, with distinctive Roman inscriptions or figural decorations, with the same potential to Romanise or subordinate those receiving them, or however else one likes to characterise the effects of gifts of clothing on those receiving them. Next, Rollason repeatedly emphasises the potential of a woven textile, and therefore of clothing, to act as a symbol of peace because of its ‘harmonious interweaving of disparate elements’ (p. 44), or as she again puts it, ‘the harmonious nature of cloth itself’ (p. 157). This is true, but textile is not necessarily unique in this. Indeed, one could claim the same of any item manufactured from a number of different pieces, whether jewellery or tableware. On the whole, therefore, Rollason tends to exaggerate the symbolic potential or distinctiveness of clothing vis-à-vis other forms of gifts.

While the first chapter setting the historical and cultural context for the discussion of the symbolism of gifts of clothing during Late Antiquity is effective, Rollason betrays her training in Classical Civilisation and the general biases of that field in two ways. First, she springs from the Early Empire to Late Antiquity with no attempt to survey any developments in the gifting of clothing during the second and third centuries AD. Second, and far more importantly, she does not survey the treatment of the gifts of clothing in Jewish or Biblical tradition, despite the huge influence of this tradition on how the Christian majority of Late Antiquity viewed gifts of clothing. After all, there was more to this than just Elijah and Elisha mentioned subsequently (pp. 145-46). One could argue that the space devoted to surveying the gifting of clothing during the Homeric period would have been better devoted to this instead.

Finally, it is noteworthy that there is no firm definition of the time-span to be covered by this study, which naturally excludes any clear explanation as to why these chronological limits were chosen. Rollason defines the time-span as ‘between the late 300s and the sixth century’ (p. 13), but also declares that one chapter has a ‘broad chronological focus (from early fourth to seventh centuries)’ (p. 57). In reality, the main focus is from the late fourth to the early sixth centuries. This is a pity because it means that it excludes any consideration of one of the most important and potentially symbolic gifts of clothing during Late Antiquity, when bishop Sophronius of Jerusalem offered a gift of fresh clothing to the caliph ‘Umar upon his entry to that newly conquered city in 638.1 The caliph refused the gift, which suggests that he shared much the same viewpoint as Rollason does concerning the potential symbolism of such, but he did at least agree to borrow the clothing while his own was being washed. Modern commentators on this incident would have benefitted greatly from a book such as the present.2

In conclusion, Rollason has produced a highly informative and readable book on the reality and literary representation of gifts of elite male clothing during the period from the fourth into the sixth century AD. It is a welcome addition to the bibliography on gift-giving and the symbolic use of clothing during this period, and will serve as an excellent starting point for any further studies of specific examples of such.


1. For translations of the key sources, see R.G. Hoyland, Theophilus of Edessa’s Chronicle and the Circulation of Historical Knowledge in Late Antiquity and Early Islam, Translated Texts for Historians 57 (Liverpool, 2011), pp. 114-17.

2. See e.g. H. Busse, ‘Omar b. al-Ḫattāb in Jerusalem’, Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 5 (1984), pp. 73-119; P. Cobb, ‘A note on ‘Umar’s visit to Ayla in 17/638’, Der Islam 71 (1994), pp. 283-88.