BMCR 2020.09.12

The toga and Roman identity

, The toga and Roman identity. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. ix, 241 p.. ISBN 9781472571540. $103.50.

[Chapter titles are listed below.]

The author states in the Preface that this book was written in order to fill a gap, namely, the “lack of a comprehensive cultural study of the toga”. Starting from the title, the book is to-the-point and lucidly written, and it succeeds very well in its aim of creating a basic manual, concentrated solely on the “Antiquity’s most iconic garment”, to serve the ever-growing numbers of students and scholars interested in Roman dress.

The specific goal set for the book by Rothe is to explore the toga both as a material garment and as an identity-building symbol, combining literary, iconographic and archaeological sources. The author notes that previous studies on the toga all focus on one type of material, mostly sculptural depictions. The present book also aims to widen the outlook outside the elite circles and provincials beyond Italy. It builds on Rothe’s earlier work on Roman provincial dress, with an especially good discussion of the ethnic and non-Roman aspects throughout the book.[1] Rothe’s most central aim here is to counter the scholarly tendency to the see the toga as a symbol rather than a garment and to demonstrate that it was, instead, very much present in everyday life.

The volume is divided into six main, thematically organized chapters, with an introduction and an epilogue. The Introduction presents to the reader the most central questions of the study starting from why the toga came to be such a quintessential symbol of being Roman, and the Romans the gens togata sung by Virgil. Rothe explains this, firstly, with the particular interest of Roman culture in visual spectacle, which made dress a vital tool for the expression of status in public. Secondly, dress was all the more important, as inner morals were believed to be directly expressed on the outer habitus of the person—a Roman was what he wore. This is why changing clothes meant changing one’s identity, as is shown with choice examples, like Mark Antony’s fatal shift from the toga to oriental dress. Rothe acutely observes that other Mediterranean nations, in particular the Greeks, never fostered a similar need to distinguish themselves by a particular ‘national costume’. The Introduction comprises a thorough overview of previous scholarship dedicated to the subject, starting from Launitz’s 1865 study and Wilson’s 1924 monography, up to Goette’s 1990 book, all with an art-historical emphasis.[2] The 1990s were a watershed in Roman dress studies, marked, in particular, by the publication of Sebesta and Bonfante’s 1994 compilation of articles dedicated to the subject, shifting the focus of the research towards social significances. However, Rothe notes that in this volume, Stone’s chapter on the toga, together with Vout’s contemporary article, reinforced the idea of the toga as a mere symbol, hardly ever worn in real life.[3] In more contemporary research, the book most closely in dialogue with Rothe’s is certainly Olson’s 2017 study dedicated to Roman male dress in general.[4]

Chapter 2 traces the steps in the historical evolution of the garment. Rothe sides with the view of the derivation of the toga from the archaic Etruscan mantle, tebenna. Of high importance is the discussion of the only materially surviving tebenna/toga from the ancient world, a fragmentary wool mantle with a border of a different colour datable to 700 BCE, found at Vercelli. As the book’s main goal is to integrate material aspects of the garment too (particularly scarce in the case of the toga, which did not need metal fibulae to be fastened), the discussion here might have been taken to a deeper level with some further reflections on the instruments relative to textile production found in the grave.[5] Rothe interestingly points out some archaising habits—like wearing the toga without a tunic—that clearly reflect earlier usages. I disagree, however, with her view that the archaic cinctus Gabinus, the toga belted around the waist and chest, associated with warfare and ritual, would have been preserved in the outfit of the Lares (pp. 22; 74; 87), since their dress, a tunic girt high by a narrow mantle, is a quite distinctly servile dress, the antithesis of the citizen toga.[6] Rothe then dedicates one section to the draping of the toga, from the toga exigua, through the voluminous Augustan toga up to the the ‘magisterial type’ of the 5th century CE.

Chapter 3 reviews the evidence for the role of the toga in expressing gender roles. Rothe starts from the contradictory evidence about the use of the toga by Roman women, the use of the toga praetexta by young girls, and the more evanescent literary evidence about the toga muliebris allegedly worn by prostitutes or adulteresses, taking the view that the latter was more of a literary image of improper gendered behaviour, less likely to have been an actual sartorial habit, and never a punishment imposed by law. The gendered messages of the toga were most nuanced in expressing different male roles in civic life, through a series of dichotomies: it was public dress as opposed to private ‘casual’ wear, urban as opposed to rural habitus, and civilian as opposed to military dress. One section is dedicated to the honorific togate statue, the main method of commemoration for leading Roman citizens, expressing memoria and exemplum—Rothe convincingly argues that it was the clothing, the toga, that was the main locus of display of Roman ideal masculinity, whilst the Greek statues similarly celebrated the nude athletic male body. The following section on wearing the toga is one of the most fascinating in the book. Rothe describes convincingly how the toga was a difficult garment to wear, as opposed to ‘barbarian’ close-fitting clothes that did not need particular skills to keep them in place. The very difficulty of wearing and elegantly holding up the toga’s drapery made it a sign of being in control of oneself, and well-trained to the proper social role. The chapter also discusses the relation of toga with the male life course from the toga praetexta to the toga virilis.

Chapter 4 presents the evidence for the use of the toga in marking out social status divisions. Starting from the top of society, the toga picta of the triumphator, and descending the social ladder, the chapter discusses the toga of non-elite Roman citizens and freedmen. In this passage, Rothe presents the main corpus of her evidence for the claim, also based on pictorial evidence, that toga was not merely a ‘Bildformel’, but a lived, material reality. It is plausible that the sub-elite toga was very different in form from the contemporary senatorial versions: darker and less voluminous. However, by the 2nd century CE, many freedmen seem to have deliberately opted for a tunic in their portraits, showing new pride in their distinctly non-elite status and professional success. The chapter also narrates the ‘dark sides of the toga’: for the common people, it was expensive to acquire and maintain, and therefore often dirty, shabby and patched. Rothe concludes by observing a further paradoxical duality: on one hand, toga was the symbol of the unity and equality of the citizen body, but on the other, it was also the main instrument of snobbish display of status differences and even social bullying.

Chapter 5 examines in detail the political uses of the toga, repeating in part themes that have already been touched upon in the discussion of the gender and status aspects of the garment. New topics under this heading are the toga candida of the electoral candidate, the uses of the toga in foreign diplomacy, and most importantly, Emperor Augustus’ revolutionary toga policy, which revived it both in style and in significance; as a further dualism noted by Rothe, it allowed “every man to understand the new world order and and his place in it, whilst retaining a reassuring link with the past” (p. 112). In what follows, the toga styles of other emperors are then chronologically presented.

Chapter 6 examines how the toga, a core symbol of Romanness, was used in complex ways in identity construction in the provinces. Starting from the idea that ‘Romanness’ was something that could be acquired and ‘put on’ and ‘taken off’ just, like the toga, the chapter discusses a series of case studies that draw on Rothe’s expertise on the dress of the northwestern provinces. In Gaul, in the 2nd-3rd centuries, only the largest grave monuments show wearers of toga, clearly men of elite status or international ‘businessmen’, while most men are depicted in the local style, wearing hooded capes. Sometimes the toga is worn over the Gallic long-sleeed tunic, showing a delicate mix of ethnic elements. In Noricum, the grave stele of Licovia Ingenua shows how the Roman wife is dressed in local style, while her non-Roman husband is depicted wearing a toga; here, according to Rothe, gender plays a more important role than nationality. These and other examples show how difficult it is to assign univocal cultural meanings to the garment.

Chapter 7 continues the timeline started in the first chapter on the history of the toga, examining the last phases of the garment in late Antiquity, tackling the question of the end of the toga. While the Christian community preferred the Greek pallium, with its intellectual aura, the celtic paenula cape took over as the general streetwear of the larger strata of population. The narrative of the gradual change of the garment into an elite ceremonial dress in use until the 5th century CE, might have been more clear to the reader with the aid of some more illustrations.

All the figures in the monograph, in black and white, exemplify well the topics under discussion; however, some further images of artworks discussed would have been much appreciated (the frescoes of the François Tomb; funerary monument of Poblicius in Cologne).  One of the most fascinating features of the book is the accurate observation of minor and sophisticated nuances of the ways of wearing the toga and their social messages—like draping the toga in order to look more like the Greek pallium (p. 30) or the old-fashioned umbo-style toga used at later imperial weddings as an archaism (p. 36). Also modern analogies help greatly to figure out the meaning of such subleties, for example the comparison with the different meanings given to the Western men’s suit in Asia and Africa, or modern difficulties in learning to wear the Indian sari. What could have been added to enrich the discussion on the materiality of the toga and its use by the wider circles of the sub-elite would have been a discussion of the toga in minor arts, especially caricatural togate clay figurines. [7]

The book offers a valid synthesis of a large quantity of recent research that has focused on questions of dress and the ways it communicated gender, ethnicity, and class. It also provides the reader with novel viewpoints more sensible to the lived and tactile aspects of the toga, focusing on how the toga, an everyday material object, was used to negotiate social relations and identity.

Chapter titles

1 Introduction
2 The Toga: A Brief History
3 The Toga and the Roman Man
4 The Toga and Social Status
5 The Toga and Politics
6 The Toga in the Provinces
7 The Toga in Late Antiquity


[1] U. Rothe (2009). Dress and Cultural Identity in the Rhine-Moselle Region of the Roman Empire, Oxford.

[2] V. D. Launitz (1865). Über die Toga der Römer und die Palla der Römerinnen, Heidelberg; L. M. Wilson (1924). The Roman Toga, Baltimore; H. R. Goette. (1990). Studien zu römischen Togadarstellungen, Mainz.

[3] S. Stone (1994). “The Toga: From National Costume to Ceremonial Costume”, in J. L Sebesta, L. Bonfante, eds., The World of Roman Costume. Madison, 13-45; C. Vout (1996). “The Myth of the Toga: Understanding the History of Roman Dress”, G&R 43, 204-20.

[4] K. Olson, Masculinity and Dress in Roman Antiquity. London; New York.

[5] See, for example, P. von Eles, ed. (2002). Guerriero e sacerdote. Autorità e comunità nell’età del Ferro a Verucchio. La tomba del Trono, Firenze.

[6] The passage of Thomas Frölich cited by the author actually claims that the Lares’ way of girding the mantle may have resembled the cinctus Gabinus, rather than actually being a toga tied in that manner, (1991). Lararien- und Fassadenbilder in den Vesuvstädten: Untersuchungen zur “volkstümlichen” pompejanischen Malerei, Mainz, 121.

[7] E. Martelli (2019). “Clay Togati (Men Wearing a Tunic and Holding a Scroll) from Harbour and River Towns: Some Hypotheses Regarding Their Occurrence and Meaning”, in G. Papantoniou, D. Michaelides, M. Dikomitou-Eliadou, eds., Hellenistic and Roman Terracottas, Leiden, 315-25.