Sunday, March 3, 2013

When in Rome

During my teen years, my father was fond of reciting passages of Latin at the dinner table. My brothers and I would exchange pained glances as these recitations dragged on for longer than we could stomach. None of us understood a word Daddy was reciting unless he chose to translate, which was seldom. I never shared my father’s love for the language of the Romans. In fact, Latin was the only subject I failed in school. My father has been deceased for a decade now, but he would be tickled pink if he could see this post.

The Roman civilization existed for about twelve centuries, beginning in the 8th century BC., so for simplicity’s sake, I’ll limit this discussion to clothes worn during the time of the Roman Empire - from 27 BC when Octavian adopted the title of Augustus to the end of the empire in 461 AD. Some historians argue the Empire ended in 476, but for our purposes, that difference of a few years doesn't matter.

Statue of Roman woman, British Museum
Artifacts, art and written records give us a clear picture of what people of the Roman Empire wore. With the exception of the toga, Roman clothes were basically Grecian in style and made of wool, silk or cotton.

Women’s Attire 
Women of Rome wore a garment called a stola, which was two rectangular pieces of cloth joined at the side by fibulae (brooches) and buttons. They also sometimes wore a kind of shawl called a palla. An oblong piece of fabric, the palla was worn as a coat with part of it draped over the head to form a hood when needed. 

Men’s Attire  
Until the 2nd century BC, both men and women wore togas. After that togas were worn only by men. Though they were all pretty much the same in design, there was a marked difference between one toga and another as any Roman could tell at a glance. If you were rich, your toga would have been thin, natural color wool. If you were poor, it would have been in a coarse material, or even thin felt. Colors also determined the station of a man, and even what language he spoke. Remember, Roman citizens were from many countries. On the right is the Emperor Tiberius in a draped toga of 1st century AD.

Underwear & Athletic Wear
The tunic was the staple undergarment for both men and women. Not to be confused with the tunics of later years, the Roman tunica was a rectangular piece of cloth sewn into a tubular shape and pinned around the shoulders. A strophium (breast cloth) was also worn by women for athletics along with a subligaculum which covered the loins. The subligaculum was also worn by men and there were two styles – a simple loincloth which farmers wore, and a garment looking much like shorts, which was worn by soldiers, gladiators and athletes.

Female athletes wearing a subligaculum and a strophium

Outerwear & Footwear

Leather was used for footwear and belts. It was also used for the coats of Roman soldiers who were often on duty in countries with colder climates.

Germanic fibulae, early 5th century AD

I can quite understand why my father had such an interest in ancient Rome. Rome’s language, religion, philosophy, architecture, law and government were adopted by the territories it governed, particularly Europe and Britain. They in turn, influenced the entire western world and beyond, an influence that remains until this day. You see it in things as seemingly insignificant as the “Roman” sandals that keep coming back into style. The expression “Si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more (When in Rome, do as the Romans do) is still in common usage two thousand years after the fall of an empire, which at its height, stretched from Italy to Asia Minor, Greece, North Africa, Europe and Britain.

Note: “When in Rome do as the Romans do” is attributed to Saint Ambrose (340– 397) who was an archbishop of Milan
Image sources: Wikimedia,,