Thursday, March 8, 2012

Who Is The Girl In That Toga?

For years, I had been hearing, usually as a throw-away line, the repeated claim that prostitutes in ancient Rome wore the toga. Implied (though not always stated) in this claim was the idea that they were the only female toga wearers.

Recently, I started thinking more seriously about this idea. I wondered what the support for it was, and whether it is true. In addition, I started to wonder why prostitutes were wearing the toga, and how the garment that represented a man's pride in his Roman citizenship somehow became transmogrified into a woman's badge of shame.

So I began attempting to gather information on both issues. First, I sought to confirm (or refute) the main point that prostitutes wore the toga. I started checking out websites first (because that was easiest). It soon became clear that most of them were simply repeating what they had heard from other third (or fourth or fifth) hand sources, without even providing any references for potential documentation, let alone any rationale. However, there are a few that are worth at least a brief examination.

Wikipedia's article on prostitution in ancient Rome says simply, "Female prostitutes were the only Roman women who wore the toga, a formal garment otherwise only male citizens were permitted to wear. This crossing of gender boundaries has been interpreted variously. Expensive courtesans wore gaudy garments of see-through silk." At the end of this passage is a citation to the following source:
Catharine Edwards, "Unspeakable Professions: Public Performance and Prostitution in Ancient Rome," in Roman Sexualities (Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 81.
There is, interestingly, no reference to prostitutes in Wikipedia's essay on the toga itself. That article refers, albeit somewhat vaguely, to a fact I ultimately confirmed elsewhere; namely, that the toga was originally worn by male and female Romans alike. The web page on Roman costume created by Barbara McManus of the College of New Rochelle states this fact, but adds an odd conclusion that merely whetted my curiosity:
Although women had apparently worn togas in the early years of Rome, by the middle of the Republican era the only women who wore togas were common prostitutes. Unlike men, therefore, women had an item of clothing that symbolized lack of (or loss of) respectability—the toga. While the toga was a mark of honor for a man, it was a mark of disgrace for a woman. Prostitutes of the lowest class, the street-walker variety, were compelled to wear a plain toga made of coarse wool to announce their profession, and there is some evidence that women convicted of adultery might have been forced to wear “the prostitute's toga” as a badge of shame.
Another web article claims: "In the early republic, clothing for women was simple and indistinguishable from that of men. Both sexes initially wore plain woollen togas. This changed by the middle of the republic when distinctions in the clothing became clearer. The toga became an almost exclusively male garment. The only women who were allowed to wear it were prostitutes who had to wear rough woollen togas in public to advertise their trade."

This site, an on-line version which appears to be an online version of William Smith's A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, (John Murray, London, 1875), avers that "The Stola was the characteristic dress of the Roman matrons as the toga was of the Roman men (Cic. Phil. II.18). Hence the meretrices were not allowed to wear it, but only a dark-coloured toga (Tibull. IV.10.3; Mart. I.36.8)". Clearly, then, there are references in classical literature to the wearing of some kind of toga by prostitutes.  Professor Lillian May Wilson, in her landmark work The Roman Toga (originally published by Johns Hopkins Press, 1924), confirms this:
According to literary references, the toga in very early times was also worn by women as well as by men, and we shall see that the wearing of it by young girls was continued at least until about the beginning of the imperial period. But in later times the plain inference from literary passages is that the wearing of it was discontinued by women excepting those of the disreputable sort." (p. 27) (emphasis supplied).
Professor Wilson cites Juvenal (II, 68) and Martial (X, 52) for the statement I have quoted above. Unfortunately, I am no Latin scholar, and Google Translate makes a terrible hash of the relevant passages from Martial--so terrible that I cannot make anything useful enough of them to be worth quoting here.

In any event, there appears to be grounds in Roman literature for believing that all Romans once wore the toga, and when wearing the toga ceased to be customary for women, it somehow remained the custom to compel loose women to wear it.  That makes no sense to me. Why should a garment that was once worn by both sexes but ultimately was identified with men be associated with disgrace when worn by a woman? More precisely, why should the garment that symbolized Roman citizenship when worn by a man be forced upon a woman as a symbol of sexual disgrace?

Anne Duncan, in an essay published in Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World (University of Wisconsin Press, February 6, 2006), suggests that the symbolism involved with prostitutes wearing the toga may relate to the fact that prostitutes, unlike decent women, were expected to act for themselves in the world--like men--and that this was the reason they continued to wear the toga after decent women had ceased to do so:
But why the toga, of all garments? It was not only because it signified that the prostitute had lusts more appropriate to a man.  Wearing the toga, the ultimate signifier of Roman citizen manhood, marked out the female prostitute as a public figure, while working both to naturalize and to privilege the customary garment of respectable Roman women, the palla. ... Respectable Roman women, while apparently not as secluded as women were (at least ideally) in classical Athens, did not go out in public unattended, and they did not conduct business in the public eye alone.  The female prostitute, on the other hand, made her living in the streets, or sitting in front of a brothel, or, if she was very unfortunate, in places like graveyards; she worked in the public eye, and she worked alone. She acted, in this way, more like a citizen man, out on business in the Forum, than a woman, tending to stay at home, or go out accompanied by servants/male guardians. (p. 270)
I wonder if there wasn't a slightly different reason why prostitutes retained the toga in republican/early imperial Rome. In the ancient world, prostitutes often were a kind of priestess. In Rome, citizen men also performed certain priestly functions for their households, typically while togated. Perhaps the Roman prostitute once had a similar function, which she discharged while wearing the toga, the ultimate Roman garment, and her association with the garment remained after her religious or ceremonial function had long since been discarded.

In my search, I learned that there is a book-length study of Roman prostitution: Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law In Ancient Rome, by Thomas A. J.McGinn (Oxford University Press, Jan. 30, 2003).  I intend to track down a copy of this book (by interlibrary loan, if all else fails), and see how Professor McGinn addresses the subject.  (The Google Books preview I link to above, sadly, omits most of the discussion of the wearing of togas by prostitutes.)  Hopefully, Professor McGinn will have mustered sufficient evidence to permit at least some reasonable inferences as to the answer to my question, as well as some more detail about what a prostitute's toga looked like.

EDIT:  (March 16, 2012)  I just put in a request to obtain a copy of McGinn's book by interlibrary loan.  Once I obtain and read it, I'll see where I go with this.  Possibly his bibliography will suggest a lead, or there'll be something in the text I don't know of yet that will give me a clue where to go next.  Thanks for all the wonderful comments so far!


  1. I've had this fact come up several times in my Latin reading, but it's usually just an explanatory footnote--in Martial or Juvenal, especially. That is, "Oh, they're referring to a woman wearing a toga because that's a sign of a prostitute." So I'd be very curious to hear a thorough examination of how that came about, if you do manage to get a copy of that book to read.

  2. Hi, Fade, thanks for stopping by!

    I will certainly blog about what I find out from McGinn's book--and I do expect it to be findable. Amazon has a used copy for about $24, and if I don't feel that rich there's interlibrary loan. Either way, I'm getting a copy to read.

    Judging from the bits of McGinn's book that are on Google Books, there's a whole subtheme in the law--and on the toga-wearing issue--involving women caught in adultery. Apparently the law required adulteresses to wear the toga also, though the snippets I saw suggested that this was not done for long, or consistently. That's another subject of interest.

  3. That is a very interesting topic and and interesting question - I am looking forward to hearing what you will find out!

  4. I'll also ask my Latin professor, if I happen to catch him and remember at the time; I suspect he's mostly working from the same references I am, plus some more, but he might have an idea on how it happened.

  5. Thanks, Fade; if you find out anything interesting, please let me know!

  6. Have scanned through McGinn. He's got lots of good sources (many of them that you've got above), and some interesting points. But I can't find any good analysis of WHY prostitutes wore the toga. He mentions it, and talks at great length about how adultresses also had to in order to show they were like prostitutes, but he never tackles the issue head-on. Here are the best bits, but they're not in-depth:

    Talking about Augustus' laws:

    The law emphasized the connection between respectability and the stola 131 and broadened its scope by including unmarried, as well as married, women. 132 Similarly, it reinforced the association of the prostitute with the toga. The purpose of this manipulation of symbol and status was to guarantee the dignity of the former group and the disgrace of the latter. 133

    Characteristically for the Augustan social legislation, the lex Iulia combined a reassertion of a conservative tradition with an innovative approach, which in this connection was the enforced wearing of the prostitute's toga by the convicted adulteress, the fallen mater familias. 134 On a more general level, by casting the traditional elements in the form of positive law, Augustus changed forever their nature and function in society.

    Later on...

    What to make of the origins of this “symbolic transvestism”? 152 Was it simply a matter of comic usage, at least originally? Quintilian, in a discussion of facial expressions, mentions the importance of methods used in Comedy to distinguish prostitutes from matronae and other characters, but this need not mean a garment type. 153 Donatus mentions a saffron‐colored pallium (the color to denote greed) as the prostitute's distinguishing garment in Comedy. 154 It is difficult, however, to imagine Augustus taking over a status indicator that had a recognizable pedigree in the theater. Or was the gender inversion implied by the wearing of this garment a product of a religious ordinance, a curiously variant image of the rite by which humiliores donned the stola to worship Fortuna Virilis? 155 The idea is suggestive, but the parallel is inexact, and satisfactory evidence is lacking. 156 Neither hypothesis can be proven. 157


    Of significance is the implication of cross‐gender behavior for female chastity. A notable example of masculine character being associated with adulterous conduct is Sallust's portrait of Sempronia. 192 It is a fairly common identification, one that, moreover, is often linked in turn to prostitution, which helps explain the “symbolic transvestism” of the toga. Attributions of adultery, prostitution, and masculinity are all present in Cicero's portrait of Clodia in the Caeliana. 193 This association explains, for example, why women with intellectual interests might be characterized as prostitutes. 194

    Colours were important:

    It is said that the prostitutes' toga (and presumably that worn by adulteresses) was dark. 203 This would set it apart from the toga worn by males as a badge of citizen status. 204

  7. One final quote from McGinn - an interesting later parallel:

    The Roman resort to the toga, a garment in historical times quite distinctively associated with males, finds interesting parallels. As far back as the mid–thirteenth (p. 210 ) century, a number of prostitutes in Florence preferred to dress as men (and were punished for doing so), 551 and in late medieval Venice they adopted men's hair‐styles. 552 Reforming preachers from France in this period denounced respectable women who went about town dressed as men in the same breath in which they condemned them for dressing as prostitutes. 553 Men's clothing allowed prostitutes greater freedom of movement and may have suited some customers. 554

    Prostitutes enjoyed notionally the same sexual freedom as men, though in reality a difference existed. Men generally had freedom to choose their sexual partners, whereas women were chosen. This is a reflection of the unequal distribution of power implicit in the exchange of sex for money, an inequality especially notable when the woman is a slave.

    The voluntary aspect of this adoption of male dress merits attention. It is reasonably clear why authorities wanted a dress code to distinguish good women from bad. There was a need to isolate—at minimum, symbolically—and so better control unchaste women, to reduce the chance that respectable women (who were assumed to be vulnerable by nature to such temptation) might be lured by the finery of prostitutes into abandoning their husbands and selling themselves to others, in short, to prevent whores from behaving and appearing like respectable women and respectable women from behaving and appearing like whores. 555

    Concern might be especially acute with the upmarket prostitutes, or “courtesans,” who were especially thought likely to encourage imitation on the part of respectable women and more than transitory attachments on the part of respectable men. 556 Regulation of dress often formed part of a series of repressive measures that might include prohibition of practice for certain periods of time, especially during Lent, and “zoning” restrictions to a certain area inside a town or away from a church. 557 The purpose was to elide distinctions within the category of prostitute. A similar concern is expressed in various ways by the Augustan adultery law: clothing, register, and verbal description all tended to produce a generic labeling, a leveling effect. 558

    (p. 211 ) All of this is consistent, I believe, with the motivation of the Augustan law in its regulation of women's clothing. That leaves open the question of why prostitutes were associated with the toga before the law's passing. No evidence provides certainty, but it is possible that prostitutes themselves adopted this garment, for reasons that may coincide with any or all of those given above. 559 This argument is stronger if one accepts my view that the aediles did not register prostitutes before the adultery statute was passed and were entrusted with enforcing the wearing of the toga only at that time; there is in fact no evidence that these magistrates had any responsibilities in the area of clothing regulations before Augustus. In any case, no matter who discovered it at Rome, the sign of the prostitute remained a highly ambivalent symbol, 560 which, as a male garment, put prostitutes quite beyond the pale. 561

  8. Hi, jamesoil! Welcome to my blog.

    So McGinn also thinks that the idea that prostitutes had something more like a man's freedom of action was relevant to their wearing of the toga. Interesting.

    I don't think McGinn's later medieval "parallel" is especially parallel or relevant. For one thing, dressing in men's clothes really did allow "greater freedom of movement" in the the late Middle Ages, when women wore long gowns and men no longer did--but that was not true in republican or imperial Rome. Certainly the toga does not make freedom of movement easy in the literal sense, and although identification as a prostitute did allow the women to ply their trade, it hardly did so in a way that made them inconspicuous, or encouraged "freedom of movement" except in a limited way.

    By the way, I got the impression from the Google Books excerpts I scanned that there was more material about prostitutes and the toga after page 433 (the point where Google Books no longer renders any of the book's content)--is that true? It would be great if McGinn at least gave some hints about the color of the prostitute's toga. The descriptive word "dark" makes it clear that the prostitute's toga could not be mistaken for a citizen's toga, but otherwise tells us nothing. Were particular colors appropriate? (I saw a website suggesting that it was blue, for example.) Was it like the toga pulla used for mourning (which tended to be a dark drab color, such as brown)? Or was any color appropriate so long as it was a dark one?

    Finally, I suspect that McGinn correctly guessed the intent of the Augustan law when he noted that putting all prostitutes in their special toga produces a "leveling effect" and eliminates a lot of the wealth-based differences among them. However, I see from the language you have quoted that McGinn mostly throws up his hands as to why prostitutes were associated with the toga "before the law's passing." I don't believe they accepted it themselves, as McGinn suggests, because a woolen toga would both conceal their bodies and diminish indicia of wealth among them--damaging their ability to distinguish their "goods" in the marketplace, so to speak.

    I'm still going to track down and read the book, but your quotes from it have given me something to think about in the meantime. Thank you for taking the trouble of looking for them and passing them on to me.

  9. What a fascinating article. I've never really thought about the why behind prostitutes in togas. I've read it in enough reasonable books to have accepted it, but I didn't actually think about it.

    Now I'm going to have to go look into that story about red shoes and loose women in more modern times! I've always wondered about it, but never did the research.

    1. "Thelyn viderat in toga spadonem, damnatam Numa dixit esse moecham."

      "Numa, one day, saw the eunuch Thelys dressed in a toga. He remarked that it was a convicted adultress." - Martial, Epigrams, X.52.

      - This is the nearest to a primary source reference I can find; but note that poor Thelys is spoken of as an *adulteress* (moecha), not a prostitute (for which there are a rich variety of Latin terms, the commonest being 'meretrix'). Here's what Juvenal writes:

      "Est moecha Fabulla, damnetur, si vis, etiam Carfinia: talem
      non sumet damnata togam." - Juvenal, Satires, II.68.

      "Fabulla is an adulteress, and condemn Carfinia likewise if you please; but even so, they would never wear such a contemptible toga."

      - This is a reference to a man wearing a see-through toga in the law-courts. There is, I think, a double meaning in both Martial's and Juvenal's verses, which casts aspersions on the effeminacy and promiscuity of the two (male) victims. Both satirists are, in effect, calling these men tarts, or saying they look like tarts. NOT prostitutes, though, you'll notice. If being compared, in appearance, to a girl who does it for money was thought more insulting than being compared to a woman breaking marriage-vows, they'd probably have used a different word from 'moecha'.

      If this is the best they can do who maintain that Roman prostitutes wore the toga during the early Imperial period, I for one find it very unconvincing. The word 'toga' literally means 'a covering', in other words, something you can drape around yourself. In this sense, it is no different from a toga virilis.

      The Romans were a pragmatic people who understood that prostitution is a fact of life and frequently an economic necessity. It was easy to get a divorce, so adultery on the other hand, one can argue, was regarded as more morally degraded.

      So... no evidence there for prostitutes wearing the toga virilis, even when convicted by a magistrate - only (possibly) for adulteresses wearing one - and I'm still not convinced about that.

      I shall follow this discussion with interest.

  10. Hi, Anastasia! Welcome to my blog, and thanks for the translations.

    I did not expect that anything would show that prostitutes wore the same kind of toga worn by men. On the other hand, the snippets from McGinn's book indicate that adulteresses were lumped in with prostitutes for some purposes. Hopefully, I will be able to find time to visit my library tomorrow and order a copy through interlibrary loan.

  11. Salva sis, Cathy. While I could offer more on your topic of women wearing togas, something you said has to be refuted from the start. There is no evidence that female sacerdotes served as prostitutes at Rome. This idea comes from male prejudices of the 19th century. As one example, historians claim that the Tabula Rapidiensis is evidence of temple prostitution among the Italic tribe of the Marruccini. In fact, all that the inscriptions says is that women served at a temple as bearers of offerings. Male historians then let their imaginations run wild. The same is said about Samnite women, all of who were to serve a period at temples of Mefitis before marriage. Male historians again assumed temple prostitution with absolutely no evidence. It has been repeated ever since, with no one I know challenging this assumption. Then at Rome, Ovid may say that a good place for men to pick up women is at certain temples, but he is talking about ladies attending temple services and not temple prostitutes. One of these temples was a temple for Venus of Eryx. Reportedly in Sicily a temple of Anath at Eryx, who was identified with Aphrodite by the Greeks and as Venus by the Romans, had introduced temple prostitution for Roman generals following the First Punic War. A temple for Venus of Eryx was later introduced to Rome itself during the Second Punic War. However it must be noted that temple prostitution was specifically prohibited from Her temple, as the practice was totally alien to Roman religious attitudes. Prostitutes had their own patron deities, and thus might visit these temples. They also were prohibited from visiting other temples for matrons. But even in that, there is a great difference between prostitutes attending temples and this notion that Romans tolerated the practice of temple prostitution. They did not.

    On prostitutes wearing togas, that again is a male bias, not born out by fact. Only Roman citizens could wear a toga, and professional prostitutes were either foreign slaves, or former slaves. Roman women who were independent of male authority were not permitted to wear the palla which signified that the woman was married, widowed, or respectably divorced and eligible for marriage. If a female Roman citizen became independent of her husband and her family, then she reverted to wearing a toga as she would have as a child. Slaves, when freed, became Roman citizens, and thus were allowed to wear a toga, whether they might have been a prostitute before or not. Some women who had been slaves, we know with certainty, set up shops after being freed. Naturally they would wear a toga of citizenship if unmarried. People may assume things about an independent Roman woman, just as in the 1950's when an independent divorcee would be viewed as a loose woman, but the assumption that she must be a prostitute is only in the minds of lascivious men and in those of women threatened by a single woman. To say that "prostitutes wore togas" shows only that a person is uninformed on the complexity of Roman society, its class system, and its dress codes.

  12. Hello! Welcome to my blog.

    I appreciate the information in your comment.

    There is no evidence that female sacerdotes served as prostitutes at Rome.

    If you thought I said that, you may have misunderstood what I was trying to achieve. I am not familiar with the antiquarian "male historians" who "let their imaginations run wild" on the subject. The statement I concluded my post with about sacred prostitutes was entirely my own speculation; I wrote the post with the hope of finding enough information to prove it, disprove it, or at least give me a better understanding of what, if anything, is truly known about the association between prostitutes and togas. You have attempted to do so, and I thank you for your efforts.

    You are quite correct about prostitutes often being foreigners not Romans, and I found that point puzzling as well. Your comment proposes an answer: "If a female Roman citizen became independent of her husband and her family, then she reverted to wearing a toga as she would have as a child." Can you refer me to a source for that information? My impression from the limited (and possibly erroneous) information I've found thus far is that originally all Romans wore the toga, then, later, young girls continued to wear it while matrons did not. If, as your final comments suggest, the real link is between "independent" women and the toga, your suggestion that the connection with loose women arises simply from distaste for women who were for whatever reason acting for themselves.

    Anyway, thanks in advance for any additional enlightenment you can provide.

  13. Pure conjecture here...but if women of this time had already rejected wearing the toga (for whatever reason) and especially the dark colored toga...than maybe it was just something Augustus choose because it was unfashionable and respectable women would not be upset about it being associated with prostitution.

  14. Gale: Welcome!

    It's impossible to prove or disprove without more information, but it could well be that Augustus chose to make the toga an emblem of prostitution for that reason.

  15. The Prostitute
    In Roman antiquity prostitutes and adulteresses too were presumably immediately identifiable from their clothing: both wore the toga. By this “exclusion” from the sartorial distinctions of the chaste matronae, such women could ideally be identified as those who rejected the moral code bound up in those clothes.

    Specific passages on the togate woman are few, and may be quoted here.

    The following authors link the toga with an adulteress or a woman whose status is uncertain:

    1. Horace mentions a togata (possibly an ancilla togata) and elsewhere states the togata has the advantage over the matrona when it comes to satisfying sexual urges, as there is no husband to fear. There is, however, no specification as to the social status of the togata (Satires 1.2.63). 18

    2. Martial berates a friend for giving a notorious adulteress (famosa moecha) dresses of purple and scarlet. “Do you want to give her the present she has
    deserved? Send her the toga” (Epigrams 2.39; see McGinn 1998c, 163; Courtney 1980, 133).

    3. Martial elsewhere bestows the epithet “damnata moecha” (possibly “a convicted [?] adulteress”) on the eunuch Thelys, who wears a toga (Epigrams
    10.52; McGinn 1998c, 163).

    4. Juvenal complains of an effeminate advocate’s gauzy toga: “Fabulla is an adulteress; condemn Carfinia of the same crime if you wish; but however
    guilty,shewouldneverwearsuchagownasyours”(Satires2.68–70;McGinn 1998c, 164). Possibly, too, one or both women are convicted adulteresses
    (hence the adjective “damnata”).

    5. Martial criticizes a man as being the son of a woman who wore the toga “mater togata”—there is no specification otherwise as to her status (Epigrams
    6.64.4; Courtney 1980, 133).

    6. Porphyrio wrote that “women who were convicted of having committed adultery were forced to go out in public togate” (Acro Scholia Horatiana to
    Satires at 1.2.63).

    There are a few authors who associate the toga specifically with the
    1. Cicero says to Antony “you assumed the toga virilis and at once turned it
    into the toga of a woman [muliebrem togam]. At first you were a common
    whore [scortum], with a fixed price for your favours, nor was it small” (Phi-
    lippics 2.44; Dyck 2001, 127).

    2. Sulpicia bemoans the fact that Cerinthus is unfaithful to her, and with a
    prostitute: “you attend rather to the toga and to the whore loaded with a
    wool basket than to Sulpicia[,] daughter of Servius” (Tibullus 3.16.3–5;
    Dalby 2000, 264).

    3. Nonius quotes the comic writer Titinius who also emphatically names the
    toga as the garment of the whore. “Even shelter can be described as a toga.
    Titinius in his Gemina: ‘if he decides to head out of town with the whore, I
    want the keys hidden immediately, so that there be no chance for him of any
    undercover business in the country;’ that is, no chance of shelter” (653L,
    translated by McGinn 1998c, 158).

    4. Acro reports: “Matrons who have been repudiated by their husbands on ac-
    count of adultery lay aside the stola and wear the toga on account of dis-
    grace; the toga of a prostitute is apt. For thus they are accustomed to stand
    forth in dark togas only, so as to be distinguished from matrons; and for that
    reason those women who were convicted of adultery wear this garment. In
    other words, women[,] because of [a conviction for] adultery[,] are said to go
    out in public togate. Others call a freedwoman togate, because previously
    freedwomen wore the toga, but matrons wore the stola” (Acro Scholia Hora-
    tiana to Satires 1.2.63). 19

  16. Matrona and Whore Clothing and Definition in Roman Antiquity
    Kelly Olson

    McClure, L., & Faraone, C. A. (2006). Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press.

    1. Thanks for the cites for me to track down, and for the quotes.

      After reading the quotes you provided from Horace, Martial, Juvenal, and so forth, I'm beginning to see why there has been speculation on this subject. As you indicate, the only clear theme in the liiterary quotes is that togate women are different from decent matrons, who wore the stola. These quotes make the point in a way that, to me, smacks more of propaganda--i.e., of an attempt to convince readers that this should be so--than it does of a description of a genuine cultural phenomenon.

      All of this makes me wonder when ordinary Roman women stopped wearing the toga as an ordinary garment, and how that came about.