Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Rome and Feminine Adornment--Some Things Never Change

Me, dressed up (aged 10 months)
Recently, I read the following book by Kelly Olson, a scholar of women's and girls' clothing in ancient Rome:
Olson, Kelly. Dress and the Roman Woman: Self-presentation and Society. (Routledge 2008).
Unsurprisingly, Olson's book contains much of the same information I commented upon in my last post about Roman prostitutes and the toga, but there were a few extra nuggets that are interesting enough to be shared.

My bracelet

One of those nuggets (which also turns up in Olson's essay in Roman Dress and the Fabrics of Roman Culture) is Olson's discussion of whether jewels and makeup were solely the province of adult women or whether they were also worn, at least on occasion, by girls.  Olson appears to be a bit surprised by the evidence that at least some very young girls wore gold jewelry and were buried with makeup cases and the like:
In 1889 there was excavated in Rome the tomb of a young girl named Crepereia Tryphaena who had died unmarried at 17-19 years old. The burial was dated to the late second century CE, and contained haircombs, a beryl necklace, pearl necklace, pearl earrings, mirrors and finger rings (as well as a beautiful jointed ivory doll). The burial chamber of a baby girl in the Hadrianic era in Rome was found to contain a doll, makeup cases, and a gold ring. The contents of Crepereia's tomb may indicate that young or unmarried girls adorned; or perhaps the items in both burials were meant to make the girls' deaths all the more poignant by alluding to a stage of life they would never attain. (p. 116)
Perhaps Olson is right about the makeup cases, but the apparent oddity of real gold jewelry for very little girls may be only a few generations old.

Portrait of a Saxon Princess (1517)
Portinari triptych (1478)
I was born to working-class parents of Eastern European ancestry in 1959.  The picture on the top left shows me at about 10 months of age, dressed up for a formal portrait (that was later reproduced in a larger size to look like an oil painting, and hung on the wall of my family's home until I sold the home after my mother's and stepfather's death).  A quick trip through WikiPortraits also shows no lack of well-born children, at least, wearing jewelry at young ages (see below).
The other photograph near the top of this post shows the gold-filled bracelet I am wearing in the portrait.  I was able to capture the delicate engraving on the front, though my initials "CCO" are  mostly lost in the glare of my camera's flash.  There were also two little gold rings, like wedding rings, and I think I was wearing one of them (on my right hand, though it's not at all clear from this photograph) for the portrait.  I can't find them now for some reason.  

I suspect (though I can't prove it, of course) was that the parents of the Roman baby who buried their daughter with a little gold ring, like my parents, simply felt that to be female is to be adorned, to as great an extent as the family's budget (and, by implication, social class) allows, and that they wanted their baby daughter to be properly adorned in death.

 Children of Edward Hollen Cruttenden (18th c)
Another tidbit I got from Olson's book is the observation that "Men naturally wore a natural wool toga, white if they were canvassing, black or gray if they were in mourning...  but, as in nineteenth-century France and England, 'black, white and grey, the very negation of colour, were the paradigm of dignity, control, and morality' and thus were the everyday color of male garments; the greater part of the rainbow was left to women." (pp. 13-14) 

Finally, and amusingly, Olson cites Pliny as support for the proposition that "the toga was at some point in Rome's history a mark of status or honor for a woman."  (p.127-128 n. 125) Olson's citation to Pliny's Natural History (Plin. Nat. 34.28) is clearly incorrect (the chapter is about how to make a kind of verdigris called "scolex").  However, the following passage from Bostock and Riley's (1855) translation of the Natural History contains the following relevant passage at 34.13:
Pedestrian statues have been, undoubtedly, for a long time in estimation at Rome: equestrian statues are, however, of considerable antiquity, and females even have participated in this honour; for the statue of Clælia is equestrian, as if it had not been thought sufficient to have her clad in the toga; and this, although statues were not decreed to Lucretia, or to Brutus, who had expelled the kings, and through both of whom Clælia had been given as a hostage.  I should have thought that this statue, and that of Cocles, were the first that were erected at the public expense—for it is most likely that the statues of Attus and the Sibyl were erected by Tarquinius, and those of each of the other kings by themselves respectively —had not Piso stated that the statue of Clælia was erected by those who had been hostages with her, when they were given up by Porsena, as a mark of honour.
(emphasis mine).  Not having seen the original Latin, or having sufficient knowledge of Latin to judge the quality of this translation if I had, I will simply leave the matter rest with this quote.


  1. Hm. Given the story of Cloelia from Livy, I would have assumed that the reference to putting her in a toga would mean "as if putting her in a toga weren't enough to call to mind that she acted in a way associated with young men, and heroically," rather than to mean that togas in general would be honorable for women to wear. After all, her story was a rather particular case, and while greatly admired, not really the sort of thing young ladies would be encouraged to emulate as a whole.

  2. Frankly, I agree with your observation; Pliny's point was clearly that Cloelia was an unusual woman, and that she acted so heroically she was honored by being depicted togate as though she were a man. Without any other examples of a statue honoring a woman in the same manner, it's difficult to refute Olson's more gyno-centric interpretation.

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