Sunday, June 3, 2012

Prostitutes, Roman Law, and the Toga

Woman wearing a yellow palla and white stola.
Since the last time I had enough time to post on this blog, I've read some interesting works that bear upon prostitutes and toga-wearing in ancient Rome, and the connections between those two things.

I succeeded in obtaining a copy of Thomas McGinn's Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law In Ancient Rome on interlibrary loan. Unfortunately, I did not get to read the entire book before I had to return it, which would have been useful as a way of making certain I correctly understood the context of McGinn's remarks about the association between prostitutes and togas. However, most of McGinn's comments about the toga fall into a single chapter, which I have read. They make an interesting contrast, both to some of the less academic sources I talked about in my last post on this subject and with my own conjectures.

McGinn largely ignores Victorian scholarship on his subject, focusing instead on the original texts and modern scholars' interpretations of them.  Because his interest is primarily in what light Roman law sheds upon the role of prostitutes in Roman society, McGinn discusses the toga only in the context of an Augustan statute that linked prostitutes and women convicted of adultery and effectively linked the wearing of a dark toga to both, even though McGinn does not believe that many women actually wore a toga by Augustan times. He suggests that the law was devised to attempt to enforce a level of virtue among Roman matrons by depriving them of their characteristic garment--the stola--as part of their punishment for misbehavior, and also by linking them to a garment associated with females of a lesser class (i.e., prostitutes):
Man wearing a toga.
Respectable women who were convicted of adultery had to abandon the stola in favor of the toga as part of the penalty. Previous to the law's passage, the toga had been associated only with prostitutes among adult women. The purpose of the garment was to provide a means of distinguishing them from respectable women in public. The notion that convicted adulteresses walked about in public clad in the toga may suggest that the relegatio imposed as a penalty by the law was only temporary in nature. ... All the same, we may ascribe a double purpose to the law's imposition of the garment on convicted adulteresses. It is said that the prostitutes' toga (and presumably that worn by adulteresses) was dark. This would set it apart from the toga worn by males as a badge of citizen status. There is more than a practical aim at work: the toga was to serve as a symbol, perceived and easily understood by the entire community.(emphasis supplied)  (p. 166)
In other words, according to Professor McGinn, the point of linking the toga to prostitutes or adulteresses was simply to distinguish them from decent married women. A dark toga, or for that matter any toga, is very visually distinct from the stola--the strapped overdress to which Roman matrons were entitled. (See the above images of the stola and the toga from the VRoma Home Page (

Why use a toga to make that stigmatizing distinction instead of some other garment?  Probably because of the confluence of two factors: 1) the toga symbolized Rome, and 2) decent adult women seldom wore it, at least by the time the statute of Augustus became law. I found some interesting information about the clothing of young Roman girls that indirectly confirms this view, which I plan to write about in my next post.


  1. Oo, this is very interesting. I look forward to hearing more.

  2. I hope your next post is soon... this subject will make for very fun talk at the University, as the management insists in the usage of a dress which is called "toga", too. Doesn't look like the Roman toga, more like the French "toge". I think in some universities in the States they use them, but I think they aren't named thus.

    Did I mention that the dress used is always dark? Fun talks, I say.

  3. The two books I intend to discuss in my next post are Lillian Wilson's The Roman Toga (first published in 1924, but available on Amazon in a cheap paperback edition) and a relatively new book of essays, Roman Dress and the Fabrics of Roman Culture. The latter, in particular, lists the available information as to the clothing of female children in Ancient Rome. Yes, togas are involved, but it's how togas are involved that proves interesting.

    I still have employment and other issues to resolve in my personal life, but I promise I'll get the next post out as soon as I can.

  4. Nivreial: You'll love this. Remember my post about Dress of the Venetians? It turns out that the 16th c. Venetians called the robe their citizens were required to wear was *also* called "toga". The Venetians' "toga" was a long robe with full sleeves and a high but collarless neckline. In color it was typically either black, crimson, or scarlet. That sounds a lot like your University's "toga". Isn't it interesting how costume terms become transferred to very different garments with the passage of time?