Sunday, June 10, 2012

Still More About The Toga

In my last post, I briefly discussed Thomas McGinn's book about prostitution and Roman law, and how a statute from the reign of Augustus relating to adulteresses shed at least a little light on the link between prostitutes and the toga.  

Since I read McGinn's analysis, I've discovered two more scholarly works that address the issue from a different angle.  These works talk about the wearing of the toga by children--girl children as well as boy children.  The information they discuss from both art and literature suggests that the main thing that what the toga symbolizes--no matter what sort of person wears it--is the wearer's Romaness.  All other meanings may well arise from the context in which the toga is worn and the color, ornamentation, etc. of the particular toga involved.  

Lunula  (from Wikimedia Commons)
The earlier source I read is Lillian A. Wilson's book, The Roman Toga.  Professor Wilson's primary interest was to deduce the appearance and construction of the toga, particularly the basic toga worn by male citizens.  She accomplished this by painstakingly examining the appearance of Roman sculptures depicting toga-wearing males, then taking cloth, cutting and shaping it, and draping the results on volunteers until the drapes shown photographs of her volunteers matched the appearance of the drapes in the sculpture. By this means Professor Wilson showed that the shape of the toga was not rectangular, nor semicircular, but was roughly trapezoidal, and that the garment became more trapezoidal with the passage of time.  

As background information, however, Professor Wilson briefly discusses who wore the toga. She states:
Among primitive peoples generally there is little difference in form between the garments of children and those of adults. Doubtless from the beginning of its existence the toga was worn by boys as well as by men, but it is not until after the development of the sinus [a loop or pouch formed by a common method of draping the toga] that extant monuments tell us much about the dress of Roman children. On the Ara Pacis, we see children apparently from 4 to 10 or 12 years of age wearing togas longer and more cumbersome than those of their elders, and one of the children is a young girl. There are a number of extant statues in the round showing a similar toga on Roman boys. Literature furnishes positive evidence that the toga worn by these high born young Romans was the toga praetexta, or a toga with a purple border. (page 51; internal citations omitted)
The picture below shows the southern frieze from the Ara Pacis, including a little girl who, like her brothers, is wearing the toga.
Ara Pacis, south wall; the little girl is the second from the right in the front row.  (from Wikimedia Commons)
In Roman Dress and the Fabrics of Roman Culture, (Jonathan Edmondson & Alison Keith, eds., University of Toronto Press, 2008),Kelly Olson's essay "The Appearance of the Young Roman Girl" takes a more detailed look at the evidence for what a Roman girl below the age of matrimony would have worn.  

Ms. Olson describes the various items such a girl would have worn, drawing upon Roman literature and artworks because relatively few sources address the subject of girls' clothing.  To make matters worse, the literary sources do not accord with the art source.  According to the literary sources, a young Roman girl would typically wear a tunica, a instep-length, sleeveless gown, a linen undergarment of unclear nature called the suppurus, a breast band called a strophium, wool bands called vittae binding her hair, a necklace with a crescent-shaped pendant called a lunula--and the toga praetexta.  Surviving sculptures do not depict girls wearing the vittae, and few images show the lunula or the toga praetexta, with the Ara Pacis reliefs being among the few exceptions.  Roman sculpture often was enhanced with painted details, and it is certainly possible that the sculptures that appear to show girls without lunulae or vittae originally had them painted on, or even that real lunulae or vittae would be tied onto the necks and heads of statues.  The toga praetexta, however, could not be painted on, and few surviving works of art (sculptural or otherwise) show the toga praetexta on little girls. Since the Ara Pacis reliefs appear to show the Emperor and his family (scholars debate which emperor it was, or even whether it was Agrippa's family and not the imperial family at all, but either way a high-born family was involved) at a public sacrifice, it may simply be that the children are wearing togas to emphasize their role as well-born, Roman children.

Ms. Olsen theorizes that most Roman parents would not have clothed their daughters in the toga but would have them wear Hellenic garments to display their own sophisticated tastes. However, another piece of information she derives from the literary sources suggests still another reason why girls might well have worn the toga praetexta sometimes:
Why children wore the toga itself is unclear, but the wool of the garment and especially its purple band (likely woven directly onto the toga) had a general apotropaic significance.  Persius described the purple stripe as the 'guard' of pre-adolescence (custos purpura, Sat. 5.30); in a declamation attributed to the rhetorician Quintilian, the colour purple is described as the one 'by which we make the weakness of boyhood sacred and revered.' (quo infirmitatem pueritiae sacram facimus ac venerabilem, [Quint.] Decl. 340.13).  It guarded the child and preventing [sic] him/her from seeing any bad omens, for instance.  More importantly, however, the costume served to mark off those citizen boys and girls who were to be shielded from obscenity or sexual contact. Thus Festus reports that impure words were not to be uttered in the presence of a child clad in the toga praetexta. Valerius Valentinus boasted in a ribald poem that he has seduced a puer praetextatus and a freeborn girl, which was used in court to undermine his authority as prosecutor. (pp. 141-142, emphasis supplied)
If the toga praetexta--the white toga with the narrow purple stripe--not only served as ritual protection but also symbolized that the child wearing it was too young to be involved in sexual matters--the apparent inconsistency between the literary references associating children with the garment and the lack of artistic images makes much more sense.  Perhaps it's not surprising that the toga praetexta does not turn up in portraits of young girls and does not turn up often in Roman art.  In the context of a portrait (likely painted in the privacy of her home) the need to wear protection from evil and from sexual assault may have been seen as unnecessary, resulting in a lack of portraits of togate girl children. On the other hand, if this "marking off" function was the real reason boys and girls wore the toga, the children likely would have worn togas only when they were out on display, so to speak, in public--as was patently the case with the Imperial children on the Ara Pacis relief.   Since female children in particular are seldom depicted in Roman artwork in public roles, that might suffice to explain the shortage of images of little girls in togas.  

The idea of the toga praetexta also suggests a possible answer to another question I've had. The toga praetexta was also worn by magistrates. Why on earth would a magistrate and a minor child both be entitled to wear the same garment?  Perhaps the ritual protection function is the answer.  Just a good Roman would want to protect his or her offspring from seeing evil omens, so Rome would also to protect its public officials from seeing evil omens--to avoid bringing evil down upon the City and its people.

The sources cited by Ms. Olson and Professor Wilson tend to confirm that the toga was not specifically symbolic of gender, but of being Roman. Moreover, Ms. Olson's discussion of the toga praetexta suggests that the real symbolism of the prostitute's toga lies in the fact that it was not white, but dark. Romans wore a dark drab toga, the toga pulla, for mourning. Perhaps prostitutes--and later on, adulteresses--were associated with the toga as mourning for their lost virtue. Yes, it's still only speculation, but it's speculation that fits better with the limited surviving evidence than my original thought that Roman prostitutes might originally had a sacerdotal function.

There are a few more interesting details about Roman girls' clothing that Ms. Olsen discusses that aren't relevant to the toga.  I'll comment on those in another post.

EDITED (6/14/2012) to clarify certain points and to correct the text to reflect the fact that the identity of the man shown with his family on the south frieze of the Ara Pacis is, and has been, in dispute by scholars. See the Wikipedia article on the Ara Pacis for more details.


  1. ...huh. I wonder how much this is true for Roman children in general, and how much for the children of the upper-class. I suppose we'd largely have literary and visual evidence for the children of wealthy and noble parents, compared to the more working-class types. (I mean, no kid is going to do farm labor in a toga.)

    1. I suspect that, although in theory any Roman citizen could clothe his underage children in the toga praetexta, only the upper classes bothered. As you say, no one is going to do farm labor in a toga! But even on special occasions, it's unlikely that a poor citizen will go to the expense of getting a fine, white wool garment, trimmed with an expensively-dyed purple border, for their kids. (Heck, it's probably unlikely that such parents would have had the time and effort to train their kids to wear a toga, even for special occasions).

      There's another essay in the "Roman Dress" book, "The Dark Side of the Toga", that talks about what a burden it must have been for even the man of the house in a poor Roman family to wear a toga. She bases her discussion on literary references, which indicate that a poor Roman would have been expected to show up on the doorstep of his patron's home early in the morning, to be part of the entourage the patron would take with him on his formal visits, in order to get the stipend, called a sportula, which for many poor men was a necessary supplement to their income. Remember, wearing the toga was more of a burden than is wearing a modern business suit. Although modern business suits are often made of wool, they are only one layer (two at most, with the lining) and are tailored to the body so one can move pretty well in them. The toga was draped, so that even if the fabric was thin (and judging from the sculptures, it probably was) you were wearing many layers at once. Also, it was hard to move in, especially if you had to follow your patron through muddy streets (he probably used a litter; you wouldn't be so lucky). The essayist, Michelle George, cheerfully quotes Martial as referring to such a client's "sweaty toga" (toga sudatrix) after the poor client had been following his patron around.

    2. Oh, my, yes. Juvenal's got half a satire on what a pain it is to follow around a rich patron and run errands for him. And as I understand the toga (possibly incorrectly), it's fairly deliberately designed to be cumbersome, because needing to have your hands free to do useful work is for slaves and farmers, buddy.

    3. Prestige clothing always tends to be cumbersome or inconvenient. From high heels to hanging sleeves to sprayed-on-tight blue jeans, nothing says "I don't need to work" like an item of clothing about which it can rationally be said, "there's no way I *could* work in this!"