Dressing to Impress in Greece and Rome

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Dressing to Impress in Greece and Rome

Color in Greek and Roman Apparel.

A visitor to ancient Greece or Rome would have been impressed by the bright colors of the clothing that the people wore, particularly the women. On this point, the Greek and Roman art that has survived tends to give a false picture. The marble statues were originally painted using wax-based paints, but it is very rare to find a statue now with traces of the original colors. The bronze statues have almost all disappeared long ago, melted down in the medieval period for their metal. The pictures on Greek vases of the sixth and fifth centuries b.c.e., when Athenian black-figured and red-figured vases were in style, present a record of changing fashions, but the vase painter was limited by the colors of his medium. In fact, Greek and Roman garments were far more colorful than most people realize. Weavers could produce elaborately patterned cloth. The peplos that was presented every four years to the goddess Athena at the Great Panathenaea festival was a masterpiece of design. It was woven by the women of Athens in a public building in the city where space was set aside for the loom, and the style of the garment did not change, but there was room for innovation in the pattern of the cloth.


introduction: The Athenian historian Thucydides, who composed his History of the Peloponnesian War near the end the fifth century b.c.e., devoted a section in his introduction to the developments which had taken place in Greece in the Archaic Period (700–480 b.c.e.) and earlier, and he notes the change in fashion that had taken place in Greek clothing. He claims that the Athenians had taken the lead. It is more likely that it was the cities in Ionia that took the lead, but the surviving evidence does not allow us to contradict Thucydides with any confidence.

The Athenians were the first to give up the habit of carrying weapons and to adopt a way of living that was more relaxed and more luxurious. In fact, the elder men of the rich families who had these luxurious tastes only recently gave up wearing linen undergarments [chitons] and tying their hair behind their heads in a knot fastened with a clasp of golden grasshoppers: the same fashions spread to their kinsmen in Ionia, and lasted there among the old men for some time. It was the Spartans who first began to dress simply and in accordance with our modern taste, with the rich leading a life that was as much as possible like the life of the ordinary people. They, too, were the first to play games naked, to take off their clothes openly, and to rub themselves down with olive oil after their exercise. In ancient times, even at the Olympic Games, athletes used to wear coverings for their loins, and indeed this practice was still in existence not very many years ago. Even today, many foreigners, especially in Asia, wear these loincloths for boxing matches and wrestling bouts. Indeed, one could point to a number of other instances where the manners of the ancient Hellenic world are very similar to the manners of foreigners today.

source: Thucydides, "Introduction," in History of the Peloponnesian War. Trans. Rex Warner (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Classics, 1954): 38–39.

The East Greeks.

The Greeks always looked on the fashions of the Orient, particularly Persia, with admiration mixed with disapproval and contempt. On the one hand, the elaborate fashions associated with Persia signaled soft living and effeminacy; the Greek admiration for the well-muscled naked body was not to be found in Persia. On the other hand, Oriental fashions were enormously attractive for anyone who wanted his dress to signal his wealth and his cosmopolitan culture. East Greece—the Greek foundations in Asia Minor and Cyprus—was always an avenue for contact with the civilizations of the Orient. The collapse of the Mycenaean civilization had been followed by a period of migrations when three waves of migrants from Greece founded cities on the coastline of Asia Minor and the Dodecanese islands. The most important of these new foundations were made by Greeks speaking the Ionian dialect, and so East Greeks are often referred to as "Ionian," though there were also Aeolian and Dorian foundations, established by Greeks whose dialects were Aeolian or Dorian. These Ionian cities were cheek-by-jowl with the Lydian Empire, and the last Lydian king, Croesus, subdued those that were on the mainland while the cities on the offshore islands were protected by their fleets. In 546 b.c.e. Croesus in turn fell victim to a new empire builder, Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire. The Ionian cities that had belonged to the Lydian Empire fell under Persian control. Persia was not content with the Greek cities on the Asia Minor coastline. Little by little it took over the cities on the offshore islands, and from Asia, it moved into Europe and by 512 b.c.e. it controlled the region to the north of the Aegean Sea. Yet Persia's rule was relatively light. Ionian culture continued as before, and Ionian fashions, influenced by Lydia and then by Persia, were elaborate and ornate. Ionia became a conduit for Persian style to pass to Greece, particularly to Athens, which the Ionians regarded as their mother city. In the first two decades of the fifth century b.c.e., Persia made an attempt to conquer Greece which resulted in Persia's defeat and her retreat from the region of the Aegean Sea. The elaborate fashions associated with the Orient went out of style in Athens which opted for a more sober, austere appearance, though older, more conservative men continued to wear Ionic chitons with their many pleats and do up their hair with pins made in the shape of grasshoppers. Ionia won its independence from Persia after Xerxes' debacle in Greece, but then it fell under the domination of Athens. Ionia had the reputation of being a place where life was soft and easy, and the scientific view of the day held that soft living made men with soft muscles who were no good on the battlefield. Hard living made hard men, and as the Greeks saw it, it was the toughness of their foot soldiers and the free men who rowed their warships that won them victory over Persia. Simple clothing and toughness went hand in hand. The fact that Ionia won its freedom from Persia only to lose it the Athenian Empire seemed to prove that Ionia, with its love for Persianstyle fripperies, was not fit to defend its liberty. The reaction against Persian fashion did not last, however. Active warfare between the Athenian Empire and Persia ended in 450 b.c.e., and peaceful contacts between Athens and Persia resumed.


introduction: During the last quarter of the fifth century b.c.e., Persian fashions were on the rise in Athens, though not without the usual conflict between the old and new styles that mirrored the conflict between the old traditions and the new ways. In his play The Wasps (performed in 422 b.c.e.), Aristophanes highlights both of these conflicts in an exchange between a son and his father during which the son, Anticleon, attempts to convince his father, Procleon, to trade in his plain brown jury-man's coat for the significantly fancier styles from Persia—in this case a kaunakes or a persis. The two men's clothes (as well as their names) in this instance also reflect their political convictions; Cleon was a political leader intensely disliked by the wealthy Athenians who wore the latest fashions, but the masses supported him.

Procleon: What is it you want me to do?

Anticleon: Take off that shabby old cloak and throw this gown over your shoulders.

Procleon: Lot of good having sons and bringing them up, if all they can do is try and suffocate you!

Anticleon: Come along, get it on, and don't talk so much.

Procleon: In the name of all the gods, what is this horrible thing?

Anticleon: It's a Persian gown: some people call it a full-waister.

Procleon: I thought it must be one of those goatskin things from the country.

Anticleon: You would. Now if you'd ever been to Sardis, you'd have known what it was; but it seems you don't.

Procleon: I most certainly don't. Looks to me like one of Morychus' fancy wrappings.

Anticleon: No, these are woven in Ecbatana.

Procleon: What from? Tripe?

Anticleon: Really, you're hopeless! Don't you realize that this is an extremely expensive Persian weave—why, at least sixty pounds of wool must have gone to the making of this.

source: Aristophanes, The Wasps. Trans. David Barrett (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1964): 80–81.

Persian Fashion in Athens.

By the last quarter of the fifth century, Athenians demonstrated a fondness for Persian styles again. New items of dress appear with telltale names. The fine wool cloak called a syria must have been inspired by Syrian fashion. These cloaks may even have been imports from Syria. There was a kind of women's shoes called persikai. One of Plato's dialogues refers to wealthy people who wore "Persian belts"; the dialogue is fictitious, but Plato imagines it taking place before 415 b.c.e., and it is probable that some rich Athenians of that time were wearing expensive belts probably imported from Persia. Another garment of the late fifth century b.c.e. was the kaunakes, also known as the persis—a name which betrays its origin. It seems to have been a heavy cloak with little woolen tufts. Chitons with sleeves—another Persian innovation—also appear. Vase paintings depict examples of the chitoniskos cheiridotos—that is, the short patterned chiton with sleeves—worn over a long chiton. The short chiton might have fringes at the bottom, and fringes were considered Lydian, or at least, oriental. Another Persian garment which the Greeks adopted was the kandys, an outer garment with sleeves, dyed purple, and fastened at the shoulders. The wearer used his kandys to keep his arms warm, even though the sleeves were too long to be of practical use and were sewn up at the end. In the Persian court, these sleeves served to protect the king from assassination since men with their arms in the long sleeves of their kandys could not wield an assassin's knife.

The Symbolism of the Sleeve.

Sleeves were not new to ancient Greece. Musicians wore long chitons with sleeves when they performed at public festivals, but the sumptuous costumes of musicians were not everyday dress. The policemen who patrolled the streets of Athens also wore tunics with sleeves and trousers, but these public servants were actually Scythian slaves owned by the state, and they wore their native costume. Sleeves were thought to be a peculiar mark of Persian fashion, but they won acceptance, for on the sculptured frieze from the Parthenon in Athens (carved in the 430s b.c.e.) some of the young horsemen in the parade are shown wearing short chitons with sleeves. It looks as if some well-to-do young Athenians had adopted the latest Persian-style fashions. Yet when sleeves reached Rome, they were considered effeminate. A passage in Vergil's epic, the Aeneid, demonstrates the prevailing Roman attitude towards this fashion. In the passage, a native Italian (representing the Romans) opposes a settlement of foreign Trojans in Italy by hurling insults at their leader, Aeneas; among the insults are derisive comments on their wearing of sleeves, which the Italian disparaged as unmanly. Aeneas had come from Troy, which was in Asia, and hence the Trojans were Asians and wore Persian costume. In the Aeneid, the Trojans have to abandon their Asian way of life before they win a place for themselves in Italy. It must not have been a complete abandonment, however, since Julius Caesar's biographer, Suetonius, reported that the purple-striped senatorial tunic which Julius Caesar wore under his toga had sleeves with fringes.


introduction: The Latin writer Aulus Gellius was a well-to-do Roman who received the standard education in rhetoric in Rome and then went to Athens to study philosophy. It was his custom to jot down notes of things that seemed worth remembering whenever he read a book in Latin or Greek, and during a winter that he spent at a country-place outside Athens, he began to assemble them into a collection which he later published as Noctes Atticae (Attic Nights). He wrote during the reigns of the emperor Antoninus Pius (138–161 c.e.) and his successor, Marcus Aurelius (161–180 c.e.). In the excerpt below, he relates the criticism of the second-century b.c.e. Roman Publius Scipio Africanus regarding the effeminate dress of his countryman Sulpicius Gallus, who wore long-sleeved tunics. Long sleeves were considered Persian finery, and not proper clothing for a tough virile Roman in the second century b.c.e.

For a man to wear tunics coming below the arms and as far as the wrists, and almost to the fingers, was considered unbecoming in Rome and all Latium. Such tunics our countrymen called by the Greek name chiridotae (long-sleeved), and they thought that for women—and only women—a long and full-flowing garment was not unbecoming to harm their arms and legs from view. But Roman men at first wore the toga by itself, without tunics; later they had close, short tunics ending below the shoulders, the kind that the Greeks call exomides (sleeveless). Habituated to this older fashion, Publius Africanus, son of Paulus, a man gifted with all worthy arts and every virtue, among many other things with which he reproached Publius Sulpicius Gallus, an effeminate man, included this also, that he wore tunics which covered his whole hands. Scipio's words are these: "For one who perfumes himself every day and dresses before a mirror, whose eyebrows are trimmed, who walks abroad with beard plucked out and thighs made smooth, who at banquets, though a young man, has reclined in a long-sleeved tunic on the inner side of the couch with a lover, who is fond not only of wine but of men—does anyone doubt that he does what wantons commonly do?"

source: Aulus Gellius, The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius. Vol. 2 of 3 vols. Trans. John C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1927): 57, 59. Text modified by James Allan Evans.

The Parasol.

Parasols were known in the Myceneaean world but they drop out of the picture in the Dark Ages of Greece. They reappear on vase paintings in the later sixth century b.c.e. as part of a well-to-do woman's costume, though they were apparently not exclusively used by women. The lyric poet Anacreon, who enjoyed the patronage of a tyrant of Samos until Persia captured the island in 522 b.c.e., used his poetry to criticize a fellow named Artemon who wore gold earrings and held an ivory sun umbrella, "as ladylike as you please!" In Athens, the parasol became a status symbol for the freeborn woman. In Athens of the fifth century b.c.e. there was a sharp distinction between the citizens and the metics, or resident aliens. After the middle of the century, when the statesman Pericles passed a law that barred everyone from citizenship whose parents were not both Athenian citizens themselves, it was impossible for a metic to become a citizen. So the Athenian citizen body became an elite group that prevented outsiders from entering. The parasol marked the division. There was a law dating perhaps to about the same time as Pericles' citizenship law that required the daughters of metics to carry parasols and stools for the daughters of citizens in the Panathenaic procession. The parasol was not merely a shield from the sun; it was a status symbol.

Persian Fashion in Rome.

"I detest Persian frippery, boy," wrote the poet Horace as the first line of one of his Odes. Horace claimed to like the simple life. He lived under the emperor Augustus and enjoyed the generous patronage of one of Augustus' ministers, Maecenas, so he expressed the official view about luxury in dress and in life generally. This view of Persian fashion was not merely a matter of taste, but a cunning example of propaganda reminiscent of the Greeks' abandonment of Persian fashion following their military conflicts with Persia. Augustus had begun his political career as the teen-aged great-nephew and adopted heir of the powerful Roman politician, Julius Caesar; following Caesar's assassination, Augustus had to defeat Mark Antony and Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, before he could become master of the empire. His propaganda portrayed Cleopatra as the paradigm of oriental luxury that extended to her clothes. Augustus presented himself as the champion of Roman traditions in clothes as in everything else. Yet Romans who could afford it liked rich dress. The longest fragment of a novel written by Petronius in the reign of the emperor Nero (54–68 b.c.e.) describes a banquet given by a wealthy former slave named Trimalchio who liked to show off his wealth. He made a grand entrance to the banquet chamber on a litter, wearing a bright scarlet cloak and a tasselled napkin with a broad purple stripe in imitation of the senatorial stripe around his neck that, as a freedman, he could not legally wear. He wore rings on his fingers and on his right arm was a gold armlet and another of ivory with a gleaming metal clasp. Clothes signaled a message, and the message of Trimalchio's costume was that he had "made it."

Persian Costume in the Late Empire.

By the time of the late Roman Empire, the costume of the imperial court under Diocletian (284–305 c.e.) and Constantine (324–337 c.e.) borrowed heavily from Persian fashion. Constantine began to wear a diadem decorated with pearls as a symbol of his autocratic power. Costume borrowed from the Persian court signaled the emperor's authority in late antiquity. Persia furnished a large share of the trappings of the imperial court as the Roman Empire evolved into the Byzantine Empire.


M. C. Miller, Athens and Persia in the Fifth Century B.C.: A Study in Cultural Receptivity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

—, "The Parasol: An Oriental Status-Symbol in Late Archaic and Classical Athens," Journal of Hellenic Studies 112 (1992): 91–105.

G. M. A. Richter, "Greeks in Persia," American Journal of Archaeology 50 (1946): 16–30.