The Textiles of the Greek and Roman World

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The Textiles of the Greek and Roman World


Sheep were all-purpose animals in the Greco-Roman world. They provided sheepskins which peasants used as cloaks, wool for cloth, mutton to supplement the Greek diet, and milk for making cheese. In ancient Greece and Rome, wool fabric had the added advantage that, unlike linen, it was easy to dye. In addition, wool in its natural state came in a variety of colors depending on the breed of sheep. Latin had words to describe the various hues: albus meant "white," niger "dark brown" or "black," coracinus "deep black," and fuscus "brown with a tinge of red." There was also a color of wool called pullus that came from sheep in south Italy, and also from Liguria, a region in the northwest of the peninsula. Pullus was evidently brownish-black, and it was a color associated with mourning. In the Po River valley in northern Italy, a breed of sheep was developed which produced a fine white wool that could be woven into a gossamer-like fabric. If a man or woman preferred an artificial color, however, there were a large variety of dyes available; in Rome, legend claimed that Numa, the second king of Rome after Romulus, established the guild of dyers. The legend is not likely to be true, but certainly the guild had an ancient history.


Linen was made from the domesticated flax plant which was developed early in the Mediterranean world from the wild flax for its fiber and the oil from its seeds. Linen was used in the Bronze Age, prior to 1100 b.c.e., both in the Minoan period on Crete and the Mycenaean period on the mainland. The tablets found in the so-called "Palace of Nestor" at Pylos in Greece show that flax was cultivated in the south-west Peloponnesos before 1200 b.c.e., and in the later classical period, Elis in the north-west Peloponnesos was well known for its fine linen. In the Hellenistic period after Alexander the Great, Egypt produced linen with a high reputation, but by the Roman period, the big centers of production had moved to Syria and Palestine. In the west, the linen of the Po Valley had a good reputation, as did the linen from the coastal areas of southeast Spain. Linen was used not only for dress, but also fishermen's nets, sails for ships, and the awnings in the theaters and amphitheaters that protected spectators from the sun; awnings were also made from cotton since it dried quickly, or a fabric that was half cotton, half linen was woven for use as canopies.


Cotton was an imported fabric. It first appeared in India, where it has turned up on archaeological sites in the Indus River valley, dating to the early second millennium b.c.e. By the Hellenistic period, from the third to first centuries b.c.e., it had spread to Upper Egypt, Nubia, and Ethiopia, evidently following the trade route between east Africa and India. Greek and Roman authors seemed to think that cotton was grown on trees; the Roman poet Vergil in his Georgics, for instance, refers to the cotton trees of Nubia. Very likely this was not a mistake as many modern scholars believe. Cotton nowadays is grown on a bush with the botanical name Gossipium herbaceum, but there is also a cotton tree, Gossipium arboretum, and quite possibly it was the source of the cotton fiber that the Greeks and Romans knew.


introduction: The Natural History of Pliny the Elder, who died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 c.e., is the chief source for information on how linen thread was produced from flax. In the section of his Natural History from which this excerpt is taken, Pliny discussed various fabrics made from plants, including esparto grass, and—surprisingly—asbestos, which he thought was a plant found in the deserts of Egypt. Pliny thought that the best "linen" was made from it, but in second place was the fabric made from the fine flax grown in Elis in Greece. The passage below describes the processing of flax in order to extract the linen fiber.

With us the ripeness of flax is ascertained by two indications, the swelling of the seed or its assuming a yellowish color. It is then plucked up and tied together in little bundles each about the size of a handful, hung up in the sun to dry for one day with the roots turned upward, and then for five more days with the heads of the bundles turned inward towards each other so that the seed may fall in the middle. Linseed makes a potent medicine; it is also popular in a rustic porridge with an extremely sweet taste, made in Italy north of the Po, but now for a long time only used in sacrifices. When the wheat harvest is over the actual stalks of the flax are plunged in water that has been left to get warm in the sun, and a weight is put on them to press them down, as flax floats very readily. The outer coat becoming looser is a sign that they are completely soaked, and they are again dried in the sun, turned head downwards as before, and afterwards when thoroughly dry they are pounded on a stone with a tow-hammer. The part that was nearest the skin is called oakum—it is flax of an inferior quality, and mostly more fit for lampwicks; nevertheless this too is combed with iron spikes until all the outer skin is scraped off. The pith has several grades of whiteness and softness, and the discarded skin is useful for heating ovens and furnaces. There is an art of combing out and separating flax; it is a fair amount for fifteen … [here the text is defective] … to be carded out from fifty pounds' weight of bundles; and spinning flax is a respectable occupation even for men. Then it is polished in the thread a second time, after being soaked in water and repeatedly beaten out against a stone, and it is woven into fabric and then again beaten with clubs, as it is always better for rough treatment.

source: Pliny, Natural History. Books XVII–XIX. Vol. V. Trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950): 431, 433.


True silk comes from the domesticated mulberry silkworm which extrudes a silk fiber to make its cocoon. In the reign of the emperor Justinian (527–565 c.e.) silkworm eggs were smuggled into the Roman Empire and became the foundation of the Byzantine silk industry. Prior to that development, all silk was imported. There have been finds of silk in Europe that date before Emperor Augustus, but silk was rare before the Augustan period when trade with India opened up. It was a luxury fabric; silk swatches were sometimes unraveled and the silk thread rewoven with fine linen in order to make it go twice as far and bring down the price. The emperor Caligula (37–41 c.e.) wore a silk toga, and the emperor Elagabalus (218–222 c.e.) insisted on a new silk garment every day. The historian Ammianus Marcellinus, a Greek writing in Latin at the end of the fourth century c.e., remarked that the wearing of silk—once confined to the imperial court—had become widespread among upper-class Romans. In 408 c.e., when the Visigothic chieftain Alaric was holding Rome to ransom, he demanded among other items, 4,000 silk tunics for his men. The chief trade route that brought silk into Mediterranean markets shipped it from China to Indian ports where Persian merchants bought it, carried it up to the head of the Persian Gulf, and then transported it by caravan to the ports of entry into the Roman Empire on the Euphrates River. The transit trade enriched Persia, which made the Roman imperial government unhappy, and it tried to develop alternative routes. The problem was not solved until the Byzantine Empire developed its own silk industry.

Coan Silk.

Not all silk in the Greek world came from China. On the island of Cos—which is more famous for the great doctor Hippocrates of Cos who established a medical school there—there was a thriving silk industry which used silk from the cocoon of an indigenous moth. The chief ancient sources for information on this industry are Aristotle and Pliny the Elder, who agreed that the technique of extracting silk fiber from the cocoon of this moth was discovered by a woman named Pamphile. Both men and women wove Coan silk, which was unusual in Greece where weaving was considered women's work. But the output of the Coan silk industry cannot have been great, for Cos is a small island, and probably its silk was inferior to Chinese silk. China supplied a demand which Cos could not fill.


introduction: Gaius Caligula, the great-grandson of the emperor Augustus, became emperor himself in 37 c.e., largely on the basis of his distinguished ancestry. In his four years as the emperor, he proved to be a terrible ruler, and was apparently mentally disturbed; he was assassinated before he could harm the empire. His general appearance was unfortunate: he was tall with a poor physique, spindling legs and a thin neck, and his body was very hairy except for his head which was almost completely bald. In place of the simplicity of dress which his two predecessors as emperors—Augustus and Tiberius—had favored, Caligula introduced elaborate styles which were considered borrowings from the orient and were associated, in Roman minds, with divine kingship. In fact, it has been argued that there was method in Caligula's madness; he was trying to introduce absolute monarchy with all its trappings and took his cues from royal courts such as Cleopatra's in Egypt. Three centuries later, Caligula's dress would not have been considered particularly odd in the imperial court. The passage below comes from the biographer of the first Caesars, Suetonius.

Caligula paid no attention to traditional or current fashions in his dress; ignoring male conventions and even human decencies. Often he made public appearances in a cloak covered with embroidery and encrusted with precious stones, a long-sleeved tunic and bracelets; or in silk (which men were forbidden by law to wear) or even in a woman's robe; and came shod sometimes with slippers, sometimes with buskins, sometimes with military boots, sometimes with women's shoes. Occasionally he affected a golden beard and carried Jupiter's thunderbolt, Neptune's trident, or Mercury's serpent-twined staff in his hand. He even dressed up as Venus and, long before his expedition, wore the uniform of a triumphant general, often embellished with the breastplate which he had stolen from Alexander the Great's tomb at Alexandria.

source: Suetonius, "Gaius Caligula," in The Twelve Caesars. Trans. Robert Graves (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1957): 175.


Women did the weaving in ancient Greece. The Greek historian Herodotus who visited Egypt in the mid-fifth century b.c.e. noticed that in Egypt men worked at looms, and he remarked on the difference between Egyptian and Greek custom. In Greece, the housewife was in charge of weaving cloth for the household. The Greek historian Xenophon commented on the importance of the wifely duty of weaving in his treatise on household management, Oeconomicus. In that work, he described a dialogue between his mentor, Socrates, and the wise Athenian Ischomachus, during which Ischomachus highlighted the importance of his young wife being the preeminent weaver in the household. Not all weaving was done in the home, however. Fine fabrics in particular required professional weaving, and specialty firms existed in classical Athens as early as the later fifth century b.c.e. There is evidence of an establishment that specialized in the chlamys (a short cloak) and another whose specialty was the chlanis, which was a cloak for the upper body like the chlaina, but made of finer fabric. In Italy, the fine white woolen cloth produced in the north, in the Po Valley, called for skillful weaving, and factories established there used highly trained slaves for the weaving. From the first century c.e. well-to-do women had more to do with their spare time than to stand at the loom working alongside their female slaves, though the empress Livia, the third and last wife of Augustus, tried to set an example of the antique womanly virtue that her husband promoted by working at the loom. In the towns and cities of the Roman Empire in the Augustan Age, however, there were already shops that sold ready-made clothes both for freemen and slaves.


introduction: Chinese silk was much prized, but it had to be imported at great expense until the reign of the emperor Justinian (527–565 c.e.) when silkworm eggs were smuggled into the Byzantine Empire, and the white mulberry tree (Morus alba)—the silk-worm's food plant—was introduced about the same time. On the island of Cos, however, there was a caterpillar whose cocoon could be unraveled to yield a silk thread. Silk from Cos was famous for its lightness and transparency, though the production must have been small. The passage below is from Aristotle's Historia Animalium (Research Notes on Living Creatures). Pliny the Elder also describes the making of Coan silk in his Natural History, and both authors attribute the invention to a woman named Pamphile, the daughter of Plateus. It has also been suggested that Coan silk was known as far back as the Minoan period.

From one particular large grub, which has as it were horns, and in other respects differs from grubs in general, there comes, by a metamorphosis of the grub, first a caterpillar, then the cocoon, then the necydalus; and the creature passes through all these transformations within six months. A class of women unwind and reel off the cocoons of these creatures, and afterwards weave a fabric with the threads thus unwound; a Coan woman of the name of Pamphile, daughter of Plateus, being credited with the first invention of this fabric.

source: Aristotle, Historia Animalium, Book V. Vol. IV of The Works of Aristotle. Trans. D'arcy Wentworth Thompson (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1910): 551b.

The Creation of Fabric.

Despite evidence of ready-made clothes, the vast majority of people in ancient Greece and Rome had to make not only their own clothes, but their own yarns and fabrics as well. The process of making fabric was long and labor-intensive. After the shearing of the sheep in the spring, the women washed the wool and pulled apart the matted fibers with their fingers. Then they carded it, separating the fibers with a comb, and rubbed it until they produced a mass of tow, or combed wool, kneeling as they did so on a kind of terra-cotta kneeling pad and propping their feet on a stool called an onos, or donkey. At this point they dyed the wool unless the finished cloth was intended to be the natural color of the wool. The wool next had to be spun, but the spinning wheel had not yet been invented; the woman responsible for spinning, known as the spinster, used a distaff and spindle to twist the yarn. The spinster wound the tow on the distaff, pulled out a length of it and secured it to the spindle that she held in her left hand. A weight called a spindle whorl was tied to the bottom of the spindle. It held the length of tow taut and once the spindle was set spinning, it twisted tow into yarn. The spinster continued to feed tow from the distaff into the growing length of yarn until the spindle reached the floor. Then she wound the yarn around the spindle and the process started over again. Once she spun a full skein of thread, she took it off the spindle and placed it in the wool basket. The strength and the texture of the thread depended on the speed of the spindle as it turned. Once the yarn had been created, it could be woven into fabric on a loom. In ancient Greece there were two types of loom. One was a small, easily transportable loom used to produce girdles and relatively narrow swatches of cloth, and the weaver could sit as she worked at it. The other was the old-fashioned large, vertical loom used to weave the swatches of cloth that would become tunics or cloaks. This was the upright loom on which was woven the Roman tunica recta which a youth wore when he came of age and put on the "toga of a man" (toga virilis). The threads of the warp hung downwards from the top of the loom and were held taut by loom-weights. The weavers sang as they worked. Homer in the Odyssey described the nymph Calypso, who kept Odysseus prisoner until the gods commanded her to let him return home to Ithaca, as a weaver who sang at her loom. The witch Circe from the same literary work also sang as she weaved. The drudgery of working a loom was not necessarily conducive to joyful songs, however. Weaving was hard work, and it is more than likely that the female slaves who toiled at the loom sang sad songs.

Patterned Cloth.

In 1972, a kore—that is a statue of a woman, fully clothed—and a kouros—a nude male figure—were excavated at a cemetery near Merenda outside Athens. On the base of the kore statue was an inscription which read, "Grave of Phrasikleia. I shall forever be called kore. The gods have given me this name instead of marriage." Phrasikleia had died before her marriage, and thus she would always be called a maiden (kore), never a married woman. More remarkable than this inscription, however, was the preserved original paint on the statue. Art historians knew that the Greeks painted their statues, but on those that have survived, the paint has disappeared or has faded almost to nothing. The paint on Phrasikleia's chiton shows swastikas, which were considered good-luck signs at this time, and rosettes on the front of it, and four-pointed stars and various flowers on the back. The predominant colors are red, black, and yellow. Clearly this was a patterned wedding dress in bright colors for a marriage that never happened. At one time, it was thought that Greek weavers with their warp-weighted looms could not produce patterned cloth; when Greek authors mentioned decorated robes, scholars assumed this to mean that they were embroidered—decoration had been sewn on after the fabric had been woven. But Phrasikleia's chiton proves that they were quite capable of making cloth with colorful patterns. The peplos which the women of Athens presented to Athena at every Great Panathenaea festival must have been a patterned weave of the same sort, and Athens was not the only place that regularly presented its guardian goddess with a new dress. In Elis in the northwest Peloponnesos, a peplos on which sixteen women had toiled was presented at regular intervals to Hera who was the guardian goddess of the state. Homer's Iliad related that Helen of Troy wove a battle scene in color in her spare time. Helen was no different from other Greek housewives in this one respect: she, too, was skilled at the loom.


Excavations at a Roman fort at Vindolanda, which is near Hadrian's Wall in Britain, have recovered various fragments of textiles and fifty of them were analyzed. The analysis revealed that eight of them had been dyed, and in all cases a red dye was used that came from the root of the madder plant (Rubia tinctorum). The Romans had various dyes, and madder red was one of the cheapest. Among the expensive dyes were the various shades of purple made from the murex shellfish. A cheaper, counterfeit purple could be obtained by combining madder red in the right proportions with indigo, which was imported from India. Coccinus, a brilliant scarlet made from the kermes, a scale insect, was in high demand as a luxury dye. It originated in Asia, but Spain also developed a lucrative kermes industry. Other dyes were a strong green with a blue tinge (prasinus), a fairly bright red (russeus), and dark blue (venetus). Dyes, however, were not much use without mordants to fix the colors. Ancient mordants included alum from wood ash or even human urine and natron—sodium carbonate, or washing soda, which was dug from natron pits in Egypt. To fix the color, dyers dipped the wool in the mordant before it was put in the dye vat and heated.


John Beckwith, "Textile Fragments from Classical Antiquity," Illustrated London News 224 (1954): 114–15.

John Ferguson, "China and Rome," in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, II–9–2. Ed. Hildegard Temporini and Wolfgang Haase (Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1978): 581–603.

Reinhold Meyer, A History of Purple as a Status Symbol in Antiquity (Brussels, Belgium: Collection Latomus 116, 1970).

Judith Lynn Sebesta, "Tunica Ralla, Tunica Spissa: The Colors and Textiles of Roman Costume," in The World of Roman Costume. Eds. Judith Lynn Sebesta and Larissa Bonfante (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994): 65–76.

Beate Wagner-Hasel, "The Graces and Colour Weaving," in Women's Dress in the Ancient Greek World. Ed. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones (London, England: Duckworth and the Classical Press of Wales, 2002): 17–32.

Jonathan P. Wild, "Linen," in The Oxford Classical Dictionary. 3rd ed. Eds. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999): 863.