Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Popular Gaze: Roman Underwear, Nudity, and Visual Display

This week, it seems that my classical friends wished me to learn a great deal about clothing–or lack thereof. I started off reading (and then quickly consumed) the splendid book by late antique historian Kristi Upson-Saia on Early Christian Dress (Plug: now out in paperback!), then had Roman bioanthropologist Kristina Killgrove ask about Greco-Roman diapers, and finally, had Roman historian Richard Flower reference a particularly amusing law regarding the legal prohibition of washing one’s horse in the nude. I’d like to talk about each of these topics briefly, but throughout this discussion, I will try and tie in considerations and constructions of the Roman gaze. Sight was a powerful sense in antiquity, one that imbued clothing with an additional dimension.

Mosaic from a bedroom at the Villa Romana del Casale, outside Piazza Armerina, Sicily.

Mosaic from a bedroom at the Villa Romana del Casale, outside Piazza Armerina, Sicily (4th c. CE).

After Dr. Killgrove gained some insights into the use of swaddling clothing as diapers in antiquity, I began to wonder what, exactly, Romans had on under their togas or tunics, and why we know so little about them. There is an expert article on this by Kelly Olson, and thus many of the classical references I will now explore have been plucked from her publication on the matter. Martial (11.99) notes that women wore a tunica under their clothing which could be bothersome and ultimately give them a wedgie. Young women and brides-to-be could also wear an undertunic called a supparus or supparum. This was a long piece of linen around one’s thighs that, at least from descriptions, seems to have been a bit like a slip; however, Lucan (2.364) suggests it could also come up to and around the shoulders.

Women also wore a “breast band” or what we would call a bra. These were referred to as strophia. As Olson notes (204), you could increase your bust size (i.e. stuff your bra) by simply wrapping more fabric or leather around you.These strophia are likely depicted in the mosaics from Piazza Armerina often referred to as the “bikini girls”. In my day (I guess this was the 90s?), we just called this fabric bra a bandeau. The women in the Piazza Armerina mosaics wear a kind of workout bottom often worn by men called a subligar or a subligaculum, but there is no textual evidence that under their clothing on a day-to-day basis, Roman women wore underpants.

Another mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casale outside Piazza Armerina. The women wear strophia and subligar.

Another mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casale outside Piazza Armerina. The women wear a strophium and (likely) the subligar.

Men, on the other hand, did wear them. The aforementioned subligaculum probably strongly resembled a diaper, and was rather bulky. We get a good idea of what these likely looked like particularly from reliefs, figurines, and mosaics of gladiators, but these were perhaps modified from the day-to-day underwear worn by Roman men. Just like soccer players wear cups, I would imagine that gladiators would want to have a bit more (*cough*) protection than they would need for simply taking a stroll around the Forum Romanum. Some nice patterns for underwear can be found in The World of Roman Costume (2001: 234).

Mosaic from the Villa Borghese outside Rome (4th c. CE).

Mosaic from the Villa Borghese outside Rome (4th c. CE).

Here we should note that even partial nudity could visually communicate status–though I am not sure this should be surprising to us. It simply matters where and when the individual wore their underthings. If I wear my bikini to a crab shack at the beach? Just fine. I wear a bikini to lecture in? Not fine. In Roman antiquity, slaves often had bare chests. For example, mill slaves likely only wore the subligaculum. The example I usually refer to when I speak about bakeries is from the relief of Eurysaces the baker outside the Porta Maggiore in Rome. We can often discern slaves in certain contexts based on their complete lack of clothing or their wearing of nothing more than a bit of a loincloth. Notably, slaves stood naked on the platform to be sold, and thus in this spatial context, nudity was tied directly to servility. Others that appear partially nude or in underclothes were similarly degraded: prostitutes, actors, and gladiators all appeared in public in various states of undress.

Relief on the Tomb of Eurysaces the Baker, Rome. (c. 30 BCE).

Relief on the Tomb of Eurysaces the Baker, Rome. (c. 30 BCE).

Clearly clothing could communicate status to others, but there was an added component found in beliefs surrounding the Roman gaze. For this we turn to the Theodosian Code (7.1.13), and a law of 391 addressed to Richomer, a Count and Master among both military branches. In it, soldiers that stopped along rivers were not allowed to defile the water with dirt and sweat from washing their horses, or allowed to defile the public gaze (‘deproperus publicos oculos nudatus incestet ‘) by washing said horses in the nude. At its heart, the passage is about pollution–both environmental and visual–and demonstrates the gravity with which emperors approached nudity at times. Soldiers were required to leave the public sight in order to wash their horses in the nude, and to do so downstream. It was not just that they were naked, but that they were Roman soldiers appearing in the public gaze!

Ivory relief of the story of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, who were soldiers forced to stand naked on a frozen pond in 320 CE.  Constantinople, 10th century AD. Museum für Byzantinische Kunst (Inv. no. 574; acquired in 1828; Bartoldi collection), Bode-Museum, Berlin.

Ivory relief of the story of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, who were soldiers forced to stand naked on a frozen pond in 320 CE. Constantinople, 10th century CE. Museum für Byzantinische Kunst Bode-Museum, Berlin.

The gaze was of particular concern in Late Antiquity, though restraint of the eyes had been remarked on earlier by men such as Cicero and Seneca. As Upson-Saia remarks in regard to the dress of female ascetics, because these women were so linked to Christian desire and were considered vulnerable amid the public gaze, many were kept out of sight  (57). In many ways, Romans often conceptualized the gaze as a kind of hunger. The eyes consumed people; ate their image. It could arouse passion and desire that, if uncontrolled, could cause moral transgression. This fact was harped upon by early Christian moralists. It should be noted that at the same time, a certain type of gaze could indicate reverence and worship. It was all in how one looked, and a glance could either confer honor or shame.

Alright, I need to get back to the manuscript edits now, but these were just some rather random notes as I sit here thinking about the meaning of clothing and the power of sight. It is interesting to think about the undergarments that Romans wore or did not wear and their meaning, but for me, it is more interesting to note where they were worn, how others read them, and why we may not know that much about them. Clothing always has a spatial dimension to it, and thus all garments–even undergarments–cannot be divorced from context. That being said, we must also consider whether the media that survive from antiquity were meant to transmit such a subject.

Leather briefs from Roman London. There are side fasteners to assure a good fit.

Leather briefs from Roman London. There are side fasteners to assure a good fit.

 

Other Ancient Posts of Interest:

Dorothy King, “Venus in a Bikini,” Dorothy King’s PhDiva.

Barbara McManus, “Roman Clothing,”  VRoma.

Modern Post I Love:

Raquel Laneri, “What Lies Beneath: How Lingerie Got Sexy” The Daily Beast

Monograms and Inscribed Power

This past week, I listened to stellar papers at the ILAN conference held at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. One of my favorites was also the last: Fabian Stroth (Heidelberg) delved eloquently into the complex monograms on the capitals in Justinian’s Hagia Sophia. I hadn’t really thought very much about monograms generally, and though it wasn’t the focus of the paper, I began to wonder about the inception and evolution of this form of writing.

Monogrammed capitals of Justinian from Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

Monogrammed capitals of Justinian from Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

First, the word monogram combines the Greek word monos (one, sole) with gramma (letter). As such, those monogrammed towels people get with three letters are often just initials, not monograms (please let your friends know, for I am sure they care). Some of the earliest forms of monograms I have been able to find (at least in the West), have been on Greek coins, particularly from the fifth century BCE onward. The Greek town of Anactorium minted Corinthian staters with monograms indicating the municipality. Monograms were also commonly found on the Alexander coinage, and usually  signify the mint from whence a coin came from, and perhaps the overseer or official in charge of the minting process. Space is tight on a coin, but these small monograms helped people to source the origins of their coinage (something imperative in societies on the gold/silver standard) and to recognize minting officials in charge of issuing the coins.

Reverse of a Ptolemaic (310-285 BCE) silver tetradrachm from Alexandria with monogram. Photo via the American Numismatic Society.

Reverse of a Ptolemaic (310-285 BCE) silver tetradrachm from Alexandria with monogram. Photo via the American Numismatic Society.

Monograms continued to appear particularly on coins, well into the Roman period. Eastern mints utilized them in particular,  and rulers such as Rhoemetalces and even Herod employed monograms to advertise their legitimacy and potency. Monograms were also employed on weights, it seems. I have had no luck in tracking down monograms on Roman inscriptions in the Republican and Imperial periods (please send along if I am wrong!), but this does not mean they did not exist. We have but a fraction of the inscribed objects from antiquity, after all. The extant material record would suggest an emphasis on their use on numismatic media in particular at this time.

Reverse of a bronze coin of Rhoemetalces I with his monogram, dating to 11 BCE-12 CE. Photo via the American Numismatic Society.

Reverse of a bronze coin of Rhoemetalces I with his monogram, dating to 11 BCE-12 CE. Photo via the American Numismatic Society.

During the course of the third century, we perhaps begin to see monograms occurring as indicators of the Christian faith. Although arguments still abound, there does appear to have been the use of the chi-rho monogram [=CHR(istos)] in Phrygian inscriptions prior to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 (Jensen 2000: 138; McLean 2002: 280). It notable that the chi-rho combo had occurred as ligatures prior to its Christian usage, and was thus not a completely new invention. To many scholars, it is only after Constantine’s ascension and the emperor’s adoption of the symbol that we see more widespread proliferation. Coins with the monogram making an earlier appearance than the first inscription using a clearly Christian chi-rho monogram post Constantine (Bardill 2011: 220).

Bronze hummus of Constantine I (327-328 CE) with Chi-Rho monogram. Photo via the American Numismatic Society.

Bronze nummus of Constantine I (327-328 CE) with Chi-Rho monogram. Photo via the American Numismatic Society.

Alison Cooley has (following Carletti) recently argued that the use of the monogram on funeral loculi occurred immediately at the time of burial and actually served as a way of inscribing protection over the grave of the deceased rather than announcing one’s faith (2012: 232). I would argue that it was likely a little bit of both. By the mid to late fourth century, the symbol was seen in a number of places. A personal favorite is this lead cistern from Icklingham dating to the fourth century CE and now at the British Museum.

cistern

The use of monograms grew and became more popular into the sixth century. We have a bourgeoning of their use on seals in the Byzantine empire, as well as on coins of the emperor. Notably, both Justin I and Theodoric were chided as being illiterate emperors forced to use a stencil, but as Karen Radner has pointed out, this might be due to the fact that writing out a monogram is rather complex (2014: 195). As this coin from Theodoric would support! I might need a stencil too.

"Theodoric (491-526), R Quarter-siliqua in name of Justin I, Rome, diademed, draped and cuirassed bust right, rev. monogram of Theodoric within wreath (MIB 49), almost extremely fine" -Christie's

Quarter siliqua of Theodoric for Justin I”. Theodoric’s monogram is within a wreath on the reverse (MIB 49). Photo via Christie’s. 

Complex monograms also became particularly popular on jewelry in Late Antiquity, including silver rings and intaglios often with the owner’s name in the genitive. They could be used to validate important documents. They still held the symbolism of power, prestige, and status–but perhaps added an element of uniqueness that people enjoyed. To this day, it can be very difficult to unravel the complex lines of many monograms without knowing the original person’s name. Just as Romans enjoyed word games like palindromes (as I have argued before), they perhaps also enjoyed a good monogram puzzle.

A 6th century monogrammed signet ring from the Walters Art Museum reading "Of Mark"

A 6th century monogrammed signet ring from the Walters Art Museum reading “Of Mark”

Clearly, the use of monograms was not a distinctly Christian invention, but rather had a classical heritage that advertised potency and, at times, authenticity. Additionally, the love of contorting and playing with words would continue into the Carolingian period and beyond in the Medieval West, where Charlemagne employed a creative and–above all–distinct monogram, as did medieval popes. It also continued on in the Byzantine East, where they could be seen on seals, jewelry, coins and even pottery. Having our own little logo can certainly make us feel special and mark out what is ours, which is why we shouldn’t be surprised to find there was a long history of the monogram reaching back to the ancient Mediterranean.

Mosaic from Santa Prassede with the monograms of Pope Paschal I (817-824 CE). Note that the far monogram is above Christ's head (!).

Mosaic from Santa Prassede with the monograms of Pope Paschal I (817-824 CE). Note that the far monogram is above Christ’s head (!).