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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
Other Ancient Posts of Interest:
Dorothy King, “Venus in a Bikini,” Dorothy King’s PhDiva.
Barbara McManus, “Roman Clothing,” VRoma.
Modern Post I Love: