Tag Archives: roman law

Tattoo Taboo? Exploring The History Of Religious Ink And Facial Tattoos

Over on my Forbes blog, I explore the history of religious tattoos. This post stems from my interest in the use of various stigmas–legal, social, and even corporal–against marginalized individuals. Tattoos in Greco-Roman antiquity were often linked to servility, but could also advertise one’s religious convictions. I spoke with tattoo historian Anna Felicity Friedman about pilgrimage tattoos in Jerusalem and also chatted with Jordan Rosenblum (UW-Madison) about the old wives’ tale that tattooed Jews can never be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Overall, it is interesting to see the variant ways in which tattoos have been used since antiquity and to realize what a potent canvas the human body was and still is.

Even The Ancient Romans Had Fierce Debates Over Banning Assault Weapons

Hey, readers. How are you? I rarely speak to you directly, but I wanted to let you know that there are a few changes going on. While I will still be blogging here on my own site, I will also be posting links to the contributions that I am doing for Forbes.com. My first post for them is on the history of weapons bans in late Republican Rome. You can check it out here. I hope you will enjoy reading these posts as much as you do the ones here, and am so excited to be a regular contributor with the Forbes team.


Martius Madness: On Manliness, Roman Gambling Laws, and NCAA Brackets

We are in the midst of the NCAA March madness tournament in the U.S., and, as NPR reported, the American Gaming Association boasted more NCAA Brackets than number of votes for the next president. Now, I identify as both a UVa Cavalier and a UNC Tar Heel, and so my entire household was glued to the screen yesterday. As I read through Obama’s yearly bracket (Side bar: He picked Kansas? Over Virginia?  C’mon!), I began to ponder the social function of gambling in antiquity in terms of food, space, and elite constructions of virtus (‘manliness’). I also wanted to explore whether gambling laws have ever really been an effective means of social control.


President Barack Obama fills out his NCAA bracket in the Map Room at the White House. Image via ESPN, Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy.

As early as Homer’s Iliad (and likely earlier), people placed bets on sports. In this case, it was on the outcome of the chariot games played during Patroclus’ funeral (Il. 23.485-7). Moreover, as Juvenal’s rather overused term “bread and circuses” demonstrates, there was always a tie between food, gambling, and the “softness” of the masses who indulged in these rather easy pleasures. These are socializing elements: food and sports are paired in history and across people. Anyone who has watched March Madness with a group of people drinking beer and eating Doritos, but supporting different basketball teams, can tell you that it takes a careful negotiation to balance games, alcohol, and friendship successfully. This is why Duke and UNC fans tend to watch games apart from one another, and why circus factions tended to sit in their own sections during ancient games in the hippodrome.

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Attic Black Figure Dinos fragment showing the crowd at the Funeral Games of Patroclus, Sophilos, 580-570 B.C. National Archaeological Museum, Athens, 15499.

A famous shop sign from Rome visualizes the tie between food, games, and socializing quite nicely. It has an orthogonal display (12 letters x 3 lines = 36 letters with spelling errors to make it fit the board representation) that first hints graphically at the gaming boards housed inside the tavern. It transmits a menu as a game-board:

(H)abemus in cena(m)
pullum piscem
pernam paonem


“For dinner we have [abemus for habemus] :
chicken, fish
ham, peacock


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What is important to emphasize here are games of chance versus games of skill within the Roman mindset. Betting on sports and games such as alea (a term for various dice games) was a common, yet ultimately mindless endeavor. In other words, it did not take a great deal of skill to bet. Gambling on certain sports or on dice was seen by the elite as a vice of the masses (even if the elite themselves indulged in such vulgar activities on occasion), but more complex mind games that used boards were viewed a bit differently. Well into Late Antiquity, the game-boards outside of the Basilica Julia in Rome focused on games that cultivated the mind, rather than gambling predicated on chance.

Crowds gathered at the Basilica Julia to shop, watch games, and listen to court cases, but the board games played here may have been perceived with more favor (Kalas 2015: 111). Mind games played for money seem to have been more socially acceptable out of doors than games of chance. The more vulgar, socially suspect gambling (e.g., dice) often occurred indoors: in taverns, brothels, and disreputable spaces that commonly served hot food. This is further evidence that legally and in literature, the Roman moral perception of actions often depended on the space within which they happened–was it in the open air of the Forum or in a popina (bar)? In my ancient financial crisis seminar last year, my students learned how to play a number of these ancient games. As I discussed in terms of ancient board game inscriptions, such games could become heated affairs (although an integral part of Roman social life).


Game board on the steps of the Basilica Julia in the Roman Forum that read ‘oraculo’ (Photo by Roger Ulrich, via Flickr. CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0).


A Roman game-board from the Basilica Julia in Rome. Image via Wikimedia.

Much like American legislation, Roman laws often enshrined and perpetuated an elite ideal that cast gambling as predominantly bad. That is, unless it involved a sport seen as masculine. The Lex Alearia was written before 204 BCE. It prohibited dice games altogether. Later, Sulla’s Lex Cornelia de aleatoribus (81 BCE) declared bets valid only in the case of games that involved virtus (manliness). Two excerpts from the 6th c. CE Digest of Justinian tell us more about what types of games these actually were. The 2nd-3rd c. CE jurist Paulus states that it was seen as okay to bet on running, jumping, boxing, wrestling and throwing of the javelins for the sake of virtus (Dig. Senatus consultum vetuit in pecuniam ludere, praeterquam si quis certet hasta vel pilo iaciendo vel currendo saliendo luctando pugnando quod virtutis causa fiat.). Marcianus then states that the leges Cornelia, Publicia, and Titia established this list of manly events (basically, most of the events from the Olympics) (Dig. 11.5.3: ‘In quibus rebus ex lege titia et publicia et cornelia etiam sponsionem facere licet: sed ex aliis, ubi pro virtute certamen non fit, non licet.‘). The manliness of a sport made it more socially acceptable to Romans, and betting on them was seen as less degrading.

Even food came into play in these laws. The Lex Alearia may have had provisions that said that people could only bet during meal times or Saturnalia. As Jerry Toner has pointed out about this legislation, the laws were themselves rarely enforced and the aediles (public officials) tasked with overseeing the gaming houses could do little to stop rampant gambling. As usual, law was used to project an elite ideal, and did not reflect the social reality. Toner notes, “Gambling, it is clear, was not just part of the ’emotional glue’ which brought the crowd together, it also divided them into factions, and thus framed and shaped the context of the game itself” (Toner 1995: 94; Cf. Hopkins 1983: 26). I’d say the same for March Madness pools, which, as many have pointed out, are technically illegal.

Many of the laws on gambling changed under the rule of Justinian (527-565 CE). Edicts from 529 (CJ 3.43.1-2) attempted to curb gambling, particularly games involving dice. It was these games that led to financial ruin, in the emperor’s eyes. Justinian returned to ancient ideas of manliness by encouraging bishops to organize traditional games for betting: “They shall further arrange for five games; leaping, pole-vaulting, throwing javelins or pikes, wrestling and show fighting” (CJ 3.43.1. trans. Blume).  As Suzanne Faris has pointed out about Justinian’s policy in the mid 6th c. CE, Justinian had a vested interest in cracking down on gambling:

(1) In order to protect the assets of tax-paying individuals who were depended on for things like curial service
(2) Out of public morality concerns
(3) A wish to modify the moral behavior of clerics
(Faris 2012: 199).

The power for enforcement was notably shifted from the aediles over to the bishops. It was now clerics who had the power to oversee and enforce such gambling laws.


Bronze Roman dice in the form of squatting figures (1st-2nd c. CE, Roman. Image via the British Museum. 1975,1103.1).


Closeup of a bronze dice in the form of a squatting figure. Photo via the British Museum. Museum number 1975,1103.1

What these laws show us is that gambling played a big part in everyday life in ancient Rome. Just like today, the economy of sports gambling in antiquity incorporated both the rich and the poor. Moreover, much like NCAA brackets office pools, the enforcement of sports wagers often fell outside the purview of the legal system. Sports were then, as now, inextricably linked to notions of what it means to be a man. Consequently, exceptions were made for betting on the sports viewed as integral to the development of young men and the cultivation of manliness. The social good and popularity of the sport lent the gambling a veneer of respectability. Similarly, today we turn a blind eye to the pervasive betting on the NCAA tournament, but we often feel very differently about games of chance played in casinos.


Faris, Suzanne B. “Changing Public Policy and the Evolution of Roman Civil and Criminal Law on Gambling,” UNLV Gaming Law Journal 3 (Fall 2012): 199-219.

Kalas, Gregor. 2015. The Restoration of the Roman Forum in Late Antiquity: Transforming public space. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Purcell, Nicholas. 1995. “Literate Games: Roman Urban Society and the Game of Alea”. Past & Present, no. 147. [Oxford University Press, Past and Present Society]: 3–37. JSTOR

Toner, J. P. 1995. Leisure and Ancient Rome. Cambridge [England]: Polity Press.




Encouraging the PhDivas: My Top 5 Posts for Dorothy King

I first began blogging at the behest Dorothy King and Kristina KillgroveI have always been fortunate to have strong female mentors in my day-t0-day academic life, and was pleasantly surprised to find a similarly robust (although geographically dispersed) network of scholars online when I joined Twitter in 2011. At that time, I was simply hoping to promote an Op-Ed piece I had written for the New York Times regarding the history of damnatio memoriae. A scholar and academic writer in her own right, Dorothy also runs the PhDiva Blog. She invited me to post for her as frequently or infrequently as I wanted, never censored my content, and gave me a prefabricated forum to speak to an audience, to develop ideas that were not quite to the level of journal articles, and, ultimately, to cultivate a network of people I have come to rely on in the past 5 years.  As many people have pointed out (including Times Higher Education): Blogging can make you a better academic writerThese are just a few reasons I encourage early career professionals to begin blogging.

Now, in the spirit of the time-honored Throwback Thursday (and not at all unlike those lazy 1990s sitcom episodes that stitch together flashback scenes from previous seasons in order to give the writing staff a break from producing new material), I give you my top (5) favorite posts written for PhDiva…and a few of the lessons I have learned along the way:

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A togate statue of Caligula (my favorite Caligula statue, btw) from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, juxtaposed next to a picture of Calvin Candie from Django Unchained (2012). 

I. A Classical Review of Django Unchained In this post, I explored Quentin Tarantino’s admission that the character of the antebellum slave master Calvin Candie was meant to be a “southern fried Caligula.” This post challenged me to return to the primary sources (e.g., Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars) and to explore secondary scholarship in order to compare the two characters. I concluded that, “Much as Suetonius’ Caligula was meant to both amuse and to moralize, Tarantino presents his evil slaveholder, Mr. Candie, as a lesson to be learned—albeit in an incredibly gory and over-the-top manner–just two years before the outbreak of the American Civil War. Both Mr. Candie and Caligula are portrayed as people with little regard for human life or the natural rights of man by their biographers, and as men who abhorred civil liberties.” I can’t be 100% sure, but I think Tarantino use some Suetonius on set, just as Oliver Stone used Plutarch for Alexander.

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As this exchange with Prof. Duncan MacRae (U-Cinn) demonstrates, Twitter is for more than procrastination. Just like any other tool, it can cause harm or it can serve to make your (academic) work easier. 

II. Death By Roof Tile or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the TwitterThis post had its nascence, as many things do, on the micro-blogging site of Twitter. I had been reading the Collectio Avellana, which is a late antique primary collection of documents covering the years  366 to 553 CE, part of which recounts the tumult that erupted upon the death of the Bishop of Rome Liberius. In 366, Pope Damasus’ (alleged) posse of charioteers, gravediggers, and brigands caused mayhem in the city and threw roof tiles down on people from the roof of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. That is when I thought: “Huh! That is exactly how Saturninus died!”… In 100 BCE, one of Marius’ previous supporters, Saturninus, went rogue and took the Capitoline hill with his partner Glaucia and their supporters. Marius formed a militia after the Senate passed an SCU–senatus consultum ultimum–a grave measure passed only once before. Saturninus and Glaucia surrendered and were imprisoned in the Curia, the Roman Senate house, but many men climbed on top, tore up the roof, and rained tiles down on the captives.” When I crowd sourced the “death by roof tile” meme, Duncan MacRae, a superb ancient historian at University of Cincinnati, chimed in, as did many others. We found that death by roof tile was not so unusual in antiquity, and that the act largely emphasized temple transgression and the power being taken into the hands of the people.

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(L) Anemoscope from the city of Pesaro (ca. 200 CE) found on the Via Appia and (R) an anemoscope from the Italian city of Gaeta (IG XIV, 906). 

III. Mapping the Winds: Roman Anemoscopes and MeteorologyWhile writing a lesson plan for a lecture on Roman weather reporting, I came across two wind-roses, called anemoscopes (see pictures above), which Romans used to gauge the wind. I had no idea such instruments even existed, and the discovery sent me down a rabbit hole in order to explore the technology used in the pursuit of meteorology in antiquity. Not only did I become more familiar with an area foreign to me by reading scholarship, I realized that it was not just a fascination of antiquity. “The legacy of mapping the winds continued into Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. A manuscript of Isidore of Seville’s work (d. 636) on winds from the 12th century, now at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, shows both the Latin and Greek names for the winds around a T-O map. It illustrates clearly that ordering the world also meant ordering the winds.” If blogging has underscored anything, it is the vast parallels between my field and the modern world. The challenge before us is then to make those parallels accessible to the audience.

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Andrew Riggsby (Classics, UT-Austin) displayed a superb poster at AIA-APA(=SCS) in 2014 on time in Roman inscriptions. Blog ideas comes from just about everywhere.

IV. On Saving Time: The Roman Hour and DSTAfter returning from the AIA-SCS a few years back, and seeing Andrew Riggsby’s poster on quantification in Roman inscriptions, I got to thinking: what is the power behind controlling time? My advisor has a book coming out on Roman sundials, and well, I thought I would delve into the topic via an anecdote in Cassiodorus’ Variae, wherein around “507, the Ostrogothic emperor Theodoric sent a sundial to King Gundobad, the leader of the Burgundians. The initial request was made to Boethius by the Ostrogoth, who asked him to make a sundial and a waterclock (1.45.9-10).” Thinking about the historical delineation of time and of our modern use of Daylight Savings Time in particular was fruitful to understanding how the Roman world differed from our own. As I said, “The hours may change, but our ability to standardize, control, and manipulate them remains a human obsession. Just like Theodoric’s gift to Gundobad, the gift of measuring time was and is seen as a feature of civility, but it is also a lens through which to view any culture.”

P.S. Andrew’s ideas on Roman information literacy are now going to be a book published by Oxford University Press.

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A papyrus recording a divorce from Roman Egypt, now in the Michigan Collection. Blogging forces you to interact with all kinds of databases and digital resources. It also teaches you about image permissions! (Image via APISwhich has a Creative Commons Policy)

V. The Power to Divorce in Antiquity. Last but not least, blogging can allow you to say something important and to comment on current events. Back in late 2013, it was reported that rabbis were being hired to beat up husbands: “Rabbis that sold their torture services were busted by federal authorities in New Jersey this week. The Orthodox Jewish rabbis were hired by wives who wished to obtain a divorce, which, in the Orthodox Jewish culture, you cannot do without the consent of the husband to obtain a ‘get.'” I didn’t know much about the Orthodox Jewish rules, but I did know a bit about Greco-Roman law, and in early imperial Roman antiquity, divorce was a right given to both men and women, before a shift occurred in Late Antiquity. Revoking the right of divorce from either gender, I concluded, was disastrous, and took away basic human agency. “I guess what I have to say is this: historically, when you don’t grant women the power to obtain a divorce–particularly to escape life threatening and abusive relationships–and in fact make them beholden to men in order to achieve one, actions are often taken that at first appear out of the ordinary and absurd. I am not claiming that these orthodox women were justified in hiring rabbis to torture their husbands for money, far from it. I am rather saying that it should never even have to come to this. It is one thing to say that divorce is forbidden, it is quite another to say that only a man can grant one.” Blogging has allowed me to further join the trend of looking at the long durée, and to show how the modification of legal rights effects individuals.

The purpose of this post was, to put it quasi-classically (i.e., the best way to put things!),


A comic from XKCD, which is also under a Creative Commons Policy.

to pour some old wine into a new skin. When it was time for me to leave Dorothy’s established Forum and build my own here on my site, she never discouraged me. She has continued to support my writing both publicly and privately and to be someone I can turn to. It is a great example of how important it is for graduate students and professionals in either traditional or “alt-ac” (I truly hate that term; they really are not alternate to academia. They are as much academics as professors.) positions to reach out to the digital community in order to formulate a support network. Beyond the scholarly network you may find, blogging hones your mad skills as a writer. Because baby, if writing is a muscle, then blogging is one hell of a Zumba class.


Getting Sacked: Animals, Executions, and Roman Law

In my blogging, I have frequently discussed Roman approaches to crime and punishment (e.g., crucifixion and torture). However, as I sat prepping lectures for my Roman law course this week, I got distracted (it happens) and began to watch some clips from old James Bond movies (it happens a lot). After making a mental list of all the sharks and snakes that Roger Moore / 007 had to escape from in Live and Let Die alone, I began to consider the role of animals in Roman law. Specifically, how and why animals were used as instruments in carrying out capital punishments, and in which cases they themselves could be held legally liable for their actions.

(l) A 3rd c. CE mosaic in the Museum of El Djem (Tunisia) of a criminal being killed in the arena (r) James Bond fights while a Komodo dragon lurks nearby in Skyfall.

(l) A 3rd c. CE mosaic in the Museum of El Djem (Tunisia, photo via Wikimedia) of a criminal being killed in the arena (r) James Bond fights while a Komodo dragon lurks nearby in Skyfall.

The use of animals as executioners existed in Rome since at least the middle Republic. Elephants appear to be the first spectacle animals to perform human executions, as when in 167 BCE, Aemilius Paullus used elephants in order to kill non-Roman soldiers who had decided to desert during his campaign against Perseus. Assumedly they trampled the men to death. The viewing of such a horrid death scene apparently discouraged soldiers from turning coat. In 146 BCE, Scipio Africanus Minor also used elephants to crush foreign deserters (Val. Max. 2.7.13-14), this time during the spectacular games of his triumph. When you think about it, the use of horses or elephants as instruments of war is similar, even though there may not be an amphitheater with stadium seating set up for an audience to enjoy the carnage.

Bronze Roman war elephant now at the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich (SL 50 1 via Wikimedia).

Bronze Roman war elephant now at the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich (SL 50 1 via Wikimedia).

In such cases, the elephants carried out the will of the Roman state and performed a job normally outsourced to Roman executioners–called carnifices–who were themselves legally degraded. The lowly status was likely due to the pollution these men incurred from the act of killing others. In a sense, the use of elephants against deserters rather than a human hangman also underscored the non-citizen nature of those being punished. It not only made a proxy of the foreign pachyderms, but cast them as a symbol for Rome’s expanding overseas empire. Not a very subtle visualization of Roman power, but then again, no one ever accused Romans of subtlety.

The Roman use of animals to punish those found guilty of parricide is another tale of legend. Modestinus, a jurist and pupil of Ulpian writing in the 3rd c. CE, mentioned the customary penalty in his Pandectae (transmitted in the Digesta of Justinian [48.9.9.pr. tr.Scott]): 

“The penalty of parricide, as prescribed by our ancestors, is that the punishment shall be beaten with rods stained with his blood, and then shall be sewed up in a sack with a dog, a rooster, a viper, and a monkey, and the bag cast into the depth of the sea, that is to say, if the sea is near at hand; otherwise, it shall be thrown to wild beasts, according to the Constitution of the Divine Hadrian.”

Roman mosaics of a dog (Sousse), a rooster (now at the Baths of Diocletian in Rome), a rock python (Palestrina Nilotic mosaic, Museo Nazionale Palestrina), and a monkey (Volubilis, House of Orpheus) [Images via Wikimedia].

Roman mosaics of a dog (Sousse), a rooster (now at the Baths of Diocletian in Rome), a rock python (Palestrina Nilotic mosaic, Museo Nazionale Palestrina), and a monkey (Volubilis, House of Orpheus) [Images via Wikimedia].

Parricide (parricidium) came to include killing both parents and grandparents, though it may have originally just applied to slaying one’s father. The Augustan historian Livy notes that Publicius Malleolus was the first to receive such a punishment for killing his mother; he was sewn up in a culleum (leather sack) and tossed into the sea in 101 BCE (Per. 68 cf. Rhet. ad Her. 1.13.[23]). Cicero adds that Malleolus was also made to wear wooden clogs, so that he could not escape. Anyone who has ever tried to run in wooden clogs would emphatically agree with this line of reasoning, but legal historian O.F. Robinson has suggested that this was rather an attempt to keep the polluting offender’s feet from transmitting his miasma to the earth (2007: 45). Most of my questions actually involve the logistics of the act: whether the animals were sedated first, the dimensions of this giant leather bag, and where they got all those monkeys from. Also, I would hate to be the man tasked with sewing that dangerous sack up.

A detail of the leather soldier bags from the Column of Trajan casts now at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (Image via Wikimedia).

A detail of the leather soldier bags depicted on the Column of Trajan. This picture comes from casts now at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (Image via Wikimedia).

Ancient sources indicate that parricide laws evolved into the late Republic. Pompey’s lex Pompeia de parricidiis  of 55 or 52 BCE confirmed an earlier law on parricide issued under Sulla. Although the punishment appears to have fallen out of use during the imperial period, it was later brought back in Late Antiquity. In an edict of 318 (instituted in 319), Constantine reinstated the animal sack as a punishment for parricide (CTh. 9.15.1). I always like to bring this fact up whenever modern academics praise the kindness and goodness of the emperor Constantine. Let’s not forget this is a man who had his own son killed, folks.

Alright, clearly Romans used animals as instruments for exacting capital punishment, but what about the legal perception of animals in Roman law? Animals had very few rights in the Roman legal system, though as property, some could be claimed under the jurisdiction of the lex Aquilia. 

Mosaic with a striped cat capturing a bird from Rome's Palazzo Massimi alle Terme (Image via Wikimedia).

Mosaic with a striped cat capturing a bird from Rome’s Palazzo Massimi alle Terme (Image via Wikimedia).

Under the civil law code, owners were generally held responsible for the actions of their pets or livestock–as when an owner encouraged their dog to defecate on an enemy’s property or a mule trampled someone in the street. Ulpian notes that when four footed, domesticated animals (i.e., not feral animals) acted against their nature, they commited pauperies (Dig. In this case, the owner would either pay damages or hand over the animal itself. Romans did not consider animals capable of rational thought in the human sense, and thus they were not legally liable for their actions.

Roman thought about the agency of animals is much more closely aligned with our thinking today. A notable deviation came in the animal trials that occurred in Western Europe between the 13th and 18th centuries. The conviction of pigs and other livestock at this time provide some insight into how perceptions of moral agency can transform a legal system. I mean, what if we did believe those elephants knew what they were doing to those soldiers? The pivotal work on animal trials was written by Edward Payson Evans in 1906, though many scholars have offered up variant reasons for the trials. Evans himself believed that ideas of witchcraft played a role.

Despite the rare medieval and early modern animal that was held liable for their alleged actions, animals have generally been viewed as instruments and extensions of their owners. Consequently, not only how we treat our pets, but also how we use them reflects back on us. This goes as much for 007 villains as it does for ancient Rome.

Illustration entitled 'Trial of a Sow and Pigs at Lavegny' taken from The Book of Days (1863) edited by Robert Chambers (Image and caption via the Public Domain Review).

Illustration entitled ‘Trial of a Sow and Pigs at Lavegny’ taken from The Book of Days (1863) edited by Robert Chambers (Image and caption via the Public Domain Review).

Good Mourning: Roman Clothing, Courtrooms, and the Psychology of Color

Cersei wears a mourning gown to the trial of her brother, Tyrion, on Game of Thrones, Scarlett O'Hara dances in mourning clothes in Gone with the Wind, and a 3rd c. fresco from the Hypogeum of the Aurelii in Rome shows Roman senators in their togas.

Cersei wears a mourning gown to the trial of her brother, Tyrion, on Game of Thrones, Scarlett O’Hara dances in mourning clothes in Gone with the Wind, and a 3rd c. fresco from the Hypogeum of the Aurelii in Rome shows Roman senators in their togas.

Romans often reserved the dark colors of mourning for a trip to the courtroom. Usually it was the defendants who chose to clothe themselves in dark and ragged vestments–though some people broke with this habit. In a letter dated to 468 CE, the diplomat and bishop Sidonius Apollinaris discussed the treason trial of a friend and Praetorian prefect named Arvandus this way:

Arvandus proceeded thither freshly groomed and barbered, while the accusers waited the decemvirs’ summons unkempt and in half-mourning, snatching from him thus the defendant’s usual right, and securing the advantage of suggestion which the suppliant garb confers…Eye-witnesses report, as the most pathetic feature of all, that as a result of his intrusion upon his judges in all that bravery and smartness while his accusers dressed in black, his pitiable plight won him no pity when he was led off to prison a little later. How, indeed, could any one be much moved at his fate, seeing him haled to the quarries or hard labour still all trimmed and pomaded like a fop? (Ep. 1.7.9, 11 trans. Dalton). 

Aravandus’ appearance before the Roman senate was boastful and presumptive, while the accusers showed humility by looking disheveled. There was a rhetorical purpose for appropriating the clothing of mourning, such as a toga pulla: it was meant to curry pity from the jury and the audience. As Fred Naiden (2006: 58-59) has asserted, such mourning clothing also suggests supplication. When the senator Publius Rutilius Rufus (cos. 105 BCE) refused to remove his senatorial insignia or put on darker clothing during his trial in 92 BCE, he was roundly criticized; however, he used his clothing choices as a proud profession of his innocence against the charge of provincial extortion. I mean, he was still convicted by a group of disgruntled equestrians, but by god, at least he looked like a senator during the process.

Relief of a Roman funeral procession. From Amiternum, 1st century CE. Museo Nazionale d'Abruzzo, L'Aquila, Italy.

Relief of a Roman funeral procession. From Amiternum, 1st century CE. Museo Nazionale d’Abruzzo, L’Aquila, Italy. Note the mourners on either side of the bier.

Clearly, one’s choice of clothing within the courtroom conveyed a number of messages to the audience. Just take the visual rhetoric spoken to us when we look upon this late antique depiction of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin (6th c. CE, Church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna). The high priest Caiaphas and the rest of the priests are decked out in swanky clothing reminiscent of Roman senators, and they have on some expensive red boots (O, just as Julius Caesar would have liked!). Jesus is depicted in regal gold and purple, but he does wear some simple sandals at the pre-trial hearing. This depiction of Jesus is all conjured from the head of the mosaic artist, but the trial’s depiction is clearly telling us something about Jesus and about the Sanhedrin through clothing and through shoes.

Jesus Before the Sanhedrin (Church of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna).

Jesus Before the Sanhedrin (6th c. CE, Church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna).

Matthew 26:65 tells us that while considering what charges to bring against Jesus, Caiaphas dramatically tore his robe–also an act reserved for funerals and occasionally for the courtroom melodrama: “Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy!” The most famous depiction of this scene comes from Giotto in the 14th century.

Giotto's (c. 1304) Christ before Caiaphas - at the Cappella Scrovegni in Padua, Italy.

Giotto’s (c. 1304) Christ before Caiaphas – at the Cappella Scrovegni in Padua, Italy (Image via Wikimedia).

Mourning dress could also be used in public spaces in order to protest and to plead. In 98 BCE, Quintus Caecilius Metellus wished to have his father recalled from exile. He grew his hair out (likely going unwashed), donned mourning dress, and badgered citizens in the Roman Forum in order to pass a law to allow his father to return. The people took pity and obliged his request. We are told that Quintus was nicknamed Pius thereafter. Publicly following around your accuser in mourning dress was also a tactic of some in Roman society, particularly if you wanted to accuse someone visually and did not have the money or status for a trial. As Leanne Bablitz recounts, others simply brought charges against an individual and humiliated them by first forcing them into mourning dress and then stalling the case, so that the defendant was forced to walk the streets of Rome in tattered rags (Bablitz 2007: 84-85). Clearly, mourning dress was a visual tool not just limited to the funeral.

Winona Ryder listens to the verdict is read at the Beverly Hills Municipal Court during her shoplifting trial.

Winona Ryder listens as the verdict is read at the Beverly Hills Municipal Court during her shoplifting trial (Image via CBS Baltimore).

These examples indicate that in court, what one wears has always mattered. As Robert Gordon, a jury-consultant and Texas psychologist stated in an interview, “Whether you dress casually or formally, wear a tie or a dress, choose bright or dark colors, all make a difference in terms of how you are perceived.” Darker colors advertise humanity. They also communicate contrition to a judge and jury. Wearing bright, flashy, or highly expensive clothes send a message in the same way that muted colors do. Just check out the dark “headband of innocence” that actress Winona Ryder wore to her shoplifting trial. That is some serious contrition.

Color and clothing in court was not just a consideration of today. When magazines or the news pay rapt attention to the appropriateness of what Lindsay Lohan wore to court, we should perhaps also reflect on what Roman judges, juries, and audiences picked up on. Although we may rely on the texts of Seneca, Cicero, Quintilian, and the jurists in order to recreate the Roman courtroom, a full reconstruction must include the colors, clothes, smells, and sounds that accompanied the speeches. These visuals were an accompanying rhetoric too often overlooked.