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The toga, a distinctive garment of Ancient Rome, was a roughly semicircular cloth, between 12 and 20 feet (3.7 and 6.1 m) in length, draped over the shoulders and around the body. It was usually woven from white wool, and was worn over a tunic. In Roman historical tradition, it is said to have been the favoured dress of Romulus, Rome's founder; it was also thought to have been worn by both sexes, and by the citizen-military. As Roman women gradually adopted the stola, the toga was recognised as formal wear for Roman citizen men. Women engaged in prostitution might have provided the main exception to this rule.
The type of toga worn reflected a citizen's rank in the civil hierarchy. Various laws and customs restricted its use to citizens, who were required to wear it for public festivals and civic duties.
From its probable beginnings as a simple, practical work-garment, the toga became more voluminous, complex, and costly, increasingly unsuited to anything but formal and ceremonial use. It was and is considered Ancient Rome's "national costume"; as such, it had great symbolic value, but it was hard to put on, uncomfortable and challenging to wear correctly, and never truly popular. When circumstances allowed, those otherwise entitled or obliged to wear it opted for more comfortable, casual garments. It gradually fell out of use, firstly among citizens of the lower class, then those of the middle class. Eventually, it was worn only by the highest classes for ceremonial occasions, and by the 5th century, it had been replaced as official costume by the more practical pallium and paenula.
The toga was an approximately semi-circular woolen cloth, usually white, worn draped over the shoulders and around the body: the word "toga" probably derives from tegere, to cover. It was considered formal wear, and was generally reserved for citizens. The Romans considered it unique to themselves; thus their poetic description by Virgil and Martial as the gens togata (toga-wearing race) There were many kinds of toga, each reserved by custom to particular usage or social class.
The earliest form of toga might have resembled the ancient Greek himation and Etruscan tebenna, which were simple, rectangular lengths of cloth that served as both body-wrap and blanket for peasants, shepherds and itinerant herdsmen. Roman historians believed that Rome's legendary founder and first king, the erstwhile shepherd Romulus, had worn a toga as his clothing of choice; the purple-bordered toga praetexta was supposedly used by Etruscan magistrates, and introduced to Rome by her third king, Tullus Hostilius.
Roman society was strongly hierarchic, stratified and competitive. Landowning patrician aristocrats occupied most seats in the senate and held the most senior magistracies. Magistrates were elected by their peers and "the people"; in Roman constitutional theory, they ruled by consent. In practise, they were a mutually competitive oligarchy, reserving the greatest power, wealth and prestige to their class. The commoners who made up the vast majority of the Roman electorate had limited influence on politics, unless barracking or voting en masse, or through representation by their tribunes. The Equites (sometimes loosely translated as "knights") occupied a broadly mobile, mid-position between the lower senatorial and upper commoner class. Despite often extreme disparities of wealth and rank between the citizen classes, the toga identified them as a singular and exclusive civic body. Conversely, and just as usefully, it underlined their differences.
Togas were relatively uniform in pattern and style but varied significantly in the quality and quantity of their fabric, and the marks of higher rank or office. The highest status toga, the solidly purple, gold-embroidered toga picta could be worn only at particular ceremonies by the highest ranking magistrates. Tyrian purple was supposedly reserved for the toga picta, the border of the toga praetexta, and elements of the priestly dress worn by the inviolate Vestal Virgins. It was colour-fast, extremely expensive and the "most talked-about colour in Greco-Roman antiquity". Romans categorised it as a blood-red hue, which sanctified its wearer. The purple-bordered praetexta worn by freeborn youths acknowledged their vulnerability and sanctity under law. Once a boy came of age (usually at puberty) he adopted the plain white toga virilis; this meant that he was free to set up his own household, marry, and vote. Young girls who wore the praetexta on formal occasions put it aside at menarche or marriage, and adopted the stola Even the whiteness of the toga virilis was subject to class distinction. Senatorial versions were expensively laundered to an exceptional, snowy white; those of lower ranking citizens were a duller shade, more cheaply laundered.
Citizenship carried specific privileges, rights and responsibilities. In Roman territories, the toga was explicitly forbidden to non-citizens; to foreigners, freedmen, and slaves; to Roman exiles; and to men of "infamous" career or shameful reputation; an individual's status should be discernable at a glance. A freedman or foreigner might pose as a togate citizen, or a common citizen as an equestrian; such pretenders were sometimes ferreted out in the census. Formal seating arrangements in public theatres and circuses reflected the dominance of Rome's togate elect. Senators sat at the very front, equites behind them, common citizens behind equites; and so on, through the non-togate mass of freedmen, foreigners, and slaves. Imposters were sometimes detected and evicted from the equestrian seats.
Various anecdotes reflect the toga's symbolic value. In Livy's history of Rome, the patrician hero Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, retired from public life and clad (presumably) in tunic or loincloth, is ploughing his field when emissaries of the Senate arrive, and ask him to put on his toga. His wife fetches it and he puts it on. Then he is told that he has been appointed dictator. He promptly heads for Rome. Donning the toga transforms Cincinnatus from rustic, sweaty ploughman – though a gentleman nevertheless, of impeccable stock and reputation – into Rome's leading politician, eager to serve his country; a top-quality Roman. Rome's abundant public and private statuary reinforced the notion that all Rome's great men wore togas, and must always have done so.
Traditionalists idealised Rome's urban and rustic citizenry as descendants of a hardy, virtuous, toga-clad peasantry, but the toga's bulk and complex drapery made it entirely impractical for manual work or physically active leisure. The toga was heavy, "unwieldy, excessively hot, easily stained, and hard to launder"; It was best suited to stately processions, public debate and oratory, sitting in the theatre or circus, and displaying oneself before one's peers and inferiors while "ostentatiously doing nothing". Every male Roman citizen was entitled to wear some kind of toga – Martial refers to a lesser citizen's "small toga" and a poor man's "little toga" (both togatulus) - but the poorest probably had to make do with a shabby, patched-up toga, if he bothered at all.
In the early second century AD, the satirist Juvenal claimed that "in a great part of Italy, no-one wears the toga, except in death"; in Martial's rural idyll there is "never a lawsuit, the toga is scarce, the mind at ease". Most citizens who owned a toga would have cherished it as a costly material object, and worn it when they must, but not when in their own surroundings and among their peers. Family, friendships and alliances, and the gainful pursuit of wealth through business and trade would have been their major preoccupations. Rank, reputation and Romanitas were paramount, even in death, so almost invariably, a male citizen's memorial image showed him clad in his toga. He wore it at his funeral, and it probably served as his shroud.
At most times, Rome's thoroughfares would have been with crowded with citizens and non-citizens in a variety of colourful garments, with few togas in evidence. Only a higher-caste Roman, a magistrate, would have had lictors to clear his way, and even then, wearing a toga was a challenge. The toga's apparent natural simplicity and "elegant, flowing lines" were the result of diligent practice and cultivation; to avoid an embarrassing disarrangement of its folds, its wearer must walk with measured, stately gait, yet with virile purpose and energy. If he moved too slowly, he might seem aimless, "sluggish of mind" - or, worst of all, "womanly". Vout (1966) suggests that the toga's most challenging qualities as garment fitted the Romans' view of themselves and their civilization. Like the empire itself, the peace that the toga came to represent had been earned through the extraordinary and unremitting collective efforts of its citizens, who could therefore claim "the time and dignity to dress in such a way".
Patronage was a cornerstone of Roman politics, business and social relationships. A good patron offered advancement, security, honour, wealth, government contracts and other business opportunities to his client, who might be further down in the social or economic scale, or more rarely, his equal or superior. A good client canvassed political support for his patron, or his patron's nominee; he advanced his patron's interests using his own business, family and personal connections. Freedmen with an aptitude for business could become extremely wealthy; but to negotiate citizenship for themselves, or more likely their sons, they must find a patron prepared to commend them. Clients seeking patronage had to attend the patron's early-morning formal salutatio ("greeting session"), held in the semi-public, grand reception room (atrium) of his family house (domus). Citizen-clients were expected to wear the toga appropriate to their status, and to wear it correctly and smartly or risk affront to their host.
Martial and his friend Juvenal suffered the system as clients for years, and found the whole business demeaning. A client must be at his patron's beck and call, to perform whatever "togate works" were required; and the patron might even expect to be addressed as "domine" (lord, or master); a citizen-client of the equestrian class, superior to all lesser mortals by virtue of rank and costume, might thus approach the shameful condition of dependent servitude. For a client whose patron was another's client, the potential for shame was still worse. Even as a satirical analogy, the equation of togate client and slave would have shocked those who cherished the toga as a symbol of personal dignity and auctoritas – a meaning underlined during the Saturnalia festival, when the toga was "very consciously put aside", in a ritualised, strictly limited inversion of the master-slave relationship.
Patrons were few, and most had to compete with their peers to attract the best, most useful clients. Clients were many, and those of least interest to the patron had to scrabble for notice among the "togate horde" (turbae togatae). One in a dirty or patched toga would likely be subject to ridicule; or he might, if sufficiently dogged and persistent, secure a pittance of cash, or perhaps a dinner. When the patron left his house to conduct his business of the day at the law courts, forum or wherever else, escorted (if a magistrate) by his togate lictors, his clients must form his retinue. Each togate client represented a potential vote: to impress his peers and inferiors, and stay ahead in the game, a patron should have as many high-quality clients as possible; or at least, he should seem to. Martial has one patron hire a herd (grex) of fake clients in togas, then pawn his ring to pay for his evening meal.
The emperor Marcus Aurelius, rather than wear the "dress to which his rank entitled him" at his own salutationes, chose to wear a plain white citizen's toga instead; an act of modesty for any patron, unlike Caligula, who wore a triumphal toga picta or any other garment he chose, according to whim; or Nero, who caused considerable offence when he received visiting senators while dressed in a tunic embroidered with flowers, topped off with a muslin neckerchief.
In oratory, the toga came into its own. Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria (circa 95 AD) offers advice on how best to plead cases at Rome's law-courts, before the watching multitude's informed and critical eye. Effective pleading was a calculated artistic performance, but must seem utterly natural. First impressions counted; the lawyer must present himself as a Roman should: "virile and splendid" in his toga, with statuesque posture and "natural good looks". He should be well groomed – but not too well; no primping of the hair, jewellery or any other "feminine" perversions of a Roman man's proper appearance. Quintillian gives precise instructions on the correct use of the toga – its cut, style, and the arrangements of its folds. Its fabric can be old-style rough wool, or new and smoother if preferred – but definitely not silk. The orator's movements should be dignified, and to the point; he should move only as he must, to address a particular person, a particular section of the audience. He should employ to good effect that subtle "language of the hands" for which Roman oratory was famed; no extravagant gestures, no wiggling of the shoulders, no moving "like a dancer".
To a great extent, the toga itself determined the orator's style of delivery; "we should not cover the shoulder and the whole of the throat, otherwise our dress will be unduly narrowed and will lose the impressive effect produced by breadth at the chest. The left arm should only be raised so far as to form a right angle at the elbow, while the edge of the toga should fall in equal lengths on either side"... if, on the other hand, the "toga falls down at the beginning of our speech, or when we have only proceeded but a little way, the failure to replace it is a sign of indifference, or sloth, or sheer ignorance of the way in which clothes should be worn". By the time he has presented his case, the orator is likely to be hot and sweaty; but even this can be employed to good effect.
Roman moralists "placed an ideological premium on the simple and the frugal". Aulus Gellius claimed that the earliest Romans, famously tough, virile and dignified, had worn togas with no undergarment; not even a skimpy tunic. Towards the end of the Republic, the arch-conservative Cato the Younger favoured the shorter, ancient Republican type of toga; it was dark and "scanty" (a toga exigua), and Cato wore it without tunic or shoes; all this would have been recognised as an expression of his moral probity. Die-hard Roman traditionalists deplored an ever-increasing Roman appetite for ostentation, "un-Roman" comfort and luxuries, and sartorial offences such as Celtic trousers, brightly coloured Syrian robes and cloaks. The manly toga itself could signify corruption, if worn too loosely, or worn over a long-sleeved, "effeminate" tunic, or woven too fine and thin, near transparent. Appian's history of Rome finds its strife-torn Late Republic tottering at the edge of chaos; most seem to dress as they like, not as they ought: "For now the Roman people are much mixed with foreigners, there is equal citizenship for freedmen, and slaves dress like their masters. With the exception of the Senators, free citizens and slaves wear the same costume." The Augustan Principate brought peace, and declared its intent as the restoration of true Republican order, morality and tradition.
Augustus was determined to bring back "the style of yesteryear" (the toga). He ordered that any theatre-goer in dark (or coloured or dirty) clothing be sent to the back seats, traditionally reserved for who those had no toga; ordinary or common women, freedmen, low-class foreigners and slaves. He reserved the most honourable seats, front of house, for senators and equites; this was how it had always been, before the chaos of the civil wars; or rather, how it was supposed to have been. Infuriated by the sight of a darkly clad throng of men at a public meeting, he sarcastically quoted Virgil at them, "Romanos, rerum dominos, gentemque togatam " ("Romans, lords of the world and the toga-wearing people"), then ordered that in future, the aediles ban anyone not wearing the toga from the Forum and its environs – Rome's "civic heart". Augustus' reign saw the introduction of the toga rasa, an ordinary toga whose rough fibres were teased from the woven nap, then shaved back to a smoother, more comfortable finish. By Pliny's day (circa 70 AD) this was probably standard among the elite. Pliny also describes a glossy smooth, lightweight but dense fabric woven from poppy-stem fibres and flax, in use from at least the time of the Punic Wars. Though probably appropriate for a "summer toga", it was criticised for its improper luxuriance.
Some Romans believed that in earlier times, both genders and all classes had worn the toga. Women could also be citizens but by the mid-to-late Republican era, respectable women were stolatae (stola-wearing), expected to embody and display an appropriate set of female virtues: Vout cites pudicitia and fides as examples. Women's adoption of the Greek-style stola may have paralleled the increasing identification of the toga with citizen men, but this seems to have been a far from straightforward process. An equestrian statue, described by Pliny the Elder as "ancient", showed the early Republican heroine Cloelia on horseback, wearing a toga. The unmarried daughters of respectable, reasonably well-off citizens sometimes wore the toga praetexta until puberty or marriage, when they adopted the stola, which they wore over a full-length, usually long-sleeved tunic.
Higher-class female prostitutes (meretrices) and women divorced for adultery were denied the stola. Meretrices might have been expected or perhaps compelled, at least in public, to wear the "toga of motherhood" (toga muliebris). This use of the toga appears unique; all others categorised as "infamous and disreputable" were explicitly forbidden to wear it. In this context, modern sources understand the toga - or perhaps merely the description of particular women as togata - as an instrument of inversion and realignment; a respectable (thus stola-clad) woman should be demure, sexually passive, modest and obedient, morally impeccable. The archetypical meretrix of Roman literature dresses gaudily and provocatively. Edwards (1996) describes her as "antithetical to the Roman male citizen". An adulterous matron betrayed her family and reputation; and if found guilty, and divorced, the law forbade her remarriage to a Roman citizen. In the public gaze, she was aligned with the meretrix. When worn by a woman in this later era, the toga would have been a "blatant display" of her "exclusion from the respectable Roman hierarchy".
Until the Marian reforms of 107 BC, the lower ranks of Rome's military forces were "farmer-soldiers", a militia of citizen smallholders conscripted for the duration of hostilities, expected to provide their own arms and armour. Citizens of higher status served in senior military posts as a foundation for their progress to high civil office (see cursus honorum). The Romans believed that in Rome's earliest days, its military had gone to war in togas, hitching them up and back for action by using what became known as the "Gabine cinch". From at least the mid-Republic on, the military reserved their togas for formal leisure and religious festivals; the tunic and sagum (heavy cloak) were used or preferred for active duty. As part of a peace settlement of 205 BC, two formerly rebellious Spanish tribes provided Roman troops with togas and heavy cloaks; in 206 BC, Scipio Africanus was sent 1,200 togas and 12,000 tunics for his operations in North Africa. In the Macedonian campaign of 169 BC, the army was sent 6,000 togas and 30,000 tunics.
Late republican practice and legal reform allowed the creation of standing armies, and opened a military career to any Roman citizen or freedman of good reputation. A soldier who showed the requisite "disciplined ferocity" in battle and was held in esteem by his peers and superiors could be promoted to higher rank: a plebeian could rise to equestrian status. Non-citizens and foreign-born auxiliaries given honourable discharge were usually granted citizenship, land or stipend, the right to wear the toga, and an obligation to the patron who had granted these honours; usually their senior officer. A dishonourable discharge meant infamia. Colonies of retired veterans were scattered throughout the Empire. In literary stereotype, civilians are routinely bullied by burly soldiers, inclined to throw their weight around.
Though soldiers were citizens, Cicero typifies the former as "sagum wearing" and the latter as "togati". He employs the phrase cedant arma togae ("let arms yield to the toga"), meaning "may peace replace war", or "may military power yield to civilian power", in the context of his own uneasy alliance with Pompey. He intended it as metonym, linking his own "power to command" as consul (imperator togatus) with Pompey's as general (imperator armatus); but it was interpreted as a request to step down. Cicero, having lost Pompey's ever-wavering support, was driven to exile. In reality, arms rarely yielded to civilian power. During the early Roman Imperial era, members of the Praetorian Guard (the emperor's personal guard as "First Citizen", and a military force under his personal command), concealed their weapons under white, civilian-style togas when on duty in the city, offering the reassuring illusion that they represented a traditional Republican, civilian authority, rather than the military arm of an Imperial autocracy.
Citizens attending Rome's frequent religious festivals and associated games were expected to wear the toga. The toga praetexta was the normal garb for most Roman priesthoods, which tended to be the preserve of high status citizens. When offering sacrifice, libation and prayer, and when performing augury, the officiant priest covered his head with a fold of his toga, drawn up from the back: the ritual was thus performed capite velato (with covered head). This was believed a distinctively Roman form, in contrast to Etruscan, Greek and other foreign practices. The Etruscans seem to have sacrificed bareheaded (capite aperto). In Rome, the so-called ritus graecus (Greek rite) was used for deities believed Greek in origin or character; the officiant, even if citizen, wore Greek-style robes with wreathed or bare head, not the toga. It has been argued that the Roman expression of piety capite velato influenced Paul's prohibition against Christians praying with covered heads: "Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head."
An officiant capite velato who needed free use of both hands to perform ritual could employ the "Gabinian cincture" (cinctus Gabinus), which tied the toga back. It was thought to derive from the priestly practice of ancient, warlike Gabii. Etruscan priests also employed the Gabine cinch. In Rome, it was one of the elements in making a declaration of war.
The traditional toga was made of wool, which was thought to possess powers to avert misfortune and the evil eye; the toga praetexta (used by magistrates, priests and freeborn youths) was always woolen. Wool-working was thought a highly respectable occupation for Roman women. A traditional, high-status mater familias demonstrated her industry and frugality by placing wool-baskets, spindles and looms in the household's semi-public reception area, the atrium. Augustus was particularly proud that his wife and daughter had set the best possible example to other Roman women by spinning and weaving his clothing.
Handwoven cloth was slow and costly to produce; and compared to simpler forms of clothing, the toga used an extravagant amount of it. To minimise waste, the smaller, old-style forms of toga may have been woven as a single, seamless, selvedged piece; the later, larger versions may have been made from several pieces sewn together; size seems to have counted for a lot. More cloth signified greater wealth and usually, though not invariably, higher rank. The purple-red border of the toga praetexta was woven onto the toga using a process known as "tablet weaving"; such applied borders are a feature of Etruscan dress.
Wilson (1924), after experiment with various fabrics, found the rough texture of the woolen toga a practical necessity; smoother fabrics refused to stay in their proper place. Ross (1911) employed a roughly semicircular shape with a rectangular extension to simulate the longer, more complex togas of the later Imperial era. Wilson (1924) achieved similar effects using a slightly irregular polygon with six softly curved sides, folded lengthwise into a double layer of 4 to 5 feet in width. Modern sources broadly agree that if made from a single piece of fabric, the toga of a high status Roman in the late Republic would have required a piece approximately 12 ft in length; in the Imperial era, around 18 ft, a third more than its predecessor, and in the late Imperial era around 8 feet wide and up to 18 or 20 feet in length for the most complex, pleated forms.
The toga was draped, rather than fastened over the body, and was held in position by the weight and friction of its fabric. No pins or brooches were employed. In classical statuary, draped togas consistently show certain features and folds, identified and named in contemporary literature.
The sinus (literally, a bay or inlet) appears in the Imperial era as a loose over-fold, slung from beneath the left arm, downwards across the chest, then upwards to the right shoulder. It functioned as a pouch or pocket. Early examples are slender, rather like the slim, tighter crosswise fold known as the balneus (sword belt) from which the sinus probably derives. Later form of sinus are much fuller; the loop hangs at knee-length, suspended there by draping over the crook of the right arm.
The umbo (literally "knob"), was a decorative-cum-practical pouching of the toga's fabric, draped over the left shoulder and rightwards, just above the sinus. Its end was loosely tucked into the balneus, approximately halfway across the chest. Like the sinus, the umbo could be used for storage. Its added weight and friction would have helped (though not very effectively) secure toga's fabric onto the left shoulder. As the toga developed, the umbo grew in size.
The most complex togas appear on high quality portrait busts and imperial reliefs of the mid-to-late Empire, probably reserved to emperors and the highest civil officials. The so-called "banded" or "stacked" toga" (Latinised as toga contabulata) is distinguished by its broad, smooth, slab-like panels of pleated material, more or less correspondent with umbo, sinus and balteus, or applied over the same. One rises from low between the legs, and is laid over the left shoulder; another more or less follows the upper edge of the sinus; yet another follows the lower edge of a more-or-less vestigial balteus then descends to the upper shin. As in other forms, the sinus itself is hung over the crook of the right arm. If its full-length representations are accurate, it would have severely constrained its wearer's movements. Dressing in a toga contabulata would have taken some time, and specialist assistance. When not in use, it required careful storage in some form of press or hanger to keep it in shape. Such inconvenient features of the later toga are confirmed by Tertullian, who preferred the pallium. High status (consular or senatorial) images from the late 4th century show a further ornate variation, known as the "Broad Eastern Toga";. it hung to the mid-calf, was heavily embroidered, and was worn over two pallium-style undergarments, one of which had full length sleeves. Its sinus was draped over the left arm.
In the long term, the toga saw both a gradual transformation and decline, punctuated by attempts to retain it as an essential feature of true Romanitas. It was never a popular garment; in the late 1st century, Tacitus could disparage the urban plebs as a vulgus tunicatus ("tunic crowd"). Hadrian issued an edict compelling equites and senators to wear the toga in public; the edict did not mention commoners. The extension of citizenship, from around 6 million citizens under Augustus to between 40 and 60 million under the "universal citizenship" of Caracalla's Constitutio Antoniniana (212 AD), probably further reduced whatever distinctive value the toga still held for commoners, and accelerated its abandonment among their class. Meanwhile, the office-holding aristocracy adopted ever more elaborate, complex, costly and impractical forms of toga. Eventually, these too were abandoned.
The splitting of empire and the adoption of Christianity had many cultural consequences. Considerations of comfort aside, the toga was firmly associated with the old order and the old religion. The pallium was simple, practical, and easy to wear; it had always been considered the dress of philosophers. For those who professed allegiance to Christ and the new, Christian order, it seemed a more fitting formal garment than the toga. While the beleaguered Western emperor Honorius tried to impose the toga on his subjects in defence of Roman values, the Theodosian Lex Vestiaria of 382 had already acknowledged the toga's obsolescence in the Eastern empire, which centred on Constantinople. Equites were now expected to wear the pallium, and senators the paenula, as their proper public dress. Byzantine art and portraiture show the highest functionaries of court, church and state in magnificently wrought, extravagantly exclusive court dress and priestly robes; the underlying construction of these pictured garments is difficult to fathom, but some at least are thought to be much-mutated versions of the Imperial toga. In the early European kingdoms that replaced Roman government in the West, kings and aristocrats alike dressed like the late Roman generals they sought to emulate, rather than the toga-clad senators of ancient tradition.
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