Rome was a civilization that placed a great deal of value and importance on one’s social standing in society. A Roman’s social status was largely based on his family name, his wealth and his accomplishments (whether military, religious or political). There were clear and well-known distinctions that separated the different classes. Access to distinguished positions in the military, priesthood and public offices were reserved for certain classes. Social statuses defined different legal rights, criminal punishments and even marriage partners. There were many different ways to determine a Roman’s social status.
However, the easiest way to determine the social status of a Roman walking down the street is from the way he is dressed. The use of clothing as a status symbol was in practice since the beginning of Rome. There were many differences between social classes in the way citizens dressed. The certain distinctions between outfits of the citizens of varying classes were also constantly changing throughout the duration of the Empire. Romans spent a great deal of time and money when choosing their attire. Through studying Roman clothing we can determine the varying levels of the Roman social hierarchy.
Roman elites wore extravagant and distinctly marked clothing in order to show off their higher status. They worked hard to widen the gap between the wealthy and the poor. One way they separated the social groups was by forcing lower classes to wear certain clothing to make sure the differences in classes was well established. Slavery in Rome was the foundation of Romeos economy. Slaves were estimated to make up roughly 30-40 percent of Romeos population (AY). Despite making up such a large proportion of the population, slaves held little to no power, they weren’t considered tizzies and they were at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
A slave’s master had complete control over what his slave wore. Thus there was no one specific outfit for a slave; it depended on the relationship between the slave and master, the slave’s Job and the education of the slave. Educated slaves had more power over uneducated slaves and therefore were typically better dressed. Slaves with different Jobs were also given different clothes. The most uneducated and unskilled slaves typically worked Jobs labor Jobs on farms, in Roman Galleys and in the mines. Slaves working n farms were given a cloak and pair of wooden shoes every two years and a tunic each year 06).
Slaves working in the Galleys were given nothing but a loincloth to work in. The mining slaves were often forced to work completely naked and were given no clothing at all. Many lower ranking slaves were also forced to shave their heads in order to create wigs for wealthy female Romans. Despite the elite trying to degrade slaves further, over time people began to closely associate a slave’s appearance in public to his master’s wealth. Laves who belonged to more noble and reorient masters were beginning to get nicer clothes. In the many Roman paintings recovered with slaves belonging to noble master we can see a reoccurring outfit.
In The Mosaic Panel, discovered in Tunisia dating back to the 2nd century A. D, 5 slaves are depicted each wearing a short tunic with no shoes or sandals. The simple short tunic without footwear was a common outfit for higher-ranking slaves along with many of the poorer common citizens. Roman Gladiators were also slaves. They wore simple, inexpensive wool tunics. Unlike other Roman slaves, gladiators were occasionally able to collect money. After each fight popular gladiators won they were allowed to collect some money from fights they won. With this money they were able to purchase finer clothes.
Gladiators who won numerous fights were seen as celebrities in Roman society. The more fights they won the closer they moved to becoming free men. With each win, gladiators obtained more power allowing some gladiators to wear fine and elegant clothing. Although the majority of slaves hold similar legal rights in Roman society, through studying the differences in slave’s clothing we are able to determine the varying levels of social statuses among slaves. Along with many ancient civilizations Rome was a fairly misogynistic culture. Women held little social standing and had limited power.
Although they were considered full citizens they did not have the right to vote and could not run for prominent public positions. Despite their lack of rank in society, Roman women spent a great deal of time on their appearance. They used massive amounts of make up and cosmetics in order to whiten their skin, color their cheeks and dye their hair. The majority of women wore closed toes shoes, often colored white, green or yellow. Shoes were not over decorated unless you had extreme wealth. Wealthier women showed off their status by purchasing expensive and rare Jewelry.
Originally men and woman both wore plain unmarked togas, regardless of age, sex or wealth. However after the 2nd century BC things changed. Women no longer were allowed to wear togas. From then on the only women who continued wearing togas were deemed prostitutes. Most women began to wear long dresses, called Stools, with short tunics underneath. For a period married women and Vestal Virgins wore yellow Stools, while everyone else wore white Stools. Eventually though only married women wore Stools and they were colored white.
When you marry as a woman in Rome you gain more power so you are allowed to wear more distinguished clothing. Younger women held less power in society therefore, in most cases, they were forced to wear tunics and not allowed to wear Stools. Women who were looked down upon in society because of committed crimes or ungodliness were forced to were tunics as well. (AS) Women also often wore a Fibula, which essentially acted as a brooch. The Fibula originally was used to hold the Stool in place but slowly it transformed into nothing more than an ornamental object. Although the majority of women wore
Stools, the wealthier women often decorated their Stools with intricate designs and expensive Jewels. Statues found of Olivia Derails, the empress of Rome, dating back to 25 AD show her often wearing an elegant Stool and a pall (an expensive mantel). An outfit typical worn by the elite. During the war with Hannibal, Rome passed the Popping Laws disallowing women to purchase expensive clothes or Jewelry, making it harder for women to distinguish their status. Before laws banning extravagant dressing, wealthy women would purchase Jewels and precious stones and sow them onto their shoes.
With the exception of the higher elite women in society, women were never to dress too extravagantly even before the laws. In the beginning of the Roman Empire extremely wealthy women would spend lots of money in order to acquire the finest clothes in order to show off their wealth. However as time passed more and more laws were put into place limiting women’s ability to dress freely. Although distinguishing wealth among women based on their dress was originally clear, soon differentiating class among women solely based on their clothing became challenging. The next group of people on the social hierarchy were the Plebeians.
They were landowning citizens who were not prominent enough to be apart of the upper echelon group called the patricians. They were equivalent to lower to middle class citizens. Because the Plebeians made up such a massive amount of the Roman population, there was a large amount of diversity among Plebeians regarding social status. Although Plebeians were rarely born into prominent families they were still able to achieve a high social class. Plebeians could raise their status through achieving different accomplishments. Military, political and financial success allowed all men to achieve higher ranks regardless of one’s family name.
At the beginning of the Empire most Roman men wore togas, however they soon went out of style and were later only worn during ceremonial events. Men then began to wear tunics. Plebeians wore tunics made of rough and dark material often made of felt. The tunics were greatly useful in determining a citizen’s status. There are several indicators on a tunic identifying wealth and status. The length and the width of the tunic, the tidiness of the tunic, any markings or stripes imply importance and the residence of any ornamental features on the tunic implies wealth.
Lower ranking citizens would typically wear unmarked togas and tunics. Footwear was also considered a great indicator of importance. Plebeians typically wore worn down black sandals. However if they were able to rise to higher position they could wear certain colors of importance. All positions wore the same shoes and togas regardless of being a Plebeian or Patrician. All soldiers wore tunics with less fabric and cut off higher in order to allow easier movement and less weight. Manual laborers of the irking class would also typically wear shorter tunics to make working in them easier.
Although the average Plebeian wore a dull and undecorated tunic indicating mediocre wealth, many Plebeians were able to vastly improve their social standing allowing them to wear the decorated togas of the prominent. The Patricians accounted for the most influential group in Roman society. Although they made up only a small portion of the population they held a massive amount of power. The sole criteria needed to be a patrician states that one must be a descendent of one of the original families that was in Rome when it was founded.
Several of the most influential offices in Roman politics and religions required a candidate to be a Patrician Just so he could run. The Patricians thought very highly of themselves and wanted to make sure they could be easily distinguishable from the Plebeians. Although both Plebeians and Patricians wore tunics, Patrician’s tunics were often made of expensive fine linen or white or naturally died wool. The wealthiest of the Patricians occasionally even had togas made of silk. Patricians made up the majority of the important position for most of the empire so they were habitually the ones wearing decorated and dyed togas.
Each religious, military and political position required different colored togas, specific marking on togas and certain shoes. Senators wore brown sandals, soldiers wore heavy-duty combat boots and Consuls wore white shoes. Many citizens held several positions over lapping military, religion and politics. Eventually all soldiers and politicians wore heavy-duty military belts, symbolizing the connection between both government and the military. A great deal of importance was put onto the different colors of togas. Togas branded different colored borders to mark different political positions.
Togas died purple marked divine beings and emperors. Different designs often indicate awards or honors. Along with the tunic and toga, there were several important accessories worn by the elite. Cloaks became very popular towards the end of the empire. Originally they were used solely for practical purposes against the cold and rain. Eventually cloaks became a status symbol to further distinguish political positions. Consuls and senators, the most elite citizen among the population, wore wreaths dad of olive leaves. Victorious generals and commanders wore Laurel wreaths during victory parades after battle.
The most influential accessory ever worn was a Grass Crown awarded to Augustus. There are many crowns that have been awarded to soldiers but the Grass Crown is the highest honor a Roman citizen can achieve. It is awarded to a member of the military who saved a legion or an entire army, and only the soldiers can choose the recipient. Augustus was the last soldier to ever receive the crown and by wearing it around Rome the crown helped him win over the people. This constant reminder to the public helped him to get the common people on his side and go on to be the first emperor of the Roman Empire.
Plain the Elder said of the Grass Crown, “Other crowns were awarded by the generals to the soldiers, this alone by the soldiers, and to the general. ” (AY) The grass crown is a constant reminder that Augustus is a hero in the people not only the elite. Not all Roman leaders wear the markings and colors of their togas and accessories to make them selves feel good; many wear them to let others know their accomplishments, sections and wealth, in hope that they can further better their status. At the beginning of the Roman Empire clothing main purpose was entirely functional.
As the empire developed so did people’s obsession over their social status and their power in society. “Dress for a Roman often, if not primarily, signified rank, status, office, or authority…. The hierarchic, symbolic use of dress as a uniform or costume is part of Romeos legacy to Western civilization. ” (AY) Romans began to use their clothing as a constant and daily reminder to others of their wealth and power. Over he duration of the Roman Empire clothing trends and rules changed greatly. As rulers changed, religions morphed and wars were won and lost, Roman dress has transformed.
There are distinct social groups within Roman society that were clearly divided and understood by all. However within each groups it can be difficult to determine where one’s status lies. There were so many different factors needed to determine one’s position. A combination of wealth, nobility, positions held among many other factors, deciphering different statuses within a social group could be impossible. However by studying a man’s appearance and dress we are able to get quick and rough estimate of his value.