Dress, Posture, and Self-Presentation: Men

2 Criticizing the Toga and Roman Masculinity

Learning Objectives

This chapter asks you to think about:

  • How important it was to conform to certain standards of dress as a Roman male
  • What criticism of dress and the prejudices about appearance reveals about Roman elite society



Roman men were not supposed to wear makeup or dye their hair, but many did. The Romans valued youth and vigour and expected their politicians, who were often also their generals, to reflect that. The following excerpt from Plutarch records how the rumour that the consul Marius had not received his scars in battle was used as propaganda against him:

Marius was elected triumphantly, and at once proceeded to gather soldiers contrary to law and custom, enlisting slaves and poor people. Former commanders never accepted such people, but bestowed arms, like other favours, as a matter of distinction on persons who had the proper qualification: a man’s property being thus a sort of security for his good behaviour. These were not the only occasions of ill-will against Marius; some haughty speeches, spoken with great arrogance and contempt, gave great offence to the nobles[1]; as, for example, his saying that he had carried off the consulship as a spoil from the effeminacy of the wealthy and high-born citizens, and telling the people that he gloried in wounds he had himself received for them, as much as others did in the monuments of dead men, and the imagines of their ancestors.

Plutarch,  Life of Marius

While the toga was a powerful social symbol in ancient Rome, how one wore (or refused to wear) the toga left men vulnerable to criticism. If how a person wore the toga was intrinsically linked to Roman conceptions of masculinity, then to attack what someone was wearing was to attack their virtus ‘manliness’. Cicero emasculated those who supported his political competitor Catiline by portraying them as people who had transgressed all sorts of Roman norms. Notice how Cicero escalates from using clothing and self-grooming as a basis of attack to stating that they are degrading the Roman Republic itself:

21 There is a last class, last not only in number but in the sort of men and in their way of life: Catiline’s private bodyguard, personally selected; the friends of his embraces and of his heart, whom you see with carefully combed hair, glossy, beardless, or with well-trimmed beards, with tunics with sleeves or reaching to the ankles, and draped in veils, not with togas. All the effort of their lives, all the work of their sleepless nights is spent in suppers that last until dawn. 22 In these bands are all the gamblers, all the adulterers, all the unclean and shameless citizens. These boys, so witty and delicate, have learned not only to love and be loved, not only to sing and to dance, but also to brandish daggers and to administer poisons. Unless they are driven out, unless they die, even should Catiline die, I warn you that the school of Catiline would exist in the republic. But what do those wretches want? Are they going to take their wives with them to the camp? How can they do without them, especially in these nights? And how will they endure the Apennines, and these frosts, and this snow? Maybe they think that they will endure winter more easily because they have been in the habit of dancing naked at their feasts. Yes – we should really dread a war when Catiline is going to have a bodyguard of whores!

Cicero, Second Speech Against Catiline 21-22

In the following, the poet Juvenal attacks men who wear makeup and take care of their appearance in what he sees as feminine ways:

One draws out his eyebrows with some damp soot on the edge of a needle and lifts up his blinking eyes to be painted, another drinks out of an obscenely-shaped glass, and ties up his long locks in a gilded net; he is clothed in blue checks, or smooth-faced green; the attendant swears by Juno like his master. Another holds in his hand a mirror like that carried by the effeminate Otho

…It was an even greater monstrous event when Gracchus,[2] dressed in a tunic, fought as a gladiator, and fled, trident in hand,[3] across the arena — Gracchus, a man of nobler birth than the Capitolini, or the Marcelli, or the descendants of Catulus or Paulus, or the Fabii: nobler than all the spectators in the podium; not excluding him who gave the show[4] at which that net was flung.

Juvenal, Satire 2


Though the toga was a signifier of Roman class and masculinity, Christian moralists undermined this by approaching the topic of dress and self-grooming to attack Roman pagans as corrupt and unmanly. For example, the Christian bishop, and later saint, Tertullian, attacked Roman men for spending too much time on their appearance:

I, a man and envious of women, am banishing them from their own domains. Are there, in our case too, some things which we should not do because of the sobriety we are to maintain on account of the fear we owe God? If it is true, (as it is) that a defect of nature has implanted the will to please in men for the sake of women, just as in women for the sake of men, and if our gender acknowledges that it uses deceptive trickeries of form peculiarly its own, such as cutting the beard too sharply or plucking it out here and there; shaving round about the mouth; arranging hair and disguising its greyness by dyes; removing all the hair on the body as it appears; fixing each hair in its place with some womanly pigment; smoothing all the rest of the body by the aid of some rough powder or other: then, also, taking every opportunity for consulting the mirror and gazing anxiously into it. While, when once the knowledge of God has put an end to all wish to please by means of sexual attraction, all these things are rejected as frivolous and hostile to modesty. For where God is, there modesty is, and there is sobriety as her assistant and ally.  How, then, shall we practise modesty without her instrumental mean, that is, without sobriety? How, moreover, shall we bring sobriety to bear on the discharge of the functions of modesty, unless seriousness in appearance and in countenance, and in the general aspect of the entire man, mark our carriage?

Tertullian, On the Dress of Women 2.8.2



Do you find it significant that this passage on the dress of men is from Tertullian’s On the Dress of Women?


The following passage is quite vitriolic. It concern’s Tertullian speaking about men dressing as women and the Greek Hero Achilles. Areas of Transphobia are very palpable here.


As wearing the toga was a way for men to show their Romanness, it proved appealing wear for anyone who wanted to perform Romanness. Tertullian, true to his hateful self, also wrote an entire speech praising Greek pallium, a cloak-like garment, that attacked the wearing of the toga by the men of Carthage. In the process he also has a lot to say about how men and women should dress:

4.2 A change of clothing only starts to be a fault if it is not custom that is changed, but nature. There is an important difference between the honour we owe to the past and to religion. Let custom faithfully follow the age, and nature God. 3 So Achilles[5] caused a breach of nature by changing into a girl, he, the man who had been reared on the marrow of wild beasts (this, then, is how he got his name, since his lips had not tasted breast milk), a hero who was taught by a coarse, wood-dwelling, monstrous teacher in a stony school! One may willingly tolerate in the case of a little boy a mother’s concern. But no doubt he was already covered with hair, no doubt he had already secretly proved himself a man to somebody when he still put up with a woman’s flowing robe, doing his hair, applying make-up, consulting the mirror, caressing his neck, his ears made effeminate by piercing, as may still be seen in his bust at Sigeum.[6] 4 Certainly, later he is a warrior, for necessity restored his gender! There had been sounds from the battlefield, and weapons were close by. ‘Iron itself,’ so it is said, ‘attracts a man.’ Anyway, if he had persisted in being a girl even after this incentive, he might as well have got married – how about that for a change?! 5 A monstrosity, then, he is, a double one: from a man he became a woman, and then from a woman a man, although neither the truth should have been denied, nor the lie confessed. Either form of change was bad: the former ran counter to nature, the latter was against his safety.



Reflect on how Tertullian links a person’s gender with the clothing that they are wearing. What do his ideas on the connection between clothing and gender say about how vital clothing was to social assimilation in ancient Rome? How have things changed or stayed the same in the last 2000 years?


Tertullian continues…

3 More degrading still were complete changes in a man’s dress because of lust rather than some maternal fear. Nonetheless you adore that man who ought to make you feel ashamed, this ‘club-arrow-hide-bearer’,[7] who exchanged the outfit mentioned in his name for a woman’s attire. So much then was granted to the Lydian secret mistress, that Hercules prostituted himself in Omphale, and Omphale in Hercules… 4 But there is something too about the man who earlier had come close to Hercules, Cleomachus the boxer.[8] At Olympia he underwent an unbelievable change from his male condition by being cut inside and outside his skin. Well, he earns a crown amidst the Fullers of Novius (Roman dramatist) and he has rightly been mentioned by the mime-writer Lentulus in his Catinenses![9] Surely, just as he covered the traces of boxing-gloves with bracelets, so he replaced the coarse sportsman’s wrap with some thin, loose-fitting garment. 5 About Physco or Sardanapallus we must keep silent: if they were not remarkable for their lusts, no-one would know them as kings.[10]

8 Such clothing, therefore, that is not in agreement with nature and modesty deserves sharply fixed stares, pointing fingers, and critical nods. Really, if with Menandrean luxury a man can be trailing a refined dress behind him may he hear close by the words the comic author heard: ‘What is this madman spoiling a splendid cloak?’ But now that the eyebrow of censorial watchfulness has disappeared, how much ground for criticism does the lack of distinction provide? 4 [You can see] freedmen dressed liked equestrians, slaves scarred with floggings in the dress of the nobility, captives dressed as freeborn, and country folk as city dwellers, idiots as men of the forum, citizens as soldiers. The corpse-bearer, the pimp, and the trainer of gladiators: they dress like you. 9 Look at women too. There you may see what Severus Caecina[11] stressed before the Senate: matrons appearing in public without stolas. 2 Under the decrees of the augur Lentulus, those who had disgraced themselves this way were punished as if for sexual misbehaviour, since the garment that was the witness and guard of dignity had been felt to be an impediment to practice fornication and so had sedulously been dropped by some women. 3 But now, committing lechery against themselves and making themselves more easily accessible, they have renounced the stola, the linen attire, the rustling bonnet, the hairy head-dress, yes, even the litters and portable chairs, in which they had been kept private and apart even in public. 4 But some put out their own lights, while others kindle lights that are not theirs…4.10 And when the manager of the public toilets fans her silken gown, and comforts with necklaces a neck that is less pure than the toilets, and uses bracelets — which, as parts of what was given to brave men, even matrons would indiscreetly have owned – to insert her hands that are guilty of every shameful deed, and fits on her maculate leg a white or reddish shoe, then why do you not look at these garments?

… 5.2 Now I will interrogate your conscience: how do you feel in a toga: dressed or oppressed? Is it like wearing clothes or enduring them? 2 If you deny this, I will follow you home, and I will see what you rush to do right after you get in the door. No other garment is taken off with such relief as the toga! 3 We say nothing about the shoes, that special torture of the toga, that most impure covering of the feet, and a false one too. For who would not be better off stiffening barefoot in heat or cold, than fettered in shoes? 4 Sure, a great support for walking has been taken care of by Venetian shoemaker-workshops in the form of effeminate boots! (5.3) 1 But there is nothing so convenient as the pallium, even if it is double, as that of Crates. On no occasion there is a waste of time in dressing, for all the effort it takes consists in loosely covering oneself.

Tertullian, On the Pallium


Fashion could also be used to attack Rome from within the nation itself. The poet Martial, in the late first century CE, attacked current standards of male beauty none of which he agreed with and none of which were “traditional”. Martial appeared to be quite critical of the measures Romen men were taking to be good looking, and ends up being quite mean about it in the following poem:

Cotilius, you’re a good looking guy; Cotilius, many people say this.

I hear it: but tell me — what is a good looking guy?

A good looking guy is: one who arranges his curls in order

Who always smells of balsam and cinnamon

Who sings Egyptian songs, who hums Spanish ones

Who moves his hairless arms to different beats

Who wastes his entire day alongside women’s chairs

And who always is whispering something in someone’s ear

Who reads and writes notes here there and everywhere

Who shields his pallium from neighbouring arms

Who knows who loves whom, who is going to parties,

Who knows in and out the ancient heritage of Hirpinus.

What are you saying! Is this this, this, really a guy?

Then, Cotilius, your guy is something deeply troubling.

Martial Epigrams 3.63




This following section includes a harsh condemnation of what could be precieved now as people having a gender expression that differs from “the norm”. In this section, the author Juvenal lashes out at men who did not conform to the idealized Roman man and Seneca The Younger tries to enforce a regidity between who gets to be masculine and who gets to be feminine.


The satire author Juvenal, though being a great source for the ancient Roman world, does not make for an easy read. Here in Satire 2, he is writing on the topic of hypocrites: people who are moralists in public, but privately engage in immoral behaviour. In this rather nasty poem, however, we can see how tightly connected criticism of dress was connected with attacks on behaviour. 

What will not other men do when you, Creticus,[12] dress yourself in garments of gauze, and while the people are marvelling at your outfit, attack the Proculae and the Pollittae?[13] Fabulla is an adulteress; condemn Carfinia of the same crime if you please; but even if found guilty, they would never wear such a toga as yours.[14] “O but,” you say, “these July days are so hot and humid!” Then why not speak [in court] without clothes? Such madness would be less disgraceful. Yours is a nice outfit in which to propose or expound laws to our countrymen flushed with victory and with their wounds yet unhealed, and to those mountain peasant who had laid down their ploughs to listen to you![15] What would you not say if you saw a judge dressed like that![16]Would a toga of gauze be appropriate to a witness? That you, Creticus, you, the keen, unbending champion of human liberty, are clothed in a see-through outfit! This plague has come upon us by infection and it will spread further, just as in the fields the scab of one sheep, or the mange of one pig, destroys an entire herd, and just as one bunch of grapes takes on a sickly colour from the appearance of its neighbour.

Question Box:

Female prostitutes and adulterers were forced to wear the toga, a male garment, in public. If the toga represented morality and the elite among Roman men, why did it represent social shame when worn by women? May this have something to do with the maintenance of gender roles in ancient Roman society?


Juvenal continues…

Someday you will try something more shameful than this dress; no one reaches the depths of turpitude all at once. In due time you will be welcomed by those who in their homes put headbands on,[17] drape themselves with necklaces, and propitiate the Bona Dea with the stomach of a pig and a huge bowl of wine, though by an evil usage the goddess warns off all women from the door; none but males may approach her altar.[18] “Away with you! profane women” is the cry; “no booming horn, no she-minstrels here!”… One draws out his eyebrows with some damp soot on the edge of a needle and lifts up his blinking eyes to be painted, another drinks out of an obscenely-shaped glass, and ties up his long locks in a gilded net; he is clothed in blue checks, or smooth-faced green; the attendant swears by Juno like his master. Another holds in his hand a mirror like that carried by the effeminate Otho, a trophy of the Auruncan Actor, in which he gazed at his own image in full armour when he was just ready to give the order to advance — a thing notable and novel in the annals of our time, a mirror among the weapons of Civil War! It needed, in truth, a mighty general to kill Galba, and keep his own skin shaved; it needed a citizen of highest courage to copy the splendours of the royal palace on the field of Bebriacum, and plaster his face with dough! Never did the quiver-carrying Semiramis have something like this in her Assyrian realm nor the despairing Cleopatra on board her ship at Actium. There is no decency of language here, no regard for table manners. You will hear all the foul talk and squeaking tones of Cybele; a grey-haired frenzied old man presides over the rites; he is a rare and notable master of the art of gluttony and should be hired to teach it. But why wait any longer when it is now time to lop off the extra flesh in Phrygian fashion?[19]

Gracchus [20] has presented to a cornet player — or perhaps it was a player on the straight horn — a dowry of four hundred thousand sesterces. The contract has been signed; the prayers have been pronounced; the banqueters are seated, the new made bride is reclining on the bosom of her husband. You elites of Rome! Is it a soothsayer that we need, or a censor? Would you be more aghast, would you deem it a greater omen, if a woman gave birth to a calf, or an ox to a lamb?[21] The man who is now arraying himself in the flounces and train and veil of a bride once carried the quivering shields of Mars by the sacred thongs and sweated under the sacred burden![22]

Father of our city, where did such wickedness among your Latin shepherds come from? How did such a lust possess your grandchildren, Gradivus?[23] Behold! Here you have a man of high birth and wealth being handed over in marriage to a man, and yet neither shakes your helmet, nor strike the earth with your spear, nor yet protests to your Father? Away with you then; begone from that broad Campus Martius which you have forgotten! One says, “I have a ceremony to attend at dawn to-morrow, in the Quirinal valley.” “What is the occasion?” “No need to ask: a friend is taking a husband; quite a small affair.” Yes, and if we only live long enough, we shall see these things done openly: people will wish to see them reported among the news of the day.[24] Meanwhile these want-to-be brides have one great trouble: they can bear no children with which to keep the affection of their husbands; has nature done well in granting to their desires no power over their bodies. They die infertile; the medicine-chest of the bloated Lyde is no help, neither is holding ut their hands to the blows of the swift-footed Luperci![25]

It was an even greater monstrous event when Gracchus, dressed in a tunic, fought as a gladiator, and fled, trident in hand, across the arena — Gracchus, a man of nobler birth than the Capitolini, or the Marcelli, or the descendants of Catulus or Paulus, or the Fabii: nobler than all the spectators in the podium; not excepting him who gave the show at which that net was flung. That there are such things as Manes, and the realms below the earth, and punt-poles, and Stygian pools black with frogs, and all those thousands crossing over in a single boat-these things not even boys believe, except such as have not yet had their penny bath. But just imagine them to be true-what would Curius[26] and the two Scipios think? Or Fabricius and the spirit of Camillus? What would the legion that fought at the Cremera think, or the young manhood that fell at Cannae; what would all those gallant hearts feel when a shade of this sort came down to them from here? They would wish to be purified; if only sulphur and torches and damp laurel-branches were to be had. Such is the degradation to which we have come! Our arms indeed we have pushed beyond Juverna’s shores, to the new-conquered Orcades and the short-nighted Britons; but the things which we do in our victorious city will never be done by the men whom we have conquered. And yet they say that one Zalaces, an Armenian more effeminate than any of our youth, has yielded to the ardour of a Tribune! Just see what evil communications do! He came as a hostage: but here boys are turned into men. Give them a long stay in our city, and lovers will never fail them. They will throw away their trousers and their knives, their bridles and their whips, and carry back to Artaxata the manners of our Roman youth.

Juvenal, Satire 2


Take a few moments to consider Juvenal’s quote that “someday [Creticus] will try something more shameful than this dress; no one reaches the depths of turpitude all at once.” How does Juvenal’s escalation from dressing in gauze into complete moral upheaval reflect possible fears about the stability (or lack thereof) of Roman societal standards?


Many of the details of this story were invented and exaggerated for various reasons; still, some men in reality clearly resisted clothing norms. For example, in a discussion of inheritance law, the Digest mentions in passing a senator who clearly liked to dress in women’s evening wear:

There is no difference between the expressions ‘garments for men’, and ‘clothing for men’, but the intention of the testator sometimes creates difficulty, if he himself was accustomed to make use of some garment which was also suitable for women. Therefore it should, by all means, be ascertained whether the garment bequeathed was the one which the testator had in his mind, and not that which was actually destined for the use of women or for men.

For Quintus Mucius says that he knew a certain Senator who was in the habit of wearing women’s clothing at the table and who, if he should bequeath a garment used by women, would not be considered to have had in his mind one which he himself was accustomed to make use of, as if it was one suitable for his sex.

Pomponius, On Quintus Mucius, Book IV. Digest 34.2.33

Romans moralists (of which there were quite a number) were particularly horrified at deviations from what they felt was the proper manly attire of a Roman male. Seneca the Younger attacked those who wore women’s dress, as well as tried to look younger than their ages, either to preserve their sexual appeal for others or so they could take up sexual roles that the Romans only thought suitable for younger men and teenagers. It is relevant to note that Seneca the Younger’s opinions are rightfully antiquated.

7 Surely you believe that men who put on women’s clothing live contrary to nature? Do not men live contrary to nature who try to look fresh and boyish at an age unsuitable for such an attempt? What could be more cruel or more wretched? Cannot time and manhood ever carry such a person beyond an artificial boyhood?

Seneca the Younger, Letters 122.7


Looking like a Roman man — performing like one — in antiquity no doubt too time and energy, particularly for the upper class. However, even among the deepest critics of unmanly Romans, such as Cicero, it was dificult to maintain this strict form of masculinity.


Bibliography and Further Reading:

OLSON, KELLY. “Masculinity, Appearance, and Sexuality: Dandies in Roman Antiquity.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 23, no. 2 (2014): 182-205.

  1. Ie people whose families had already held the consulship and were old Roman families, compared to Marius who was none of these things.
  2. Although the Gracchi were a very ancient Roman family, the name is used here to note any elite Roman claiming illustrious ancestry, rather than any specific person.
  3. He fought as a retiarius, a type of gladiator who wore very little clothing and fought with a net and trident.
  4. The emperor.
  5. Achilles, one of the greatest Greek heroes, was predicted to have a short life if he took up a life of warfare. So his mother hid him away and had him reared by the centaur Chiron, who is the monstrous teacher referred to above; later she dressed him in a dress and hid him with a princess and her court. He could only lured out when Odysseus turned up with weapons which he enthusiastically grabbed at.
  6. A location in Ancient Greece
  7. The hero Hercules who wore as his distinctive dress a lion skin, and carried a club. He spent a year serving the Eastern queen Omphale, who liked to make him wear her clothes while she dressed up in his. According to most versions of the story, Hercules does not seem to have minded this arrangement.
  8. Cleomachus was infamous in antiquity. According to Strabo (14.1.41), he fell in love with a [pb_glossary id="630"]cinaedus[/pb_glossary] and then with a girl that had been raised for the sex trade; as a result, again according to [pb_glossary id="476"]Strabo[/pb_glossary], he started copying the mannerisms and clothing of a cinaedus. To fully realize the impact of this you have to understand that ancient boxing was brutal: there were no rounds and no weight classes and people basically just pounded each other anywhere (often with lead in wraps around their hands) until one keeled over. (Deaths occurred.) These were the manliest of manly men.
  9. Both of these were Roman playwrights who had written comedies featuring him as a character (the comedies do not survive).
  10. In the short missing section Tertullian rants on about philosophers wearing expensive, purple garments.
  11. Aulus Caecina Severus, a Roman consul in 57 BC.
  12. Most likely an invented name, meant to evoke a highy aristocratic family
  13. Seemingly these were names that once cited brought female adultery to the Roman mind; they may also be the names of some actual women, who had presumably been involved in some infamous adultery cases.
  14. Women convicted of adultery were not allowed to wear the stola, the garment of respectable women, but had to wear the toga, like prostitutes.
  15. Juvenal is going back to some old standards here: hard peasant soldiers and farmers coming to the city after a long day at the farm had not been a thing in Rome for a long, long time before this was written – if they ever had been in the way that later Romans imagined.
  16. Juvenal is going back to some old standards here: hard peasant soldiers and farmers coming to the city after a long day at the farm had not been a thing in Rome for a long, long time before this was written – if they ever had been in the way that later Romans imagined.
  17. Headbands were apparently one mark of a respectable matron, though we can’t be sure of how often they were worn in reality.
  18. [6] Bona Dea was a goddess worshipped by women in all female gatherings and she was considered an important goddess for the well being of Rome
  19. Here he refers to the custom of the Galli, the priests of Cybele, of self-castration.
  20. Like Creticus, this is likely an invented name
  21. The Romans had great faith in omens sent by the gods, and Juvenal lists some 'historical' examples of omens the Romans had seen over the years.
  22. This is a reference to the dancing priests of Mars, the Salian Priesthood. It was a highly aristocratic and exclusive priesthood and its priests did the dance of Mars for the good of Rome in full armour through the streets the Rome.
  23. Another name for the god Mars
  24. This refers to daily report of significant public business and news in the city of Rome, posted publicly for all to read.
  25. This was another aristocratic priesthood. These ran nearly naked through the streets of Rome once a year whipping women as they ran past with leather whips. This was believed to bring fertility.
  26. Although the name of Gracchus above is made up, these are the names of historical great Roman heroes.


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