Dress, Posture, and Self-Presentation: Men

4 Oratory


The toga was a complicated garment, and often limited the movement of those who wore it. The fact that it had a tendency to fall off with any sort of vigorous activity was a problem in ancient oratory (public speaking), which involved a lot of movement. In the following passage the educator and orator Quintilian advises the budding orator on how to wear it and what faults to avoid:

137 With regard to clothing, there is no special clothing unique to the orator, but people see his clothing more often than that of others. It should, therefore, be distinguished and manly, as, indeed, it ought to be with all men of status. But excessive care about the cut of the toga, the style of shoes, or arrangement of hair, is just as disgraceful as excessive carelessness. There are also details of clothing which are altered to some extent by successive changes in fashion. Our ancestors, for example, wore no folds [in the toga], and their successors wore them very short. 138 Consequently it follows that in view of the fact that their arms were, like those of the Greeks, covered by the garment, they must have employed a different form of gesture in the exordium from that which is now in use.[1] However, I am speaking of our own day. The speaker who does not have the right to wear the purple stripe will wear his belt in such a way that the front edges of the tunic fall a little below his knees, while the edges in rear reach to the middle of his hams. For only women draw them lower and only centurions higher. 139 If we wear the purple stripe, it requires but little care to see that it falls becomingly; negligence in this respect sometimes excites criticism. Among those who wear the purple stripe, it is the fashion to let it hang somewhat lower than in garments that are retained by the belt.

The toga itself should, in my opinion, be round, and cut to fit, otherwise there are a number of ways in which it may be unshapely. Its front edge should by preference reach to the middle of the shin, while the back should be higher in proportion as the belt is higher behind than in front. 140 The fold is most becoming, if it fall to a point a little above the lower edge of the tunic, and should certainly never fall below it. The other fold which passes obliquely like a belt under the right shoulder and over the left, should neither be too tight nor too loose. The portion of the toga which is last to be arranged should fall rather low, since it will sit better thus and be kept in its place. A portion of the tunic also should be drawn back in order that it may not fall over the arm when we are speaking in court, and the fold should be thrown over the shoulder, while it will not be unbecoming if the edge be turned back. 141 On the other hand, 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. 142 The hand should not be overloaded with rings, which should under no circumstances come close to the middle joint of the finger. The most becoming attitude for the hand is produced by raising the thumb and slightly curving the fingers, only it is occupied with holding notes. But we should not go out of our way to carry the latter, for it suggests an acknowledgment that we do not trust our memory, and is a hindrance to a number of gestures. 143 The ancients used to let the toga fall to the heels, as the Greeks are in the habit of doing with the cloak: Plotius and Nigidius both recommend this in the books which they wrote about gesture as practised in their own day. I am consequently all the more surprised at the view expressed by so learned a man as Pliny the Younger, especially since it occurs in a book which carries minute research almost to excess: for he asserts that Cicero was in the habit of wearing his toga in such a fashion to conceal his varicose veins, despite the fact that this fashion is to be seen in the statues of persons who lived after Cicero’s day. 144 And only illness can excuse a short cloak, bandages used to protect the legs, mufflers and coverings for the ears.

Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory 11.137-144


How does Quintilian connect wearing the toga properly to both elite status and Roman conceptions of ‘manliness’. If the toga was so deeply ingrained in Roman identity, how did this mindset actively exclude certain populations from being truly ‘Roman’?

Wearing a toga properly was serious business, as can be seen by this anecdote from the Saturnalia, a 4th-century work by Macrobius. This anecdote is about the first century BCE lawyer Quintus Hortensius, who was both notable both as a consul and an orator. His elegant and graceful oratory earned him the name Dionysia, the name of a famous female dancer, because of his exuberant style of delivery. The story starts with a discussion of how peacocks came to be eaten in Rome:

1 It is said that Quintus Hortensius was the first to have served [peacock] at a feast of the augural college: [2] decent men talked about it as an act of extreme luxury rather than an austere one. A large number of people followed him, and raised the price of peacock eggs so high that they easily sold for five denarii each, and the actual birds for 500. 2 Look: that peacock eggs sold at five denarii each back then and are not cheaper not is not only something that we should avoid admiring and criticize. 3. Hortensius was the same man who watered his plane trees with wine, and he was so enthusiastic about it that he asked Cicero to exchange places with him in a court case they were engaged in,[3]so that he could go earlier to plant trees on his estate in Tusculum and himself take care of irrigating them himself.

4. But perhaps even a Hortensius cannot shame an entire generation, a man so openly soft that he thought all decent appearance was in the arranging of his clothing. He dressed in the latest style, and to make sure he went out well dressed he looked at his appearance in a mirror, where, gazing intently at himself he draped the toga on his body so that a complex knot tied up the folds. He arranged them the folds with effort not by chance, and so that the fold of garment fell down in such a way as to flatter his upper body 5 Once when he had arranged his toga very carefully to look its best, he charged a fellow senator whom he had had to pass in narrow passage and who had destroyed its arrangement as a result, with an offence, as he said he considered it a crime that the folds from his shoulders should be disarranged.

Macrobius, Saturnalia



If we look back to Quintilian, the focus that he has not only on clothing but on how to speak and stand says a lot about how a Roman ‘man’ was meant to act in public.

Just our language must be correct, clear, ornate and appropriate, so should how we deliver that language. It will be correct, that is, free from fault, if our speech is fluent, clear, pleasant and urbane, or in other words, free from all traces of a rural or a foreign accent. 31 For there is good reason for the saying we so often hear, “He must be a barbarian or a Greek”, since we may detect a man’s nationality from the sound of his voice as easily as we test a coin by its ring.[4] If these qualities are there, we shall have those harmonious accents of which Ennius expresses his approval when he describes Cethegus as “sweet voiced,” and avoid the opposite effect, of which Cicero expresses his disapproval by saying, “They bark, not plead.” Delivery may be described as correct if the voice is sound, that is to say, exempt from any of the defects of which I have just spoken, and if it is not dull, coarse, exaggerated, hard, stiff, feeble, soft or effeminate, and if the breath is neither too short nor difficult to sustain or recover.

Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory 11. 30-3

Quintilian continues with his extensive advice on how to stand, move, and hold oneself in general:

Be careful not to puff out the chest or stomach, since such an attitude arches the back, and all bending backwards is unsightly. The sides must follow the gesture, as the motion of the entire body contributes to the impact. Cicero argues that the body is more expressive than even the hands. For in the On the Orator he says, “There must be no quick movements of the fingers, but the orator should control himself by the poise of his whole upper half and by a manly inclination of the side.” 123 Slapping the thigh, which Cleon[5] is said to have been the first to introduce at Athens, is in general use and is becoming as a mark of indignation, while it also stirs up the audience. Cicero regrets its absence in Calidius,[6] “There was no striking of the forehead,” he complains, “nor of the thigh.” With regard to the forehead I must humbly disagree with him: for it is a purely theatrical trick even to clap your hands or to beat your chest. 124 It is only on rare occasions, too, that it is becoming to touch the chest with the finger-tips of the hollowed hand, as when, for example, we address ourselves or speak words of exhortation, reproach or commiseration. But if we ever use this gesture, it is becoming to pull back the toga at the same time. As regards the feet, we need to be careful about our walk and the positions in which we stand. To stand with the right foot advanced or to shove forward the same foot and hand are alike unsightly. 125 At times we may rest our weight on the right foot, but without any corresponding inclination of the chest, while, in any case, the gesture is better suited to the comic actor than to the orator. It is also a mistake when resting on the left foot to lift the right or poise it on tiptoe. To straddle the feet is ugly if we are standing still, and almost indecent if we are actually moving. To go forward may be effective, provided that we move but a short distance and do so rarely and calmly. 126 It will also at times be found convenient to walk backwards and forward because of extravagant pauses caused by the audience’s applause. Cicero, however, says that this should be done only on rare occasions, and that we should not take more than a few steps. On the other hand, to run up and down, which, in the case of Manlius Sura, Domitius Afer called overdoing it, is total stupidity, and a rival professor once snarkily asked Verginius Flavus how many miles he had declaimed.

Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory Book 11.122-126.


Oratory in Rome was very much a male area; elite men trained to be orators their entire lives. In the Late Republic and onwards, oratory was essential to a successful public life. Elite Roman women, however, were not supposed to speak out in public like men, even if they were often well educated. Hortensia, the daughter of Hortensius, was, however, one of the great orators of the Late Republic. The following story is set in 42 BCE, when the Second Triumvirate had imposed a new tax on the 1,400 richest women in Rome to help pay for their costs in the Civil War.

The women resolved to plead with the women of the triumvirs. With the sister of Octavian and the mother of Antony they did not fail, but they were driven from the doors of Fulvia, the wife of Antony, whose rudeness they could barely endure. They then forced their way to the tribunal of the triumvirs in the forum, the people and the guards dividing to let them pass. There, through the mouth of Hortensia, whom they had selected to speak, they spoke as follows: “As is right women of our rank addressing a petition to you, we went to the ladies of your households; but having been treated as did not befit us at the hands of Fulvia, we have been driven by her to the forum. You have already deprived us of our fathers, our sons, our husbands, and our brothers, whom you accused of having wronged you; if you take away our property also, you reduce us to a condition unbecoming our birth, our manners, our gender. If we have done you wrong, as you say our husbands have, proscribe us as you do them. But if we women have not voted any of you public enemies, have not torn down your houses, destroyed your army, or led another one against you; if we have not hindered you in obtaining offices and honours, — why do we share the penalty when we did not share the guilt?

…34 1 While Hortensia spoke like this the triumvirs were angry that women should dare to hold a public meeting when the men were silent; that they should demand from magistrates the reasons for their acts, and themselves not so much as furnish money while the men were serving in the army. They ordered the lictors to drive them away from the tribunal, which they proceeded to do until cries were raised by the multitude outside, when the lictors desisted and the triumvirs said they would postpone till the next day the consideration of the matter. On the following day they reduced the number of the women, who were to present a valuation of their property, from 1400 to 400.

Appian, The Civil War 4.32 & 34


Altogether, there were many social, legal, and cultural restrictions to which Roman men had to conform. From their dress and posture to their emotions and speaking skills, the difficulty and nuance of conforming to the ideal Roman man left many to the wayside. The above passage, however, gives a glimpse of the social lives of women, which we will explore in the following section.

  1. Gesture was an important part of ancient oratory. The toga restricted the use of one arm, meaning that Romans used only one arm to gesture with. The Greeks, wearing a different garment, could use both.
  2. These were an elected group who served as augurs and provided advice to the Roman state on certain bird signs. Lest you think this was silly stuff: the Romans really, really were committed to this type of telling the future and looking to see if actions were approved by the gods. Getting elected to the college of augurs was a big deal, too.
  3. Roman trials often had a number of people speak for the defendant and the prosecution. In this case, Cicero and Hortensius were on the same team, but Cicero was slated to go earlier and Hortensius wanted to take his place so he could skip out of court early.
  4. This refers to the practice of testing whether coins were fake or not by checking to see if they rang true as they should.
  5. An Athenian orator and general, he died in 422 BCE.
  6. A Roman orator of the 1st century BCE


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