Dress, Posture, and Self-Presentation: Men

1 The Toga and Roman Masculinity

Siobhán McElduff and Grace Guy

Learning Objectives

By learning about how male Romans were supposed to dress you will understand:

  • How the toga, an uncomfortable and hot garment made out of pure wool, came to symbolize Roman power and ‘Romanness’ among men;
  • How Romans of various social levels, but especially the elite, were supposed to dress;
  • How many Romans, including elites such as Julius Caesar, undercut the rules;
  • What it meant when a Roman woman wore a toga.
File:Augusto di via labicana 01.JPG
The Emperor Augustus as the Pontifex Maximus (Chief Priest) of Rome. His toga is draped over his head for ritual reasons. This statue is commonly referred to as the Via Labicana Augustus, to distinguish it from all the other Augustus statues out there.

The toga was very much the defining Roman garment – in fact, non-citizens and many exiles were not allowed to wear it. The poet Virgil called the Romans ‘the togaed race/gens togata’ (Aeneid 1.282), but despite that it was originally worn by both the Romans and the Etruscans.[1] In the early days of Rome, both men and women wore the toga, men wearing it without anything underneath except a loincloth; even later when it was worn nearly exclusively by men it continued to be worn by girls until they were 12. In its original form, it was a very handy and useful garment, which could even be worn into battle if you tied it up. Later, as it started to use more cloth, the toga grew unwieldy and expensive, gradually declining in popularity. By the time of the Emperor Augustus’ reign, it was largely something reserved for formal occasions – a bit like black tie and formal gowns. In fact, Augustus had to enforce the wearing of the toga in reaction to this decline:

Augustus wanted also to revive the old style of dress, and once when he saw a crowd of men in dark cloaks in assembly, he cried out indignantly, “Look at them — ‘Romans, masters of the world and the togaed race’[2], and he ordered the aediles never again to allow anyone to appear in the Forum[3] or its neighbourhood except in the toga and without a cloak.

Suetonius, Augustus 40.5

As part of his public image as a ruler who would revitalize good old-fashioned Roman values, Augustus was very careful about his public appearance and the image of old time simplicity he presented to the world:

The simplicity of Augustus’ furniture and household goods may be seen from couches and tables still in existence, many of which are scarcely fine enough for a private citizen. They say that he always slept on a low and simply furnished bed. He wore common clothes for the house, made by his sister, wife, daughter or granddaughters,[4] except on special occasions; his togas were neither close nor full, his purple stripe[5] neither narrow nor broad, and his shoes somewhat high-soled, to make him look taller than he really was. But he always kept shoes and clothing to wear in public ready in his room for sudden and unexpected occasions.

Suetonius, Augustus 73.1


As the above video, featuring Dr. Mary Harlow from the University of Leicester, shows, the toga was not an easy garment to wear.


In the Late Republic some Romans began to experiment with new materials, and, as older forms of social control lost their power, felt able to abandon the traditional all wool toga. Others, like Cicero, used this as a way to attack their enemies, as in the following speech from 63 BCE. Cicero was in the middle of dealing with a potential revolution by an aristocrat named Cataline and had managed to get him to leave the city; Cicero was now trying to get people to turn on Cataline’s supporters. One avenue of attack was to make them seem unRoman by attacking how they looked and the clothing they wore:

5 I wish he [Catiline] had taken with him those soldiers of his, whom I see hovering about the forum, standing about the senate-house, even coming into the senate, all oiled up, glittering in purple. If they remain here, remember that we should not so much fear the army out there as as these men who have deserted the army.

Cicero, Second Speech Against Catiline 5

Seneca the Younger complained about the custom of taking off the toga on the Saturnalia, a December holiday where gifts were given and the slave-master paradigm was traditionally flipped, letting slaves be served by their masters.

1 It is the month of December, and yet right now the city is in a fever. General merrymaking is permitted. Everything resounds with mighty preparations — as if the Saturnalia differed at all from the usual business day! Because this day is no different, I regard as correct the remark of the man who said: “Once December was a month; now it is a year.” 2 If I had you [6] with me, I should be glad to consult you and find out what you think should be done — whether we ought to make no change in our daily routine or whether, in order not to be out of sympathy with the ways of the public, we should dine in a more fun way and take off the toga. As it is now, we Romans have changed our dress for the sake of pleasure and holiday making, though in former times that was only customary when the state was disturbed and had fallen on evil days.

Seneca the Younger, Letters 18.1-2


There was no special attire for slaves. As they were thought to represent their masters they might be very finely dressed — better than most free Romans. But whatever happened they did not normally get to choose their own dress. Here is Cato the Elder on what slaves on a farm should wear:

Clothing allowance for laborers: A tunic 3½ feet long and a blanket every other year. When you give out the tunic or the blanket, first take back the old one and have patchwork made of it. A sturdy pair of wooden shoes should be issued every other year.

Cato the Elder, On Agriculture 59.1



What you wore, how you walked, talked, and groomed yourself was important was of vital to fitting into ancient Roman society. Another dimension of this was how physically attractive you were. The Romans judged each other on the basis of appearance and not inner qualities: your physical appearance was thought of as a reflection of your inner person. If you were going to attack someone’s character, you went after their appearance — if you could show that they were physically ugly, people would more easily believe they also had an ugly character. In the following, Cicero attacks the looks (and pretty much everything else) of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Piso:

Do you not see now, do you not feel, you beast, what complaints men make of your audacity? No one complains that a Syrian, that a man whom nobody knows, or some freely freed slave, was elected consul. For that complexion, like that of slaves, and those hairy cheeks and discoloured teeth, did not deceive us: your eyes, your eyebrows, your brow, in short your whole appearance which is, as it were, a sort of silent language of the mind, led men into error, this it was which led those to whom this man was unknown into mistake and error, and blunders. There were only a handful of us who were knew your foul vices; few of us who knew the deficiency of your abilities, your stolid manner, and your embarrassed way of speaking. Your voice had never been heard in the Forum; no one had had any experience of your wisdom in counsel: you had not only never performed any, I will not say illustrious exploit, but any action at all that was known of either in war or at home. You crept into honours through men’s blunders, by the recommendation of some old smoke-dried images, though there is nothing in you at all that resembles them — except your colour.

Cicero, Against Piso 1



The toga was considered a uniquely Roman garment. Because of this, those who did not have Roman citizenship were not allowed to wear the toga — this included those who were exiled from Rome and had lost their Roman citizenship, as you can see from the story below from the 1st century CE:

Have you heard that Valerius Licinianus is teaching rhetoric in Sicily? I do not think you can have done, for the news is very recent. He is of praetorian rank, and he used at one time to be considered one of our most eloquent orators in court, but now he has fallen so low that he is an exile instead of being a senator, and a mere teacher of rhetoric instead of being a prominent lawyer. Consequently in his opening remarks he exclaimed, sorrowfully and solemnly: “O Fortune, what jokes you make to amuse yourself! For you turn senators into professors, and professors into senators.” There is so much gall and bitterness in that expression that it seems to me that he became a professor merely to have the opportunity of uttering it. Again, when he entered the hall wearing a Greek pallium – for those who have been banished with the fire-and-water formula are not allowed to wear the toga – he first pulled himself together and then, glancing at his dress, he said, “I shall speak my declamations in Latin.”

Pliny the Younger, Letters 4.11.3

The orator Cicero often attacked his enemies on the basis of their unRoman dress. He was also, however, capable of defending it. The following comes from a defence speech he made on behalf of Rabirius Postumus, who was on trial in 54 BCE for extortion and other offences. Rabirius had lent a great deal of money to the ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy Auletes; when he went to Egypt, though, he got thrown in jail. Though he managed to escape and return to Rome, he was then charged for his actions in Egypt. Because Roman courts did not prevent people from bringing up what we would consider unnecessary information, the prosecution brought up the fact that, as part of his attempts to get his money back (before the being thrown in prison part of the experience, naturally), Rabirius had dressed up in Egyptian clothing instead of the toga. Cicero, in his defence of Rabirius, said:

You may attack [Rabirius] as often as you want with wearing an Egyptian robe, and with having on him other ornaments which Roman citizens do not wear. For every time that you mention any one of these details, you are only repeating that same thing: that he lent money rashly to the king,[7] and that he trusted his fortunes and his character to royal whims. 26 I admit that was foolish of him, but as things were as they were, either he had put on an Egyptian cloak at Alexandria, in order afterwards to be able to wear a toga at Rome; or, if he wore his toga in Egypt he must have discarded all hope of recovering his fortunes.[8] We have often seen Roman citizens, youths of high birth, and even some senators — men born in the highest rank — wearing little caps for the sake of luxury and pleasure, not in their country residences or their suburban villas, but at Naples, a town everyone visits. 27 We have even seen the great commander Lucius Sulla in a pallium. And you can now see the statue of Lucius Scipio, who conducted the war in Asia and defeated Antiochus, standing in the Capitol, not only with a pallium, but also with Greek slippers. And yet these men not only were not liable to be tried for wearing them, but they were not even talked about; and, at all events, the excuse of necessity will be a more valid defence for Publius Rutilius Rufus; for when he had been caught at Mitylene by Mithridates, he avoided the cruelty with which the king treated all who wore the toga by changing his dress.[9] Therefore, that Rutilius, who was a pattern to our citizens of courage, ancient dignity, and prudence, and a man of consular rank, put on slippers and a pallium. Nor did any one think of reproaching the man with having done so, but all attributed it to the needs of the time. And shall that garment bring an accusation upon Postumus, which afforded him a hope that he might at some time or other recover his fortune?

28 For when he came to Alexandria to Auletes, jurors, this one means of saving his money was proposed to Postumus by the king — namely, that he should undertake the management, and, as it were, the stewardship of the royal revenues. And he could not do that unless he became the steward. For he uses that title which had been given to the office by the king. The business seemed an odious one to Postumus, but he had actually no power of declining it. The name itself, too, annoying; but the business had that name or old among those people, it was not now newly imposed by the king. He detested also that dress, but without it he could neither have the title nor fill his office.

Cicero, In Defence of C. Rabirius Postumus 25-27.

Just in case you thought Cicero might have gone soft on clothing norms at some point, in the following, he attacks someone for wearing a black (mourning) toga to a funeral feast. Romans wore a dark toga, the toga pulla, to funerals, but not to the feast held after. In 59 BCE, however, Publius Vatinius attended the funeral feast of the father of Quitnus Arrius in this toga to show his opposition to Arrius. Cicero, who hated him for many reasons too numerous to list, attacked him publicly for this:

[30] I want to know with what plot or plan you went in a black toga to the banquet given by Quintus Arrius, my very close friend? Who had you ever seen do such a thing before! Who had you ever heard of having done such a thing?! What precedent had you for such behaviour, or what custom can you use to defend it? You will say that you did not approve of those rites. Very well. Suppose that those rites were inexcusable. Do you not see that I am not questioning you at all with respect to the events of that year, nor of the circumstances in which you may appear to be concerned in common with any eminent men, but only about your own particular acts of wickedness? I admit that the rite was informal. Still, tell me, who ever went to a banquet in a mourning garment? For by such conduct the banquet itself is turned into a funeral feast, though the true intention of a banquet is to be a scene of enjoyment and praise.

Cicero, Against Vatinius 12.13

Cicero was writing in the Late Republic, but the continued rise in wealth in Rome and the expansion of the Roman Empire meant that more and more luxury materials were available to an elite that was growing richer and richer. The Emperor Tiberius legislated against the mixing of silk with wool in an attempt to keep men dressed traditionally and blamed all of this excess on the East.

On the next day of the Senate’s meeting Quintus Haterius, an ex-consul, and Octavius Fronto, an ex-praetor, spoke against the luxury in the country. It was decided that vessels of solid gold should not be made for the serving of food, and that men should not disgrace themselves in silken clothing from the East.

Tacitus, Annals 2.33

While the standard of Roman fashion was clearly changing for men, by the Late Republic, that did not mean that attacking what a man wore stopped being valid in the eyes of the Romans. In the following chapter, we will explore those who attacked the ‘manliness’ of Roman men based on what they wore as well as those who were critical of the toga altogether.


Biography and Further Reading:




WHAT TO INCLUDE: A short list of the topics approached in the following section (eg. sexual assault, graphic violence, etc.), and a bit of a debrief that puts them in-context and acknowledges that we’re approaching them from a contemporary standpoint.

EXAMPLE: (From James’ section on Love and Affection) The topic of rape is brought up in the following discussion. Sadly, some formative Roman legends include acts of rape. It’s hard to talk about their idea of love without including their perception of sexuality, and sadly their example of the ideal woman in regard to sexuality was a victim of rape.


  1. ([pb_glossary id="173"]Dionysius of Halicarnassus[/pb_glossary], Roman Antiquities 3.61).
  2. This is the quotation from the Aeneid mentioned above.
  3. The Forum was where not only government business was done, but was also a centre for banking and all sorts of shopping, which also included the purchase of slaves. As only Romans citizens could wear the toga this could represent an issue for those who were non-citizens as well as those who could not afford to buy a toga,, which was quite expensive,
  4. He exiled his daughter, Julia, for adultery. He also exiled one of his granddaughters, also called Julia, for adultery. So one suspects that some of what he wore was not in fact woven by their hands. The Empress Livia also had considerable duties, so one wonders how much time she had left for weaving.
  5. This refers to the broad purple stripe that only senators were allowed to wear.
  6. This likely reffers to Lucilius Juniour, to whom Senneca the Younger's Letters were adressed, and who is otherwise widely unknown in the acient world.
  7. To the then ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy Auletes.
  8. Losing all your money meant you also lost your position in the Senate, and probably, given that everyone was going to prosecute him when he got home, he could also look forward to spending what was left on trying to bribe the jury to let him off.
  9. Mithridates the Great of Pontus fought a number of wars with the Romans. In 88 BCE he organized a massacre of Roman citizens and Italians (over 80,000 were killed) in a number of cities in Anatolia, from which Rutilius escaped by dressing up as a Greek.


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