*Special Episode* What Does Your Toga Say About You?

Dr Amy Place from the University of Leicester sits down with Dr Rad to discuss the humble Roman toga, fashion and social identity, and everyday life in late imperial Roman North Africa!

On a recent tour to Australia, Place presented a paper for the SPQR Roman History Forum at Macquarie University on the representation of fashions in Late Roman North Africa. The Partial Historians we lucky enough to grab the chance to chat.

*Special Episode* – What Does Your Toga Say About You?

Late Roman North Africa is a time period and an area that is understudied, but just as fascinating as Italy. Place is particularly interested in how clothing is represented and how it was used to express social identity.

Dominus Julius Mosaic from Carthage, Bardo Museum. Copyright credit: Sean Leatherbury/Manar al-Athar

When are we talking?

Dr Place’s research focuses on 200-550 CE. The late Roman empire is full of intrigue and was a time of great change. While there was some stability under the emperor Septimius Severus, who ruled from 193-211 CE, with his death and the succession of his son Caracalla, a century of turmoil began.

Amidst the political chaos that characterised much of this century, the Christians rose in prominence. By the beginning of the fourth century, Rome would have its first Christian emperor, Constantine I. This emerging system would rapidly became established as the exclusive religion of the empire as Rome entered the fifth century.

Where are we talking?    

The focus of Place’s research has been the coastal regions of North Africa, examining an area that spans Namibia to Morocco. Parts of North Africa began to be acquired by Rome in the 2nd century BCE with the end of the Third Punic War. Roman influence continued to expand in this region throughout the late Republic and into the Empire.

What is the source material like for fashion and togas?

Place’s research is based in part on literary sources but is supplemented with mosaics. She highlights the difficulties that come with using textual evidence to understand something that was visual. The terms used in the sources are not always easily matched to a surviving representation and it is extremely rare for any actual samples of clothing to survive to the modern day.  

Matron at her Toilette Mosaic from Sidi Ghrib, Bardo. Copyright credit: Sean Leatherbury/Manar al-Athar.

How did people in North Africa use clothing to construct and express their identity?

Place’s research focuses on the impact that the growth of Christianity had on dress and identity. A particularly important author was Tertullian, a Christian writer who made some very vocal criticism of female dress in this region.

Although Roman writers had been critical of women dressing too provocatively before the advent of Christianity, for Tertullian there was an extra moral imperative for women to dress modestly and plainly. Austerity was a means of advertising one’s commitment to the new religion, most especially if one was wealthy enough to have a choice.

We see a stark contrast between words and deeds, however, when we consider the mosaics from the region. As Place notes, these don’t often show people have taken Tertullian’s advice – quite the opposite!

Tune in to hear all Place’s insights into the local trends for women and men and the place of the toga.

Tomb cover for Victoria, originally from Tabarka, now in the Bardo. Copyright credit: Sean Leatherbury/Manar al-Athar.

Interested in learning more about this fascinating topic? You can consider more of Dr Amy Place’s work at Academia.edu

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Drs R and G laugh and spar their way through the ancient Roman world!

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