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The Roman Toga: The Social Effects of Materiality


The social meanings of the Roman toga, in all their nuances and varieties, arise not arbitrarily from culture and custom, but, as shown in this dissertation, are shaped by the materiality of the toga and its components. Inspired by current approaches in material culture studies which center on the materiality of objects and their interactions with human bodies and behaviors, this project brings together a wide variety of literary and artistic sources, from the first century B.C.E. to the late-second century C.E. and beyond, in an examination of how togas are represented in the performance of their function as signs of identity. This analysis explains the material bases for the toga’s many uses as a marker of social identity, adding a wealth of complexity and nuance to the current image of the toga as a symbol of citizenship, masculinity, and Roman-ness.

An important contribution of this study is its insight into how the toga functioned as a unifying sign of citizenship, one which identified gradations of social status only by subtleties in materiality. The all-white toga pura marked a ‘Roman citizen’ as someone integrated within a homogeneous group, with the fabric ostensibly concealing his individuality and his particular origin or status beneath a visual quality of sameness. High rank was indicated only by the addition of prestigious purple dye, making a toga no longer pura but praetexta, and by small variations in other garments such as the tunic and shoes. Nevertheless, slight physical differences in the toga’s fabric, such as its whiteness or comfort level, were used in nuanced ways to indicate other markers of identity, especially wealth, to a discerning Roman audience. As a result, the toga could mark its wearer as ‘elite’ in artistic and literary sources, but just as often, it could also reveal him to be impoverished, servile in origin, or rustic.

The toga signified more than simply citizenship in Roman society. The garment was also a sign of ‘masculinity’: this study explains how its drape accentuated bodily characteristics that were gendered male, and also why transparent togas signified promiscuity and effeminacy instead. The fabric of the toga both indicated and materially enforced ‘peace’—except when it was adjusted for fighting, perhaps to imply that the upcoming violence was a civic duty. Changes in fashion served to differentiate the elite from non-elites or ‘dandies’ from more conservative dressers, as several scholars have pointed out, but in addition, this study shows how style changes also reflected shifting ideas about ideal bodily movement. In addition, many researchers have noted that various types of toga were important components of several rituals that marked social transitions, but the materiality which lies beneath their different meanings is explained here. From the brilliance of the purple-and-gold toga picta to the dark wool and filth of mourning dress, very specific changes in the toga’s materials signaled a shift in status, a new phase of life, or a civic crisis. Any variation in the toga—its fiber, fabric, drape, dyes, and surface treatments—resulted in new social meanings which were largely shaped by the physical characteristics of these substances, particularly by the effects such qualities had upon the wearer’s body.

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