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 p1134  Toga

Article by Philip Smith, B.A., of the University of London
on pp1134‑1137 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

TOGA (τήβεννος), a gown, the name of the principal outer garment worn by the Romans, is derived by Varro from tegere, because it covered the whole body (V.144, ed. Müller). Gellius (VI.12)º states that at first it was worn alone, without the tunic. [Tunica.] Whatever may have been the first origin of this dress, which some refer to the Lydians, it seems to have been received by the Romans from the Etruscans, for it is seen on Etruscan works of art as the only covering of the body, and the toga praetexta is expressly said to have been derived from the Etruscans (Liv. I.8; Plin. H. N. VIII.48 s74; Müller, Etrusker, vol. 1 p262).

The toga was the peculiar distinction of the Romans, who were thence called togati or gens togata (Virg. Aen. I.282; Martial, XIV.124). It was originally worn only in Rome itself, and the use of it was forbidden alike to exiles and to foreigners (Plin. Epist. IV.11; Suet. Claud. 15). Gradually, however, it went out of common use, and was supplanted by the Pallium and lacerna, or else it was worn in public under the lacerna (Suet. Aug. 40). [Lacerna.] But it was still used by the upper classes, who regarded it as an honourable distinction (Cic. Philip. II.30), in the courts of justice, by clients when they received the Sportula (Martial, XIV.125), and in the theatre or at the  p1135 games, at least when the emperor was present (Suet. Claud. 6; Lamprid. Commod. 16). Under Alexander Severus guests at the emperor's table were expected to appear in the toga (Lamprid. Sever. 1).

The form of the toga, and the manner of wearing it, are matters which are much disputed, and about which indeed it seems almost impossible, with our present information, to arrive at certainty.

The form was, undoubtedly, in some sense round (Quintil. XI.3 §139; Isid. Orig. XIX.24), semicircular according to Dionysius (III.61), who calls it περιβόλαιον ἡμικύκλιον. It seems, however, impossible, from the way in which it was worn, that it could have been always a semicircle. Such may perhaps have been its form as worn in the most ancient times, when it had no great fulness; but to account for the numerous folds in which it was afterwards worn, we must suppose it to have had a greater breadth in proportion to its length, that is, to have been a smaller segment than a semicircle. Probably the size of the segment which the toga formed (on which its fullness depended) was determined by the fashion of the time or the taste of the wearer. This appears to be the true explanation of Quintilian's words (XI.3 §139), "Ipse togam rotundam, et apte caesam velim," which could have no meaning if nothing more were required than to give the garment the very simple form of a semicircle. The only other point to be noticed respecting the form of the toga, is the question whether, when it came to be worn in many complicated folds, the art of the tailor may not have been employed to keep these folds in their position.​a This question, however, belongs more properly to the mode of wearing the toga.

On this subject our principal information is derived from Quintilian (XI.3 §§137, &c.)​b and Tertullian (de Pallio), whose statements, however, refer to the later and more complicated mode of wearing the garment, and from statues in Roman costume.

Frequent reference is made to the Sinus of the toga. This was a portion of the garment, which hung down in front of the body, like a sling; it will be more fully explained presently.

We must make a clear distinction between the more ancient and simpler mode of wearing the toga, and the full form, with many complicated folds, in which it was worn at a later period.

Quintilian (XI.3 §137) says that the ancients had no sinus, and that afterwards the sinuses were very short. The passage in Livy (XXI.18, sinu ex toga facto, iterum sinu effuso) seems to refer not to the sinus, technically so called, but a sinus which Fabius made at the moment by gathering up some part of his toga.

[image ALT: An engraving of a person, male I think, wearing a toga.]

The ancient mode of wearing the toga is shown in the following cut, which is taken from the Augusteum, pl. 117 (Becker, Gallus, vol. II p83), and represents a statue at Dresden.

Let the toga, which in this case was probably not far from an exact semicircle, be held behind the figure, with the curved edge downwards. First, one corner is thrown over the left shoulder; then the other part of the garment is placed on the right shoulder, thus entirely covering the back and the right side up to the neck. It is then passed over the front of the body, leaving very little of the chest uncovered, and reaching downwards nearly to the feet (in the figure, quite to one of them). The remaining end, or corner, is then thrown back over the left shoulder, in such a manner as to cover the greater part of the arm. By this arrangement the right arm is covered by the garment, a circumstance noticed by Quintilian (§ 138); but it was occasionally released by throwing the toga off the right shoulder, and leaving it to be supported on the left alone. This arrangement is seen in many ancient statues; an example is shown in the following cut, which represents the celebrated statue of Aulus Metellus (commonly called the Etruscan orator)​c in the Florence Gallery (Müller, Denkmäler, vol. 1 pl. LVIII. No. 289). The portion of the toga which, in the first figure, hangs down from the chest, if it be a sinus, is certainly of the kind described by Quintilian as perquam brevis.

[image ALT: An engraving of an orator wearing a toga. It is a representation of a famous bronze statue usually called L'Arringatore.]

The next cut represents the later mode of wearing the toga, and is taken from an engraving in the Museo Borbonico (vol. VI tav. 41) of a statue found at Herculaneum.

[image ALT: An engraving of a person, male I think, wearing a toga.]

By comparing this and other statues with the description of Quintilian, we may conclude that the mode of wearing the toga was something like the following:—

First, as above remarked, the form in this case was a segment less than the semicircle. As before, the curved end was the lower, and one end of the  p1136 garment was thrown over the left shoulder, and hung down in front, but much lower than in the former case. This seems to be the part which Quintilian (§ 139) says should reach down half-way between the knee and the ankle. In our figure it reaches to the feet, and in some statues it is even seen lying on the ground. The garment was then placed over the back, as in the older mode of wearing it, but, instead of covering the right shoulder, it was brought round under the right arm to the front of the body. This is the most difficult part of the dress to explain. Quintilian says (§ 140):"Sinus decentissimus, si aliquanto supra imam togam fuerit, nunquam certe sit inferior. Ille, qui sub humero dextro ad sinistrum oblique ducitur velut balteus, nec strangulet nec fluat." Becker's explanation of this matter seems perfectly satisfactory. He supposes that the toga, when carried under the right arm, was then folded into two parts; one edge (namely, the lower or round edge) was then brought almost close under the arm, and drawn, but not tightly, across the chest to the left shoulder, forming the velut balteus of Quintilian, while the other part was allowed to fall gracefully over the lower part of the body, forming the sinus, and then the remaining end of the garment was thrown over the left shoulder, and hung down nearly as low as the other end, which was first put on. It is to this part that Quintilian seems to refer when he says (§ 140):— "Pars togae, quae postea imponitur, sit inferior: nam ita et sedet melius, et continetur;" but the true application of these words is very doubtful. By the bottom of the toga (imam togam) in the above quotation, he seems to mean the end of the toga first put on. The part last thrown over the left shoulder, as well as the end first put on, covered the arm, as in the older mode of wearing the garment. The outer edge (extrema ora) of this part ought not, says Quintilian (§ 140), to be thrown back. He adds (§ 141), "Super quod (i.e. sinistrum brachium) ora ex toga duplex aequaliter sedeat," by which he probably means that the edge of this portion should coincide with the edge of the end which was first thrown over the left shoulder, and which is of course covered by this portion of the garment. He says (§ 141) that the shoulder and the whole of the throat ought not to be covered, otherwise the dress will become narrow and that dignity which consists in width of chest will be lost. This direction appears to mean that the part brought across the chest (velut balteus) should not be drawn too tight.

Tassels or balls are seen attached to the ends of the toga, which may have served to keep it in its place by their weight, or may have been merely ornaments.

There is one point which still remains to be explained. In the figure a mass of folds is seen in the middle of the part of the toga drawn across the chest (velut balteus). This is the umbo mentioned by Tertullian (de Pallio, 5), and used by Persius for the toga itself (Sat. V.33). It was either a portion of the balteus itself, formed by allowing this part of the garment to hang loose (which perhaps it must have done, as it is the curved, and therefore longer edge that is thus drawn across the chest), and then gathering it up in folds and tucking these folds in, as in the figure, or else the folds which composed it were drawn out from the sinus, and either by themselves, or with the loose folds of the balteus, formed by the umbo. It seems to have been secured by passing the end of it under the girdle of the tunic; and perhaps this is what Quintilian means by the words (§ 140), "Subducenda etiam pars aliqua tunicae, ne ad lacertum in actu redeat."

The back of the figure, which is not seen in our engravings, was simply covered with the part of the garment which was drawn across it, and which, in the ancient mode of wearing it, reached down to the heels (Quintil. § 143). Quintilian states how low it was worn in his time, but the meaning of his words is very obscure (§ 139: "pars ejus prior mediis cruribus optime terminatur, posterior eadem portione altius qua cinctura." See above.)

A garment of the supposed shape of the toga, put on according to the above description, has been found by the writer of this article to present an appearance exactly like that of the toga as seen on statues, and Becker states that he has made similar experiments with equally satisfactory results.

Tertullian (de Pallio, 5) contrasts the simplicity of the Pallium with the complication of the toga, and his remarks apply very well to the above description. It appears by his account that the folds of the umbo were arranged before the dress was put on, and fixed in their places by pins or hooks; but generally speaking it does not seem that the toga was held on by any fastening: indeed the contrary may be inferred from Quintilian's directions to an orator for the management of his toga while speaking (§§144‑149).

Another mode of wearing the toga was the cinctus Gabinus. It consisted in forming a part of the toga itself into a girdle, by drawing its outer edge round the body and tying it in a knot in front, and at the same time covering the head with another portion of the garment. It was worn by persons offering sacrifices (Liv. V.46; Lucan, I.596), by the consul when he declared war (Virg. Aen. VII.612), and by devoted persons, as in the case of Decius (Liv. V.46). Its origin was Etruscan, as its name implies (Servius in Virg. l.c.; Müller, Etrusker, vol. 1 p265; Thiersch in Annal. Acad. Bavar. vol. I p29, quoted by Müller, Annot. ad Festum, p225). Festus (l.c.) speaks of an army about to fight being girt with the cinctus Gabinus. Persons wearing this dress were said to be procincti (or incincti) cinctu (or ritu) Gabino.​d

The colour of the toga worn by men (toga  p1137 virilis) was generally white, that is, the natural colour of white wool. Hence it was called pura or vestimentum purum, in opposition to the praetexta mentioned below. A brighter white was given to the toga of candidates for offices (candidati from their toga candida) by rubbing it with chalk. There is an allusion to this custom in the phrase cretaria ambitio (Pers. V.177). White togas are often mentioned as worn at festivals, which does not imply that they were not worn commonly, but that new or fresh-cleaned togas were first put on at festivals (see Lipsius, Elect. I.13, in Oper. vol. 1 pp256, 257). The toga was kept white and clean by the fuller [Fullo]. When this was neglected, the toga was called sordida, and those who wore such garments sordidati. This dress (with disarranged hair and other marks of disorder about the person), was worn by accused persons, as in the case of Cicero (Plut. Cic. 30, 31; Dion Cass. XXXVIII.16; Liv. VI.20). The toga pulla, which was of the natural colour of black wool, was worn in private mourning, and sometimes also by artificers and others of the lower orders (see the passages in Forcellini, s.vv. Pullus, Pullatus). The toga picta, which was ornamented with Phrygian embroidery, was worn by generals in triumphs [Triumphus], and under the emperors by the consuls, and by the praetors when they celebrated the games. It was also called Capitolina (Lamprid. Alex. Sever. c40). The toga palmata was a kind of toga picta. The toga praetexta had a broad purple border. It was worn with the Bulla, by children of both sexes. It was also worn by magistrates, both those of Rome, and those of the colonies and municipia, by the sacerdotes, and by persons engaged in sacred rites or paying vows (Liv. XXXIV.7; Festus, s.v. Praetexta pulla). Among those who possessed the jus togae praetextae habendae, the following may be more particularly mentioned: the dictator, the consuls, the praetors (who laid aside the praetexta when about to condemn a Roman citizen to death), the augurs (who, however, are supposed by some to have worn the trabea), the decemviri sacris faciundis [Decemviri], the aediles, the triumviri epulones, the senators on festival days (Cic. Phil. II.43), the magistri collegii, and the magistri vicorum when celebrating games. [Magister.] In the case of the tribuni plebis, censors, and quaestors there is some doubt upon the subject. The praetexta pulla might only be worn at the celebration of a funeral (Festus, l.c.).

The toga praetexta, as has been above remarked, is said to have been derived from the Etruscans. It is said to have been first adopted, with the latus clavus [Clavus Latus], by Tullus Hostilius as the royal robe, whence its use by the magistrates in the republic (Plin. H. N. IX.39 s63). According to Macrobius (Sat. I.6) the toga introduced by Hostilius was not only praetexta, but also picta.​e Pliny states (H. N. VIII.48 s74) that the toga regia undulata (that is, apparently, embroidered with waving lines or bands) which had been worn by Servius Tullius was preserved in the temple of Fortune. The toga praetexta and the bulla aurea were first given to boys in the case of the son of Tarquinius Priscus, who at the age of fourteen, in the Sabine war, slew an enemy with his own hand (Macrob. l.c., where other particulars respecting the use of the toga praetexta may be found). Respecting the leaving off of the toga praetexta and the assumption of the toga virilis, see Impubes, Bulla, Clavus Latus. The occasion was celebrated with great rejoicings by the friends of the youth, who attended him in a solemn procession to the Forum and Capitol (Valer. Max. V.4 §4). This assumption of the toga virilis was called tirocinium fori, as being the young man's introduction to public life, and the solemnities attending it are called by Pliny (Epist. I.9) officium togae virilis, and by Tertullian (de Idolol. c16) solemnitates togae. The public ceremonies, connected with the assumption of the toga virilis by the sons of the emperors, are referred to by Suetonius (Oct. 26, Tib. 54, Cal. 16, Ner. 7). The toga virilis is called libera by Ovid (Fasti, III.771). Girls wore the praetexta till their marriage.

The trabea was a toga ornamented with purple horizontal stripes. Servius (ad Aen. VII.612) mentions three kinds of trabea; one wholly of purple, which was sacred to the gods, another of purple and white, and another of purple and saffron, which belonged to augurs. The purple and white trabea was a royal robe, and is assigned to the Latin and early Roman kings, especially to Romulus (Plin. H. N. VIII.49, IX.39; Virg. Aen. VII.187, XI.334; Ovid. Fast. II.504). It was worn by the consuls in public solemnities, such as opening the temple of Janus (Virg. Aen. VII.612; Claudian, in Rufin. I.249). The equites wore it at the transvectio and in other public solemnities (Valer. Max. II.2; Tacit. Ann. III.2). Hence the trabea is mentioned as the badge of the equestrian order. Lastly, the toga worn by the Roman emperors was wholly of purple. It appears to have been first assumed by Julius Caesar (Cic. Philip. II.34).

The material of which the toga was commonly made was wool. It was sometimes thick and sometimes thin. The former was the toga densa, pinguis, or hirta (Suet. Aug. 82; Quintil. XII.10). A new toga, with the nap neither worn off nor cut close, was called pexa, to which is opposed the trita or rasa, which was used as a summer dress (Martial, II.85). On the use of silk for togas see Sericum.

It only remains to speak of the general use of the toga. It was originally worn by both sexes; but when the stola came to be worn by matrons, the toga was only worn by meretrices and by women who had been divorced on account of adultery [Stola.] Before the use of the toga became almost restricted to the upper classes, their toga was only distinguished from that of the lower classes by being fuller and more expensive. In war it was laid aside and replaced by the Paludamentum and Sagum. Hence togatus is opposed to miles. The toga was, however, sometimes used by soldiers, but not in battle, nor as their ordinary dress; but rather as a cloak or blanket. It was chiefly worn in Rome, and hence togatus is opposed to rusticus. The toga was often used as a covering in sleeping; and lastly, as a shroud for the corpse.

(Becker, Gallus, vol. II pp78‑88; Ferrarius, de Re Vestiaria; Rubenius, de Re Vest.)

Thayer's Notes:

a There is an amusing passage in Macrobius (Sat. III.13) that suggests not. It is reproached there of Q. Hortensius, as an excess of refinement, that he used to adjust his toga in a mirror before going out, that its folds might not fall randomly in ugly disarray but by art in a pleasing manner. Well that must have worked for a few minutes, but as for going about town for the whole day, I too wonder how finicky dressers like Hortensius kept everything in place without safety pins.

b Nothing could better express the rôle of the toga in Roman society than this. The Institutio Oratoria is a manual designed to help teachers educate young men for great careers in law and the civil service; and while the poets and satirists are our chief literary sources for clothing of almost every other kind, it is Quintilian's grave prose that supplies us most of what we know about the toga. Truly the Romans were the gens togata: what item of clothing in the modern Western world can compare with it?

c Often referred to by its Italian name, L'Arringatore, this statue is made not of marble, but of bronze. Many sites have photos of it.

d Not all instances where a man covers his head with his toga fall into these neat groups: see for example Scipio on an inspection tour of Alexandria.

e This may be a misreading of an admittedly ambiguous text. The passage in Macrobius reads:

Tullus Hostilius, rex Romanorum tertius, debellatis Etruscis sellam curulem lictoresque et togam pictam atque praetextam, quae insignia magistratuum Etruscorum erant, primus ut Romae haberentur instituit.

The author of our article has read the phrase togam pictam atque praetextam as referring to one and the same toga, as it would were it English; but in Latin, despite the singular, this can well mean two different togas, and for my part, I think it does.

[image ALT: Three statues, stiffly posed, of standing people draped in togas: a man, a woman, and a child.]
For good detailed photos of togas on an entire family — man, woman, and child — see these statues on a Roman gate in the Umbrian city of Spello.

More conventionally, the beautiful reliefs on the Ara Pacis in Rome include a long procession of Romans; they are very carefully carved, with great attention to details of costume as worn by the ruling class: the monument is thus an excellent source for the toga. See my pages.

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Page updated: 29 Sep 12