What did Late Roman senators wear to the senate?

To Canterbury to see Luke Lavan who is an archaeologist working at Ostia and generally interested in daily life in late antiquity.  In passing he says that most ordinary people imagine senators in late antiquity running around in togas as in the early empire.  I’d never given the idea a moment’s thought.  What DID they wear at that time?  I wish I’d thought to ask.

When did the Romans stop wearing the toga?

12 thoughts on “What did Late Roman senators wear to the senate?

  1. The Romans stopped wearing togas when they stopped being Romans. Togas are known from Eastern and Western at least until the 6th century. The predominant style since the 3rd century was the contabulata, from which (according to the RE) the pallium developed, which we still see today in Christian churches. (However, as far as I know, the pallium could have a distinct history. Not sure.)

  2. It’s from Delbrück, Consulardiptychen, plate 99 sqq. If you go to the en:WP article “Consular diptych” there is a diptych showing Magnus of Constantinople wearing a 6th century toga, pallium style, with sinus, without umbo (?? at least I think so), and a fan-shaped draping over his left shoulder, similar to the contabulatio style from the 3rd and 4th century. The garment is crossed over the chest, which is the predecessor to the liturgical stole.

    Until now I have only found one scanned volume of the RE online, but the download link was dead. :\

  3. One correction: In the first comment I wrote that the Christian pallium developed from the contabulata, which is false. It’s the stola, the stole, which developed from the toga styles of late antiquity.

  4. The disappearance of the toga could probably be traced by using contemporary artistic depictions of people. What I mean is, that if we look at how artists portrayed living persons for whom they were commissioned to paint in the European areas that were formerly Roman territory that may give us an idea.

  5. If we look at how artists portrayed living persons for whom they were commissioned to paint in the European areas that were formerly Roman territory that may give us an idea.

    Exactly. It would be interesting to see how quickly the Roman clothing styles changed. We know that Roman culture was generally perpetuated by the barbarians like the Vandals in North Africa, the Goths etc., i.e. that they weren’t “barbarians” in the modern meaning of the word. And on the famous image of Justinian I from Ravenna from the mid-6th century we can see that bishop Maximianus was wearing the liturgical pallium, which resembled the late-ancient toga. Justinian however was still wearing a toga, but the style was extremely simplified, almost only a cape, but still swung over the arm and therefore producing a late-style sinus. Some of the garments on the image come with a collar, which to me means that they weren’t “real togas” anymore, but some are simply a piece of cloth held together by a brace over the right shoulder or a more luxurious brooch—as in Justinian’s case. We can see the same brooch plus a tunica on coins of barbarian kings like Hilderic, Thrasamund, Theodoric etc., so it’s possible that they wore the same kind of simplified toga. But I guess it would also be possible to argue that a piece of cloth held together by a brooch is not a toga anymore.

  6. PS: I think I remember seeing a book about Byzantine dresses (?) online somewhere a few years ago. Maybe I’ll find it. I will report back. But we can see that the emperors at the beginning of the 6th century still wore a real toga, e.g. Anastasius. (Image google: diptych anastasius).

  7. Maybe an interesting find: Nicephorus III (11th century Byzantine emperor) still wore a garment that is reminescent of the toga. If you image-google for [nicephorus III maria alania coronation] you can see that the full regal garment of Nicephorus is folded in a very particular manner. Of course it’s not a toga anymore, but the style is quite similar.

  8. In response to comments by Hans Dampf:

    In the famous 6th-century CE mosaic in San Vitale, the ‘cape’-like garment worn by Justinian isn’t a toga but a “paludamentum,” which was the military-style Imperial Court cloak worn from at least the 3rd century CE.

    Otherwise, as Hans Dampf notes, the toga from the 4th through the 6th centuries CE was the “toga contabulata” shown on the Arch of Constantine and possibly also in several diptychs from the 4th to the 6th centuries CE.

    There is another Roman ceremonial garment called the “trabea” or “trabea triumphalis” which in its draping resembles a toga and might even have been a heavily-embroidered, red or purple toga. On diptychs from the 4th through the 6th centuries CE, the aristocrats/emperor(s) depicted might wearing such a “trabea triumphalis” (which is what the emperor Anastasius might be wearing on his 6th-century diptych). The 5th-century CE grammarian Servius describes a “toga trabea” that was heavily embroidered and dyed purple.

    Regarding Nicephorus III’s garment, I believe that’s called in Greek a “loros,” which, by report, was derived from the Roman “trabea” and was draped toga-like. It was worn by Byzantine-Roman emperors at least from the 7th century CE onwards.

  9. I disagree that contemporaneous depictions of people in art would be of much use. Most of the art that has come down to us is religious, and there are in Rome a few churches from the late imperial and early medieval periods. Some of these have mosaics depicting Christ and various saints or donors wearing togas or very similar garments, but that doesn’t mean they were being worn at the time IRL. I’ve never, ever seen illustrations of Christ or other biblical figures wearing late 20th – early 21st-century attire.

    I think togas were a kind of formal attire, so nobody wore them all the time.

  10. Ah, but if you look at old pictures from the middle ages and before you so see contemporary garb. People didn’t really see the past as a different place until modern times.

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