Th he most powerful of the ancient empires, the civilization that became the Roman Empire rose from humble origins as a city in central Italy. At the height of its power, the Roman Empire stretched from Spain in the west to present-day Syria in the east, and from Egypt in the south to Britain in the north. The story of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, including what the Romans wore during this fascinating era, has captivated historians for two thousand years.

From city to empire

Legend has it that the city of Rome was founded in 753 B.C.E. by Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of the god Mars, who had been raised by wolves. They established a small town that grew, over time, into a small city that controlled the surrounding region. Rome was one of many small city-states on the Italian peninsula. The most powerful of these city-states was inhabited by the Etruscans, who dominated most of Italy from about 800 B.C.E. until they finally were defeated by the Romans in 250 B.C.E. These small cities, and especially the Etruscans, had a great influence on the developing Roman civilization. Many of the cultural and costume traditions of the Romans were borrowed from the Etruscans.

A Roman amphitheater. Romans often put on plays, which entertained, educated, and displayed a variety of clothing styles. Reproduced by permission of © Adam Woolfitt/CORBIS.

Initially ruled by a king, in 509 B.C.E. the powerful families of Rome took control of the city-state and established it as a republic, with representatives of the citizens of the city choosing people to form a ruling senate. This began a long period of Roman history known as the Roman Republic (509-27 B.C.E.). At first only the wealthiest members of Roman society could join the government, but over time more of the poorer citizens, called plebeians, gained access to power. It was not a perfect democracy, but many people had the right to vote and thus to call themselves citizens. During the republic the Romans grew more powerful, and slowly they extended their rule. First they took control of much of the Italian peninsula, and then they extended their control into present-day Greece, Spain, and northern Africa. But the rise of powerful armies and the problems with managing an expanding society brought the republic many troubles that were soon addressed by a change in government.

In 27 B.C.E. a new era in Roman history began when a powerful general established himself as the first Roman emperor, thus beginning a period known as the Roman Empire (27 B.C.E.—476 C.E.). This emperor, Augustus (63 B.C.E.-14 C.E.), took full control of the empire, and he ruled over an era known as the Pax Romana, or Roman peace. For nearly two hundred years the empire flourished. New cities were created and trade with other societies expanded. The empire as a whole grew very rich. Conflict between the rulers of different cities, each with their own armies, soon began to tear the empire apart in a long civil war. The emperor Diocletian (c. 245-c. 316) reorganized the empire in 293 C.E., creating a Western Roman Empire centered in Rome and an Eastern Roman Empire centered in modern-day Turkey. These were united in 324 C.E. under an emperor known as Constantine the Great (c. 285—337 C.E.), yet even Constantine could not hold the empire together. The Western Empire slowly crumbled, attacked by armies from outside and beset by economic trouble from within, and ended in 476 C.E. The Eastern Roman Empire survived, however, as the Byzantine Empire, which lasted until 1453 C.E.

Triumphs and excesses of the empire

The great power that the Roman Empire held in the ancient world led to many accomplishments. Romans build a vast system of roadways and waterways that connected Europe and parts of the Middle East. They created a system of republican government, in which power lies with a group of citizens versus a supreme ruler, which lasted for several hundred years. And they established trade networks that stretched throughout the world, including a thriving trade with China and the Far East. Yet the great successes of Rome also brought troubling changes. The once sparing and simple Romans became lovers of luxury. The rulers had such great power and wealth that they felt anything was possible. The legend that the third-century-B.C.E. emperor Nero played his fiddle while the city of Rome burned has become a symbol for an uncaring ruler. The vicious combat that occurred in the arenas of Rome among gladiators—soldiers who fought to the death as public entertainment for ancient Romans—also showed a lack of concern for human life. Rome's leaders lost the support of their citizens, and eventually the empire could not hold together.

These larger historical changes can be seen in the way that Romans dressed and decorated themselves. Over the entire history of Roman civilization, a few garments provided the basis for the


The early Romans, who founded their first city in Rome in 753 B.C.E., were a hard-working, serious people. They respected their elders and their family and were simple and frugal in their tastes, including their tastes in clothes. Over several hundred years they built a strong, well-ordered society. After 509 B.C.E., their society, known as the Roman Republic, controlled much of present-day Italy and was a rising power in the Mediterranean. But with rising power came problems.

The republic was governed by a senate that consisted of elected members from a small group of established wealthy families. As the Roman Republic became more powerful, more and more Romans had access to money. They used this money to buy colorful clothes and gold jewelry, and to throw lavish parties. The ruling families of the republic did not like the way these people displayed their wealth. They felt that proper Romans should behave just as the ruling families and their ancestors had behaved. So, beginning in about 215 B.C.E., Roman senators began to make laws to limit the ways people could dress and entertain themselves. These were called sumptuary laws because they related to personal expenditures.

This first Roman sumptuary law was called the Lex Appia. It declared that no woman could possess more than a half ounce of gold, wear a stola, or dress, of different colors, or ride in a carriage in any city unless for a public ceremony. Many other sumptuary laws followed. Laws were passed that listed how many different colors could be worn by members of different social classes: peasants could wear one color, soldiers in the army could wear two colors, army officers could wear three colors, and members of the royal family could wear seven colors. A law passed by Emperor Aurelian, who ruled from 270 to 275 C.E., stated that men couldn't wear shoes that were red, yellow, green, or white, and that only the emperor and his sons could wear red or purple shoes. Under Aurelian, only ambassadors could wear gold rings and men were forbidden to wear silk. A variety of other laws limited how much people could spend on parties and how many people they could invite. Some of the laws seemed very silly.

Many people resented these sumptuary laws. They felt that the ruling class was trying to keep people from enjoying the benefits of their wealth. The ruling class, however, felt that open displays of wealth challenged their authority and upset the social order.

The Romans were not the first or the last to pass sumptuary laws. The ancient Greeks passed laws limiting how much gold a person could possess, as well as how people could entertain themselves. From the Middle Ages (c. 500c. 1500 C.E.) through the nineteenth century, European monarchs passed sumptuary laws, often to restrict members of their courts and mere commoners from dressing in clothing that was more lavish than that worn by the king or queen. And Puritans in colonial Massachusetts, among the first European settlers in the American colonies, passed laws to keep people from wearing fancy clothes. They did not want common people to be mistaken for wealthier gentlemen.

No matter when they existed, sumptuary laws were designed to keep the social order from changing and to keep certain people from dressing like or entertaining themselves like wealthier or more powerful members of the society. For the most part, sumptuary laws don't exist in modern democratic countries, though some, like school dress codes some might argue, continue to this day.

Roman wardrobe. Yet as Rome grew wealthier, these garments became more highly decorated and were made from richer fabrics. Romans became great lovers of jewelry and did not hesitate to display their wealth by wearing numerous jewels. As more and more Romans earned enough money to buy expensive fabrics and adornments, Roman politicians began to limit access to various clothing styles by passing sumptuary laws, which regulated what people could wear and how much money they could spend. Roman clothing also shows the influence of territorial expansion, as the Romans adopted the clothing styles of those they conquered in northern Europe and the fabrics of the Orient. Today we remember Roman clothing through the popular image of the toga, but the Roman clothing tradition offers many other fascinating insights into this amazing ancient society.

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