Roman Women’s Dress. Literary Sources, Terminology, and Historical Development

Radicke, Jan
Berlin 2023: de Gruyter
754 S.
€ 139,95
Reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by
Zofia Kaczmarek, Institute of European Culture, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań

Despite their belief that real power lies in virtue and not in outward show (SHA Alex. Sev. 33.3–4) appearance was of great importance to the ancient Romans. Famous passages from Quintilian (11.3.143–145), Ovid (Ars. Am. 3.2–6), and many others make us aware that not only what was worn, but also when and how it was worn, mattered in ancient Rome. The topic remains important: Romans’ clothes reflected their status, gender, and role in political life. With over 100 years of research, major project1 and well-known publications2 on Roman dress, it would seem that nothing more could be said about the problem. Jan Radicke proves the opposite.

The main goal of his book is to collect and analyze Latin literary sources on Roman women’s dress, as worn in the period from the 2nd century BCE to the 2nd century CE. Other ambitious aims include restoring early Latin texts and reconstructing ancient theories on dress, as well as explaining often confusing dress glosses. The author is well prepared to achieve these goals. He knows the history of the research, which he follows as far as the 16th century (pp. 5–12). He also has extensive knowledge of Latin sources, and his philological skills are indisputable. Radicke does not forget to adopt the methods of cultural history and consider the context for each of the cases he makes. Moreover, he is well aware of the limitations of his approach, noting that we will never be able to reconstruct “the world of the Roman costume” (pp. 15–16).

The book is divided into four parts, each of which is preceded by a methodological introduction. The first two (A and B) deal with Latin literary sources and identify what can they tell us about the female dress of the Republican and Imperial periods. Part B includes a chapter on the Roman stola, which the author considers the most important and complex portion of his work. The third part (C) concerns ancient theory on women’s attire.

The most intriguing section of the book is the last part (D), which deals with glosses, the words whose meanings were already obscure in Antiquity. Some have been misread by modern scholars, resulting in considerable confusion. With carefully structured analyses, Radicke proves that some of these confusing terms are fictitious.

The work required to prepare this magnum opus is evident. The author not only translates numerous fragments of ancient texts himself but also attempts to strip them of all later interventions and to suggest emendations. His arguments are clear and logical. The book’s lucid structure allows readers to follow the entire trajectory of his argument, as well as enjoy reading individual chapters. Part B can also serve as a glossary, with a good explanation of the terms used and, most importantly, the context of their social usage outlined. The author revises some of the entries of Pauly-Wissowa’s Realencyclopädie, an encyclopedia that gathered modern knowledge on the ancient world. This in itself is an important contribution to the literature, as the Realencyclopädie is in large parts outdated yet still consulted by scholars.

Joachim Reader’s chapter on the visual evidence of attire enriched the main content of the book. His small, yet representative choice of sculptures and other depictions complements Radicke’s text and helps to identify the garments described throughout the book. Pictures of good quality enable us to visualize the clothes mentioned by ancient authors. It is also worth mentioning that Radicke has decided to publish his work in an open access format, allowing unlimited entrance to the rich world of Roman women’s clothing.

One of the book’s deficiencies is its omission of textile research, which is a fast-growing discipline becoming ever more accurate in its methodology. In the latest literature on ancient dress, textiles, not art, are referred to as “archaeological evidence”. Sculptures, reliefs, and depictions on historical monuments are instead called visual evidence/representation or iconography. Careful analysis has shown that ignorance of ancient weaving techniques has led to some misconceptions and misreading of ancient sources.3 The findings provided by textile archaeologists might facilitate the accurate interpretation of certain problematic phrases and their translations (pp. 160–161).

Another, though minor, weakness of the book is its lack of a bibliography. Although the author provides the proper references assiduously, he does so in their respective chapters, which is more useful when those chapters are read individually. The decision to omit a bibliography is also understandable from an editorial or publishing point of view, as adding yet more pages to an already monumental work could prove problematic. Nonetheless, navigating the bound volume in search of specific references is challenging.

Jan Radicke is right when claiming that while other textile-related disciplines flourish and the subjects of their research are constantly reinterpreted with the use of new methods, ancient texts are frequently omitted. Despite some progress in the area being notable4, we still lack solid studies on ancient fashion, which would be strongly based on literary studies. The book Roman Women’s Dress is certainly a step towards filling this gap in our knowledge.

1 For example, the EU project entitled “Clothing and Identities in the Roman World – DressID”, funded by the Education, Audiovisual & Culture Executive Agency, of the Directorate-General for Education and Culture of the European Commission. The project was coordinated by the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum, Mannheim.
2 For example, Judith Lynn Sebsta / Larissa Bonfante (eds.), The World of Roman Costume, Madison 1994; Jonathan Edmondson / Alison Keith (eds.), Roman Dress and the Fabric of Roman Culture, Toronto 2008; Alfried Wieczorek / Regine Schulz / Michael Tellenbach (eds.), Die Macht der Toga. DressCode im Römischen Weltreich. Begleitband zur Sonderausstellung „Die Macht der Toga — Mode im Römischen Weltreich“ im Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum Hildesheim in Kooperation mit den Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen Mannheim 20. April 2013 bis 8. September 2013, Mannheim 2013; Mary Harlow / Marie-Louise Nosch (eds.), Greek and Roman Textiles and Dress: an Interdisciplinary Anthology, Oxford 2014.
3 Kerstin Droß-Krüpe / Anette Paetz gen. Schieck, Unraveling the Tangled Threads of Ancient Embroidery: a compilation of written sources and archeologically preserved textiles, in: Mary Harlow / Marie-Louise Nosch (eds.), Greek and Roman Textiles and Dress: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, Oxford 2014, pp. 207-235; Hero Granger-Taylor, Weaving Clothes to Shape in the Ancient World: The Tunic and Toga of the Arringatore, in: Textile History 13 (1982), pp. 3–25.
4 For example, Peder Flemestad, Order and Adornment. The Role of Dress in Plutarch, Lund 2022; Susanne Lervad / Peder Flemestad / Lotte Weilgaard Christensen (eds.), Verbal and Nonverbal Representation in Terminology Proceedings of the TOTh Workshop 2013, Copenhagen 2013; Peder Flemstead / Birgit Anette Olsen, Sabellic Textile Terminology, in: Salvatore Gaspa / Cécile Michel / Marie-Louise Nosch (eds.), Textile Terminologies from the Orient to the Mediterranean and Europe, 1000 BC to 1000 AD, Lincoln, Nebraska 2017, pp. 210–227.

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