Fresco representing a banquet scene from Pompeii

From the 2nd century BC onward, the Roman world imported a new Hellenism, far more intellectualized, far more contemplative, and far more utilised for the Gods. The phenomenon was defined by the Romans themselves as “asiatica luxuria” (Asian luxury), the irresistible desire to exhibit private luxury, which possessed the upper class at the time of conquests in the East, in imitation of the living standards of the Hellenistic courts.(1)

For Roman men, changing the heavy and voluminous Italic “toga” into a graceful Greek mantle, “pallium” (i.e., the “himation”) was an extraordinary action which indicated luxuriant laxity and moral decadence. The men who dared to wear the “pallium” or the “chlamys” in public,  generally did so with specific intentions, such as the famous pro-Hellenic Scipio Africanus Major or the emperor Hadrian. The power of attire in the construction of identity was so strong, that the Romans defined themselves as the “gens togata” (“toga-wearing people”), and their theatrical art was named as a “fabula togata” to distinguish it from the Greek “palliata”.

If for men their image was strongly bi-polarized, oscillating between “toga” and “pallium”, for women, the situation was quite different. From the late Republic period until late antiquity, the attire of the upper-class Roman woman was practically the same as worn in  the eastern Greek Mediterranean. Only the names of the two main clothing items changed: the first, the long tunic, was quite similar to the Greek “chiton”,  the Roman tunic also being sewn along the sides; the second, the rectangular mantle around the upper part of the body, “palla” or “pallium”, was identical to the Greek “himation”.     Luxury accessories – such as a Greek-gold belt, “zona”, a cloth woven in silk from the Isle of Cos, a Greek sandal like the “diabathron” – stood out as exotic and deserved the comments of Roman writers. Just as perfumes and cosmetics, also the most luxurious items in transparent, coloured silk, were part of a global Mediterranean trade. The “mitre” is an interesting case of cultural fusion: originally a Middle Eastern turban, it was later adopted in the archaic age by Greek women as a headband tied around the hair. In Rome, the “mitre”  represented Greek refinement, but it could also be synonymous with prostitution. Even silk, the most luxurious of all fabrics, was further embellished with Greek expressions by the Romans, to denote the quality. While Chinese silk fabrics were called “sericae vestes”, the types produced in the Mediterranean by local insect species had the name of “vestes bombycinae” and, deriving from the place of production on the island of Cos, “Coes vestes”.

Likewise, the finest colors often kept the Greek name, such as the different shades of purple: the two-colored  “dibapha”, the “Tyrianthina” (from Tyro), as well as  “ianthina” and “amethystina”, or “thalassina”.The Pompeian woman, depending on her financial resources and social status, may have had a series of objects from the most distant corners of the empire in her jewelry and make-up case. In reality, however, only in a few houses in Pompeii, have archaeologists found large collections of ointments.

Although many of the luxuries and refinements coveted by the Roman women were of oriental origin – gems from India, silk from China (“sericae vestes”), pearls (“elenchi”, “stalagmi”) from the Red Sea, perfumes from Arabia (“diapasmata” and “hedysmata”) – most of their names and methods of use were adopted by way of the “filter” of the Greek world.(2)




  1. Gioacchino Francesco La Torre, Sicilia e Magna Grecia, Editori Laterza, 2011, pag. 234
  2. Ria Berg “Attrarre” in Massimo Osanna e Carlo Rescigno, “Pompei e i Greci”, Electa 2017, pp. 218



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