Privilege and Restraint:  Roman Sartorial Symbols

Melissa A. Rothfus

University at Buffalo, SUNY

Elements of Roman costume were both privileges of the juridical orders and a means of social control.  This latter quality was appreciated by Augustus as he attempted to encourage dress that would define appropriate roles for individuals in Roman society.  While rulers of other states have used sumptuary legislation to pursue that same goal, Augustus used the power of pre-existing status symbols, elements of adornment unique to specific segments of society, such as the latus clavus of the senatorial order.  For Roman elites, sartorial status symbols served to ensure recognition of privileges, and were guarded jealously. At the same time, appreciation of the identity declared through these status symbols created strong pressures to conform to behavior consistent with them.  A man dressed as a senator had expectations of how he should be treated, and the others who saw him had expectations of who a senator was and how he should act.  Augustus appreciated the usefulness of sartorial status symbols to mold attitudes and behavior when he promoted the "revival" of the toga and stricter access to the latus clavus, as recorded by Suetonius.  In Rome, sartorial status symbols were not just privileges but a means of restraint as they could be used to guide perceptions of who individuals were – how they should act and think.  In accepting the benefits of sartorial privileges, Romans, and particularly elites further accepted public monitoring of behavior and moral accountability.


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