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Ancient Romans

The Ancient World and Fashion > The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire began as a small community of farmers living on the banks of the Tiber River in Italy. Gradually, the farming villages grew into a town and then into a city. At first the city of Rome was ruled by kings, but in 509 BCE the last king was driven out and Rome became a republic ruled by two elected consuls, who were advised by a senate. In 45 BCE a general named Julius Caesar seized power, but he was soon assassinated, and a period of conflict followed until Augustus took control in 27 BCE. Augustus was the first Roman emperor, and the empire lasted for the next four hundred years. Augustus and his successors conquered vast areas of land, creating an empire that stretched from Britain in the north to North Africa in the south.Wherever the Romans conquered, they established the Roman way of life, building fine cities with temples, baths, and theaters. Governors were sent from Rome to rule over the provinces, and many of the conquered peoples adopted Roman ways, even dressing like the Romans.

Making Clothes

Most Roman clothes were made from wool, which was spun and woven by hand at home or in a workshop. In towns and cities, Romans took their woolen cloth to the fuller’s workshop to be cleaned and treated before it was made into clothes. First, the cloth was stiffened by soaking it in urine, and then it was cleaned by rubbing it with a kind of clay. After this, the cloth was beaten, stretched, and bleached. Fullers also cleaned and mended clothes for the richer people. Sometimes the Romans had clothes made from linen, which came from Egypt. The wealthiest wore clothes made of cotton from India and silk from China.

Roman woman
Roman woman

In this mosaic from the fourth century BCE the Roman poet Virgil is flanked by two muses (goddesses of inspiration). Virgil wears a toga looped over one shoulder.

Women's Clothing

Roman women wore a long, belted, sleeveless dress called a stola. Over this was a large, rectangular shawl, known as a palla, which could be worn draped around the shoulders or looped over the head like a hood. Under the stola women wore a loincloth and sometimes a simple leather bra. Girls wore white until they were married, but after this they often wore brightly colored dresses.

A Roman woman dressed in stola (dress) and palla (shawl). The Romans used hand-mirrors made from highly-polished

Togas and Tunics

The basic garment for men was a simple, belted tunic made from two rectangles of wool stitched together. Tunics were usually made of unbleached wool and reached to the knees. Under their tunics men wore a loincloth made from a strip of wool or linen. They also had a simple cloak, which could be wrapped around them or fastened with a brooch at the neck. Important men wore a toga over their tunic. This was a very long strip of woolen cloth, wrapped around the body and draped over one shoulder. However, the toga was very heavy and awkward to wear, so it was only worn for special occasions. Togas were usually plain white, but those worn by senators had a broad purple border. Until they were sixteen, boys from wealthy families wore a white toga with a narrow purple border.

Hair Care

Most Roman men kept their hair short, either combed forward or curled.They were usually clean-shaven, although the emperor Hadrian (reigned 117–138 CE) started a fashion for beards. Most men began the day by visiting the barber’s shop for a shave, and some had the hair removed from their arms and legs as well.
This could be a painful experience because barbers did not use soap or oil. During the period of the republic, most women wore their hair tied in simple buns at the back of their heads, but by the time of the empire some very elaborate styles had developed. Wealthy women’s hair was curled and braided and piled into elaborate styles, held in place with dozens of pins.
For special celebrations, wealthy women wore wigs, and brides wore several hairpieces for their weddings. Some women cut off their slaves’ hair and had it made into wigs or hairpieces. Others bought wigs made from imported hair.Black hair came from Asia, while blond and red hair was imported from northern Europe. Some Romans used a brown hair dye made from walnut shells and wild onions. Others tried to prevent their hair from going gray by applying a paste of earthworms and herbs!

Roman Rings

Roman men and women wore a lot of rings. Rich people had rings made from gold and silver and set with precious stones such as emeralds, pearls,or amber. Less wealthy people wore rings made from bronze. Often a ring held a gemstone engraved with a pattern that could be used as a seal.


Most wealthy Roman women relied on cosmetics to make themselves look beautiful, and slaves devoted hours each morning to making up their mistresses. It was very fashionable in Roman times for women to look pale, so women whitened their faces and arms with powdered chalk or a poisonous mixture made from lead. They darkened their eyebrows and eyelashes with soot and wore eye shadow made from ash or saffron. Color was added to lips and cheeks using red ocher, plant dye, or even the sediment of red wine. As well as applying makeup, Roman women liked to treat their skin with a variety of creams.They applied facials of bread soaked in milk and even used a cream made from crushed snails. Perfumes were very popular, and women kept their cosmetics and scent in delicate glass pots and bottles.

False Teeth

Many Romans suffered from tooth decay, and sometimes dentists took drastic action. They extracted rotten teeth and supplied false ones to fill the gaps. False teeth were made from ivory or bone and were attached to a gold band that would not rust.

The mask
The mask

Two Roman actors’ masks from a mosaic. The mask on the left would be worn by a comic character, while the one on the right represents a pale-skinned maiden.

The mask 2
The mask 2
Roman Rings
Roman Rings
Young woman
Young woman

This young woman wears simple gold earrings in her ears, while her carefully curled hair is held in place by a delicate lattice-work cap.

Roman bath
Roman bath

A surviving Roman bath from the city of Bath, in southern England. (Only the lower section dates from Roman times.)

Roman Baths

Very few Roman houses had bathrooms, so most people visited the public baths. However, a visit to the baths was much more than a chance to get clean. Like modern health clubs, Roman baths offered the chance for a total exercise and beauty routine. Many Romans began their visit to the baths with a session in the exercise yards, where they could practice weightlifting, wrestling, or ball games. This could be followed by a period in the sudatorium-a hot, steamy room, like a modern-day sauna. In the caldarium, or hot bath, the Romans smeared their bodies with perfumed oil and then scraped off the dirt with a curved stick called a strigil. After this they visited the tepidarium, a lukewarm pool where they could cool down, and then perhaps enjoy a massage. The whole experience ended with a refreshing dip in the frigidarium-the unheated, outdoor swimming pool.

Roman Actors

Throughout the Roman Empire, companies of actors performed plays to entertain the people.These plays were usually solemn tragedies about heroes and gods, or knockabout comedies about ordinary people. All the parts were taken by men, and the actors wore distinctive costumes and masks to help the audience understand their roles in the play. Roman drama had its origins in the plays of the ancient Greeks, and Greek and Roman actors wore very similar costumes and masks.


Roman plays were usually performed in huge, outdoor theaters, with rows of seats built in a high circle around a central stage. Because of the vast size of these the aters, the actors had to be easily visible. They wore exaggerated masks and large wigs, and many actors added extra padding under their costumes to give themselves more bulk. The actors playing women used special padding to give them a more female shape.

Roman Soldiers
Roman Soldiers

This mosaic shows two scenes of gladiators fighting. The figure on the left in both scenes is a retiarius, who fights with a net.

This mosaic shows two scenes of gladiators
This mosaic shows two scenes of gladiators

Costumes were fairly simple and usually consisted of a tunic and cloak, which were short for men and long for those playing women. The colors of an actor’s clothes helped to identify his role in the drama, so tragic characters woredark robes, while happy charactershad brightly colored costumes. As well as the individual actors,most plays featured a chorusa group of actors who all spokeat once. Members of the chorus also wore costumes and sometimes even dressed as animals or birds.


In addition to their costumes, the actors wore masks to help the audience recognize what kind of character they were playing. The masks had exaggerated features which showed the character’s sex and age, and whether they were humans or gods. Female masks were much paler than male ones and had bigger eyes. There were special masks for recognizable character types such as the “wise old man,” the “fool,” the “innocent maiden,” and “the scheming slave.” During the course of a performance, an actor might wear several masks, swapping perhaps from a smiling to an angry mask to indicate that his character's mood had changed. Actors’ masks were usually made from stiffened, painted linen, and they were lightweight, but very hot. They had holes for the eyes and a very large hole for the mouth, which helped to amplify the actor’s voice so that he could be heard by everyone in the theater.

The Roman Army

In the early republic, Rome did not have a professional army, because in times of war, all male citizens were expected to fight.The men had to provide their own weapons and equipment and then return home when the fighting was over. By the time of the empire, however, the Roman army had become an extremely efficient fighting force. Soldiers were well-paid professionals who wore regulation armor and weapons.
The Roman army was divided into legions-groups of around six thousand men. Within the legions, most men fought as legionaries, or foot soldiers, while a smaller group of mounted soldiers formed the cavalry. Marching at the head of the legion was the aquilifer or standard-bearer. Roman legionaries wore short tunics and leather sandals studded with nails.They fought with daggers, swords, and javelins and carried a large wood and leather shield. An iron helmet protected their head and they also wore a breastplate made from metal strips.
Standard-bearers led their legion into battle, so they had to be easy to spot. As well as their basic armor, they wore a dramatic headdress made from the head and front paws of a lion, and carried a tall staff topped by a golden emblem of an eagle. Another dramatic figure on the battlefield was the cornicene, or horn player. He blew battle signals, using a large, circular trumpet, and wore a striking costume made from a bear’s head and skin. Each Roman legion was divided into many smaller groups, and each group had its own commander.

The most important commander was the legate, who was in charge of the whole legion and wore a golden helmet topped with eagle’s wings. The least important was the centurion, who commanded a group of around eighty men. The centurion wore similar armor to the legionary, but his shins were protected by metal plates called greaves, and he wore a plumed helmet on his head.


The Roman emperors paid for dramatic and bloodthirsty shows to entertain the people of the city. Known as “the games,” these shows were held in massive stone stadiums, such as the Colosseum in Rome. One of the most popular games was the gladiator fight. Gladiators were slaves, criminals, or prisoners of war, who were forced to fight each other to the death. Most gladiators fought with very short swords. They wore simple loincloths and went bare-chested, although they did wear a helmet and carry a shield. One type of gladiator, called a retiarius, fought with a net and wore no armor at all.

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