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The many guises of the emperor Augustus
The many guises of the emperor Augustus

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3.3 The Augustan toga

In his Life of Augustus, the historian Suetonius makes the following comment about Augustus:

He desired also to revive the traditional fashion of dress, and once when he saw in an assembly a group of men in dark cloaks, he cried out indignantly, ‘Behold them, Romans, masters of the world, the toga-clad race!’ (gens togata) and he directed the officers never again to allow anyone to appear in the Forum or its neighbourhood except in the toga.

(Suetonius, Augustus 40)

In this passage, Augustus is observed sarcastically quoting the lines from the Aeneid mentioned in the previous section to bewail the sight of men in central Rome wearing dark cloaks instead of togas. For him, this was a sign of the degree to which standards of propriety and patriotism had slipped over the course of the late Republic, and he was determined to do something about it. First, as the passage says, he made the toga compulsory in the civic heart of Rome. Second, he invented a new type of toga.

The Republican toga had consisted of a simple semi-circle of cloth draped diagonally around the body with the straight edge (balteus) at the top and the curved hem at the bottom. Augustus’s toga had an added semicircle of cloth called a sinus that formed a second layer with a higher hem. It was also draped in a more complex way, with a pocket of cloth (umbo) pulled out over the balteus (see Figures 12 and 13). (NB: the toga you saw in the video in the previous section was an Augustan toga!)

This image shows two line drawings. The one on the left consists of a semi-circle with ‘balteus’ written along the straight edge. The one on the right is identical save for an additional semicircle added to the top, giving the full outline an elliptical shape. This additional semicircle is labelled ‘sinus’.
Figure 12 Outline of the earlier Republican toga (left) vs the Augustan toga (right).
This image shows eight line drawings of a standing man. The aim is to show, one step at a time, the way the toga way draped. The figures are labelled A-H. A: The man (who also wears a short-sleeved, knee-length tunic belted at the waist) has the semi-circular toga draped around his body such that the straight edge (labelled ‘2’) is at the top and the curved edge hanging down. One corner (labelled ‘1’) hangs down his front on the left to just above his feet. It is then draped over his left shoulder and around his back. He holds the right side of it with his right hand. The other corner is also labelled ‘1’. B: The man has pulled the right side of the toga under his right arm. C: The man is throwing the right side of the toga over his left shoulder with the straight edge (‘2’) diagonally across his chest. D: The man is now standing with his toga draped in the correct way for the late Republican period, with the straight part of the toga (‘2’) draped around his back and diagonally across his chest, and the right side of the toga thrown over his left shoulder, with his left arm carrying the bulk of the folds (although his hand is free) and leaving his right arm completely free. The left corner (‘1’) hangs between his legs. E: This is a repeat of image C, signalling that the viewer return to this stage to understand the steps to follow, which is a second style of draping from the imperial era. F: The toga has been thrown over the left shoulder as above, but this time a bit of the toga underneath has been pulled out over the outermost diagonal (‘2’) and there is a second, shorter layer of cloth hanging down (labelled ‘3’). G: This is the finished imperial toga, which is similar to image D except that there is a pouch of cloth protruding over the diagonal (‘2’) across the chest. This is labelled ‘4’. There is also the second, shorter layer of cloth hanging down (labelled ‘3’) over the main drooping fold of the toga. H: shows the back of the man in his fully draped toga, showing the side that was thrown over the left shoulder hanging down the back all the way to the feet.
Figure 13 Draping of the Republican toga (top row) vs the Augustan toga (bottom row). The fully draped Republican toga is D, the fully draped Augustan toga is G. Parts of the toga: 1. lacinia 2. balteus 3. sinus 4. umbo.

Activity 3

Timing: Allow around 15 minutes for this activity

Scholars have speculated on the meaning of the imperial toga. Why do you think Augustus thought it a good idea to introduce a new style of toga?

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It is hard to pin down what this change meant in concrete terms: the new, Augustan toga would definitely have been more expensive, and would thus have provided a means for status distinction. (That is to say, only very rich citizens would have easily afforded one.) A new type of toga could also have been intended to symbolise the dawn of a new era. On the other hand, because it is so large and elaborate, it could be seen to symbolise an exaggerated adherence to all of the traditional values tied up in the toga as described in the previous section, such as peace, patriotism and civic duty. Perhaps it was a mixture of all of these!