The Roman Toga
Updated: Aug 23, 2021
Forward The purpose of this paper is to provide general readers, and those wishing to don a more accurate Roman 'toga', all the necessary information on this enigmatic garment. Originally researched and written by Clive Hewitt in 2007, it has remained unpublished ever since. Sadly Clive , a long-standing member of The Roman Military Research Society, passed away in January 2017 and it seemed that his research would remain unseen. In Clive’s memory I determined to see his work recognised.
In his original foreword, Clive duly thanked Dr Jane Malcom-Davies and Caroline Johnson, both of The Costume Society, Katrina Bill of The Textile Society, Dr AT Croom from Arbeia Roman Fort, and the librarians of his local library for the invaluable help they all provided. Despite a decade passing, the information they generously supplied still forms the basis of this paper. It seems appropriate that Clive’s acknowledgements are repeated here.
Clive was often never happy with the result of his efforts and thus reluctant to publish. I have, however, taken the decision to do so with an updated version for today’s web based media. The research and information contained herein remains firmly Clive’s intellectual property. Any mistakes, deviations or omissions from Clive’s original are purely my own.
Mark Hatch, Staffordshire 2017
Introduction Ask most people to describe a Roman toga (pl. togae) and images from popular film and television will dominate. The prevailing picture tends to be of a white cloth sheet or wool blanket casually draped over one shoulder that can be shrugged on and off with ease. For good reason, the 'Hollywood' toga is in a class of its own. The distinctive garment of ancient Rome, however, had a much more complex nature, and was imbued with symbolic meaning.
In essence, however, the toga was invariably made of wool cloth  of varying sizes up to six metres (20 feet) in length that was wrapped around the body. It was generally worn over a tunica, a universally worn garment often confused and misidentified as a toga. After the 2nd-century BC, the toga was worn almost exclusively by men, and only by Roman citizens. While in earlier times women had also worn the toga, from the 2nd-century BC onward they were expected to wear the stola .
History To most people the toga is quintessentially Roman, but in fact it was derived from a robe worn by the native Etruscans, a people who had lived in Italy since ca. 1,200 BC. The tebenna, as it was known, was merely an oblong of cloth worn as both a tunica (tunic) and a blanket. Etruscan farmers would wear the tebenna when working in their fields, or as their 'battle dress' when drafted into the army. It was only much later that this garment metamorphosed into the toga, a formal dress item that, oddly, seemed to have been much despised and never a popular thing to wear.
The toga is believed to have been adopted around the time of Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome. The garment was taken off indoors, or when hard at work in the fields, but it was considered the only decent attire out-of-doors. The story of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (see inset below) epitomises the toga’s status in Roman society. As the story goes, a group of Senators were sent to tell Cincinnatus that he had been nominated dictator. According to Livy, they found Cincinnatus ploughing a field on his farm. The delegation asked him to put on his senatorial toga before hearing the mandate of the Senate and Cincinnatus duly called for his wife to bring his toga from their cottage. Once dressed he was hailed dictator and told to come to the city . While the truth of the story may be doubtful, it nevertheless expresses the Roman sentiment that the toga was the appropriate dress for formal and ceremonial occasions.
Over time dress styles change. The Romans, for example, adopted the tunica (pl. tunicae) from their Greek and Etruscan neighbours (Gr: chiton). Tunicae were simply long tubes of cloth sewn together, with holes left unsewn for the arms and head; later, it became fashionable for tunicae to be made with sleeves. In time the Roman toga became bulkier and the fashion was for it to be worn in a looser manner over the tunica. The result was that the toga became impractical for active daily pursuits, such as those of farming or war. Indeed, in times of war, its place was taken by the handier sagum (a rectangular woollen cloak), and in times of peace the toga was superseded by the laena, lacerna, paenula, and other forms of buttoned or closed cloaks. From the simple blanket and 'battle dress' of the Etruscan and early Latin kings period, the toga had become a symbol of peace and, perhaps most importantly, citizenship .
The Republican Toga By the 2nd-century BC, the toga had, with two exceptions, become an item of purely male dress. It had a rounded lower edge and a small over-fold (sinus) at the top. Being worn over a mid-calf length tunica, this form of toga seems to have continued in use well into the Imperial period.
Late 1st- to early 2nd-century AD During this period the toga developed into a much larger garment. At some five metres it could no longer be put on alone, and the wearer needed at least two others to help don the garment. To cater for this the shape changed to a roughly trapezoidal form for the sinus area over a semi-circular form at the bottom. Writing in the late 1st-century AD, Quintillion goes to some length on the correct way for an orator to wear one:
'In my opinion the Toga should be rounded and cut to fit if it is not to be unshapely. The front edge should reach the middle of the shin whilst the back should be somewhat higher...the sinus should fall to a little above the edge of the tunica if it is to be the most becoming, it should not fall below it. That part that passes like a belt from under the right arm to over the left shoulder should be neither too tight nor too loose. The portion that is last to be arranged should sit rather low, since it will sit better thus and may be kept in place. A part of the tunica should be drawn back in order that it may not fall over the arm when we are pleading, and the sinus should be thrown back over the shoulder, while it will not be unbecoming if the edge is turned back.'
Early 2nd- to early 3rd-century AD There seem to have been some relatively minor changes to the way the toga was worn, with the sinus becoming longer - further towards the calf than previously. From Trajanic reliefs it seems that the fold coming under the right arm and the over the left shoulder (balteus) was folded tighter after AD 119. The umbo also became exaggerated by an increase in its overall length.
Early to late 3rd-century AD The balteus became grossly exaggerated; it was concertina-folded to form a smooth band and was taken twice around the body. A great deal of practice is needed to prepare the balteus to meet the required fashion.
Early 4th-century AD While the style with an exaggerated balteus continued, the sinus also grew so baggy that if not held on the right arm it swept the ground.
Late toga After the collapse of the Western Empire the toga slowly changed to a shape akin to a 'Yale' type of key. It must have been easier to put on, cost less and was easier to wear.
Modern Usage In several countries, 'toga parties' remain a popular entertainment, especially in colleges and universities. Taking their lead from films such as Animal House, where exaggerated tales of Roman debauchery are clearly the inspiration, participants usually don makeshift garments fashioned from bedsheets. Clearly, such 'togas' bear little resemblance to the Roman garment, being both flimsier and scantier.
Significance The same process that removed the toga from everyday life gave it an increased importance as a ceremonial garment. As early as the 2nd-century BC, and probably even before, the toga (along with boots known as calceus) was looked upon as the characteristic badge of Roman citizenship; wearing the toga was denied to foreigners  and to exiled Romans . On the other hand, it was worn as badge of office by magistrates on all occasions. In fact, for a magistrate to appear in a Greek cloak (pallium) and sandals was considered by all as highly improper, if not criminal . The Emperor Augustus, for instance, was so incensed at seeing a meeting of citizens who were not wearing their togae, that, quoting Virgil's proud lines, 'Romanos, rerum dominos, gentemque togatam' ('Romans, lords of the world, the toga-wearing race'), he gave orders to the aediles that in the future no one was to appear in the Forum or Circus without it .
Because the toga was not worn by soldiers, it was regarded as a sign of peace. A civilian was sometimes called togatus, 'toga-wearer', in contrast to paenula or sagum wearing soldiers. Cicero's De Officiis contains the phrase cedant arma togae: literally, 'let arms yield to the toga', meaning 'may peace replace war' or 'may military power yield to civilian power'. The toga‘s ceremonial role is exemplified when worn during religious rites. Those who officiated in sacred rituals, but who not part of the formal priesthood, wore the toga 'Capite Velato' where the sinus was pulled up to cover the head (priests wore special pointed hats known as apex). Occasions where this might occur, for example, include weddings, funerals and state occasions. The depictions on the Ara Pacis Augustae show little conformity on who wore the toga covering the head. It seems that only those immediately around the altar did so but where the distinction was drawn remains unclear.
Varieties Bunsen describes  the toga as: 'Essentially a white woollen cloth, cut to a semi-circular design, some five yards long and four yards wide, varying according to the size of the wearer. Part of it was pressed, and possibly sewn, into plaits and doubled lengthwise so that one of the folds (sinus) would fit comfortably around the hip and chest whilst allowing room enough to walk or move.' The description appears to be of the early Republican toga as those of the later Imperial period where considerably longer and fuller, between four metres and six metres long and up to three metres wide depending on the size of the wearer and how full a toga was desired. At the height of the Empire, a toga could be seven to eight metres long and thus would require gathering, pinning or tying in an umbo (boss) at the left shoulder to make the garment more manageable.
As the garment evolved almost all the major differences were in size, ornamentation and colour. Contemporary descriptions refer to purple togae being reserved for the Imperial family, dark coloured togae for plebeians and for those in mourning, and the embroidered 'toga picta' for those celebrating a triumph. References to the actual material are rarely mentioned, although Ovid notes togae were made from very thin or translucent fabrics and Varro states that the tunic’s purple stripe (clavus) could be seen through the toga. Similarly, Suetonius castigates the wearing of 'cloaks of outlandish colours' and something he called a 'transparent toga'.
Indeed, there were many kinds of togae. Each was used differently, some to distinguish social status and others for ceremonial purposes. The following examples represent those togae most often referred to in literary sources and from which we can determine their style and use:
Toga virilis (toga alba or toga pura): A plain toga worn on formal occasions by most Roman men of legal age, generally from about 14 to 18 years, but it could be any stage in their teens . The first wearing of the toga virilis was part of the celebrations on reaching maturity. Made of off-white or greyish wool depending on the natural colour of the sheep’s fleece. Bleaching (by 'fulling') would have whitened the toga but is unlikely to have produced a 'pure white' as its alternative names might imply.
Toga candida: Literally a 'bright toga' bleached by chalk to a dazzling white (Isidorus Orig. xix. 24, 6), worn by candidates for public office . Oddly, this custom appears to have been banned by plebiscite in 432 BC, but the restriction was never enforced . The term is the etymologic source of the word candidate.
Toga praetexta: An ordinary 'white' toga with, if you were of the appropriate social class, a broad reddish-purple stripe woven or sewn on its border. Originally the stripe was on the lower edge of the toga until moved to the edge of the sinus. The toga praetexta was worn by:
Freeborn boys who had not yet come of age (majority) . Until the late 1st-century AD, when girls stopped wearing it, young boys and girls of respectable families could wear the toga praetexta until the boys’ majority or the girls married.
All curule magistrates .
Ex-curule magistrates and dictators, upon burial  and apparently at festivals and other celebrations as well .
Some priests (e.g., the Flamen Dialis, Pontifices, Tresviri Epulones, the augurs, and the Arval brothers) .
Those of senatorial rank and their rank indicated by a broad crimson stripe (latus clavus) 75 mm (3”) wide. A narrower stripe (augustus clavus) of 25 mm (1”) wide was reserved for those of Equestrian rank.
Those bestowed an honour during the Empire regardless of whether they held a formal rank.
The Kings of Rome according to tradition.
This form of toga also gave its name to a literary form known as praetexta.
Toga pulla: Literally 'dark toga' was worn mainly by mourners, but could also be worn in times of private danger or public anxiety. It was sometimes worn as a form of protest. When, for example, the orator and ex-Consul Marcus Tullius Cicero was exiled, the Senate resolved to wear togae pullae as a demonstration against the decision . Magistrates with the right to wear a toga praetexta wore a simple toga pura instead of pulla.
Toga picta: The toga picta, unlike all others, was decorated with a red stripe with gold embroidery. Under the Republic, it was worn by generals in their triumphs, and by the Praetor Urbanus when he rode in the chariot of the gods into the circus at the Ludi Apollinares . During the Empire, the toga picta was worn by magistrates giving public gladiatorial games, and by the consuls, as well as by the Emperor on special occasions when the cloth was dyed purple.
Toga trabea: A high status toga in use between the 5th-century BC and the 5th-century AD. According to Servius, there were three different kinds of toga trabea: one of purple only, for the gods; another of purple and a little white, for kings; and a third, with scarlet stripes and a purple hem  for augurs and Salii . When worn by augurs, as a badge of office, the toga trabea became a relatively short, rounded purple and scarlet cloak fastened to the shoulders by broaches (fibulae). Dionysius of Halicarnassus says that those of equestrian class wore it as well, but this is not borne out by other evidence.
Toga sordida: A dark coloured plain toga worn, if they could afford the material, by the plebeian class.
Other less well known togae include:
Toga exigua: The term borrowed from Horace for a short toga worn in the 1st-century BC.
Toga purpurea: The Imperial purple toga ostensibly for the use of the Imperial family. Both Emperors Caligula and Nero attempted to control the use of purple in clothing but to little effect. The colour itself was probably not the modern purple but more likely a dark maroon.
Toga rasa: A toga with close-clipped smooth pile with some evidence suggesting it had mixed fibres.
Toga contabulata: A banded toga popular in the 2nd- and 3rd-centuries AD, which may be synonymous with the toga trabea. The toga contabulata  may differ in the number of colours used.
Laena: A priestly toga, probably purple in colour, about twice the size of the regular garment worn by the Flammines during sacrifices. The Laena was shaped somewhat like a toga but worn draped over both shoulders and hung in a high curve, front and back. It was fastened at the back by a pin. By its sheer size the priest must have had an assistant (camilla), a young boy from a respectable family, to carry the train.
Recreating a Toga: Material Although silk, cotton, linen and mixed fibres were all known, it would appear that for the most part Romans used wool cloth to make togae. To achieve the characteristic drapery, the material used must have been pliable and not too heavy and yet, by its own weight, naturally fall into graceful folds. The textile must be soft, but with a nap that allows the folds to cling together without pinning. Modern wool cloth is often too hard and stiff to achieve the effect, and close clipped or 'polished' textiles will not cling correctly and will slip from the shoulder with the slightest movement. The sourcing of a lightweight, soft and pliable flannel or similar cloth will be needed therefore to recreate a toga.
For a recreated toga, the cloth need not be pure wool. Modern wool mixes are an acceptable compromise to reduce costs (providing they look like what the purport to be), but artificial fibres should be avoided. Neither does a recreated toga have to be exclusively white, unless making a toga pura or one of its derivatives.
It is possible that the toga was woven in one piece, compete with clavii, on a special loom. It is certainly possible to weave the requisite cloth on a hand loom but it will take considerable time and the larger the toga, the more likely it will need some shaping to drape properly. It is therefore highly possible that togae were manufactured in two or three separate pieces. There is also evidence from statues that the characteristic drapery was formed by sewing in the folds, and that piping cord was woven into the selvedge.
Recreating a Toga: Colour The Roman colour palette was much smaller than that available to modern dyers. There was still substantial variety, and cloth colours could be improved, altered or added to by over dyeing. The vibrant, uniform dyes common today would not have been available in the Roman period, however. Despite this, archaeological evidence from wall paintings, statues, and cloth samples suggest that some ancient colours and dyes may have been very bright when new. The colours were not 'fast' in the modern sense, and so would eventually fade after prolonged washing or exposure to sunlight. Nor would the dyeing process have always create a uniform colour from piece to piece. The widespread practice of dyeing wool before spinning, i.e. 'in the fleece', may have produced a more varied hue throughout the resulting woven cloth. Moreover, differences in the degree of preparation, the cleanliness of the wool fibres, the time and care taken in the dyeing process could all impact on the final colour of the cloth.
In theory, unless specifically reserved or forbidden, togae could be dyed any colour. The highly stratified Roman world would not countenance this, so colours were reserved for use by individuals of higher social status, for particular civic roles, or for certain responsibilities such as when in mourning. Equally, some colours may have been avoided because they had negative connotations and were thus deemed socially unacceptable. Purple (purpura) was normally restricted for use by the Imperial family, while white togae were typically worn by Patricians of senatorial or equestrian rank. Where they could afford one it most likely that Plebeians might have worn lighter coloured, perhaps off-white, togae since obtaining bleached white cloth would have been too expensive for most.
Ancient writers attest to all the colours tabulated below, but only some would be suitable for togae:
Recreating a Toga: Sizing Determining the size of a toga is not an exact science, but from various statues we can deduce the proportions sufficiently to recreate the garment. The amount of cloth needed will vary according to the size and shape of the wearer and just how full a garment is required. The sizing tables  that follow may be used, in conjunction with their associated drawings, to make a toga adjustable to the size and shape of a particular wearer. The commonality of toga shapes means that only a few drawings are required to represent the examples known from different points in Roman history.
LM Wilson  evolved a system of individual measurement to create a bespoke toga. The letter 'U' represents a measurement from the base of the neck to the floor while wearing flat soled shoes or bare foot. The letter 'G' represents a measurement of the wearer’s girth at the waistline. So, the equation 2.43U+G means multiply the measurement 'U' by 2.43 and add the measurement 'G'.
The average person, let us say 1.74 m (5’ 10”) tall and with a waist measurement of 92 cm (36”), will require a rectangle of cloth 5.14 m x 3.65 m to recreate a large Imperial period toga. Modern powered looms manufacture cloth that is about consistently 1.52 m (60”) wide, however. To approximate the correct dimensions, therefore, will require the sewing together of two lengths of cloth to produce a toga that, while slightly small, is still an acceptable 5 m x 3 m.
Outline Drawings of Togae The drawings included here are simplified versions of those in Wilson (1924), and the dates quoted in the descriptions are approximate. There is evidence that styles were worn for centuries after they first became popular. Reliefs on the Ara Pacis, for example, suggest that different styles coincided even if at the time some may have been deemed 'old fashioned'.
To clarify the terms used, the sinus is that part of the toga that is folded back to obtain the characteristic draping. The folds may have been sewn or pinned in place. The clavus, on the other hand, is the coloured (purple) edging. There is evidence that the edging may have been sewn on after the toga had been trimmed to size for the wearer.
Donning a Toga Most Romans did not like wearing the toga as it was hot, heavy and uncomfortable. To wear one took a deal of preparation and at least one other person to help the wearer put it on. The toga was impractical day wear needing constant adjustment to preserve the correct draped form, and to stop it simply falling off.
Wearing a toga will be quite possibly a very alien concept for people used to modern tailored clothing. Being swathed in metres of material all precisely draped to be worn properly, with the left arm and, occasionally, hand dedicated to supporting the voluminous garment. and restricted to walking in short, measured steps requires practice.
A full toga cannot be simply 'slipped' on but takes the assistance of two or three people. Yet, evidence on how put on a toga does not survive and modern wearers may have to experiment with the most effective way of doing so. The following guidance is offered to those assistants charged with dressing the toga wearer:
1. The wearer stands erect with their arms extended laterally at shoulder height, i.e. in a cruciform stance. Other than holding a fold or slowly rotating when instructed, there is little else for the wearer to do.
2. The toga is prepared for donning by gathering the folds, which are then placed, from behind the wearer, over their left shoulder. The folds should be uppermost and hang down the wearer’s front, with the bottom edge reaching to the level of the knee or mid-calf. The folds should be adjusted as required to drape properly. The wearer can assist by bending his left arm at the elbow and gripping the material in place.
3. Keeping the folds together, drape the material down the wearer’s back, looping up under their right arm, across the chest (the wearer’s left hand must be out of the way) and once again over the left shoulder. The depth of the swag will depend on how long and full the toga has been made. Tucking the material into a belt may help the draping on the wearer’s right side. Depending on the available space it may be advantageous to get the wearer to perform a slow quarter or half turn to the right.
4. If the toga is particularly long, the remaining material should be passed over the right shoulder (from back to front) and under the right forearm to cradle the arm in a sling before again passing over the left arm or shoulder. Alternatively, excess material may be tucked beneath and into the folds created by the first pass across the body.
1. William Smith, LLD; William Wayte; G. E. Marindin, ed (1890). 'Toga'. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, London: John Murray. Available online: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Toga.html, (accessed 16 August 2017)
2. In a strictly hierarchical Roman society, status and social standing were paramount. The wearing of the stola by freeborn women and Roman matrons marked these citizens as respectable and distinct from others. It is thought, for example, that from the late Republican or early Imperial era onwards meretices (prostitutes) may have worn the man’s toga when in public to visibly distinguish them from respectable Roman women.
3. Livius, Titus (ca. 1st-century BC). "Book III: The Decemvirate", chapter 26, Ab Urbe Condita.
4. Spart. Sever. 1, 7. As cited by The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
5. Suetonius Tranquillus, Gaius (121 CE). 15.2, The Life of Claudius: 'In a case involving citizenship a fruitless dispute arose among the advocates as to whether the defendant ought to make his appearance in the toga or in a Greek mantle...'
6. Plinius Caecilius Secundus, Gaius (ca. 105 CE). Line 3, epistle 11, book 4, Epistulae: 'Idem cum Graeco pallio amictus intrasset - carent enim togae iure, quibus aqua et igni interdictum est...' ('Likewise he would have gone clothed with the Greek garb - for those who have been barred from fire and water are without the right of a toga...').
7. Tullius Cicero, Marcus (63 BC): Pro Rabirio Perduellionis Reo ('For Rabirius on a Charge of Treason'): 'Rabirius... was now accused of... wearing the dress of an Egyptian.'
8. Suetonius Aug. 40.5
9. Bunsen, M. Encyclopaedia of the Roman Empire, New York (ISBN 0-8160-2135-X)
10. cf. Mart. viii. 28, 11. As cited by The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
11. cf. Polybius, x. 4, 8. As cited by The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
12. Liv. iv. 25, 13. As cited by The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
13. Liv. xxiv. 7, 2. As cited by The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
14. cf. Cic. post red. in Sen. 5, 12. As cited by The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
15. Zonar. vii. 19. As cited by The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
16. Liv. xxxiv. 7, 2. As cited by The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
17. cf. Cic. Phil. ii. 4. 3, 110. As cited by The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
18. Liv. xxvii. 8, 8; xxxiii. 42. As cited by The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
19. post red. in Sen. 5, 12. As cited by The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
20. cf. Liv. v. 41, 2. As cited by The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
21. cf. Isid. Orig. xix. 24, 8. As cited by The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
22. ad Aen. vii. 612; cf. ad vii. 188. As cited by The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
23. Apuleius, Metamorphoses, 11.3. 'Toga contabulata' appears to be a relatively modern, albeit useful, term.
24. Wilson, L.M., (1924), The Roman Toga, The John Hopkins Press, Baltimore [Amended].