Compare and Contrast Essay on Ancient Greece and Rome

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How Dress Shows the Roles of Women in Ancient Roman Society Compared to Those of Women in the Earlier Ancient Civilization of Greece

The women in the earlier ancient civilization of Greece had few rights in comparison to male citizens. The women were unable to own property, were rarely seen in public, and led sequestered restricted lives. A woman’s place was in the home and her purpose in life was to be a good wife to her husband. Being a good wife meant bearing children, maintaining an orderly household, and training and supervising servants and slaves. In the Roman world, the role of women was not thought of as equal to the role of men. Women were regarded as inferior in legal terms, but there was also a strong Roman male appreciation and admiration of women and their role in everyday life. Roman men knew it wasn’t always comfortable living with them, but they couldn’t live without them. In this paper, I will compare and contrast the roles of women in ancient Roman society with those of women in the earlier ancient civilization of Greece and describe how their dress reflected their roles in society through social structure, economics, and ideology/religious factors.

The social structure for all Romans was a patriarchal society. Starting at the top were imperial domus, senators, then equestrians, followed by the commons, freed people, and finally the slaves. The social structure for Roman women included a limited form of citizenship. Women were not allowed to vote or stand for civil or public office. However, women could own property, engage in business, and obtain a divorce. Brooches were a way of defining a person’s status and gender by the way these brooches were worn. Research from burials of Ancient Roman people shows that the “high-bowed brooches were used to fasten coarse and thick material such as overgarments and so were likely to have been worn by both men and women. Flatter brooches were for thinner fabrics, such as in women’s undergarments. Roman soldiers also wore certain brooches as insignia, and women wore them as jewelry.” (Allison 108). The different ways they wore broaches when they were buried showed many characteristics of the person from when they were living. Women also were shown to have worn a greater number of brooches. Women of higher status could afford more quality, detailed brooches than women of lower classes. The physical type of brooches worn could also show gender. The Distelfibel was a larger, heavy, thistle-shaped brooch. It had a ribbed semicircular bow with a large shield decorated with curved and incised pressed sheet metal. Evidence showed that “this particular brooch type can indeed be gendered predominantly female in most Roman period contexts.” (Allison 109). The Distelfibel was also found in many rich burials which shows that the wearer of theist hype of brooch would have been a woman of higher status.

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The social structure in Greece was a hierarchy of different classes of people. There were upper, middle, lower/freemen, and slave classes. There was also a pecking order for gender and citizenship. At the top was the government made of up adult men in the democracy, followed by male citizens, and then male children. Native free men were the only citizens Women, foreigners, and female children fell below the male citizens and male children. Slaves were the lowest class and had no form of citizenship. Life in ancient Greece developed from the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations. Scientists have discovered that the Ancient Greeks used clothing for much more than simply protecting the body. Dress for the Ancient Greeks served as decoration and signaled the status of the wearer. Wealthier Greek citizens wore fine fabrics and elaborate jewelry that required great skill to create. Poorer Greeks such as slaves and freemen who weren’t citizens, mainly dressed in basic, coarsely made garments. One garment worn by women was the himation. The himation was an oblong woolen shawl with large dimensions, and it was worn draped around the body in different ways. A woman “wearing one's himation with grace was a mark of social standing in the community and it cannot always have been an easy achievement, for the himation was generally worn without fasteners like buttons or safety pins, and the wearer must have sometimes used his hands that were hidden by his himation to hold it in place,” (Andrews). This shows their social status because the garment would have been too hard to wear for a woman doing chores. The himation signaled that the woman wearing it did not have to do physical labor, because she could afford to have a slave do her chores.

Romans were very superstitious when it came to religious spirits on a woman’s wedding day. The Roman bride would wear tunica recta, which would have been a simple white dress woven in a traditional way. The fabric was usually made from wool because people believed this was the lucky fabric and a good way to ward off evil. Roman brides always wore a veil called a flame. The flame was big enough to wrap around the bride and cover her head, but not her face. The color of the veil either red or a deep yellow color is highly debated by experts. Whatever the color, people believed the veil would make the bride look like a candle flame. This was done to once again, ward off evil spirits. Roman bridesmaids wore the same dress as the bride, to confuse any spirits at the wedding ceremony. Romans believed that having several similar-looking dresses would make the spirit unable to recognize the bride out of all the women wearing the same dress. Roman brides took these precautions to ward off evil spirits because they believed that “before the ceremony was completed and she joined the household of the groom, the bride was sort of in a limbo, stripped of the gods who can offer her protection in the outside world,” (citation). The bride was vulnerable to spirits because she would be leaving her family and the protections granted to her by the deities, that her family worshiped.

The religion in ancient Greece was polytheistic. They believed different gods had their own domain such as the god of war and the god of the sea. Different temples were built to honor specific gods and goddesses. The art displayed on the walls throughout these temples, vase paintings, and statues of women, were believed to be priestesses. They know these women are priestesses because “priestesses are identifiable solely because of the temple key that they carry, but there are no attributes or inscriptions that indicate which divinity they served,” (Brøns 356). Almost all of the priestesses depicted throughout the temple were shown to be wearing a chiton himation. A chiton was a rectangular piece of linen or wool, draped by the wearer in various ways, and the shoulders were kept in place by brooches called fibulae. The waist was synched in by a belt that the excess fabric was pulled up under the belt. At all times the chiton was worn at ankle length by women in ancient Greece. The himation was a very large rectangle of fabric, that was draped in different ways such as a shawl, cloak, or head covering. They were usually made of white wool, however, women could wear himations made of colored silk or cotton.

The different types of clothing women of Ancient Greece and Ancient Roman societies wore showed their role in that society. Women had different roles than men and different roles among other social classes of people. Women of higher classes could afford fancier garment styles, fabrics, and brooches. Women used to dress in religious ways to ward off evil spirits and show their role as priestesses. (add in the economic sentence). These factors of dress show how women were important to their respective societies even though they may not have ranked higher than men on the social hierarchy.

Works Cited

  1. Penelope M. Allison. “Characterizing Roman Artifacts to Investigate Gendered Practices in Contexts Without Sexed Bodies.” American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 119, no. 1, 2015, pp. 103–123. JSTOR,
  2. 'Garments in Classical Greece.' Arts and Humanities Through the Eras, edited by Edward I. Bleiberg, et al., vol. 2: Ancient Greece and Rome 1200 B.C.E.-476 C.E. Gale, 2005, pp. 86-92. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 5 Mar. 2019.
  3. Andrews, Stefan. “The Bizarre History of the Wedding Veil: in Ancient Rome It Was Supposed to Protect the Bride from Evil Spirits .” The Vintage News, The Vintage News, 8 June 2018,
  4. Brøns, Cecilie. Gods and Garments: Textiles in Greek Sanctuaries in the 7th to the 1st Centuries BC, Oxbow Books, Limited, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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