Sunday 21 July 2019

The Quandary of What to Wear by Elisabeth Storrs

Empress Livia Drusilla
Creating a character in an historical novel can lead to unexpected quandaries. Dressing them in appropriate clothes would seem a simple matter. However, introducing a Roman tomb whore into the Tales of Rome Saga opened an unexpected can of worms when determining what she would wear. 

Pinna is the daughter of a Roman soldier who was reduced to bondage resulting in her being forced into prostitution. Lack of funds means she starts her life as an unregistered whore (worse still as a tomb whore - the lowest in the pecking order). As a result, she permanently surrenders her rights to citizenship. By the time of the events in the third book, Call to Juno, she has clawed her way through coercion to become the concubine of a general but harbours dreams of gaining citizenship again as a Roman matron and wife.

As the saga is set in the very early days of the Republic it was difficult to find reliable primary sources to provide a definitive view of this period. I was forced to depend on non-contemporaneous sources. Much of what is understood about Roman women in early classical times is often deduced from legislation that was enacted centuries later in the Augustan period. Rome valued monogamy, and the concepts of culpability for adultery and “stuprum” (extramarital sex) were applied when classifying a woman’s status. The propriety expected of a Roman matron was the standard by which women were judged. The two ends of the spectrum were the respectable wife versus the dissolute whore. One was lauded as a virtuous citizen who must be faithful to her husband; the other was so corrupted that she lost all claim to moral or legal rights. The greater the degree of promiscuity, reward for sex and lack of emotional attachment, the more tainted the woman became. However, given a prostitute was irrevocably stained, she could not be punished for committing adultery. That crime was reserved for a wife alone.

Prostitution was heavily regulated in Rome in the late Republic and imperial times. There is considerable commentary about this period but, alas, no certainty as to the rules relating to the “oldest profession” at the time I set my books. Nevertheless, I based Pinna’s circumstances on the assumption that imperial laws enshrined what had been customary practice throughout Republican times. 

Young prostitute from Roman colony C2nd CE
There were many different categories of prostitutes, all of whom were known by colorful names. The “lupae” (she wolves), who serviced clients in “lupanariae”, were reputedly called this because they were as rapacious as wolves. The inspiration for Pinna came from reading about the unregistered “noctiluae” (night walkers), who were colloquially known as “night moths”, including the “busturiae” who doubled as hired mourners and plied their trade amid the tombs.

A concubine was seen as a mixture between a matron and a harlot. Her status was ambiguous and has been described as “safe and schizophrenic”. These de facto wives were denied the status of a matron because they had committed stuprum (and, it appears, were not subject to the laws of adultery either), yet they were considered respectable enough to be accepted by society. They were usually slaves or freedwomen, although there is evidence that lower class freeborn citizens also chose to enter into such relationships. Often widowers chose de facto wives to avoid complications with the inheritances of their legitimate children when remarrying. Concubines were also commonly taken by young noblemen before the men reached an age to enter political life and were expected to officially wed.

Status was signified through a dress code. Matrons were entitled to wear a stola overdress, palla shawl, and fillets in their hair as a symbol of both their married standing and their citizenship. In comparison, a prostitute was marked out by wearing a toga and was denied the privilege of covering her head in modesty and wearing outdoor shoes. So then, what was I to do about Pinna when she became a concubine who hides her secret life as a whore and is believed by those around her to retain her freeborn status?  Alas, I was unable to ascertain whether a freeborn or freedwoman concubine could wear a stola. I assumed the taint of stuprum precluded such a right. Accordingly I also deprived Pinna of the opportunity – a decision that provides an example of the challenge of writing historical fiction. The smallest of details can lead to the deepest research!

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Ancient Rome saga, and the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. Learn more at
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
This post was originally published in 2016 on Helen Hollick’s ‘Of History and Kings’

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