Ancient Roman Culture Essay

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Ancient Roman Culture: Dressing for Democracy

Ancient Roman Culture


Governance, Food, Clothing, Jewelry and Marriage

Ancient Roman Influences

Some have argued that for good or for bad the Ancient Romans put the people into democracy. They sought to give life to the Greek concept of governance by the people, often by establishing rules and expectations that would encourage its citizens to be equally recognized, at least within certain parameters. Even though it would turn out in reality that some citizens would get more than others, there were numerous efforts to govern, feed, dress, adorn and even pair up people with an eye toward equality for most of those who qualified.

Below we review Ancient Roman government, foods, fashions and jewelry, and the basis of their sexuality and marriage. Our goal is to explore some of the foundations for understanding how their influences in these areas effectively dressed contemporary culture for democracy. Overall my thesis is that Roman styles tried to be balanced for all, even though they sought to establish certain benefits to some in order to convey status if not ostentatious wealth. If one followed these expectations generally and was otherwise authentically a Roman, they could literally act, eat, dress and celebrate as an ideal democratic person.


Politics meant the most in civilized life to the Ancient Romans because they had to be monitored carefully in order to ensure access and avoid having their culture and a civilization dissolve into conflict and violence. A key part of their philosophy presumed that all those who qualified (usually by birthright) as citizens of the Empire deserved the chance to have a voice in how government worked. That was why the Greek conceptualization of democracy was so important. The people were supposed to be the voice of true authority, and everyone was to have an equal and fair voice in how they lived and the opportunities they earned. Try as they might, they could never give up some designations of preference and standing, of course, but for the most part this culture saw its people as deserving of being strong citizens.

This flexibility found a perfect home in the making of the American system of government, which still retains perhaps the most dramatic of democratic ideals even today. The Founding Fathers knew these expectations well and fought and argued in private and public forums, just as the Romans did in their political conversations, to live out similar ideals (Jillison, 2009, pgs. 5-7). This was why they took the best from what the Romans knew about having parts of a monarchy (our executive office of the president), parts of an aristocracy (the Senate) and parts of a democracy (Congress) and put them together into a singular form. Our government would literally become a balance between these three power bases with an eye toward keeping peace, justice and liberty for all. How one did this in practice, however, was still a challenge that even the Romans often failed to fully achieve. America's founders nevertheless still sought to solve this puzzle by providing its citizens with their own menus and trappings of Democracy (Jillison, 2009, p.7).


American food is grounded in a stew of influences as well, many of which follow from the rather democratic and entertaining notions the Ancient Romans attached to their food and the circumstances of when and where they ate. Our meals often involve keeping ingredients simple, sometimes even in a single pot or casserole of flavors. In this kind of preparation, the ingredients can be seen and trusted and one could tell that the items in the food were basic meats, potatoes and vegetables, mostly grown nearby. To the Romans, the food tasted good in this fashion, didn't seem too pretentious (and thus express a sense of equality of access), and made for great leftovers. One could usually see these qualities in the three meals a day that they ate together, starting with breakfast (ientaculum) the moving to lunch (prandium) and dinner (cena), often served evenly across the day (Weiss Adamson and Segan, 2008, p. 18). Families and friends or associates were usually expected to eat together in a special gathering room, a dining room we might say. Though there were exceptions, like when food was taken as part of some of the Ancient Roman's favorite events. They knew that "bread and a circus," or eating and being entertained at the same time were part of a good strategy to keep citizens from rebelling and could go well with other types of celebrations that included food, such as birthdays or funerals (Weiss Adamson and Segan, 2008, pgs. 25-28).

American meals today are actually quite celebratory. Like the Romans, we like to consume in public gatherings with families and the community, and of course have special foods for sporting events. In many instances politics work their way onto the menu, which could be seen as an extension of the public square of Roman involvement in civilized life (Alcock, 2006). It wasn't unusual for many cities in Rome to regularly make food available to all, even in places that they literally fought to control. The Romans believed in urbanizing the lands they conquered, and that included ensuring that rural areas would be kept as places where local food could be grown and harvested (sort of like farmer's markets of today).

Sports and food were a specific form of public demonstrations of Roman virility. They took pride in linking many of their daily routines to demonstrations of masculinity, and the sporting arena was very much a part of this. Men (and later women as they proved their worth) confirmed their strength in this way. Thus it should be no surprise when American food resources carry titles such as "Entertaining from Ancient Rome to the Super Bowl" (Weiss Adamson and Segan, 2008). Some traditions apparently die hard.


The Ancient Romans loved sumptuary laws. Sumptuary laws were designed to keep people from flagrantly representing their wealth and superiority in clothing and attire. Good citizens were expected to stay within their proper statuses, of course, and thus dress accordingly so others could tell where they belonged, but they were not supposed to showoff just for the sake of showing off. If anything, the differences in style, color and the use of jewelry and such were mostly to represent functional differences not superiority of class. Women and men wore different types of clothing, and so did boys and girls. Those who were to be married did as well. And working people in different positions dressed accordingly. But these differences were not supposed to be excessive or demeaning to the wearers.

This idea as represented in the sumptuary law did not last long, however, even though they apparently continued to pass for much of the duration of the Empire. As one fashion expert on the era noted, instead clothing was meant to be functional and easy to use and adapt to different expectations (Goldman, 2001). Men, women and children would wear their version of the tunic, toga, peplos, stola, palla, and pallium, many of which shared wrap-around characteristics. For the most part these draping styles mirrored the designed and preference of the Greeks, continuing this look for nearly a millennium (Goldman, 2001, p. 216).

If there was a symbol of how these barriers broke down it could be seen in the jewelry. Women wore different styles that might become more evident as they got ready to marry or once they were established with their husbands. Jewelry of different types would be used to hold up one's clothing in a certain way, which did lead to more class distinctions. Often times, these uses and certain pieces helped keep some of the capes and clothing in place. Later gold worn proudly would become a favorite type of metal and its appeal would carry on until today. The Romans like most other cultures created their own equivalent of popular clothing (such as we might think of as blue jeans), mostly for purposes of showing how a person fit in and was trying be as good and successful as everyone else. The clothing was thus democratic even if the jewelry was sumptuous (Goldman, 2001, pgs. 217-218).


Sexuality and marriage were complex elements of the Roman culture. As such it is difficult to explain all of the ways that their habits impacted contemporary practices. One critical issue, however, was that sexuality was as much about power and authority like everything else, at least supposedly within a veil of democracy. Traditional marriage in this way was about extending the size of the family for many reasons including for meeting social needs (Coontz, 2005, p. 5). This may be why most cultures remain sensitive to the misuse of power when rape and degradation happens; and it is also why many people are more concerned these days with equality of relationships between people rather than just a person's gender or even how masculine or feminine…[continue]

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