Through the course of Roman history, from the early years of ancient Rome in 753 B.C.E. to the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 C.E. , there were two garments that were essential to the male wardrobe: the tunica and the toga. Adapted from the Greek chiton, the tunica, a type of shirt, was the simplest of garments. It was made from two rectangular pieces of fabric, one set on top of the other. It was sewn together at the sides and the top, with holes left for the head and the arms. Tunicas could also have sleeves, ranging from very short in the early republic to full length later in the empire. From these simple foundations, the Romans made the tunica into a garment capable of sending complex messages about taste, social status, and power.
Though the tunica (the Latin word for tunic) was worn by all men in ancient Rome, the type of fabric it was made of and the way it was worn marked important social differences. At the bottom of the social scale, men wore a simple tunica made of undyed, rough wool. They might wear a simple belt around the tunica or leave it unbelted. Some working men wore a tunic that fastened over only one shoulder, called an exomis. Members of the middle classes and wealthier citizens would not have worn a tunica outdoors without a toga, a long cloak; to do so was to be considered "nudus," which meant either nude or underdressed. Tunicas of middle-and upper-class citizens were made of softer wool, and later of linen and cotton. In cooler seasons, wealthier men often wore two tunicas, a tunica interior and a tunica exterior. The emperor Augustus Caesar (63 B.C.E. –14 C.E. ) was said to have worn four tunicas during cold weather. Wealthy men paid a great deal of attention to how their tunicas were belted. They used either a narrow belt or a wider girdle, which might have pockets to hold personal belongings. They pulled the tunica fabric up above the belt to get the tunica to just the right length.
Tunica patterns and styles also changed a great deal over the thousand years of Roman history. In early Rome, for example, long sleeves were considered unmanly and tunics were cut above the knee. By the later empire, after the second century C.E. , long sleeves were common and tunicas extended almost to the feet. One of the primary forms of decorating a tunica was the use of clavi, dyed stripes that ran vertically down the tunica from each shoulder. The width and color of clavi indicated a person's social position. The tunica angusti clavi, which was worn by knights and judges, had narrow purple stripes. The tunica laticlavia, worn by senators, had wide purple stripes. A very special tunica called a tunica palmate was worn by victorious generals and emperors. It was made of purple silk, embroidered with gold thread, and worn with a special toga.
All Roman fashions became more elaborate and decorative over the course of the Roman Empire (27 B.C.E. –476 C.E. ) and the tunica was no exception. Tunicas were worn in several varieties. The colobium, like early tunicas, had short sleeves and came to the knee, but it was much baggier. The dalmatica, which was worn by women as well as men, had long, baggy sleeves and often reached to the floor. Increasingly, Romans wore their tunicas without a belt or girdle, so that the fabric billowed about the body. For many women the longer, blousy tunica took the place of the stola, the traditional female garment. During the empire, tunicas also became more decorative. Tunicas with clavi were worn by people of all classes, and the stripes became more elaborate, with rich colors and patterns. Tunicas might also have striped bands on the sleeves and patterned panels.
Though tunicas are generally thought of as a male garment, they were also worn by poorer women and by children of all classes. The tunicas worn by children mirrored the styles of their parents. The tunica was truly an all-purpose garment, and it survives in its basic form in many modern clothes, including the T-shirt.
Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
Symons, David J. Costume of Ancient Rome. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Yates, James. "Tunica." Smith's Dictionary: Articles on Clothing and Adornment. http://www.ukans.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Tunica.html (accessed on July 24, 2003).