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History of Lingerie III: Rise of the Roman Courtesan

By the time the mighty Roman Empire was on the rise, undergarments no longer had anything to do with status, rather lingerie and underwear was about either hiding a woman's physical assets or displaying such assets as much as possible. From the first century B.C. to the end of the Roman Empire during the first few centuries after Christ, undergarments were worn much more frequently and became more complicated in their construction. Extending from the later days of the Roman Republic through the rise, height, and eventual fall of the Roman Empire, underwear and lingerie such as garters and clothing pieces very similar to the modern-day bra and panty set or bikini were part and parcel of the usual fare. Such sets were worn both as outerwear in the same fashion as the bikini, as well as beneath clothing the way we wear bras today.

The Roman "bikini."

Unlike the Classical Greek era where homosexuality prevailed and a woman's role was solely within the household, the female form was considered an object of desire in Roman times, and Roman men were much more likely to engage in heterosexual love affairs. Romans, in contrast to the Greeks who had wives but would consort with young boys, had the courtesan with which to release sexual tension. Rome was an international city in the first century, and courtesans from all over the world come to Rome, bringing with them new ideas about the relationship between men and women, female sensuality, and the lingerie used to enhance that sensuality.

Rome's far-reaching empire.

During the later days of the Roman Republic and the early days of the Roman Empire, women wore versions of the Greek apodesme, as bands that covered the breasts and hips. These bands were called taenia and were worn under the breasts. Young girls wore bands called fascia, which covered the breasts and were meant to inhibit growth. After a girl matured she wore a mamillare, a leather band that flattened and disguised the breasts. Though items of this nature were worn in ancient Greece to make women appear more mannish, it is likely they were worn during Roman times as a preemptive measure, since the power of the female form could make any man forget about his duties to the Roman state, and succumb to the pleasures of female flesh. These undergarments were intended to make the female body appear as harmless as possible.

A drawing of the apodesmos, adopted from the Greeks.

While the mamillare is considered a cruel piece of underwear by historians, it was later used by women whose breasts were so ample they required the leather bands for concealment and support, since a large bosom was not fashionable during the last days of the Roman Republic. Yet the more common piece of female underwear during this time was the strophium, a scarf that was wrapped around breasts to provide support without stifling them. During this time different types of strophiumwere found all over the Mediterranean area, including those with shoulder straps worn by Jewish women and the capitium, a larger, softer version of the strophium worn by lower-class Roman citizens.

The mamillare was usually made of leather.

An example of the strophium, also adopted from the Greeks.

By the end of the second century B.C. underwear in Rome had become more complicated, and Romans also equated undergarments with sex in a way the Greeks had not. The Greek zona in the Roman world became longer and metamorphosed into a type of girdle that went around the hips. A piece of underwear similar to the zona, called the cestus, is described by Roman poet, Martial, as a cloth that covers the body from the breasts to the groin. According to Martial, the cestus was invented by the Roman goddess of love, Venus, and he describes it as a man-luring trap from which no male could possibly free himself once ensnared.

Roman women wore knee-length, sleeveless under-tunics over these body-hugging undergarments. Outer garments were worn over the tunic in the same manner the Cretan corset was worn over the chemise. Though outer clothing worn by Roman men and women may not have shown the obvious physical differences between the two sexes, the underwear worn by women made these differences quite clear and contributed toward making Roman women more aware of their sensuous shapes. The tunic was cinched under the breasts with a cingulum, or type of belt. Young girls wore thecingulum around the waist, thus establishing the body differences between a young girl and a grown woman. Roman women also wore an underskirt called a castula, which eventually would be shaped with wooden hoops much like the crinolines worn by Cretan women. The castula allowed for a wide-hipped, stylized look.

As with the ancient Greek world, wives in the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire were not considered objects of desire. Roman wives were meant to bear children and keep the home orderly, nor were men supposed to seek their wives' advice since this might make them appear weak. Nor was it socially acceptable to have sex with one's wife for pleasure! Roman women were forbidden from drinking wine as it was thought to make them too excitable, and because they were considered minors under the law. Though the Roman wife would eventually become the tyrant of her household, the sexual relationship between a Roman husband and wife barely existed. Instead, it was the custom for men to satisfy their sexual desires outside of their marriage beds, and this custom gave rise to the popularity of the courtesan.

The courtesan of the Roman Empire was originally no more than a dirty street urchin residing in gutters, wearing a filthy, see-through tunic. She could be found around half-open doorways offering herself to anyone who would take her. The first century B.C. as the Roman Republic transformed into the Roman Empire, Rome became an internationally renown city. As the Mediterranean world's premiere capital, courtesans from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey came to Rome in an attempt to make their fortunes. These women grew up in eastern ports and "acquired worldly ways" from time spent in Athens. This multicultural work force brought with them a myriad of items to make the female creature all the more pleasing, including lotions, fragrances, cooking recipes, depilatory creams, Asian religious customs, cestuses featuring intricate embroidery, and new sexual positions. Roman born courtesans were quickly influenced by the extravagant ways of their foreign sisters.

In addition to seeking pleasure in the arms of courtesans, it was socially acceptable for Roman men to keep concubines. The Roman world had rather modern ideas about sex from the first century B.C. onward, though modern sexual relationships still only occurred outside the home. It should be noted that Roman men did not have serious emotional relationships with their wives but did engage in emotion ties with their courtesans and concubines. Since the courtesans made their living as sensuous creatures who were highly skilled in the arts of sex, emotional love, and conversation, it was essential that they took care of and adorned their bodies in ways no proper housewife would consider. This included the aforementioned lotions as well as dyes, makeup, and lingerie. While the typical Roman housewife only wore comfortable underwear that hid her most private parts, the Roman courtesan used the strophium, crinoline, and underskirt to tempt her consorts. Roman courtesans are also credited with inventing a type of adorned garter that was tied on the leg at the knee and featured a large jewel for decoration. These were for aesthetic purposes only as stockings had not yet been invented and the garters had no practical purpose.

Another example of the Roman "bikini."

Roman poets celebrated the undergarments of the courtesan, since praising the underwear of the Roman wife would have been unacceptable and pointless. Courtesans were said to inspire the works of some of Rome's most famous poets, including Tibullus, Catullus, Propertius, and Ovid. Yet by the height of the Roman Empire, respectable women were interested in presenting themselves as objects of desire, a role previously left only to women who sold themselves. Unlike the Classical Greek woman, women during Imperial Rome were very aware of their voluptuousness. Their underwear reflected the idea that all roads lead to Rome, as they wore crinolines from Crete, underskirts and tunics from Egypt, and scarves and bands from Greece. Despite these changes and advances in underwear, the acceptable dress of Imperial Rome was still the flowing garments worn by both men and women.

An example of the cingulum.

Eventually Christianity began to filter through the Roman Empire and take hold, which brought with it Semitic puritanism previously unseen by the world. The Christian view of the body and sex was that it was sinful and shameful, and Romans subsequently adopted the clothing and undergarments worn by the Hebrew tribes. This included the subligaculum, a new piece of clothing that covered the lower stomach and was worn during the third and fourth centuries A.D. The brassiere part of thesubligaculum was not unlike the strophium. The subligaculum is very similar to the modern-day bikini or two-piece underwear set, with images of the subligaculum seen in numerous Roman villas, including the Villa Casale in Sicily. The subligaculum was almost exactly like the bra and panty combinations seen on Egyptian slaves and Greek acrobats as well as images of Sumerian goddesses.

Leather Subligaria found at an ancient Roman site in London.

This bikini-like underwear was usually worn when playing sports, particularly water and circus sports, which again likens it to the modern day two-piece bathing suit. Roman poet Martial mentions thesubligaculum worn by his heroine Philoenis when she goes to play ball. There is no evidence this brassiere and panty combination were worn by Roman matrons when they bathed. Thesubligaculum was completely unlike any other garment worn in Roman civilization, as the panty section of the subligaculum was tied at the waist at one end while the other end went between the legs. Longer versions that covered the thighs also existed, and were kept in place with garters. In Rome the subligaculum was first worn by actresses and acrobats only, though slaves eventually began wearing them when performing various types of physical labor. Soon young girls and teens began to wear the subligaculum when playing outdoors, and eventually this brassiere and panty combination was adopted by the courtesans. It has also been suggested that middle class Roman women began to wear the subligaculum in order to inflame the desire of men in the way of the courtesan..

The irony of a Roman marriage.

Yet this brassiere/panty combination was not widely accepted as underwear by all classes of Roman citizens. Roman men, who previously had celebrated various new types of underwear introduced to Rome by their courtesans, were not particularly fond of the subligaculum , which shielded the private parts in a way that was completely foreign to them. Despite the rejection of the subligaculum by Roman men, its presence gave way to a new type of closed dress not previously seen throughout the empire. For example, the breeches and trousers of mercenary soldiers were adopted. During the final centuries of the Roman Empire women wore the subligaculum under their loose, draped outer clothing and the combination of fitted underwear with loose outer clothing would continue until the Middle Ages.

The lingerie of the Roman Era reflected the sexual freedom of the time, though limitations still existed depending on one's place in society. The sexual liberation inspired by the courtesans is evident in the undergarments of the time, though the Christian domination of the Roman world brought with it a type of repression that would last for centuries. Unlike Roman underwear, which flattered and glorified the female form as the Cretan's had done, the underwear of the Medieval Era reflected the sexual repression of Christianity and all its pathos.