Late Roman costume from the mosaics

A Sicilian highlight for anyone with an interest in the later Roman period is the incredible mosaics at Piazza Armerina. These 4th C AD mosaics give the best first-hand detail we have of late Roman clothing colours and styles. They also provide useful evidence of shield designs, complementing and adding to the Notitia Dignitatum.

The lord of the villa with his close retainers. The off-white tunics with the ubiquitous clavi (patches on the tunic skirt, at the wrists, and over the shoulders) were standard late Roman dress. So too were the close fitting over-the-foot hose. It appears as if they are not wearing shoes, or more likely the black outlines on the feet indicate a sort of simple sandal. Quite a few shields on the mosaics have simple plain colours. Although styles are similar there is no uniformity. Although these men are the retainers of a Patrician rather than a formed military unit, late Roman soldiers had a clothing allowance from which they purchased their own clothing. A variety of styles, therefore, could be expected in a military unit.

The box like design on the red shield of the horseman in the centre is very similar to the designs associated with the Dalmatae in the Notitia Dignitatum.

These men have interesting variations on the clavi, especially the man on the left of photo. His shield pattern is not replicated in the Notitia. It appears as if there is a running horse, or perhaps a wild boar in the bottom segment.

This scene depicts a master whipping a slave. It is interesting that the slave has a red tunic and that the man to the left (also a servant or slave) has a green one. We tent to associate coloured tunics with the higher-ups but the opposite may be the case as all of the obvious nobles have white tunics with yellow-brown cloaks and dark hose. The slave, like many others on the mosaic has puttee-like lower leg bindings without hose or trousers. Several men in the mosaics, presumably slaves or servants have no belts -- such as the man with the green tunic. We know that the belt was an important part of a Roman military kit so going without probably indicates a servant or lower-ranking civilian.

This image shows a good variety of clothing colours and clavi designs. The man holding the horse is interesting. His blue tunic is highly decorated and yet he has no belt. So we can perhaps assume, like most of the other men in this image, that he is a servant or low level retainer.

Two interesting shield patterns. The one on the left with concentric colours is similar to many in the Notitia Digniatum. The one on the right bears no resemblance to any shield patterns seen elsewhere.

I find this scene of a noblewoman with a male slave quite interesting. The slave is the only male in any of the mosaics to have long hair. I suspect he is a German as long hair (and no beard) was characteristic of the Germans of this period. The fact that it seems to be blond adds credence.

Finally I have to wonder at the difficulties involved in getting an elephant on board a ship and then transporting it!

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