top of page

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!





731 views6 comments

Recent Posts

See All

6 Comments


Roger Van Dusen
Roger Van Dusen
Apr 06, 2023

Excellent! Thanks for posting the useful images and the scholarly commentary.

Like

Duncan Head
Duncan Head
Aug 03, 2022

The male slave: Long hair, no belt, associated with the women: could he be meant for a eunuch?

Like
Simon MacDowall
Simon MacDowall
Aug 03, 2022
Replying to

He could indeed. I hadn’t thought of that but sounds highly plausible

Like

James Shevlin
James Shevlin
Jul 30, 2022

Agree with Ernie’s post. Fascinating. Thankyou for taking the time to post these wonderful mosaic pictures.

Like

Ernie Fosker
Ernie Fosker
Jul 28, 2022

Fascinating, Simon, thank you. I don't fancy trying to paint those patterns on 15 or 25/28mm figures, though. 😆

Like
Simon MacDowall
Simon MacDowall
Jul 28, 2022
Replying to

As you probably know I have painted many of those patterns on both 15 and 28 mil figures. As I do not believe that Romans were uniformed (as we now understand the term) painting some variations on the clavi is not as onerous as if I had to do a whole unit. These mosaics suggest that quite simple plain shield colours could be used.

Like
bottom of page