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Forced Cross-Dressing: Women in Togas and the Law of Charondas

Nicole Nowbahar

Rutgers University

Recent research on women’s clothing has paid attention to women wearing togas, but no one has yet looked at the togate adulteress as a forced cross-dresser. Campanile and Carla-Uhink have edited the first book-length study of cross-dressing in antiquity in English, but their book focuses predominately on male cross-dressing. With my paper, I aim to start a conversation on one aspect of female transvestism in the Roman world by looking at reasons why certain women wore male clothing.

References to women in togas come from the works of Cicero (Phil. 2.44), Horace (Sat. 1.2), Tibullus (3.16), Martial (2.39, 6.64, 10.52), Juvenal (Sat. 2), Porphyrio (schol. Hor. Sat. 1.2.63), Pseudo-Acro (schol. Hor. 1.2.63), and Nonius (653L). Scholars have debated on the historical reality: McGinn argues that prostitutes were accustomed to togas frequently (1998; 2014), and adulteresses were forced to wear togas. Olson argues against McGinn, saying that the female toga was strictly a symbol of a moral system and seldom worn. Following Olson, Sebesta, Vout, and Dixon view togate women as purely symbolic. Duncan looks at the transvestism of prostitutes in connection to the actress, but does not look at the togate adulteress. Dyck denies that Romans forced women into togas as punishment for male behavior. He writes that the female toga was likely a vestige of an original unisex toga (Varro in Book 1 of De Vita Populi Romani, Servius ad Aen.1.282, and Non. 867-81 mention a unisex toga for early Romans).

I depart from Dyck’s ideas that prostitutes and adulteresses simply wore a garment from the past, to argue instead that prostitutes wore the toga to distinguish themselves from other women and so, attract customers more easily. More importantly, their rejection of respectable matron’s characteristic garments had the result of highlighting the respectability of those garments. Prostitutes’ open embrace of licentiousness while wearing a toga also helped contrast their perverse behavior with that of togate males’ proper citizen behavior.

I also argue that adulteresses were forced to wear the toga as a consequence for their licentiousness: Augustan law equated adulteresses with prostitutes (McGinn 1998). Since Augustus placed restrictions on clothing for men (Suetonius Aug. 40.5), it is likely that his moral program also included restrictions on women’s clothing. I draw on Butler's theory of performativity to describe the reasons why adulteresses would wear the clothing of men: adulteresses were forced to cross-dress because they did not perform their gender role correctly.

Both prostitutes and adulteresses strove for the sexual freedom of men: prostitutes by soliciting and adulteresses by choosing a lover that was not their husband. These women’s transgressive licentiousness was then highlighted or punished by wearing the male toga, an advertisement of that transgression, which made them an object of ridicule and abuse in public, since the unsuitable dress matched their unsuitable behavior.

An essential, but overlooked, analog to Roman women wearing togas is found in the law of Charondas which forced men of Thurii to dress as women. In Diodorus of Siculus, men who ran from battle wore women's clothes in the agora as punishment for their cowardice, equating the coward with a woman and resulting in a temporary loss of male clothing (12.16). This law confirms that in the ancient world cross-dressing could serve as a form of punishment for transgressions of behavioral expectations for someone’s gender.

The outline for my paper is as follows: I give a brief survey of existing sources and scholarly opinions on women wearing togas, looking at the toga as a symbol of social control and punishment of incorrect gender performance, then the consequences of women wearing the toga. Finally, I use the law of Charondas as proof that cross-dressing could punish transgressive gender behavior and deter the transgressor and others from similarly incorrect gender performance. Looking at togate women as forced transvestites reveals the importance of dressing appropriately for each gender, and the consequences of failing to do so.

Session/Panel Title

The Body and its Travails

Session/Paper Number

82.5

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