Paludamentally yours…Thorin Oakenshield in Roman Military Wear

Thorin Oakenshield looking very Roman generalish in the DOS trailer. Source: Source:

Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) looking very Roman generalish in the TDOS trailer.

I have been trying very hard to isolate myself from the impending deluge of promotion preceding the release of The Hobbit:  The Desolation of Smaug in December.  I just can’t afford three solid months of constant distraction.   As such, *braces self for hue and cry* I haven’t watched the trailer yet.  I did, however, catch a glimpse of the image above and was instantly struck by how very Roman Thorin (Richard Armitage) looks.  With a mind toward NOT being sucked into the distraction, I noted it and moved along.  Then Servetus had to post this…dammit, now I have no choice! I will lose my Classical Tradition Club membership if I don’t formally address the Roman military inspiration of this look.

The paludamentum or sagum purpura (purple cloak) was the iconic red cloak worn by a Roman general (Legatus) and his staff officers.  Originally, it’s distinctive red/purple color clearly delineated between these officers and the rest of the army, which sported the sagum gregale (cloak of the flock).  Although the sagum gregale, worn by the rank and file, started out the color of the flock (i.e. undyed wool), it seems likely to have transitioned to a coarser version of the sagum purpura by the imperial period (27BCE – 476CE).  Outfitting the entire army in red garments would have been a mark of the great wealth of Rome – well, that and the fact that the Romans controlled the source of purple dye by then.

  • Brief sideline into the color purple… The Romans did not have an extremely detailed vocabulary for color (they would have been completely dumbfounded by the Crayola color palette!)  and their understanding of purple encompassed a variety of shades ranging from red to maroon to purple.  A deep, rich color like this was quite difficult to achieve with the dyes available in the ancient world.
Shells of Bolinus Brandaris

Shells of Bolinus Brandaris

  • In fact, the Phoenicians made a fortune selling Tyrian Purple, a dye extracted from the Bolinus Brandaris or Spiny dye murex, a mollusk that resides in the waters off the coast of Phoenicia (modern Lebanon).  The potency of this dye made it “worth it’s weight in silver” according to the ancient historian Theopompus, and put it well out of reach of all but the extremely wealthy.

Sorry…I got a little carried away there!  The paludamentum was a cloak that was specifically associated with warfare.  A general donned one for the ceremonial procession leading an army out of the sacred precinct of the city of Rome and was required to remove it before returning to the city…a sign that he was no longer a general, but a common citizen.

paludamentum mixThe paludamentum was usually worn over one shoulder and fastened with a fibula (ancient version of a safety pin).  Arguments abound over what shoulder was exposed, but it seems fairly clear that the garment was fastened loosely enough to move around, (if you look through the Cleopatra caps, you’ll see that the sagum worn by Epiphanes (Richard Armitage) shifts freely when he’s involved in a tussle in defense of Octavian (Rupert Graves)).

fibula cuirass detailIn addition to the details of the cloak and the fibulae (Thorin wears two), it looks to me as if he might also be wearing a leather chest protector (cuirass) that is detailed with an elaborate metal section.  If you look at the image of Ciarin Hinds as Caesar above, you’ll see a similar arrangement, which is well attested historically.  All in all, this is very Roman regalia indeed.

There is one thing that stands out as distinctly not Roman however, and that is Thorin’s hair.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Thorin’s mane, but the Romans were sticklers about hair.  In his biography of Caesar, Suetonius recounts that not only did Caesar keep his face shaved and his hair cut short, he also insisted that all of his body hair be regularly removed.  (Here’s to job security for depilatory slaves!)

Thorin’s long, braided hair and beard would have immediately marked him as a barbarian, a German even (no offense my German friends, but your ancestors scared the togas off the Romans!).  By the later stages of the Empire though, there were plenty of Romanized barbarians who had been assimilated into the Roman army.  In this guise, Richard Armitage could be any one of a number of Ostrogothic kings who rose to prominence as Roman power waned in western Europe.  I’m especially partial to Theodoric the Great.  He had grown up as a hostage in the Byzantine court at Constantinople and went on to recover and rule the remnants of the Roman west, promoting religious tolerance in an era of persecution.  I seem to recall Richard Armitage saying in an interview that he’d like to play an historic character, but not someone too famous…I think I might have found the perfect fit.

VALÉ Armitageworld


65 comments on “Paludamentally yours…Thorin Oakenshield in Roman Military Wear

  1. Perry says:

    Loved this post. I saw a documentary on one of the nature channels about the making of Tyrian purple ( apparently the smell is awful – well rotten shellfish).-they actually made a batch.
    I’m so curious to see what’s taking place when Thorin is wearing this costume and what else he’s wearing. We’ll have to touch base after the film to see whether he wears the paludamentum only outside his domain.

    • obscura says:

      Apparently that is one of the persistent descriptors of Phoenician cities…rich, but they stink like rotting clams. (My understanding is that they simply discarded the flesh of the mollusk in order to extract the dye from the shell – consequently, the cities were littered with heaps of discarded mollusk flesh fermenting in the Mediterranean sun – how aromatic!)

      That would indeed be interesting to see…it was a portent of doom to the Romans for a general to enter the city wearing the “blood red cloak of war.”

  2. Servetus says:

    You obviously missed the part of the title of mine where I said “this is a fluff post.” 🙂 You totally outed yourself as a classicist here, your insistence that you’re an archaeologist notwithstanding … 🙂

    That said, one thing I love about this post is the way that it points out that color perception is culturally constituted / conditioned. “Purple” is not purple for everyone. There’s a question in Jewish culture, where G-d tells the Israelites to wear a thread of sky blue in their shawls — which is a dye made from the Chilazon — except that no one knows anymore what the Chilazon is. It’s created a lot of squabbles.

    • Perry says:

      Does anyone know of a shellfish from which Israeli blue can be made?

      • Servetus says:

        the wikipedia article addresses this question — there are a lot of different opinions. Some Jews won’t wear blue in a tallis b/c they say they can’t be sure they’re fulfilling the commandment; there’s a small section of ultra-orthodox who are convinced their rabbi has the answer … and so on …

        • Perry says:

          I guess the question I meant to ask is – do we know of any shellfish from which “a blue”can be made – and if not, is there a train of thought that “blue” maybe purple.

          • Servetus says:

            yes, according to that article, there are one or two. Because the chilazon is mentioned something like four dozen times in the Tanakh as the origin of the color, however, most Jewish authorities are more interested in locating the source than in specifying exactly what the color was. Whatever you get from the Chilazon, so the reasoning goes, will be the color G-d wanted you to wear. The notion of “blue” comes into it insofar as it’s easier to search for a mussel that will give you a blue dye than it is to sort through all the mussels to find the right one.

          • obscura says:

            So they don’t know if Chilazon referred to a mineral or a mollusk? I love this type of puzzle!

          • Servetus says:

            No, chilazon was a mollusk (as far as I have followed this — I have to admit that this doesn’t interest me much but this is something that Pesky follows with great glee and he’s always sending me info about it that I then delete — there’s an organization called Ptil Techelet that’s been founded to tell you how to dye your tzitzit, which is absolutely the kind of thing Pesky would do). And you’re not allowed (acc to the orthodox authorities) to make the thread blue with chemical simulations. It has to involve the dye from the mollusk. What I think would be interesting is if someone would find a way to identify the correct mollusk definitely — would they really stick with the “blue” idea if they had the right mollusk but the color that came out of it didn’t match our color connotations of blue? Murex is one of the candidates, but one reason later authorities discarded it is because its dye yield is most commonly purple.

          • obscura says:

            Murex definitely has a range of colors, but it leans much more to the red side of what we understand as purple than it does to the blue.

            I should think all you would need is a piece of ancient Hebrew fabric sporting the correct color. The dye can then be chemically isolated and then cross matched to the chemical constituents of all known mollusk shell dyes – easy. *snort* The cross qualifier of the “sky” helps a bit, but what sky…day sky, night sky, etc…

          • Servetus says:

            iirc someone has tried this; they found a patch at Masada, which told them the color, but not the mollusk that produced it.

          • obscura says:

            They just haven’t found the mollusk yet…or they ate them all – hard to say 🙂

    • obscura says:

      I didn’t miss it…I just took it as a blatant challenge 😉 (*sigh* classicist waters run deep I guess…)

      I did not know this…it doesn’t surprise me that this is a common issue. Modern American society has gone berserk with color vocabulary IMHO…I was on the Crayola tour a few years ago…carumba! There is no such thing as blue – there is ceylon, cerulean, robin egg, periwinkle, et cetera, ad infinitum (there have been doctoral dissertations written on this I’m sure!)

      • Servetus says:

        and the disputes over what certain shades get called also mean the labels change — I think there was a “skin color” crayon when we were kids and now the name’s been changed since someone noticed that not all people are pink-skinned.

        I have to say that looking up the meaning of “burnt siena” when I got that big box of crayons in fourth or fifth grade was really neat, though … and isn’t periwinkle also the name of a mollusk?

        • obscura says:

          There are currently no Crayola colors (in the basic 120 palette) referring to skin tone – “Flesh” was renamed “Peach” in 1962 (I learned A LOT at Crayola World – not the least of which was that Crayola products were less expensive at Target than in the Crayola World gift shop!)

          Periwinkle…yep – a kind of snail (why do you know that?)

          • Servetus says:

            wow, that’s earlier than I thought, I could swear I remembered “flesh” crayons.

            periwinkle = not sure.

          • obscura says:

            I was surprised too…I guess that tells you how long it took crayons to make their way from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin. Or we were getting seconds…

          • Servetus says:

            well, you know how long pieces of crayons hang around in the homes, schools, and churches of the parsimonious, too 🙂

          • obscura says:

            Have you been in the crayon closet at my church? I have made a vow that we are not buying a single crayon until all of the 4 billion we already have are gone…I DO NOT CARE if they are broken – you can still color Moses with them!

          • Servetus says:

            This is probably how the chilazon was lost. Some ancient Hebrew dyemaster said, we are not harvesting another chilazon until we use all the half used ones that are lying around this dyefactory! Eventually the smell got so bad that the sites were abandoned … (j/k)

          • obscura says:


            Fortunately, lingering crayons do not smell…I will not be defeated on this. I’m planning to bequeath my extensive estate to the church with the rider that all those crayons have to be used up before anyone can touch the money! (I’ll bet I can find one labeled “FLESH”! I don’t have enough time wasting activities on board at the moment 🙂 )

      • Perry says:

        They couldn’t eat the mollusks – they’re not kosher – or was that before all the kosher dietary laws?

        • Servetus says:

          the Jews couldn’t have, but the Phoenicians could have, no?

          • obscura says:

            I would think they could have,it’s edible, but they don’t seem to have done so…I’ve never had it, but I’ve got to assume it’s not very tasty – why else would such huge amounts of an edible substance be discarded?

            …and I should clarify…the dye comes from a mucus secretion from a gland, not the shell.

  3. Wonderful post as always!

    Although, For a second there, I actually thought “digmate” was a Latin word that I had yet to discover and had to read that sentence twice. I had to scour through three different languages in my brain to unscramble that one and come to the conclusion that you meant “dig mate” after all 🙂

    • obscura says:


      You and Perry both 🙂 In the interest of a “no Latin Dictionary Required” reading policy, I bowed to current usage rules and fixed it 😉

      • Perry says:

        Anyone else’s blog and the issue wouldn’t have come up. Make that *almost* anyone else’s blog.

        • obscura says:

          You just never know around here do you? 😉

        • Servetus says:


          • Perry says:

            Can I get you a lozenge?

          • obscura says:

            Dominus tecum…

          • Servetus says:

            et cum spirito tuo.

          • obscura says:

            Should I be genuflecting here? I’m a little rusty – I’m a prostitute afterall…

          • Servetus says:

            no, it’s just the liturgical response to Dominus vobiscum. There was a big kerfuffle about it recently when the Holy Roman and Apostolic changed the English text of the liturgy to be more accurate. The Catholic masses learned that “and with thy spirit” doesn’t actually mean “and also with you” as they and Protestants have been saying since about the mid-1980s. Now we’re onto really “obscure” things I am fascinated by.

          • obscura says:

            This is the kind of misunderstanding that happens when you start saying the masses in the vernacular! Back to Latin!! (I’m getting started on the posters)

            This is what happens when I’m in the office alone all

          • Servetus says:

            yeah, there’s always the tension between theological affirmations you’d be confused by or disagree with in a language you don’t understand, vs saying something in your vernacular that you’ve misunderstood but can agree to …

            I’ve been procrastinating like wildfire all day from everything. Sympathies.

          • obscura says:

            I’m mostly off today – day classes are on Fall Break, but naturally, I have the final session of an adult ed class. On the plus side, I’ve been puddling around catching up when I would have been in class. New chapter of Recovery just might post tonight 🙂

          • Servetus says:

            Thursday is my “always completely free” day this term … inconvenient. I need to get my act together.

          • obscura says:

            My schedule changes next week again – no more late Thursdays, but a new class Monday evenings and one online – I wouldn’t want to get too comfortable in a routine. *shrugs* Que sera sera…

  4. guylty says:

    After recovering from being labelled a “Barbarian” here (surely, that dig was aimed at my Teutonic self *sobsquietlyintohersauerkraut*), I return to shoot back. Ha! While I very much like your interpretation of the red cloak as of Roman origins – convincingly argued, Prof Obscura, and extremely interesting to read, also the asides about the actual making of the colours and the fascinating little snippet about the body hair – I was going to throw in a little suggestion for the brooch that Thorin wears. My first association, when I saw that image, was of a Celtic warrior. I obviously did not know about the red cloak of the Romans (so that unfortunately will take away from my theory, but hear me out). Therefore I focussed on a couple of other things.
    a) the hair: A bit like the Merovingians, the Celts attached divine power to long hair. Both men and women wore their hair long, often in elaborate plaits, but for ceremonial occasions with elaborate curls (still in Ireland visible today in Irish Folk Dancing, where the girls wear (extremely ugly and artificial) corkscrew curl wigs).
    b) the brooch: Very very reminiscent of the “pennanular brooch” – consisting of an elaborately ornamented, precious metal ring with a long pin attached. The “Tara Brooch” is the most famous of all (Irish) brooches, on view in the National Museum of Ireland where I have looked at it many times. The craftsmanship of this 1300 year old artefact is amazing.
    My two cents’ worth. (Oh, and I was joking about the Barbarian thing, btw :-))

    • obscura says:

      I’ll happily allow for cultural fusion, esp. in a made up universe…the Romans were almost always willing to adopt useful technologies – not pants though! There are all kinds of Celts and Gauls and Goths that move in and out of the empire…and variations on the fibula are common all over the place, so I would not be surprised to see all sorts of cultures wearing something similar – it becomes a bit of a chicken and an egg thing – the Romans were almost certainly trading with the Irish by at least the first century CE (Tacitus), so I am undaunted 🙂

      Shall I start calling you Barbara? Don’t worry – according to the Greeks, from whence comes the term barbarian (in Greek it means “those who don’t speak Greek” they all sound like “bar bar bar” to the Greek ear), the Romans were barbarians too 🙂 (I’m certainly a cross bred barbarian…my mother’s maiden name was (von) Hilgenberg – we’re not sure..the genealogists think my ancestors fled/were kicked out and dropped part of the name to escape detection) 😉

      • guylty says:

        Thanks for that article – I had always believed that there had been Romano-Hibernian contact in Co. Waterford (South-East Ireland, where the two British Isles are closest) even though I knew the Romans never bothered with invading Ireland. Too backward, too insignificant. But to read that there may have been a trading post in Co. Dublin – well, I might just have to go and explore Drumanagh.
        As for Barbara – oh no :-D. I’d rather go with the Greek version of my name. Sophia – wisdom. Entirely accurate!
        Ha – and you have some German roots, too. Brilliant! 🙂

        • obscura says:

          Storied history on my mom’s side…German, Swiss/Italian, English – 50% Dutch from my Dad – I’m a true American mutt 😉

          Yeah, Caesar said the same thing about Britain after a brief recon mission…but the Romans infiltrated it a century later. There are those who argue for an invasion, but it’s pretty tenuous. If you go exploring, I’d love to see any pictures you take!

          Everyone wants to be a Greek Sophia – I like Eirene (Peace) myself 🙂

  5. katie70 says:

    Thanks again for the history lesson.

  6. […] Roman virtues — responsible Richard Armitage. And a discussion of Thorin’s red cloak and ornamentation. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s