This is my favorite non-Latin Latin phrase…taught to me by my high school Latin teacher. It came immediately to mind the other day when a commenter suggested that a better understanding of ancient underwear was in order. Well, we aim to please here at Ancient Armitage, so here you go:
Ancient nudity ahead!
Even a cursory look through the corpus of Greek art, the remaining visual record of the civilization. argues that a great deal of ancient Greek life was conducted in the nude, especially for men. There is a fair amount of information preserved about Greek dress, and most of it agrees that even when they were clothed, the Greeks did not regularly wear any type of undergarment beneath. This raises the question of support when engaged in the kinds vigorous athletic activities that were a large part of the culture. I knew that the Greeks utilized a sort of rudimentary “athletic supporter” called the kynodesme (κυνοδέσμη). It consisted of a thin strip of leather that was was tied around the end of the foreskin and then secured around the waist or at the base of the penis.
What I was not aware of until I did a bit of reading for this post, was that this practice also resulted in an particular Greek aesthetic preference in terms of the display of scrotum and a resulting enlongation of the foreskin. The things you learn blogging! Interestingly, unlike the Greeks who were early practicioners of “going commando”, the Über militaristic Romans were much less loosey goosey about underwear. True to their uptight reputation, Roman men wore an undergarment called a subligaculum. As you can see below, the finished product looks quite a bit like a diaper.
Despite having very little prohibition on nudity and a strong culture of public bathing in the buff, citizen class Romans are very rarely depicted in their subligaculi. It’s fortunate, for the purpose of illustration, that this was also the go to garment for Roman gladiators who are widely depicted in Roman art
One famous fresco depicts women, identified as athletes, wearing a similar garment along with a brassiere like strophium.
Outside of athletics, which would have been of limited access for most, it seems that underwear of any kind were optional for Roman women.
After this brief tour through ancient underwear, I’m left with one burning question: