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
- 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.
The 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)).
In 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.