Dress in Mediterranean Antiquity

Greeks, Romans, Jews, Christians

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Alicia J. Batten, Kelly Olson
  • New York: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , March
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What does it mean to wear clothes? Certainly, we use them out of utility, but we also wear them to express our identities, affiliations, and sense of morality. This is question that lies at the heart of the anthology by Alicia J. Batten and Kelly Olson, Dress in Mediterranean Antiquity: Greeks, Romans, Jews, Christians. The editors attempt to uncover the many ways that clothing was used and perceived in Mediterranean antiquity. By using a broad and interdisciplinary approach including religious studies, anthropology, and sociology, the editors have brought together scholars from different backgrounds to interrogate the way clothing, hair, jewelry and other accessories were used to build, maintain, and display identity in antiquity.

As the subtitle of the book states, this work is meant to investigate Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Christians. The work, however, goes beyond this and takes a rare look at clothing in Egypt and Persia as well. This is one of the first books that gives serious attention to the interpretation of clothing from non-Greeks and Romans. The editors separate the work into three categories: methods, materials, and meanings. In the method section we are exposed to ways in which the authors explore clothing. Outstanding in this section is the religious studies methodology expounded by Batten. Since most works on dress, whether contemporary or in the antique world, focus on issues of identity as it is broadly understood by sociology or anthropology, Batten forges ahead on an emerging path that considers how religion and belief can be displayed on the body. She makes it clear that religious analysis in dress studies is not as developed as the same study in classics or the sociology (19). Batten presents a convincing argument for the further study of clothing and material goods as a rich source of information about how religion and belief were practiced in the classical world and beyond.

The material section is just that, a section in which scholars discuss how we can know about clothing from various sources such as painting, sculpture, and even written sources. The last section, meaning, takes the reader through various interpretations of clothing and how they could be worn to demonstrate who was in, who was out and who may or may not express their ethnic identity through what they are wearing. The essays in this section provide the most discussion on religion and ethnicity, interrogating Jewish clothing, Persian clothing, and the idea of pollution versus dirt in the Christ cult.

The strength of this work comes not only from the fact that it brings together scholars of interdisciplinary backgrounds to discuss clothing from a variety of methodologies, but that these essays talk to each other. Many authors refer to other authors in the anthology, which allows the reader to flip back and forth conveniently, without having to search out other works that may not be accessible. The footnotes are also a valuable source of information that makes it easy to document points of interest for further study. The essays in the volume are smartly chosen, they cover a wide base of Greek and Roman clothing in some depth while being relatively short and ultimately readable. The essays also bring a degree of humor and liveliness that can often be absent from academic works. Do you want to know about the polluting power of spattered blood during a sacrifice? There is an essay for that (“Dress and Religious Ritual in Roman Antiquity”). Do you want to know how Romans dyed stones to make “fake” jewelry (101), and how they adorned eels to show off their wealth (102)? There is an essay about that as well. The authors in this volume are clearly engaged, well researched, and stylish.

What the anthology misses is giving more space to scholars of clothing that do not work in Greek or Roman material. I respect that all works must have an end point, but it is so tantalizing to see “Dress and Ceremony in Achaemenid Persia: The ‘*Gaunaka,’” but then find out that there are no other essays engaging with Achaemenid material or with this essay. It stands alone as the only essay that takes a deep dive into Persian clothing. There are a handful of essays that interrogate the Jewish clothing, but they too are related to Greeks or Romans. While I find these shortcomings disappointing, they are by no means a cause to eschew this work. Even though there are not many essays discussing other antique civilizations, this work still gives the reader and scholar a “jumping off point,” and some sense that there are worlds beyond the Greeks that are available for study.

Lastly, I would like to touch on the religious significance of this work. There are a few essays that deal exclusively with biblical texts and dress, but many of the essays do touch on religion and how important clothing is to practitioners. Christianity and Judaism are well represented in the “Meaning” section. Discussions about tzitzi (fringe or tassels) and phylacteries conjure discussions about how one could “look” Jewish in a world where they were a minority. Further, this brings up the notion of what Jewish clothing would look like and how the Jewish population could either stand out as distinct or shun such clothing to “pass” as a non-Jewish citizen. On the Christian side, we have discussions about the letters of Peter as well as discussions of purity and impurity and how that relates to the notion of dirt.

This anthology is well selected, composed, and useful. A timely work that even discusses the idea of quarantine and purity rules that we seem to be talking about today. The act of stripping and cleaning of clothing after being in the presence or touching an impure individual is mirrored in today’s world where we have been met with stories and images of front-line works stripping at the front door of their houses and cleaning their clothes regularly so as not to bring the Covid virus inside. This is a work that will stand the test of time and become a valuable resource for many scholars and interested readers alike.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Douglas Clarke is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
September 24, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alicia J. Batten is professor of religious studies and theology at Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo, Canada.

Kelly Olson is professor in the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Western Ontario, Canada.


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