By Ron F. Newbold
Studia Humaniora Tartuensia, vol. 6 (2005)
Abstract: The fourth century historian of the Roman Empire, Ammianus Marcellinus, focuses on attire and accessories that signify high rank, status and authority. In his narrative there are a number of cases where clothing and insignia feature in illegitimate or dangerous aspirations to power, and brought destruction upon the aspirants, or threatened to. An ongoing concern for Ammianus is how appropriately attired people are. He scorns the pretentious clothing of Roman nobles and bishops, took pleasure in retailing the reaction of the emperor Julian to his overdressed barber, and considered the craven Epigonius to be a philosopher only in his attire. Gallus Caesar’s forced change from high to low status clothing portended his imminent execution.
In his ethnographic excurses, Ammianus uses the attire of foreign peoples to define their otherness. The sixth century historian of Merovingian Gaul, Gregory of Tours, is largely oblivious to fine apparel unless it is the shining vestments of saints and angels. Humble and harsh clothing, such as skins and hair shirts denote spiritual commitment or reorientation, a change of “habit”, a declaration that can be stripped away by enemies and persecutors while leaving the faith itself intact. Real ascetics eschew footwear in winter. The most striking feature of clothing in Gregory is the magical powers, to heal or punish, that it can absorb from the bodies of holy wearers. In both authors, clothes and character may be mismatched but Ammianus does not share Gregory’s fondness for simple and uncomfortable attire, and certainly not his belief that a few threads from the clothing of someone long dead can work miracles.