Cicero /
Philippic 2.44–50, 78–92, 100–119

Edited by Ingo Gildenhard

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Fashion and Fornication in Late Republican Rome

In his opening salvo, Cicero traces Antony’s transition from childhood to wo/manhood via a series of references to Roman dress, which he correlates with hints at various sexual depravities. To appreciate the invective punch in the story he tells about this formative period of Antony’s life, we thus need to take a closer look at ‘fashion’ and ‘fornication’ in late-republican Rome.


The first item on display in Cicero’s fashion show is unisex child-wear (… praetextatum te …, a reference to the toga praetexta, worn by citizen children of both sexes), before gender-specific teenage attire gets showcased: the garment of manhood, the toga virilis, makes an all-too-brief appearance, with Antony, seemingly still half in déshabillé, dropping it again to dress himself up in truly grown-up finery, the toga muliebris or prostitute’s outfit. After this excursion into the haute couture of the demi-monde, the show concludes with a return to respectability (of sorts): in his final appearance on Cicero’s catwalk Antony sports fashion suited for a properly married woman, the stola.

As we do today, the Romans used attire to assert and promote values and distinctions — not least of age, gender, social rank, and civic status. As Edmondson (2008: 22) explains:

Roman citizens, therefore, both male and female, were marked by their entitlement to wear what was construed as distinctively Roman civic dress, or, to use Suetonius’ term, habitus patrius et civilis (Calig. 52.1; cf. Tib. 13.1). By wearing the toga or stola on civic occasions, they demonstrated their membership in a defined and bounded community, the gens Romana; they laid claim to a shared Roman identity and the cultural traditions with which each of these garments was invested. Roman public dress helped to delineate precisely what it meant to be Roman.

This is especially true since the use of the toga was restricted to Roman citizens: ‘the right to wear the toga was withheld by law from non-citizens, foreigners as well as slaves, rendering it an exclusive badge of citizenship and the sartorial manifestation of Roman identity’ (George 2008: 95). In Virgil’s Aeneid, Jupiter famously calls the Romans ‘masters of the world and the people who wear the toga’ (1.286: Romanos, rerum dominos gentemque togatam). The outfit thus included and excluded. And despite Augustus’ edict that all citizens are to wear the toga when visiting the Forum (Suetonius, Life of Augustus 40.5), we ought not to imagine that the garment erased (rather than reinforced) social distinctions also within Rome’s civic community:

Togas, like the Romans who wore them, were not created equal; citizenship at Rome did not entail membership in an undifferentiated collective, but in a highly stratified social system in which elements on visible display such as dress assumed enormous significance. As a powerful cultural symbol, the toga was a means to an end whose significance varied according to status. The wealthy embraced its positive connotations of civic engagement, or moral righteousness, and, more fundamentally, of Roman identity as part of their social entitlement. Other status groups, clients and others, who profited less easily from it, could regard the toga more realistically, without the roseate glow of social privilege (George 2008: 107).

In order to see how Antony manages to pervert the signifying codes of Roman dress in Cicero’s sartorial satire, we need to have a look at the ideologies woven into the fabric of all the garments that Cicero parades before us. For each was designed to broadcast a specific meaning and message about its wearer. 

(i) The toga praetexta

Cicero’s first gesture to dress comes in the form of the age-label praetextatum (‘while you wore the toga praetexta’, i.e. ‘while you were still a boy’). The prepubescent dress was unisex, or, to put this differently, boys too wore purple:

Roman boys and girls were distinguished from adult Roman citizens by their wearing of a purple-bordered toga (the toga praetexta). Such togae praetextae marked children out early as members of the Roman civic body and helped to socialize them into the traditions of their community, but interestingly did not differentiate them by gender. Before puberty their incipient Romanness, their membership in the gens togata, was much more crucial than whether they were male or female (Edmondson 2008: 26).

Children were not the only ones who wore the toga praetexta; it was also the garment of those with special responsibilities for the (religious) well-being of the commonwealth (generals, magistrates, some priests and priestesses) and other social groups when involved in the performance of certain sacrifices. The garment therefore possessed a ‘sacral aura’ — which extended to its use by children, protecting them from any kind of (polluting) sexual overture: ‘the toga praetexta functioned as an insignia of free-birth and free condition (insignia ingenuitatis et libertatis) to advise adults to avoid any expression of sexuality of any kind toward or around the child’ (Sebesta 2005: 115), who goes on to explain the sacred protection that the garment was meant to extend to its wearer (116):

That the praetexta indicated a special social category is shown by its etymological meaning ‘woven first / woven before’. This etymology derives from the weaving technique required by the warp-weighted loom originally used by the Romans. … As the verb praetexere is used in the sense of protecting and defending …, so the praetexta denoted the weaving of a religious garment, as well as protecting the act of its weaving from religious pollution by warning by-standers to refrain from sacrilegious words, gestures, or activity.

(ii) The toga virilis

Around the age of sixteen or seventeen, i.e. after reaching sexual maturity, a Roman male would undergo a ritual exchange of clothing that signified his entry into adulthood:

The ritual exchange of the bulla [sc. the protective amulet of the freeborn boy] and toga praetextafor the toga virilis was a defining moment in the life of a freeborn Roman boy as it marked the end of his boyhood and the beginning of his adult years. In setting aside the bulla and praetexta, the boy divested himself of the symbols of his boyhood, which represented a degree of venerability and vulnerability as well. Donning the toga virilis, he assumed a new identity, his white toga communicating his achievement of adulthood with its attendant freedoms (Dolanksy 2008: 58).

As its attribute suggests, the toga vir-ilis marked its wearer as a vir, a lexeme that has a range of meanings. Most basically, it refers to an ‘adult male’, but it can also mean ‘husband’ or ‘soldier’: ‘The term also designates a position of authority and responsibility: the adult is enfranchised, while the child (or slave) is not; the man rules his wife in the household; the soldier is the defender of the safety of the state. In short, the term evokes more than mere gender’ (Gunderson 2000: 7). Gunderson goes on to cite Maria Wyke (1994: 136): ‘In the practices of the Roman world, the surface of the male body is thus fully implicated in definitions of power and civic responsibility’.

Nothing is further removed from the image of the vir as an independent agent performing roles of responsibility within the household (as paterfamilias) and the commonwealth (as patron, magistrate, general, or senator) than the pathic passivity of a professional prostitute, which Cicero claims Antony became when reaching adulthood. Arguably, Cicero’s invective here taps into deep-seated Roman anxieties that ‘growing up’ can go awry as he homes in on a key moment in the journey of an upper-class Roman youth from boyhood to adulthood: upon assuming the toga virilis, he would have started a period of ‘apprenticeship’ in civic life under the guidance of an older male, often a close friend of the family, the so-called tirocinium fori. But the charge was potentially vulnerable (or perceived to be vulnerable) to sexual power-play that would compromise his status and reputation as a vir, though it is important to emphasize that the Romans did not evolve practices of homoerotic bonding à la Grecque (see further below on fornication). As Stroup (2010: 143) explains:

Cicero’s acerbic reference to the toga muliebris — the ‘woman’s toga’ prescribed for registered prostitutes [NB: that is uncertain: see below] — hints at the pathic connotations that might have accompanied any ritual training of the young by the old …. The goal of this passage, and indeed the whole of the Philippics, is to destroy Antony’s character by any means necessary. But this is no empty vituperation: the harsh innuendo of the tirocinium joke would fall flat did it not capitalize on an already deeply embedded social understanding of the act as one that, if bungled, could effectively ‘unmake’ the men it sought to produce.

In the pro Caelio, Cicero struggles mightily with the problem that the defendant, a former protegé of his, had (so far) not really turned out the way he was supposed to given Cicero’s educational influence.

(iii) The toga muliebris

Cicero pretends that Antony, right after doffing the toga praetexta for the toga virilis, turned it into a toga muliebris, which here clearly refers to a garment associated with prostitutes. Given that Philippic 2.44 is our ‘earliest clear and explicit testimony that the prostitute’s hallmark was a toga’ (McGinn 1998: 159) it is not easy to reconstruct the cultural norms and practices that enabled this invective punch — since it is difficult to judge how much can be built on the Ciceronian evidence. As McGinn goes on to say, ‘the point of the remark concerning the muliebris togaassumes the exclusive identification of the wearing of the “female” toga with prostitutes’ (159). A note of caution is in order here: ‘Given Cicero’s masterful use of Roman Comedy in his rhetoric, his reference to the prostitute’s toga does not rule out comic usage as the source of the practice but proves nothing by itself’ (159–60). Further (if later) evidence that associates prostitutes with the wearing of the toga includes Horace, Satires 1.2.61–63 and 80–82 (see the discussion in Gowers (2012: 104–05); cf. Dixon (2014: 302–04) for a slightly more skeptical view of the evidence), Tibullus 3.16.3–4, and Martial 2.39 (with Vout 1996: 215). But it remains unclear, especially for Cicero’s times, to what extent the donning of a (darkened?) toga by prostitutes — as Dixon (2014: 302–04) notes, a rather impractical garment in which to ply their trade — was a social norm (or even legally enforced) or rather proverbial (akin to the idiom ‘to wear the trousers’).

(iv) The stola

If Roman boys when coming of age exchanged the toga praetexta for the toga virilis and entered public life, Roman girls had no such career prospects. For them, the defining watershed in their transition from childhood to adulthood was getting married (often in their early teens) — a change of status that also coincided with a change in clothes, the donning of the so-called stola: ‘The stola indicated that the wearer was married in a iustum matrimonium (a legal marriage between two citizens) and was therefore a mark of honor, a way to distinguish sexual and social rank in broad fashion’ (Olson 2008: 27). As Edmondson (2008: 24) explains, ‘the dress of the matron was designed to shield its wearer both physically and morally from the prying gaze of disreputable males who might impugn her chastity’. The dress carried associations of chastity — Antony has stopped whoring around town, now that he has become Curio’s lawfully wedded wife.


Historically speaking, Greek and Roman attitudes to sexual matters have often been a significant source of embarrassment for classical educators and scholars alike, to the point that they often gingerly sidestepped or even censored the evidence. Over the past few decades, however, the rich visual and verbal legacy of ancient erotics has become a vibrant field of study, sweeping away the inhibitions of earlier centuries. First impulses for serious scholarly study of the historical nature of sexual experience came from feminist thought and practice in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, in 1976, the French savant Michel Foucault published the first instalment of his multi-volume History of Sexuality (The Will to Knowledge / La volonté de savoir) with a focus on the institutional and discursive construction of sexual experience in the early modern period. Foucault argued that sexuality is not a given, something one is born with; rather sexualities get formed within specific cultural contexts. Sexual preferences (and prejudices) thus emerge at least in part as the product of socio-historical and cultural circumstances. This means, among other things, that seemingly identical acts may have radically different meanings from one culture to the next — as well as within any one culture. An early case study of this phenomenon was Greek Homosexuality (first published in 1978) by the British Hellenist Kenneth Dover. He showed that the Greeks cultivated certain forms of (male) same-sex desire that defy our categorical distinction between ‘homosexuality’ and ‘heterosexuality’. The volumes by Foucault and Dover became landmark publications, not least since other scholars soon intertwined the works and thereby amplified their arguments. Dover’s work was also one of the inspirations behind Michel Foucault’s second and third volumes of his History of Sexuality, which appeared in 1984 and looked at Greek texts from the fifth-century BCE and the early imperial period (2/3rd century CE). Foucault is particularly keen on highlighting discontinuities between ancient and modern ways of construing the sphere of the erotic (including such categories as sex and gender, sexual preferences, sexual practices, and associated discourses of morality and desire etc.). 

For some time, ancient Rome played second fiddle as scholars focused on the Greek experience; but from the 1990s onwards a series of studies by Amy Richlin and Craig Williams (among others) began to redress the balance. As Martha Nussbaum (2010: xiii) puts it:

First published in 1999, Craig Williams’ Roman Homosexuality does for the Romans what Dover did for the Greeks. … Williams argues convincingly that for Romans over quite a long period spanning the republic and the early empire, same-sex desire was regarded as perfectly ordinary and unproblematic — for males. … A freeborn Roman male would be expected in the normal course of things to desire other males and to act on this desire — in contexts carefully restricted by the status of the parties. Sex (on the part of males) with male (and female) slaves or prostitutes was seen as unproblematic, even for married men — though wives at times complained. Sex with freeborn males, by contrast, was strongly discouraged. Thus same-sex acts typically involved asymmetrical power relations.

The same principle of historical specificity applies — which means that the Roman approaches to erotic experience differed in important ways from those found in ancient Greece (and our own). Thus no culture of pederasty developed in Rome that revolved around the relationship between a young freeborn male and an older male companion; but like the Greeks, the Romans tended to associate masculinity quite forcefully with performing penetration (which entailed the inverse corollary, i.e. the shameful loss of masculinity if one suffered penetration). 

When Cicero impugns Antony as Curio’s toy boy (or lawfully married wife), he thus draws on his culture’s normative preconceptions about gender (masculinity) and sexual experience, casting his opponent as the lowest of the low: a man who revels in the role of passive partner in homoerotic encounters (the Greek term for this is cinaedus), which suggests that he has lost any claim to being a man: ‘The ultimate degradation of the passive partner lies in equating not only his behavior but also his sex to that of a woman; later in the same speech, Curio is described as Antonius’ husband (virPhil. 2.50)’. Cicero’s focus on what Antony does with his body has a political discontent. Throughout the speech, he pushes an analogy between the physical body and the social body: a depraved individual, who indulges in a repulsive lifestyle and detestable practices will infect the body politic, the civic community conceived as a corporeal entity:

This charge, which would read as libellous in our own culture, offers Cicero a way to insult and explain simultaneously. His portrayal of Antony as decadent and soft is tied inextricably to what Cicero sees as his moral and political failings. Mollitia is not an excuse, but an analysis: surely a man this degenerate and wrong-headed must desire to engage in the worst of sexual depravities. His status as cinaedus is deftly tied to lack of piety and financial profligacy (Manwell 2010: 115). 

Cicero was not the only one who pandered to such prejudices: Antony and his brother Lucius accused Octavian of the same thing (prostituting himself to Julius Caesar and Aulus Hirtius). 

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Suggested Citation: 

Ingo Gildenhard, Cicero: Philippic 2.44–50, 78–92, 100–119. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2020. ISBN: 978-1-947822-12-2