Dr. Manel García Sánchez

Valencia University, Department of Ancient History

Young man with Parthian costume

Roman Identity and Parthian Dress

The sources of the Roman Empire are rich in data regarding the representation of Persian and Parthian `otherness´: the Arsacid, specially since the defeat of Carrhae in 53 BC, and the Sassanian, the most serious threat to the Roman Eastern frontier after AD 226.

The interaction between the two great Empires influenced not only the development of a political and imperial consciousness, but also the assessment of Persian `otherness´ from an ethnographic and moral point of view, mixing factual knowledge of the enemy across the frontier with very traditional imaginary elements. Under the generic Persian `other´ Achaemenids, Seleucids, Arsacids and Sassanians often were mixed.

It is in this process of constructing identity in the Graeco-Roman world where dress becomes an element of identity and `otherness´ too. It is here that we can explore which garments and which materials are products of `otherness´, and if an exchange of fashions and textiles between the West and the East existed.

Dress also played its part in the representation of `otherness´: the portraits of Parthians always oscillated between two extremes. The images either exhibit an austerity born of semi-nomadic origins, showing the leather trousers (anaxyrídes), the double-breasted tunic with a V-shaped opening from the waist up, and even garments similar to the Greek chitón. Or they depict sumptuous clothing consisting of diaphanous and light suits (uestes perlucidae ac fluidae), draped and loose (laxae uestes; fluxa uelamenta), which hung down to the feet.

The project also aims to investigate whether the ancient sources reveal the Roman adoption of Eastern fashions from the Silk Road and whether they consciously appropriated `otherness´. Which non-Roman garments were adopted or adapted and which materials became status symbols are also explored.

Finally, the project highlights the contradictions between a Roman ideology that considered the refinements of Persian fashion a sign of `otherness´ of decadence and softness and a reality that was receptive to luxury of Eastern origin and incorporated it into their own identity.