Head covering during religious rites
It is a fundamental basic of Roman polytheism that in most religious rites one, whether male or female, covers the head (capite velato), except where the ritus Graecus applies:
“The Romans usually sacrificed with the head covered. In the case of Apollo and Ceres, however, sacrifice was made in the Greek mode, with the head uncovered, apparently because these deities were considered to retain something of their Greek origin … [Warrior, Roman Religion, Cambridge University Press at 21].”
Plutarch (1st century CE) posed the question of why it is that when Romans worshipped the Gods they covered their heads and gave a tentative answer:
“… they thus worshipped the Gods, either humbling themselves by concealing the head, or rather by pulling the toga over their ears as a precaution lest any ill-omened and baleful sound from without should reach them while they were praying [Plutarch, Roman Questions, penelope.uchicago.edu].”
Covering the head thus denotes piety and establishes the fundamental dress code appropriate to most Roman rites. Also, as Plutarch says, covering the head may minimise the chance of seeing or hearing something inauspicious while conducting the rite. Thus one is less distracted and more focused. Averting negative influences by head covering is also alluded to by Virgil, in book III of the Aeneid; in which head covering is advised so that “no evil-eyed enemy face can intrude” on the rite (line 406, as translated by Ahl).
Plutarch also posits another theory as to why the head is covered during Roman rites:
“Or, as Castor states when he is trying to bring Roman customs into relation with Pythagorean doctrines: the Spirit within us entreats and supplicates the Gods without, and thus he symbolises by the covering of the head the covering and concealment of the soul by the body [Plutarch, Roman Questions].”
Head covering amongst ancient Roman women
In the midst of Plutarch’s discussion on the Roman custom of head covering he notes that “it is more usual for women to go forth in public with their heads covered” (Plutarch, Roman Questions). Sebesta, professor of classics at the University of South Dakota, explores this tradition in detail:
“The costume of the matron signified her modesty and chastity, her pudicitia. It consisted of her distinctive dress, the woollen stola, which was worn over a tunic; the protective woollen bands which dressed her hair; and the woollen palla or mantle, which was used to veil her head when she went out in public … the veil … protected the married woman from religiously impure things, limiting the likelihood of her seeing some omen, object, or act that would diminish her purity.
The protection provided by the veil in public was paralleled by the protection provided to the woman’s head by the woollen bands with which she bound her hair … the matron’s bands both protected her from impurity and indicated her modesty … Just as integral to the matron’s costume was the stola, the dress reserved for the chaste married woman. Commenting that the vitta covers modest hair, Ovid acknowledges that his amatory verse is not suitable for the matron: ‘Be far from here, you signs of purity, thin vittae and long stola which covers the feet’ (Ars amatoria 1.31-32) [Sebesta, “Symbolism of the Costume of the Roman Woman”, an essay reproduced in Sebesta and Bonfante (Ed), The World of Roman Costume, University of Wisconsin Press at 48-49].”
Note that in the line quoted Ovid does not mention the palla as a sign of purity – only vittae (woollen bands) and stola, which suggests they were the more important signs of propriety amongst Roman women in the 1st century BCE.
Ermatinger, professor of history at the University of Illinois, continues the discussion regarding veiling and demure dress amongst ancient Roman women:
“… it was important for a woman to maintain her modesty and demeanour; this meant that a married woman would often wear the palla which could be pulled up over her head from behind or some other kind of veil/shawl … the clothes were there to ensure potential modesty and proper behaviour when demanded. One could also show modesty by having the vitta in the hair. This was a ribbon or band worn around the forehead and head of a freeborn woman; it could be worn both before and after marriage. The purpose was to confine the hair in a modest and neat fashion … Women wore distinctive clothing that clearly marked them in society, often dependent upon their class or social status. For example, it was customary for some women to wear a veil; this was especially true of a priestess performing a sacrifice … by a woman in either mourning or as a supplicant before a temple … A special veil was the flammeum which was the marriage veil of brilliant yellow [which protected the bride as she passed from her own family to that of her husband’s] … A cyclas was a loose drapery of fine texture worn around the body … Because of its value it was usually only worn by wealthy women … the palla could be worn over the stola … For those women who were not permitted to wear the stola [or preferred not to wear a stola; it had gone out of fashion by the late imperial age], they often wore the palla over a [long] tunic since it could be drawn up over the head [Ermatinger, The World of Ancient Rome: A Daily Life Encyclopedia, Greenwood at 254 and 291-292].”
Focusing specifically on the palla, which was the most common Roman veil for women (when a head covering was worn at all – head covering was by no means universal), Olson, associate professor of Classics at the University of Ontario, writes:
“The palla seems to have been made in different sizes, but the one we see most often in Roman art was large enough ‘so that when wrapped about the wearer the upper edge could be brought up over the head while the lower edge would extend to about the knees’ … Some ancient authors characterise the palla as an enveloping article of female clothing: thus Horace says, ‘wrapped around with a palla and with a stola falling to her feet’ … Lucilius [2nd century BCE], however, names the palla as an ornament: ‘when she is with you [lover or husband], anything will do; when other men are coming to see her, she brings out her braid … her mantles, her headbands … But there are explicit references to the palla’s function as a veil. An anecdote in Valerius Maximus recounts that Gaius Sulpicius Gallus [2nd century BCE] … divorced his wife for leaving the house with her head uncovered, thereby exposing to view what he alone should see … The elder Seneca [1st century CE] wrote that veiling … was a way for women to avoid the public gaze … [Olson, Dress and the Roman Woman: Self-Presentation and Society, Routledge at 33]”
The imperative to attain a modest appearance may well have been a primary goal of the Roman veil, as it is sometimes said to be for Islamic women, however, ancient statues of Roman women indicate that the palla was not worn in the Islamic manner that one most commonly sees, for the front of the hair (and all of the face) was usually visible, the neck was generally exposed and the arms were not necessarily covered. Importantly, the Islamic veil generally stays in place as the wearer moves about, so it can be worn while women are working, whereas the palla may not have been a practical choice for physically active women, as the way it was worn would tend to cause the veil to fall back onto the shoulders very frequently. It may have been that the palla was sometimes fixed onto the hair in some way, to keep it in place, but this cannot have been terribly comfortable for prolonged periods, especially if the palla was made of wool, as was often the case (of course wealthy ladies could afford a palla made of silk, which would have been much more comfortable to fix onto the hair). Wearing vitta beneath the palla does allow the palla to stay on the head a little better than when without, but it does not solve the problem. Ancient images of women wearing a palla sometimes show them literally keeping it in place with a hand; this leaves only one hand free, which may be all that is needed to go shopping with a basket over one’s elbow, but little more than this can be accomplished. It seems that only a lady of relative leisure could have easily got around with a palla draped over her hair, in the style we see in Roman statues, which suggests that the palla may have been a means for wealthy freeborn women to indicate their socio-economic rank, while projecting an image of modesty and chastity.
Ancient Roman women lived according to societal norms that were in many cases very different from those of contemporary Western women, and this may go some way in explaining the use of the palla. In particular, there was a societal ideal that placed women in the private sphere and men in the public. An honourable Roman woman, economic circumstances permitting (which often they did not), was expected to spend the bulk of her time at home, caring for children and other relatives, managing the household, spinning wool and working at the loom – this all equated to the private sphere of life. The public sphere, such as business, legal and military activities, which happened outside the home, belonged predominantly to adult males (Knapp, Invisible Romans, Profile Books at 53-54). Although we can be sure that Roman women often enough did go out in public, when they did some of them may have shrouded their heads and bodies with the palla as a means of blocking out the intrusion of public life; thus retaining themselves in the private sphere as much as possible. The relative impracticality of keeping the palla over one’s head for long periods may be deliberate – for this might serve to discourage women from spending too much time outside of their (or their families’) homes.
When women were in the public sphere, such as shop-keeping, it is probable that they did not veil their hair – at least this is what the archeological record suggests. While many ancient women in the public sphere may not have worn the palla they could still signal their respectability to others by ensuring that their hair was not loose but tied up into a tidy, off-the-face hairstyle, perhaps with vittae, which may have been more sacrally significant than the palla.
“The Romans used woollen bands to indicate that the object was ritually pure and dedicated to or connected in some way with the Gods [Sebesta and Bonfante, The World of Roman Costume, University of Wisconsin Press at 47-48].”
Given that vittae were associated with priests, religious rites and temples it may be that, at least on some occasions, vittae were given to women as part of religious ceremonies. If this was so, women may have believed their temple-blessed vittae would give them Godly blessings and protection from harm.*
Contemporary head covering in the Roman tradition – purely optional
Veiling in the Roman tradition carries connotations of piety, protection and modesty that some women may well wish to tap into, but it seems unlikely that everyday veiling for women could be argued to be an essential part of Roman polytheistic practice. It is significant that amongst Roman coins depicting Pietas it is not necessarily the case that her head is always covered. Nor is Juno – the patron Goddess of married women and mothers – always shown with her head veiled. Likewise, the majority of female busts and statues of Roman women (Vestal priestesses excepted) that have survived into our own age are without a head covering – possibly because the very act of displaying a sculpture was a public one, thus rendering the use of a veil superfluous. It seems to me that possibly the main drivers for ancient Roman women to veil themselves were the need to project an image of chastity and to signal a willingness to confine oneself to the “respectable” private sphere of life. Doing so would have been a valuable means to assure their husbands of their fidelity and his consequent paternity of their children. In a world where reliable paternity tests are available and women are no longer encouraged to confine themselves to the private (housewife) sphere of life, but to participate in most, if not all, aspects of public life, it may be that there is no need to veil in the ancient Roman way, although of course every woman should feel free to veil her hair if this is her personal choice.
* To watch an excellent video of vittae being incorporated into an ancient Roman hairstyle see onwards from minute 7 of the YouTube video Hairstyle and Costume of the Roman Bride. Note however that ancient Roman hairstyles were often notoriously complex – their very complexity perhaps being another way for women to show off their wealth and status, for such women clearly would have had hairdresser slaves (or obliging female relatives with time on their hands). One could also incorporate vittae into the simpler Greek hair styles depicted in the videos Classical Greek Hairstyle and Grecian Cross-Tied Hairstyles, or the Cleopatra hairstyle depicted in the video Cleopatra’s Coin Hairstyle. All of these styles will work optimally with long hair.
- Capite velato: “With veiled head. A Roman man would pull a fold of his toga over his head as a veil when sacrificing to the Gods or as ritual dress: thus signifies piety … [Cleland, Davies and Llewellyn-Jones, Greek and Roman Dress from A to Z, Routledge at 30].”
- Palla: “… especially worn outdoors … It covered the body from the shoulder to the knees – it might fall to the ankles; it is usually represented as a voluminous garment – ie, expensive – elegantly draped in a number of different ways. It could be worn over the head as a veil, draped diagonally round the body like a toga, over both shoulders like a shawl, or even around the hips … As it was [usually] not fastened at all, it relied on draping … This made is suitable for leisured women of the upper classes, but not for any practical activity. Nonius says that respectable women and matrons should not appear in public without it; Horace complains that the all-enveloping stola and palla show only Matrons’ faces … The palla – probably usually made of wool, lighter summer versions of linen, cotton or silk – could be any colour at all, except from 215-195 BC, when the Lex Oppia forbade purple. In the early empire it was usually plain, with at most a contrasting border, but in the third and fourth centuries AD could be decorated … A smaller version, the palliola, was also available … [Cleland, Davies and Llewellyn-Jones, Greek and Roman Dress from A to Z, Routledge at 136].”
- Stola: female outer garment, worn over the tunica, that was typically ankle-length and fastened over the shoulder with a fibula (which was like an elaborate ancient Roman safety pin). “The stola was a garment peculiar to the Roman matron, and was worn as a badge of lawful marriage … It was … put on over the … tunica … and reached down to the ankles. … It [often] had sleeves, reaching down to the elbows, fastened with a row of clasps, and not sewn. If, however, the tunica interior had sleeves, the stola was [often] without them … the stola was girded … generally high above the waist … There is no record of the date at which it was adopted by the Roman women … It remained in use as the garb of the matronae … until the time of Tiberius, when it ceased to be fashionable. References to it in literature are, however, none the less frequent in post-Augustan writers … Under the Empire, as its use in actual life became less common, it was apparently given a symbolic meaning, and bestowed on matrons who had the jus liberorum [had borne three children and thus granted a greater degree of legal autonomy by the State] … [Smith, Wayte and Marindin (Ed), A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, perseus.tufts.edu].”
- Tunica: ordinary tunic worn by both sexes; was typically half-sleeved and knee-length for men; it might be longer for women.
- Vittae: “VITTA or plural VITTAE, a ribbon or fillet, is to be considered (1) as an ordinary portion of [Roman] female dress; (2) as a decoration of sacred persons and sacred things. 1. When considered as an ordinary portion of female dress, it was simply a band encircling the head. and serving to confine the tresses … the ends, when long … hanging down … It was worn (1) by maidens … (2) by married women also, the vitta assumed on the nuptial day being of a different form from that used by virgins … it was looked upon as an insigne pudoris [sign of modesty] … 2. When employed for sacred purposes … it was employed as an ornament for (1) priests, and those who offered sacrifice … (2) priestesses, especially those of Vesta … (3) prophets and poets, who may be regarded as priests, and in this’ case the vittae were frequently intertwined with chaplets of olive or laurel … (4) statues of deities … (5) victims decked for sacrifice … (6) altars … (7) temples … [Smith, Wayte and Marindin (Ed), A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, perseus.tufts.edu]