April Ferry, who designed the costumes for HBO’s Rome, was recently honored with a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement award by the Costume Designers Guild. Ciarán Hinds, who played Julius Caesar in Rome, was on hand to pay tribute to Ferry.
I’ve been fascinated by Julius Caesar ever since I first read Shakespeare’s play as a girl, especially the praise spoken by a grudging Cassius:
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
It’s a treat to hear John Gielgud deliver these lines in the 1953 film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. But Louis Calhern was simply not virile enough to be convincing as Caesar. And the costumes by Herschel Ferry (any relation, I wonder?) were a hit and miss affair.
Later I began to read about Caesar’s life, and to marvel at the way he succeeded at everything he did. One of the most brilliant generals of all time, he was also supremely talented prose stylist (his poems, alas, have been lost). He switched the Romans from an archaic lunar calendar to the “Julian” solar calendar we use today. Had he not been assassinated, he might well have conquered the Parthians (as he planned to do) and changed the shape of the Roman Empire. Again.
And then there is his love life. Caesar was an expert at seduction, and specialized in nailing the wives of his friends and associates. In Roman society this was highly questionable behavior, but somehow he got away with it. The gossip-monger Suetonius writes (Div. Jul. 50) that “he seduced many illustrious women, among them Postumia, wife of Servius Sulpicius, Lollia, wife of Aulus Gabinius, Tertulla, wife of Marcus Crassus, and even Gnaeus Pompeius’ wife Mucia.”
As a youth, he is said to have dallied with King Nicomedes of Bithynia (rumors of this affair dogged him for the rest of his life). And he went through three wives (Cornelia, Pompeia and Calpurnia) in addition to a longtime mistress, Servilia (mother of Brutus). With all this energetic bedroom activity, it’s amazing he managed to get anything else done.
Of course his most famous lover was the young Cleopatra. She was 22. He was 52. Shaw’s witty play Caesar and Cleopatra, about the political nature of their relationship, nevertheless has romantic elements, which were played up in the 1945 film with Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh. This is a hidden gem!
What would Caesar actually have worn? Let’s begin with one of his portrait statues. The most conspicuous part of his outfit is the metal lorica or cuirass. This extends to groin level and beneath it is a skirt of leather strips, the pteruges. (Pteruges are attached to the cuirass at the upper arms as well.) Over the armor he wears the short military cloak called the paludamentum. Beneath the armor he wears a tunic that reaches almost to the knees. Roman men sometimes wore a loincloth-like undergarment, the subligaculum. But they may also have gone commando; the loincloth was a garment associated with laborers. Caesar’s footwear is of thin, flexible leather with straps that run around his shins.
The 1963 Cleopatra was a slow-moving, turgid mess, but spectacular for all that. Like watching the biggest train wreck in the world– in slow motion. Rex Harrison’s costumes were contrasted with those of the younger, more virile Mark Antony (Richard Burton). Caesar is often given long sleeves, which Roman men considered effeminate and/or characteristic of self-indulgent Eastern tyrants…
Caesar did not constantly go about in armor, which would have been very uncomfortable. When in town, he would have worn either a toga (more on that below) or in more casual mode, a simple tunic of costly fabric, with a belt. Let’s turn now to HBO’s Rome for a look at April Ferry’s costumes.
Episode 1 finds Caesar in Gaul. He wears a fetching modified “cuirass” of quilted fabric (presumably for warmth) with the leather skirt of pteruges, and beneath, a red tunic. Very stylish, though probably not historically accurate.
Later during the visit of Brutus, Caesar dons a long-sleeved gown with gold edging that looks very comfortable but puts him in Rex Harrison territory–the older man with a taste for “Oriental” luxury. Note that in spite of the ostensibly cold climate of Gaul, Antony wears a standard short-sleeved tunic (and armor). Brutus compromises with half-sleeves and a cloak.
Episode 2 includes a glimpse of this simple tunic, which is nevertheless dyed with the costliest of colors and trimmed in gold. The selvage edge gives it a casual feel.
The Roman Senators wear togas with slight variations in the red stripes on their tunics or on the toga itself. The one who stands out is Cato the Younger, played by Karl Johnson. Here Cato, who was known for his adherence to Stoic philosophy, wears a Greek-style wrapped garment with no tunic beneath, in the manner of a philosopher. The dark color, however, is hard to explain. In real life, it probably would have been the color of the natural wool.
After Antony is attacked in Rome by a crowd of Pompey’s supporters, he arrives at Caesar’s camp still wearing his bloody toga. Caesar is dressed in full military garb. But notice that all the men are wearing wee britches under their tunics, including Caesar! In real life, a self-respecting Roman man wouldn’t be caught in trousers, the garment of the uncivilized Gauls. He was happy in his skirt, thank you very much! Another jarring note: the legions are improbably dressed in red cloaks and have matching armor. Even Pompey, with his fabulous wealth, didn’t outfit his men this way. Legionaries typically provided their own armor, which was often inherited and mismatched.
Check out the area where Caesar’s tunic, edged with gold, gives way to thigh. It’s pretty high up. This is why April put wee britches on the men. However historically accurate, the sight of all that manly thigh might have been off-putting for some viewers (though we ladies wouldn’t have minded). In cold weather, men sometimes wore wrappings of wool around their legs, but typically this was reserved for the aged and infirm, not virile soldiers! (Update: according to the historical re-enactment site LegionTen, legionaries adapted the barbarian custom of wearing braccae or trousers. Maybe they found them a practical garment. But I doubt Caesar would have been seen in pants.)
This cap is a bit blurry, but clearly shows how Caesar’s knee breeches provide thigh coverage. You also get a rare view of his footwear–very authentic, although men on campaign tended to wear closed shoes rather than sandals.
Caesar’s helmet looks serviceable, though a bit more “parade” than Antony’s rugged helmet. Both are capped with showy red plumes.
For his visit to the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill, Caesar wears his most traditional garb: a white tunic with red stripe beneath a snowy white wool toga. This was a large semicircular garment (as big as 20 x 10 feet) that had no fasteners. It was wrapped about the body and held in place by its own weight. Togas were bleached using the ammonia in human urine, and fuller’s earth. I can’t imagine wearing such a heavy wool garment in Rome. It must have been itchy and hot. Perhaps smelly, too. Even though the Romans were good bathers, a day in ancient Rome would have involved a serious assault on the olfactory senses.
And now a word about undress in Rome. James Purefoy agreed to appear nude for this scene because it demonstrates an important point about power relations. The nude Antony casually receives visitors as he is being groomed by a bodyslave. His comfort in appearing naked before social inferiors demonstrates his power over them. If his visitor were Caesar, it would be a very different matter. Scenes of Caesar’s niece Atia (Polly Walker) naked before her slaves make a similar point. Sadly, we never get to see Caesar demonstrating his power…
To accompany his wife Calpurnia outdoors, Caesar wears an expensive moss-colored silk tunic with a matching toga-like wrap. Such products arrived at Rome via the “Silk Road” trade routes through Central Asia. It seems possible that in real life, Caesar would have made use of exotic fabrics like this, but only at the risk of ridicule for appearing rather effeminately concerned with his luxurious wardrobe. In this same scene he compliments Calpurnia on her rich gown: “Regal, but not excessively so.” The implication is that Caesar wants to be king, but knows he can’t flaunt it.
On his arrival in Egypt, Caesar wears a new, tan-colored cuirass that appears to be molded from layers of leather. He has a three-quarter sleeved tunic and a leather skirt, with a baldric for his sword and gold(?) wrist cuffs.
During most of his stay in Egypt, Caesar wears relatively casual and comfortable clothing, like this simple red tunic with a wide leather belt. Maybe his slave Posca forgot to bring the luggage? Posca wears an unlikely tunic and trousers ensemble. I enjoyed the Cleopatra episode, but was disappointed that it played down Caesar’s military exploits during the siege of Alexandria by Ptolemy’s forces. In the naval battle, Caesar displayed a certain heroic nonchalance:
He had sprung down from the mole into a small boat and was trying to go to the help of his men who were engaged in battle, but the Egyptians sailed up against him from all directions, and he was forced to throw himself into the sea and swim, only just managing to escape. This was the time when, according to the story, he was holding a number of papers in his hand and would not let them go, though he was being shot at from all sides and was often under water. Holding the papers above the surface with one hand, he swam with the other. (-Plutarch’s Life of Caesar, tr. Rex Warner) I hope this story is true. At the time, Caesar was in his early fifties.
For the scene in which Caesar presents “his” son by Cleopatra to the army, April Ferry created this special green tunic. It is the only time Caesar wears green rather than his customary red– a tip of the hat to Irishman Ciarán Hinds on Saint Patrick’s Day, when this scene was filmed. The historical Caesar never acknowledged that the boy Caesarion was his son, instead adopting his grand-nephew Octavianus in his will and naming him his heir. On the other hand, Caesar brought Cleopatra and the child to Rome and installed her in one of his houses, carrying on his scandalous affair with her before the eyes of the Romans (including his wife Calpurnia). When he was assassinated, Cleopatra had to get out of town–quickly.
For Caesar’s visit to the conservative Vorenus (who believes at heart that Caesar is a tyrant), a very plain traditional toga. Somehow, he knew Vorenus would appreciate it.
To celebrate his triumph, when he rides through the city to the Capitol in glory, Caesar wears his most elaborate ensemble: an ornate gilt cuirass with what looks like a red velvet tunic and a patterned red cloak, arranged in toga-like drapery. He also has silver and gold wrist cuffs, and a gold wreath. His face is ritually painted with vermilion, like that of the statue of Jupiter on the Capitol. I only wish they had shown the Vestal Virgins attaching a phallus beneath his chariot. (Yes, they really did this.)
In the final hours of his life, Caesar is back in a toga, but beneath it he wears this unusual tunic with a large, broad stripe down the center. Maybe the man with the biggest stripe is the Big Dawg? Or does it foreshadow his coming murder?
What sartorial splendor! And those were just the costumes for Caesar. April Ferry created 5,000 costumes for the Rome series. That in itself is worth a Lifetime Achievement award.