The Real Reason Pants Were Objectionable In The Roman Empire

Women throughout history fought for the right to wear pants, but that trend in female fashion did not widely catch on until around the mid-20th century, as Britannica notes. Of course, men were wearing pants long before that, as the alternative (or no pants at all) would be quite controversial in most cases. These days, pants are such a staple in menswear, in fact, that it's easy to take them for granted. There was a time, though, in ancient Rome, when a man wearing pants was considered objectionable, as Atlas Obscura explains.

If men weren't wearing pants in ancient Rome, then what were they wearing? Roman fashion for both genders can be summed up by the two "T's," or tunics and togas — tunics were casual, and togas were worn for fancy occasions, according to Fibre2Fashion. At its peak, the Roman Empire spanned roughly 2 million square miles, as History writes. Within that vast space were many different cultures, each one with its own style of clothing. It was this Roman point of view on certain colonized people — with whom the Roman Empire frequently fought throughout history — that led some Roman men to consider breeches to be distasteful.

Gaulish men were known to wear breeches

Around 50 B.C. the Roman conquest of Gaul (modern-day France) at the hands of Julius Caesar was complete, as Britannica notes. In Caesar's view, the native people of Gaul he encountered during his time fighting within the country were uncivilized. And what were they wearing? You guessed it, pants, which were most often made from animal skins, as the History of Yesterday notes. The same proved true of other Germanic peoples the Romans came across as they conquered Europe, many of whom were called "barbarians." A famous Roman poet named Ovid recalled what one group of people he met looked like and what they wore, including trousers. "Only their faces" were visible, Ovid wrote. Interestingly, the term "barbarians" has come to mean anyone who is uncouth or lacking in proper manners, however, the original ancient Greek word simply meant anyone who didn't speak Greek or adhere to their culture, according to Ancient Pages.

Nevertheless, trousers or pants came to represent an otherness to the people Rome would conquer, and with whom Rome would need to fight to keep under control. According to the University of California, Berkeley historian Susanne Elm, speaking with Atlas Obscura, Roman orators used pants-wearing to describe these so-called foreign tribes, maligning each as backward and uncivilized, particularly as compared to Roman high society. 

One particular recorded example of this involved one particularly deft argument from the lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero, representing a shamed governor of Gaul. Cicero used the local fashion as a way of painting the Gauls in a bad light by asking the judges in the governor's trial, "Do you think that, with [the Gauls] military cloaks and their breeches, they come to us in a lowly and submissive spirit ... ? Nothing is further from the truth."

The precipitation of these images throughout Roman society made wearing pants simply unfashionable. But over time, that began to change.

Wearing pants became more acceptable

As late as around A.D. 100 pants-wearing was still considered the domain of uncouth foreign hordes, alongside river-bathing and ponytails, as Roman historian, Publius Cornelius Tacitus (pictured), described, according to Atlas Obscura. Around that same time, though, Roman soldiers began wearing a kind of trouser they called a braccae. These early versions of the common trouser were made predominantly of wool and held up by a drawstring, and were better suited for the colder climates where the Roman armies were fighting much more often, especially in northern and northwestern Europe, per Tribunes and Triumphs. As pants-like attire became much more common among the ranks of Roman soldiers, they also became more popular in the general population.

To quell this trend, men were not allowed to wear pants under orders from the Roman Emperors (at the time there were two), as Atlas Obscura also notes. Not too long after that, though, around A.D. 500 Rome had fallen to those same pants-wearing Germanic tribes, like the Visigoths under King Alaric, which the Romans referred to as barbarians. With that, pants-wearing slowly became less taboo, and according to professor and author Kelly Olson, speaking with Atlas Obscura, trousers were even then worn in the only remaining Roman court in Constantinople. Bearing all that in mind, it's safe to assume the Romans still put their pants on one leg at a time just like we do.