Keeping Up With The Alexandrians

Multiculturalism and clothing fashion in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt

By Maria Mossakowska-Gaubert

When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, he triggered a period of profound cultural and social change. As traditions evolved, so too did clothing, reflecting a society caught between the familiarity of the past and the appeal of the new.

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As early as the sixth century BCE, settlements were established by the Greeks in Egypt to facilitate trade. The best-known Greek port-city (emporion) at this time was Naukratis in the Delta on the Canopic branch of the Nile river. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great arrived in Egypt as a liberator from the Persian occupation and founded the city of Alexandria on the Mediterranean a year later. After Alexander’s death, the Macedonian nobleman Ptolemy, one of Alexander's most trusted deputies, established a Hellenistic dynasty in Egypt in 305 BCE. Alexandria became the capital of the Ptolemaic Kingdom and the city of Ptolemais Hermiou (modern-day al-Minshah in Sohag) the new administrative capital of Upper Egypt.

A time of change

Alexandria was a cosmopolitan environment with a large diaspora of Greek-speaking Jews in addition to the Greeks and Egyptians of the city. It soon became the most important artistic, culture, and intellectual centre in the eastern Mediterranean thanks to the patronage of the Ptolemies and projects such as the Museion which included the Library of Alexandria, the largest in the ancient world. Alexandria was also a great port where merchants and sailors from all over the Mediterranean would meet and where goods from the four corners of the ancient world were traded. The Ptolemies granted land to Greek and Macedonian soldiers and mercenaries and allowed them to settle with their families in the country. Greeks also filled most of the higher administrative positions. After a few generations, an Egyptian Greek-speaking ‘middle class’ was formed. The degree of ‘Hellenisation’ of the population varied from region to region. The native culture was preserved in the religion, demotic literature, and artistic traditions. Although the Ptolemies used ancient Egyptian titulature and are depicted in the reliefs of Egyptian cult temples in the pose and dress of the ancient Egyptian kings, they never became Egyptians.

From the middle of the second century BCE, the Roman influence in Egypt increased, and finally in 30 BCE, after the death of Cleopatra VII, Egypt’s last Ptolemaic ruler, the Nile Valley became a province of the Roman Empire and was administered by a prefect. The Roman administration and the presence of the Roman army made up of soldiers from different regions of the empire introduced new elements into the multicultural mosaic of Egypt. Eventually, after the division of the Roman Empire (395 CE), Egypt became a part of the Byzantine Empire with its capital city of Constantinople.

All these political, social, and cultural changes and influences were reflected in the way people dressed. In ancient society, clothing worn in public was seen as a marker of status and social rank, and it was not so much clothing, as the whole outfit and body ornaments that classified an individual. The variety of tunics worn in Egypt in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods—their shape, their raw material, and the way they were made—seems to best reflect the contacts and relationships in Egypt’s multi-ethnic and multicultural society.

Given the diversity of forms and techniques of garment execution in antiquity, it is necessary to first specify what we understand by the term ‘tunic’: A tunic is a garment worn directly on the body and covering the shoulders, torso, and legs (or at least part of them). Sometimes two tunics were combined, one over the other to protect the wearer from the cold. They were made from a variety of raw materials. The Egyptians produced their clothes almost exclusively in linen; it was the Greeks who introduced woollen garments to Egypt. Linen remained widespread throughout the Ptolemaic Period, but in Roman times, woollen fabrics or linen fabrics decorated with woollen motifs became far more prevalent, although linen fabrics continued to dominate. In the second century CE, or even before, probably as a result of contact with the Nubian kingdom of Meroe, cotton cultivation and fabrics appeared in Egypt. They spread particularly in the southern part of Egypt in the region of the First Cataract as well as in the oases of the Western Desert, Kharga and Dakhla.

Use of dyes and other techniques to change the natural colours of a fabric depended on the raw material. Vegetable, animal, and mineral dyes used in antiquity meant that fibres of animal origin (such as wool and silk) could be tinted a number of colours and shades: yellow, orange, red, pink, purple, blue, green, beige, brown, and black. Vegetal fibres (such as linen and cotton) were not easily coloured, and so dying was rarely applied or was often limited to threads used in decorative bands, and the range of colours was restricted to blue and red only. On the other hand, linen cloth and clothing were often bleached.

Tunics, Old and New

When the Greeks arrived in Egypt, the local population wore tunics of which there were two models. The first was a one-piece woven ‘bag’, sewn down the sides with a slit for the head and two openings for the arms or with sleeves sewn on separately. The second was composed of two parts, an upper part made of two pieces covering the shoulders and forming the sleeves and a lower part made of a rectangular piece of fabric sewn down the side. These tunics were used at least until the second century CE as can be seen on representations of the dead painted on anthropoid mummy cases, coffins carved to the outline of the mummy's body and decorated with the face, wig, and clothing of the deceased. Some Egyptian-type tunics are preserved in collections and museums, but their dating is not always precise.

It can be assumed that most of the Greeks who settled in Egypt dressed in the fashion of their homeland. Greek tunics were draped and assembled with buttons or pins, sometimes also partially sewn. They were sleeveless, but to cover the arms one could make ‘false’ sleeves using the width of fabric and stapling it. Tunics of this type are, for example, represented on terracotta figurines dating from this period where we see the chiton worn by men and the peplos or chiton by women (see illustrations).

The principal element of clothing fashion introduced in Egypt with the arrival of the Romans was a tunic made of two rectangular pieces of fabric sewn together. Such a tunic would either leave the arms uncovered or cover the arms to the elbow. Roman tunics are very often decorated with two narrow stripes (Latin: clavi), which run down the front and back from the shoulders to the lower edge. The clavi are often of a colour imitating purple, but other colours are possible. Fragments of these tunics, made of linen, wool, and sometimes of cotton, have been found at many archaeological sites in Egypt. Such tunics are also worn by the men and women depicted on numerous mummy portraits (the so-called ‘Fayoum portraits’) dating to the first and second centuries CE.

At the turn of the second and third centuries CE, probably first in the Near East, then in Egypt and elsewhere, the fashion and manner of making tunics changed. At this time, in addition to sleeveless tunics, the inhabitants of Egypt started to wear tunics with ‘true’ sleeves. It seems this new fashion first took hold in Alexandria and from there spread throughout Egypt. Tunics with sleeves, instead of being made of several pieces, were woven ‘in shape’, in a single piece, using a special large loom. In addition, probably from the fifth century CE onwards, tunics with sleeves could also be made on a narrow loom. Three separate pieces were woven and then sewn together. The decoration of the sleeved tunics consists of clavi and sometimes of tapestry motifs in round (Latin: orbiculus) or square (Latin: tabula) form. The sleeveless tunics of this period were made in one piece, leaving the opening of the neckline, but they could also be assembled as ‘Roman fashion’ tunics. A new Greek word, kolobion, appeared in the third century CE to name a tunic without ‘true’ sleeves.

The long, loose tunic with wide sleeves, called dalmatica in Greek and Latin, was worn above all by women, but also by men, especially in the third and fourth centuries CE. It is worn either without a belt or girdled under the chest among women, or more rarely, fastened around the lower part of the hips among men. This type of tunic can be seen, for example, in the full-length portraits of women on painted funerary shrouds. A tunic of this type almost completely preserved, and most probably from Akhmim, is kept at the Victoria and Albert Museum (T.361-1887). Another type of tunic was narrower than a dalmatica and had tight sleeves. It seems to be called by the Greek word sticharion. This kind of tunic, woven in one piece, or later in three, is very common in archaeological material from Egypt. Images of men dressed in short tunics with tight sleeves are also common in the art of late antiquity, while long tunics with long, tight sleeves seem to be worn more frequently by women.

Technological Advances

Our information on the production of tunics and other garments mainly relates to fabrics made by professional weavers. However, much of the clothing had to be made at home. In documents and letters preserved on papyri, we can see that professional weavers received orders from individual customers, but also from the state, such as orders for tunics for the Roman army.

The weavers, depending on the epoch and the type of tunic, worked on different kinds of looms. It is assumed that the vertical two-beam loom, where the warp is held in tension between two beams fixed in an upright frame, known in Egypt from the New Kingdom, was still in use in the Ptolemaic Period. It is also possible that, in addition to the vertical loom, the ground loom may also have been in use, especially for domestic purposes. In this loom, the warp is mounted horizontally between two beams and is held in tension by pegs in the ground. However, Greek weavers living in Egypt, at least during two first centuries of Ptolemaic rule, worked on the warp-weighted loom, which leant itself particularly well to the production of woollen fabrics. In the warp-weighted loom, the warp is fixed to the upper beam and is held in tension by loom weights. This loom was also used for cotton fabrics in the Roman era. With the arrival of the Romans, a new version of the vertical two-beam loom appeared in Egypt, one that probably had both beams revolving. It seems that at the end of the second century CE, a very wide version of the two-beam loom came into use to make sleeved tunics in one piece.

The history of the tunics worn in Egypt from the arrival of Alexander the Great to the Byzantine period is closely linked to political events and social and cultural changes in the country, but also to the economic and technological development of the time. It represents the complexity and diversity of society, where one finds a tendency towards assimilation or syncretism that clashes with the need to maintain tradition, both among the indigenous inhabitants and among the Greeks and other ethnic groups living in Egypt at that time.



Tomb of Petosiris, high priest of Thoth. Hermopolis (Tuna al-Gebel), ca. 340 BCE (Ptolemaic Period). | Although the tomb of Petosiris was built shortly after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, it demonstrates an early example of the syncretism between Greek and Egyptian cultures that had been in contact for centuries. With its Egyptian style, the tomb pays homage to a glorious past and the last period of Egyptian indigenous rule (Dynasty 30). In this scene, the two men on the left are wearing Greek-style draped and dyed tunics made of wool, and the ‘overseer’ on the right is wrapped in an Egyptian-style linen mantle. The tomb, which also shows Persian influences, offers a glimpse into the melting pot that was the Egypt of the time.

© Yasmine El Dorghamy

Shroud of a woman wearing a fringed tunic. Tempera on linen, ca. 170–200 CE (Early Roman Period). | A wealthy woman (judging by her jewellery) wearing a Roman style tunic with thin clavi (stripes) and a mantle draped over her arms. The details of the construction of her clothes are not entirely clear. The very deep folds below her right arm could be the tunic sleeves or part of the mantle. The fine fringe around the bottom could either be part of the tunic or of the undergarment visible at her neckline through the purple triangles. She is wearing red socks with black sandals and flanked on either side by Egyptian deities, the more visible one being Anubis, the god of embalming.


Tunic (dalmatica) for a woman. Linen with tapestry woven decoration in wool and gold thread, probably from Panopolis/Akhmim, ca. 130–340 CE (Roman Period).


Mummy portrait. Gold and encaustic (wax and pigment on wood), ca. 150–170 CE (Early Roman Period). | Perhaps the earliest form of realistic painting in the world can be found in the ‘Fayyum’ mummy portraits (although always associated with the area of Fayyum, they were found across Egypt). The practice began in the 1st c. CE and continued until the 4th c. Portraits were painted while the subject was in the prime of life and were hung in their home until they died. Usually, they depicted the person wearing a Roman era tunic with thin clavi and a mantle and would often provide clues about the owner’s profession and social class through jewellery, accessories, and occasional inscriptions. After this form of art begins to wane in the early Byzantine Period, we are left with little clear visual evidence of Egyptian costume for almost a millennium.


Maria Mossakowska-Gaubert

Maria Mossakowska-Gaubert

Maria Mossakowska-Gaubert is an archaeologist and historian (University of Warsaw, PhD: 2006). Her research focuses on material culture, the history of technology and everyday life in Egypt (4th c. BCE–8th c. CE). She has worked at the National Museum in Warsaw and the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo. Since 2017, she has been a research fellow at the Centre for Textile Research at the University of Copenhagen.