The Purple Thread

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EpictetusRoman men wore togas for formal occasions. The basic toga – toga alba or toga pura – was a simple garment of plain white wool. It was undyed and unadorned. White was the colour required by Roman sumptuary law for citizens’ togas. This basic toga was also the garment draped on a boy when he went through his ceremony to manhood – called the toga virilis during that ceremony.

A dark brown or grey toga pulla or toga sordida was reserved for periods of mourning. A fancier, bleached toga was worn by candidates for political office – the toga candida. Candida means pure white and is the etymological source of our word, candidate. The pure white was symbolic of the candidate’s purity and honesty. I can hear you chuckle at that notion, especially after the last local municipal election.

In order to stand out in this sea of dull white, officials such as magistrates, aediles, consuls, senators and priests could wear the toga praetexta: a white toga with a purple border, usually 2-3 inches wide (5-7.5cm); the width reflected the wearer’s position. That purple band marked the wearers as important; made them visible in the teeming crowd of Roman citizens.

Over the years of the empire, the rules and types of togas changed, and what was once the defining garment of the Roman citizen – by law only Roman citizens were allowed to wear them – became a showpiece.

Likewise the Roman tunic – the garment for day-to-day wear – was usually undyed white, but for officials, it carried a stripe of purple to indicate their rank. The wider the stripe, the more important the wearer. Senators had the wide laticlavus, roughly two inches (5cm) wide; equestrians (equites) had two narrow red-purple angusticlavia on their shoulders.

Tunics might also be dyed, but dyes were expensive, so the average Roman didn’t use them. And only white tunics had the stripes, otherwise they might not be noticed.

It is that little purple band that stands out, that defines the wearer; not the rest of the garment.

Purple was the colour of position and royalty in the ancient world. The purple Tyrian dye came from murex snails found in the eastern Mediterranean and was very costly. Ten thousand snails were required to dye just one toga! Pure purple – the toga purpura – was generally reserved for the gods, but the emperor could wear the toga trabea: purple with a bit of white. Emperors were, after all, divine. The bit of white, I suppose, showed his human part. A little humility among all that divinity.

There was also the toga picta – an embroidered, purple toga (often with elaborate gold trim and embroidery) worn by emperors and by victorious generals in their triumph. There were other types, too – the toga trabea, toga palmata, and other, but let’s not digress.

The purpose of this post is not to discourse on the nature of Roman sartorial splendor. I merely set the stage for a comment in the next part: on the words of Epictetus, whom I have been reading of late.

Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher and teacher who lived 55-135CE. He was a slave, born in southwest Anatolia (today’s Turkey), taken to Rome, where he earned his freedom after the emperor Nero’s death in 68 CE. He taught philosophy there until the emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from the city, so he fled to Greece, and opened his school there. His words were written down by a pupil, Arrian, and although not all of Arrian’s books remain, the surviving core material – the Discourses and the Handbook – tell us much about his teaching and his beliefs. Four of his eight Discourses survive.

Like many other Stoics, Epictetus lived a simple life. He believed in self-knowledge, in honesty, virtue, and in reason and logic. Some of his words read like Buddhist sutras in their call for free inquiry and rational assessment of ideas over mere faith (specifically the Enchiridion and its similarities to the Kalamas Sutra).

In Discourse I, Epictetus told the story of a discussion between two Roman citizens, Florus and Agrippinus. Florus has been called by the emperor Nero to participate in one of Nero’s theatrical productions. He doesn’t want to go, he doesn’t like performing, but if he refuses, he will be executed by the increasingly capricious Nero.

By all means go, says Agrippinus. Florus asks if he, too, will attend. No, says Agrippinus. Why? asks Florus. Because I do not even deliberate about the matter, replies Agrippinus. He. Didn’t even hesitate to respond. Epictetus explains:

For he who has once brought himself to deliberate about such matters, and to calculate the value of external things, comes very near to those who have forgotten their own character.
For why do you ask me the question, whether death is preferable or life? I say “life.”
“Pain or pleasure?” I say “pleasure.”
But if I do not take a part in the tragic acting, I shall have my head struck off. Go then and take a part, but I will not.
“Why?”
Because you consider yourself to be only one thread of those which are in the tunic. Well then it was fitting for you to take care how you should be like the rest of men, just as the thread has no design to be anything superior to the other threads. But I wish to be purple, that small part which is bright, and makes all the rest appear graceful and beautiful. Why then do you tell me to make myself like the many? and if I do, how shall I still be purple?

Epictetus doesn’t want to be among the masses – the indistinguishable white threads of the tunic. He doesn’t want to blend in, to do what the emperor wants simply because he wants it. There are principles at stake. Epictetus is willing to risk death to stand out – be the purple thread.

Romans were, generally, big on conformity. They had a stable society and a long-lasting empire because of that trait. They performed in Nero’s productions, they tolerated the madness of Caligula, they marched across Europe fighting and dying to do the emperor’s bidding because of it. They were the white threads of the tunic, woven into a single garment. They often sacrificed principles to maintain order and stability.

Epictetus will have none of it.

He also makes the point that it is the purple thread that makes the rest appear “graceful and beautiful.” The purple provides the contrast that defines the rest., that identifies it’s wearer Without the purple, the rest would be dull, drab, monotonous.

I’ve often written that a democracy is defined not by the way it reaches consensus, but by the way it handles dissent. Dissent is, then, the purple thread. It defines the rest of our governance and society by setting the contrast for all to see.

Epictetus goes on with a second story about Priscus Helvidius, a senator and also a Stoic, known for his independence and honesty. He opposed some of the edicts of the emperor Vespasian, especially those that challenged the sovereignty of the senate.

Vespasian sent for him and commanded Priscus to stay out of the Senate when Vespasian was to address that body. Priscus replied that although the emperor could strike his name from the rolls and force him off the senate, as long as he was still a senator, he must go in and do his duty.

“Well, go in then,” says the emperor, “but say nothing.”
“Do not ask my opinion, and I will be silent.”
“But I must ask your opinion.”
“And I must say what I think right.”
“But if you do, I shall put you to death.”
“When then did I tell you that I am immortal? You will do your part, and I will do mine: it is your part to kill; it is mine to die, but not in fear: yours to banish me; mine to depart without sorrow.”

Priscus is the purple thread. He has principles. He understands the consequences, too, of his choices. To which Epictetus asks,

What good then did Priscus do, who was only a single person?

What, indeed? Helvidius doesn’t put any stock in his comfortable life, nor in making the easy choice. He feels compelled by his oath of office as a senator to speak up for what he believes is right. He is committed to his role. He stands up to political oppression and will not stifle his dissent. Even if in disobeying the emperor, it means his death.

Priscus knows he can’t change the emperor, but if he accedes to Vespasian’s demand, he will change himself in a way that negates his self as a senator.

And what good does the purple do for the toga? Why, what else than this, that it is conspicuous in the toga as purple, and is displayed also as a fine example to all other things?
But in such circumstances another would have replied to Caesar who forbade him to enter the senate, “I thank you for sparing me.”
But such a man Vespasian would not even have forbidden to enter the senate, for he knew that he would either sit there like an earthen vessel, or, if he spoke, he would say what Caesar wished, and add even more.

Priscus Helvidius was exiled shortly after, and, on Vespasian’s order, executed. He vanished from history, known today only to a patina of scholars. But does that matter? What mattered to him was that he stood up for his principles. And as a Stoic, principles mattered. They define us from the white threads of the tunic.

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