The Bikini in Ancient Times


Active women of ancient Greece wore a breastband called a mastodeton or an apodesmos, which continued to be used as an undergarment in the Middle Ages. While men in ancient Greece abandoned the perizoma, partly high-cut briefs and partly loincloth, women performers and acrobats continued to wear it. In ancient Rome, the bikini-style bottom, a wrapped loincloth of cloth or leather, was called a subligar or subligaculum (literally: little binding underneath), while a band of cloth or leather to support the breasts was called strophium or mamillare.

bikinimädchen, römisches Mosaik in der Villa d...

bikinimädchen, römisches Mosaik in der Villa del Casale (Sizilien) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Artwork dating back to the Diocletian period (286-305 AD) in Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, depicts women in garments resembling bikinis in mosaics on the floor. The images of ten women, dubbed the so-called bikini girls,exercising in clothing that would pass as bikinis today, are the most replicated mosaic among the 37 million coloured tiles at the site. The bikini girls are depicted weight-lifting, discus throwing, and running. Interestingly, there has been no evidence that these bikinis were for swimming or sun-bathing.

Some academics maintain that the nearby image of Eros, the primordial god of lust, love, and intercourse, was added later, demonstrating the owner’s predilections and strengthening the association of the bikini with the erotic. Prostitution, skimpy clothes and athletic bodies were related in ancient Rome, as images were found of female sex workers exercising with dumbbells or clappers and other equipment wearing costumes similar to these bikini girls.

There are references to bikinis in ancient literature as well. Ovid, the writer ranked alongside Virgil and Horace as one of the three canonical poets of Latin literature, suggests the breastband or long strip of cloth wrapped around the breasts and tucked in the ends, is a good place to hide love-letters.

Martial, a Latin poet from Hispania who published between AD 86 and 103, satirized a female athlete he named Philaenis, who played ball in a bikini-like garb quite bluntly, making her drink, gorge and vomit in abundance and hinting at her lesbianism.

In an epigram on Chione, Martial strangely mentions a sex worker who went to the bathhouse in a bikini, while it was more natural to go unclothed.

Reportedly Theodora, the 6th century empress of the Byzantine Empire wore a bikini when she appeared as an actress before she captured the heart of emperor Justinian I.

The archaeologist George M.A. Hanfmann stated that the bikini girls made the learned observers realize how modern the ancients were.