The History of Roman Shades

One of the simplest and oldest types of window treatments is the Roman shade, a flat shade that can be raised or lowered with a cord. While the body of a Roman shade is usually flat and smooth, the ends of the shade can stack in a variety of styles, from elaborate “dog-eared” folds to the simpler Soft Roman shade.


The origins of Roman shades are often said to date to Rome’s famed Colosseum, the ancient arena that was the site of elaborate—and often violent—Roman spectacles. Excavations of the Colosseum have revealed that the Romans used astounding technological developments to create shows, including flooding the huge arena to stage mock naval conflicts. A system of retractable fabric shades were part of the luxurious amenities offered to spectators, according to a Smithsonian magazine article:


“Handsome stewards passed through the crowd carrying trays of cakes, pastries, dates and other sweetmeats, and generous cups of wine. Snacks also fell from the sky as abundantly as hail, one observer noted, along with wooden balls containing tokens for prizes—food, money or even the title to an apartment—which sometimes set off violent scuffles among spectators struggling to grab them. On hot days, the audience might enjoy sparsiones (“sprinklings”), mist scented with balsam or saffron, or the shade of the vela, an enormous cloth awning drawn over the Colosseum roof by sailors from the Roman naval headquarters at Misenum, near Naples.”


According to classical historian Norma Goldman, the use of fabric to make spectators more comfortable was typical of Roman culture. “Every public amphitheater or stadium,” says Goldman, “where people would have to sit out in the sun was tented with some kind of awnings. This was a pampered audience, and in the entire Mediterranean, people did not want to sit out in the hot sun. So there is evidence for awnings in most theaters, in almost all of the amphitheaters, and even in the stadium.”   Additionally, wealthy audience members would “have their own set of canopies set up over their important seats towards the front of the arena” .


While the Colosseum’s elaborate horizontal shade was different from the smaller vertical Roman shade of today, the system of ropes and pulleys used to move this flexible sunscreen were crucial to the development of our Roman shades.


Interested in seeing modern Roman shades in action? Visit our extensive Wilmington, NC showroom today. At Strickland’s Blinds, Shades & Shutters, we carry Roman shades in a variety of fabrics, styles, and finishes.



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