Walking in the footsteps of ancient Rome
One of the most extensive empires of antiquity relied on the best footwear to ensure its success and military might.
Image © Museum of London
Along with the people of India, the ancient Romans were one of the first races to develop a wide range of footwear. While, according to some historians, the ancient Greeks are said to have largely viewed footwear as self-indulgent, Roman clothing was a sign of power, and footwear was seen as a necessity of civilised living. No citizen of Rome would consider appearing in public with bare feet, as this would indicate dire poverty.
Styles of footwear worn in ancient Rome
Spanic | iStockphoto.com
Shoes and boots worn before and during the Roman Republic (509 to 27 BCE) were plain styles, expressing the simplicity and frugality of the early Romans. Then, with the rise of the Roman Empire, the population grew in both wealth and power, and footwear styles became more ornate – with gold trim, ornaments, metal buckles, embroidery or jewels. The Romans styles of footwear for men and women were very similar. Boots were made with a leather sole and long leather straps (‘loramentum’), which were inserted through loops or eyelets and wrapped around the wearer’s feet and legs.
As with other forms of clothing, the Romans used footwear to indicate the wearer’s social class, status and power. For example, the law-making senators wore a special sandal (‘calceus senatorius’) secured with four black thongs, while emperors wore the same style secured with red thongs. The poor and slaves wore low-quality footwear, and prisoners were often forced to wear heavy wooden shoes that made it difficult for them to walk.
Various types of leather shoes and boots were worn – from heavy hobnailed varieties to light sandals and slippers – included the following:
Calcei: Sandal-like shoes which were strapped to the foot, and mainly worn indoors. Reserved for wearing with the toga and so forbidden to slaves, the calceus was made of soft leather, completely covered the foot, and was fastened at the front with thongs. Some early versions had pointed toes which curved upwards (‘calcei repandi’), and which were laced and strapped into place. Later shoes featured rounded toes.
Caligae: Heavy-soled boots worn by Roman soldiers of all ranks up to and including Centurion. Caligae resemble sandals, but were actually designed for both marching and fighting. The open design allowed for the passage of air to the feet to reduce the likelihood of blisters forming while marching, as well as other conditions such as tinea and what is today called trench foot. Socks were not normally worn with caligae, although in colder climates (such as in Britain), woollen socks were often used. Caligae incorporated three layers of leather, with the top one forming the outer shell. These boots were laced up the centre of the foot and onto the top of the ankle. Iron hobnails were hammered into the soles of the boots to provide grip, reinforcement and act as a weapon (allowing the soldier to injure an enemy combatant through a stamping action).
Carbatinae: Shoes made from a single piece of leather, with a soft sole and openwork upper fastened by a lace. The shape of the shoe was cut out and then formed around the foot with a single seam across and up the heel and loops through which a thong was fastened over the front of the foot. This style was popular with all age groups, from small children to adults.
Socci: Like slippers, having a sole without hobnails as well as a separate leather upper.
Soleae: Simple sandals, consisting of a sole with little more to fasten it to the foot than a strap across the instep.
A recognised skill
Museum of London
The ancient Romans were expert in the process of tanning and produced supple leather, using the hide of animals such as deer or cattle. Shoemakers (‘sutores’) were valued craftsmen. They used a wooden last called a ‘forma’ on which shoes and boots were made, and an iron block on which hobnails were hammered into the soles in order to either turn or flatten the nails.
There is no need to simply guess what the footwear worn by ancient Romans looked like or how it was made. Thousands of examples – often in remarkable condition considering their age – have been discovered. The following experiences highlight just two locations within the Empire where footwear has been found.
‘Vindolanda’ was an extensive Roman auxiliary fort close to Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. Occupied from around 85 to 370 CE, the site is subject to an ongoing excavation programme which continues to unearth fascinating artifacts that help to shed light on everyday life in this far-flung corner of the Roman Empire. Vindolanda is well known for the survival of its Roman organic material – including footwear, writing tablets and leather tents. If it was lost here in the Roman period, there is a good chance it will be found.
According to the Vindolanda Trust’s communications manager Sonya Galloway, leather boots and shoes have been preserved as they were left as a result of the ‘anaerobic’ (oxygen-free) ground conditions. Some 5,000 of them – in many different shapes and sizes – have been found already and, with only one-quarter of the site fully excavated, there are probably many more to uncover. “They tell us much about the men, women and children who lived at Vindolanda nearly 2,000 years ago,” she adds.
The Vindolanda Trust
The Vindolanda Trust
Dr Andrew Birley, director of excavations, comments: “The shoes give us an unparalleled demographic census of a community in conflict, two millennia away from today. The volume of footwear is fantastic, as is its sheer diversity, even for a site like Vindolanda, which has produced more Roman shoes than any other place from the Roman Empire.”
Further south, the Museum of London holds an impressive collection of over 3,000 ancient Roman shoes which give a snapshot into life in Roman London and what the well-heeled Roman Londoner was wearing. A considerable variety of shoe styles made in a number of different ways are still being found, and much of this footwear shows how fashion-conscious Roman Londoners were.
Evidence for both rich and poor Roman Londoners has been discovered. Some shoes have patches in their soles where they have been repaired, while a small number of shoes have even been found with traces of gold leaf decoration.
This article was originally published on page 26 of the November 2021 issue of SATRA Bulletin.