Footwear and the march of Rome
The most extensive empire of the ancient world relied on the best shoes available to ensure its success.
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.
Footwear worn in ancient Rome
Shoes and boots worn before and during the Roman Republic (509-27 BC) 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 lawmaking 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.
Image © Museum of London
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 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 and 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
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 turn or flatten the nails.
Image © Museum of London
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.
“Leather is an organic material and, therefore, in London will only survive in waterlogged deposits which do not allow air in to dry out the leather,” explains Jackie Keily, Curator of the Museum of London. “We are lucky in London to have many sites like this – both near the River Thames and also where streams ran in the Roman period, such as the Walbrook, located near Moorgate in the City of London.”
According to Ms Keily, considerable numbers of shoe styles of shoes are found, made in a number of different ways, and the sandals show how fashion-conscious Roman Londoners were.
Image © Matthias Kabel
“We also find evidence for both rich and poor Roman Londoners,” she continues. “Some shoes have patches in their soles where they have been repaired, while a small number of shoes have been found with traces of gold leaf decoration.”
This article was originally published on page 32 of the June 2012 issue of SATRA Bulletin.