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Footwear and the march of Rome

The most extensive empire of the ancient world relied on the best shoes available to ensure its success.

by Stuart Morgan

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

Ancient Roman shoemakers – known as sutores – were valued as skilled craftsmen

Various types of leather shoes and boots were worn – from heavy hobnailed varieties to light sandals and slippers – included the following:

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.

Living history

Image © Museum of London

Iron hobnails were often hammered into the soles of Roman boots

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

Caligae were heavy-soled boots worn by Roman soldiers

“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.”

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 32 of the June 2012 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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