Fleeting Footwear Fashions in Ancient Rome

Models of Ancient Roman Sandals. ca. 1675-79.
Joachim Von Sandrart. German 1606-1688. engraving.

Romans were notorious for their sandals (and for anyone who ever visited Italy, still are). Felix has been known to talk about how private investigators wear out their shoes only slightly less legionaries, pounding pavement day in and day out. The whole series, in a homage to swords-and-sorcery, have been called ‘swords and sandals.’

When I came across the above engraving, I decided it about time we covered Felix’s feet, as it were.


First, a disclaimer. As with anything else about ancient history, the details are sketchy — and I don’t mean the engraving above (#dadjoke #sorrynotsorry). We have texts which refer to shoes in various ways, so we may understand the context of their usage but not necessarily how they looked. We have statues, but they may have been highly stylised or not contemporary to the subject (and thus reflecting the sculptor’s times, rather than the subject’s). We also have remains from all across the empire, but these most often are of army boots (Vindolanda has literal piles of them).

And, of course, fashions changed across the years almost as much as they do now. There’s just fragments all over the place, mostly assuming that the reader would know what it’s about or where shoes weren’t the focus. It’s frustrating to pick what was in use when, and it’s impossible to generalise. There’s quite a bit of detective work involved in reconstructing what was in use, at what period was it used, how it was called at differing times, what was the context of usage, etc. (Side whinge: The ancients’ lack of proper self-documentation is frustrating; I’m sure future historians would thank our obsession with documenting every meal and purchase on social media and then kindly disposing of it in clearly layered, date-labelled city dumps).

So, in a similar way to how I appropriated garum, liquamen, allec etc to make a point about the pervasiveness of fish-sauce products in Roman culture while adapting them to the Egretian society, I do the same with clothing and footwear. I borrowed most elements that were common in the late-middle and late Republic (and perhaps early Principate) and integrated them into something that would feel right for the period. Any errors in interpreting historical sources are my own, and part of the reason why this is “Egretia” and not “Rome”. Still, my aim was always to use Roman-inspired setting to create a rich Historical-Fantasy background for my stories, and in that I believe I succeeded. (See here for the method behind the madness).

With that out of the way, let’s look at Felix’s third-highest expenditure, after wines and bribes.

Military footwear

This are probably the most well known in popular culture and the least relevant to my writing, so let’s just get them out of the way.

Roman military boots were generally known as caligae (singluar: caliga). These were made from heavy duty leather, hobnailed, but the upper was open. Toes were usually covered at the front, though some specimens found with open toes.

One of the most obvious features when we think “army boots”, is the open construction of the caligae. In fact, the most common method of construction was to cut a single piece of leather in a particular pattern (rather than individual straps) that allowed weaving at the top to close it — so it wasn’t any attempt to save on materials. This upper piece was folded under the sole and stitched, and then another hard sole was placed at the bottom and held together with the hobnails (dozens and dozens could be on a single pair). The intention behind those vertical slits was two-fold: one, it helps ventilate the foot, and two, it was easy to clean mud by sluicing and letting it dry quickly.

Remember that the “war season” was the summer months. The year started in March (Martius — after Mars, the god of war and the protector of fields). After sowing, the men would leave on campaigns till September, when they’d be back in time for reaping. In the hot Mediterranean climate, marching in dusty summer made ventilation and and quick cleaning and drying a must if you wanted to keep your feet from rotting. The open construction kept soldiers from overheating, was easy to clean the mud and grime by washing in water, and would dry quickly even as you march (remember that wet leather is weak leather). For people who prided themselves on walking great distances to conquer remote lands, a lot of thought went into the construction of the shoes — even if it looks odd to us.

Metal side-note: hobnails are great… unless you’re on a paved road. They give great purchase on rough and uneven terrain, but on smooth surfaces you can easily slip and fall. There are accounts in the sources of this causing more than one mishap. Then again, most soldiers most of the time marched — and certainly fought — on open ground. There’s even a few suggestions that some Roman roads were covered in gravel, specifically for that reason. On balance, it must have been much better with them then without. Civilian shoes would have been hobnailed or not, depending on the terrain where the person spent most of the time.

Etymological side note: March, the month, is named after Mars the god, but the etymology of march the verb uncertain, probably Germanic. As for everyone’s favourite porn-star emperor, “Caligula” — the diminutive of caliga — was a nickname he got when he was three and that’s it. It was a military camp-site affection towards the beloved commander’s son, and there it stayed. Throughout the sources his imperial name is Gaius. If even his worst detractors who wrote his biographies and included very bit of smut they could think of didn’t refer to him as “bootees”, it’s probably best we don’t either.

Back to footwear, when the Romans finally invaded Britain and northern Europe and the global weather got a bit chillier in general, they adopted socks as part of their military dress. These were most often just straps of wool wrapped around the foot and calf, sometimes roughly stitched together. It’s later that they got that tubular look. As time progressed, both soldiers and civilians got closed shoes (calcei), known as campagi militares for the legions.

There were other types of specialised footwear for certain soldiers (eg for cavalry), and again it wasn’t a standard-issue thing like today: all shoes were made by hand in different factories and times, so there is a lot of variation in design in the archaeological record. Of the more interesting specialised shoes are the descriptions of special lion-headed boots called embromides. They can be seen on some statues (like that of Mars), but haven’t been found in the archaeological record so could have been just an artistic embellishment. Like with anything military there were probably dress uniform for special occasions or roles: the signifer standard-bearers who carried first flags and then (after the Marian reforms) the eagles also wore the pelts of wolves and bears. Perhaps that’s the origins of the embromides.

Civilian footwear

There are so many ways to divide this: by era, by male vs female, by high-class vs lower classes… I’ll just drop a few notes, going up the scale from lightweight to heavy footwear. Again, this represents my understanding and reflected life in Egretia — take it to a specific time at Rome at your own peril: they might look at you funny.

But first, fashion! To understand footwear, it’s important to understand the rest of the ensemble. According to people in the know (my wife) you can’t just throw on any old thing when going out in public. Things have to match according to some unfathomable rules of style, or we risk the disfavour of the gods.

Everyone wore tunics (tunica). From slaves to senators, farmers and city slickers, summer or winter. These were roughly a long rectangle with a hole for the head, usually sewn along the sides but the openings for the arms would be quite wide. “Sleeves”, the part that would cover the arms could be short of long, sewn or not, usually belted. Those who could afford them would wear higher quality, layer more for cold weather, etc. They could come in many colours. Some had decorations (mostly along the hems), but with certain colours or patterns being reserved to denote social status — most notably the red-purple stripes: two narrow from shoulder to hem for equites, one wide from the neck down for senators.

Male citizens were allowed to wear the toga and women wore the similar stola. They could be worn over a tunic or not (because over 15 feet of slightly-oval wool wrappings sound so much fun in the Mediterranean summer). Even though there were many kinds of specific togas, unless you had public business most common citizens were happy to wear it only twice in their life: when they became men at 16 (toga virilis) and on their own funerary death bed.

Other outer garments could be a cloak — pallium for men, palla for women, or sagum for soldiers — which was usually rectangular and held with brooches. Again, different decorations denoted different social status. Under garments would be the loincloth (subligaculum or subligaria) or a pair of undies tied with straps; women also had a chest wrap. See the so-called bikini mosaic, which is so detailed you can see the folds in the loincloth.

Anyway, now that we’ve briefly covered what goes above the knee, let’s get back to the main focus of footwear.

Sandals

Sandalia or soleae were the common form of footwear for informal occasions. These were worn around the house or outside in summer, but not with the toga or palla (ie not for formal occasions). Sandals would be typically constructed from a few straps connected to double-soles as above, tied above the arch. Toes would be usually be open, and the heels often open as well.

As you can see in the image that sparked the article, there was a lot of variation in style and decorations. They ranged from nearly thongs (“flip-flops” for Americans) to a fuller, all-day every-day construction (those last sometimes called crepida — something between a sandal and a shoe).

Rich women and men often had them decorated with anything from golden wires to gems and shells. Law were sometimes passed against that. Because those sandals could be delicate and pretty, and the streets were anything but, high-society fashion was to wear the sandals around the home (sometimes known as socci, slippers), but shoes outside. They’d carry their sandals with them when visiting others, change from street shoes to sandals on arrival (which would then be removed if sitting to a formal dinner; one also brought his own napkin to such), and change back to shoes when going home. The phrase “soleas poscere“, to ask for one’s sandals, meant preparing to leave.

Again, remember that the majority of surviving sources we have are from the 1% elite of citizenry, and even that is fragmented. That’s where the archaeological record helps, in particular dumps outside cities and forts. My guess is that the common people were more concerned about sturdy footwear than social graces, and slaves had even less options (well, until imperial times, when slaves effectively ran the empire as the civil service, and were effectively ranked above the ‘common man’; we’re speaking about your common slave for the common man here, who were actually part of the family. Sorta. It’s complicated, so let’s leave it for another day). Anyway, it’s possible slaves weren’t allowed to wear shoes because they were tied to the citizenry dress like the toga — and if you aren’t a citizen, you weren’t allowed either.

Legal side note: sumptuary laws, curtailing the ostentation display of riches, were passed and repealed repeatedly throughout Roman history. From clothing to the number of people who could be invited to a dinner party, the Roman reactionary elite used them for a variety of purposes. Cato the elder claimed that relaxing them after the second Punic war was over would lead to a dissolution of morals, but we all know where he kept his stick shoved. This — from sandals to legal restrictions — is in the background of In Victrix, as I build gender subtext into a story about horse racing.

Shoes

The basic shoes were calcei (singular calceus), from the word for heel, calx. These were sturdier than the sandals, covering more of the foot with solid leather rather than the “straps” appearance of the caligae. The bits at the front, where the lacing was, could more or less open, depending on the design.

Soles were always flat. If there was any padding or reinforcement, they were on the inside of the shoe. (High heels didn’t appear till much later in the middle ages). The soles were usually leather, occasionally wood for heavier duty. The inserts were either leather or cork, with some suggestion that they were added to make the wearer appear higher and more imposing, rather than for comfort. Shoes were hobnailed as needed (see rant above).

Again, these were very special status symbol. These shoes are what you wore with the toga (or palla for women) on formal occasions, and hence likely not allowed for slaves. Wearing a toga with sandals was like wearing a suit with sandals today — a faux pas. But, as we said above, since it was cumbersome and hot, many regular citizens probably chose the practical solution for the weather and circumstances.

Senators and some priests had their shoes died a special red or maroon colour, and patricians added a crescent buckle. The number, length, and colour of straps was also important, from ankle length to full calf. Julius Caesar was reputed to sport a pair of shoes made from gold (more likely decorated with gold wire, or he’d walk very slowly), but that was considered gauche.

The calcei together with the toga could get quite impressive — and undoubtedly very hot in summer. You had to make a choice when going out on the streets: do you want hot or dirty feet? Maybe those open, quick-to-clean army boots had the right idea after all. The civilian equivalent solution (which I think came a bit later, but am not sure) was called pero (plural perones), a cheap, robust, more closed than sandals but still easy to clean.

Boots

As the Romans ventured into Gaul, they came across — and back with — boots. While colder climate certainly played a role, it wasn’t the only driver for adoption. Given the forested terrain with thicker bushes and brambles, high boots protected the legs a lot better.

Boots made it into military and civilian life, acquired specialised roles (eg for cavalry), etc. But while boots were known before — eg the cothurnus boots of Greek tragedy actors — their adoption into daily Roman life was generally later. A common type was known as gallicae after the Gauls, but there were many.

Felix

No, he’s not a type of shoe, just a hard-boiled gumshoe (ha!). Going down the rabbit-hole of what was used exactly for a given period is often a pointless exercise outside of academia. Remember that I’m using these details to enrich the fantasy world with real historical context, to make it feel like what a Roman might have (more-or-less) experienced life around those times, but while still getting on with the main story.

Accordingly, Felix mostly refers to either “sandals” or “shoes”, and wears either around town as needed. When he speaks of “boots”, these are usually something like the caligae — heavy-duty hobnailed things, usually when going on a road-trip. (He may not have liked his brief sojourn with the legions, but some habits become ingrained). He’s not overly fashion conscious, but — like most people — is unconsciously aware of all those small distinctions as part of daily life. He’ll certainly notice if something is out of place — like in In Numina, when he spots Aemilia trying to sneak from a mile away:

She was dressed in a heavy cloak on a hot summer’s night that didn’t hide the hem of her fine tunic or her expensive sandals, looking every bit as the upper-class-lady-trying-to-masquerade-as-an-anonymous-traveller that she was. Considering she was unescorted by any bodyguard, I was surprised she had managed to make it there without getting mugged, killed, raped, or worse, in any particular order.

In Numina

Or during the inevitable trip to the sewers in In Victrix:

I turned back to the first man. He leaned on the wall to push himself up, holding his dagger with a shaky hand. I kicked his feet from under him. As he fell, I kneed him and caught his jaw. He lay on the floor without moving.

I shook my sore foot — the women’s shoes I wore as part of my disguise were soft leather, not the boots I was used to, and poor protection for kicking teeth.

And later:

Variations of the same scene repeated itself a couple more times. The same snobbery that allowed me to drift alone before without much concern as I watched the men of the cabal, now worked against me. Though I wore the latest fashion in party togas, my utterly utilitarian shoes, my copper-coin haircut, and the lack of jewellery beyond an iron citizen’s ring soon made me out to be who I was — a pretender.

It’s a simple enough balance, one that’s clear to the reader without becoming too cumbersome. It’s representative of the period, helps me visualise the setting better, and in turn draw the reader in with — hopefully — a background that’s richer and different enough to stand out.

While I’ve always said writing is half an excuse to research, the main point is the human story. The level of details reflected in the story is a fine line, and getting exactly split reviews (between “amazingly immersive” to “tediously boring”) means I’m hitting the note I want for myself and my stories.


This ended up being a slightly longer article than I thought when I first started. Then again, my article about Roman household costs is my most viewed article ever. I’m betting this one will fair similarly well.

I will continue to write and publish them as the muse strikes me, usually with a sandal to the head. (Fan fact! On early Greek “black figure” vases, shoes were hard to draw on feet — but were occasionally shown as a tool to discipline small children!)

Otherwise, I’m still on a bi-weekly posting schedule. I plan a post writing about comparing Scrivener 3 to yWriter, and will be resuming book reviews (non-fiction is only so much fun). In between, I have a massive collection of Roman-related curios which I need to sift through and post links to the good stuff.

If you have any special requests you’d like me to cover, please comment! You never know what might spark the idea for the next novel. (Yeah yeah, I know, I need to get In Victrix out first. I’m working on it guv, honest!)

How costly were those sandals and boots? Well, I wrote a lengthy article about the cost of living in Ancient Rome. And, of course, at some point your shoes will break down beyond repair. So what can you do? See Rome’s waste disposal systems.


Enjoying the posts, but wondering who the heck is that Felix fellow and where exactly is Egretia? Glad you asked! He’s the protagonist of the Togas, Daggers, and Magic series, an historical-fantasy blend of a paranormal detective on a background inspired by ancient Rome.

Come meet Felix and his world on the free short stories and novels!

3 Comments

  1. Sandals as military footwear. Those were tough soldiers. Made me think of the Vietcong who gave the US boots on the ground in Vietnam a serious beating.

    Like

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