The Romans were known for their love of fashion and their very practical approach to footwear.
While their sandals were a bit different from ours, they also had a version of flip-flops that could be worn indoors as well as out. They preferred leather over other materials and often embellished their shoes with beautiful designs and decorations.
The sandals they wore while outdoors were called caligae, which means “little boots.” They were made of leather or coarse cloth, which was sewn together at the toes and then folded over to form a sole. This made them waterproof and warm in the wintertime but not very comfortable to wear on hot days!
They also wore slippers indoors called socci (socks). They were usually made from wool or linen because these materials are soft and absorbent—perfect for walking around in without getting your feet dirty!
Considering how prized modern Italian leather goods are today, it is perhaps not too surprising that there was a good deal of variety of the types of ancient Roman sandals and shoes. The shoe-maker (sutor) was a valued craftsman in the days of the Roman Empire, and the Romans contributed the entire-foot-encasing shoe to the Mediterranean world.
Roman Footwear Innovations
Archaeological studies indicate that the Romans brought the shoe-making technology of vegetal tanning to Northwestern Europe. Tanning can be accomplished by the treatment of animal skins with oils or fats or by smoking, but none of those methods result in permanent and water-resistant leather. True tanning uses vegetable extracts to create a chemically stable product, which is resistant to bacterial decay, and has resulted in the preservation of many examples of ancient shoes from damp environments such as riverside encampments and backfilled wells.
The spread of vegetable tanning technology was almost certainly an outgrowth of the imperial Roman army and its supply requirements. Most of the earliest preserved shoes have been found in early Roman military establishments in Europe and Egypt. The earliest preserved Roman footwear found so far was made in the 4th century BCE, although it is still unknown where the technology originated.
In addition, the Romans innovated a variety of distinctive shoe styles, the most obvious of which are hobnailed shoes and sandals. Even the single-piece shoes developed by the Romans are significantly different from the pre-Roman native footwear. The Romans are also responsible for the innovation of owning multiple pairs of shoes for different occasions. The crew of a grain ship sunk in the Rhine River about 210 CE each owned one closed pair and one pair of sandals.
Civilian Shoes and Boots
The Latin word for generic sandals is sandalia or soleae; for shoes and shoe-boots the word was calcei, related to the word for heel (calx). Sebesta and Bonfante (2001) report that these types of shoes were specifically worn with the toga and so were forbidden to enslaved people. In addition, there were slippers (socci) and theatrical footwear, like the cothurnus.
- The generic calceus was made of soft leather, completely covered the foot and was fastened in front with thongs. Some early shoes had pointed upward curving toes (calcei repandi), and were both laced and strapped into place. Later shoes had rounded toes.
- The wet weather called for a boot called the pero, which was made of rawhide. Calcamen was the name of a shoe that reached mid-calf.
- The black leather senator’s shoe or calceus senatorius had four straps (corrigiae). A senator’s shoes were decorated with a crescent shape on the top. Except for color and price, the senator’s shoe was similar to the patrician’s costlier red high-soled calceus mulleus fastened with hooks and straps around the ankle.
- Caligae muliebres were unstudded boots for women. Another diminutive was the calceoli, which was a little shoe or half boot for women.
Footwear for a Roman Soldier
According to some artistic representations, Roman soldiers wore embromides, impressive dress boots with a feline head that came nearly to the knees. They have never been found archaeologically, so it is possible that these were an artistic convention and never made for production.
Regular soldiers had shoes called campagi militares and the well-ventilated marching boot, caliga (with the diminutive caligula used as a nickname for the 3rd Roman emperor). Caliga had extra thick soles and were studded with hobnails.
There were also house sandals or soleae to wear when Roman citizens were dressed in tunica and stola—soleae were thought inappropriate for wear with togas or palla. Roman sandals consisted of a leather sole attached to the foot with interlacing thongs. The sandals were removed before reclining for a feast and at the conclusion of the feast, the diners requested their sandals.
As long as human beings have been walking around on the planet earth, they have had to wear leather shoes to protect their tender feet. The world’s oldest shoe yet found is c. 5,500 years old (left). Called the “Areni-1 shoe,” it was found by an international team of archeologists in an Armenian cave in 2008. Combined with the cool and dry conditions in the cave, the floor of the cave was covered with a thick layer of sheep dung which sealed and preserved the size 7 shoe.
Notice the tanned leather and leather shoe laces. The straw found in the shoe has been dated as old as the shoe. Perhaps it was an extra padding for warmth and rocks.
In 1991 some hikers in the Austrian Alps near the Italian border discovered the Ice Man in a melting glacier. At the age of 5,300 years old, the Ice Man made international headlines because he is the oldest, preserved in tact person ever found. Even though he is several hundred years younger than the “oldest shoe in the world,” his shoes are similar to the oldest shoe. (Scientists have concluded the Ice Man was murdered.)
The shoes of the Ice Man (above) were made of deer hide. The soles of the shoes were bear skin and for insulation and warmth the insides of the shoes were stuffed with soft grass. One academic posited that because of the complexity of the shoes, there were probably cobblers around in very ancient times.
If we skip thousands of years forward to the times when the early Christians and the ancient Romans mingled in the market places and battle fields, we see that shoes WERE made by professional cobblers and they have been “refined,” not “re-designed,” because they still are made of leather and still are indispensable to walking around. Or to running around as in the case of a 2,000-year-old Roman shoe (on the left) discovered in 2016 in a ditch at a Roman fort, Vindolanda, near Hexham Northumberland. To the discoverers, the Roman shoe looked very similar to the one worn 2,000 later by David Beckham, the English professional footballer.
Because ancient Rome was warmer than the “oldest shoes” found in northern Europe, they primarily wore what we wear in the summer, sandals.
On the left above is a simple sandal worn by the Roman and Christian people in the 200’s AD.
On the right are “fancy” sandals worn by the goddess of the hunt Artemis on a statue in the Louvre, Paris
Soldiers in Rom’e legions wore caligae (left), heavily-soled hobnailed (cleated) boots. They were made of leather. As has been seen, shoes have been made from the skins of animals for…ever. A pitiful death was caused by those cleated shoes during the Battle for Jerusalem in 70 AD when the Romans were besieging the Jews.
The Jews eventually lost Jerusalem, but they fought tooth and nail for every part of it. The Romans had taken possession of the Tower of Antonia in mid-July of 70 but they fell back to reconnoitre. When a valiant Roman auxiliary soldier named Julian saw that his mates were retreating, in a rush of heroism he ran after the Jews and killed many of them. Titus, the Roman general, and his soldiers watched in admiration, but something happened.
Josephus in his Wars 6.1.8 describes the scene: “… as Julian had shoes all full of thick and sharp nails as had every one of the other soldiers (caligae—cleats on the soles of shoes), so when he ran on the (smooth marble) floors of the temple, he slipped and fell down upon his back with a very great noise, which was made by his armor. This made those Jews that were running away to turn back….the Jews got about him in crowds and struck at him with their spears and with their swords on all sides….yet did (Julian), as he lay stab many of them with his sword….he pulled his neck close to his body, till all his other limbs were shattered and nobody came to defend him and then he yielded to his fate….(Titus) was deeply affected…especially since he was killed in the sight of so many (soldiers)…such as could (have helped him) but were too terrified to attempt it.”
Josephus is one of the only writers in antiquity or anytime who describes a death as a result of shoes. The hobnailed/cleated shoes of the military were, also, used by commoners for hiking and walking in rough terrain.
All Roman footwear was flat-soled. High-heels did not come into fashion until the late 1500’s. The Romans essentially always wore a variation of the open sandal, each with its own name.
Notice the calceus (a usually hobnailed, thick-soled walking shoe) on the hunter from this mosaic (left) from Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily—300’s AD.
The hunter is wearing a colorful tunic and heavy woolen protection on his legs.
Hunters, however, in ancient Roman times hunted, like some hunt now, for the sport of it and because it was considered a type of “military training.”
Shoes in ancient times as in modern times often told the status of the person. Here (below) one sees the normal Roman man’s high-strapped sandal, the normal woman’s sandal secured, as it is today, with a leather thong between her toes and the somewhat effete closed red shoes that a Roman senator was forced to wear.
Shoes have always shown status. The more fancy the sandal, the higher the price. The very wealthy in Rome paid many sesterces for their shoes. In our modern world the highest price ever estimated for a pair of shoes was for a replica of the red shoes Judy Garland, as Dorothy, wore in The Wizard of Oz.