Footwear was an important part of a Roman’s clothing. The styles of shoes changed throughout the eras.
The basic indoor shoes were called soleae. These had a flat hobnailed sole and thongs. Wealthy Romans commissioned footwear to be custom shaped and coloured to express their wealth.
Walking barefoot was frowned upon and testified to poverty. Shoes were a must-have item in every citizen’s wardrobe.
In Roman times walking barefoot was frowned upon and showed a person’s poverty. Worn or leaky shoes also indicated low social status Simple way. Some soldiers wore special lion-headed boots called bromides. However, these boots have never been found archaeologically and were likely an artistic convention.
Most normal Romans wore sandals secured with a leather thong between their toes. The wealthy could pay to have their sandals dyed a variety of colors. Shoes of higher status were branded with the wearer’s rank i.e. calceus patricius or calceus senatorius.
Shoes in Roman times often told a person’s status. For example, a senator’s black leather shoe or calceus senatorius came up to the mid-calf.
Carbatina is a single-piece sandal of soft leather secured by a threaded thong across the instep. This type of shoe could be adjusted to fit a child’s foot as they grew. It was worn by children of wealthy people. It may have been a fashionable shoe for girls. A sandal like this one was found at Vindolanda in northern Britain.
The wet conditions of Vindolanda have preserved many Roman shoes, both civilian and military. The majority are sandals or boots which fit closely to the leg. Some have astrological symbols impressed into their soles.
The Roman caligae were robust hobnailed marching sandals, but they went out of fashion less than a century after the conquest of Britain. These closed shoes were then replaced by carbatinae, moccasin like sandals. They are ideal for re-enactors who want to recreate the look of a centurion, praetorian or legionary soldier.
Roman shoes were more than just fashion statements. Shoes could show rank and status. For instance, normal women’s sandals were secured with a leather thong between their toes and the closed red shoes that a Roman senator wore were called calcei.
In the early days of the Republic before 27 b.c.e., footwear styles were rather plain. However, during the Imperial period (27 b.c.e. – AD 476/47/471), shoes became more ornate and decorative.
Unlike the Egyptians and Greeks, who went barefoot or wore simple sandals, the Romans were one of the first societies to develop a wide selection of footwear. Their varied and challenging climate on the Italian Peninsula demanded footwear that was sturdy enough for long marches and rugged combat.
Shoes also showed status; from the cheapest common man’s high-strapped sandal secured with a thong between toes, to the expensive red shoes worn by a senator. There were even shoes for children!
The heavy-soled hob-nailed military marching boots issued to Roman legions foot-soldiers and auxiliaries. They resemble modern sandals but are enclosed, unlike the open-toed sandals of lower classes. Shoes have always told a lot about social status, as in the case of the expensive red shoes worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz.
At Vindolanda, caligae are especially well preserved. The nailed soles were made of thick leather with iron hobnails hammered between layers. The straps at the front enclosed the foot like a modern shoe. This style of footwear is probably the origin of Emperor Gaius Caesar Germanicus’s nickname, Caligula.
Shoes with hobnails offer excellent traction on rough or uneven ground. But they can slip easily on paved surfaces, and Josephus reports that soldiers slipping on their shoes caused more than one disaster.
Shoemakers (sutors) were highly prized craftsmen in Roman society, and armies often traveled with sutors who could craft new shoes quickly to keep the military agile. Archaeological sites have unearthed shoeprints that match those from crepida, caligae and other outdoor shoes. They completely covered the foot and were fastened in front with straps.
As Rome became warmer and a military power, the simple sandal was replaced by heavier, closed shoes. Soldiers in the Roman legions wore caligae, heavily-soled hobnailed boots that resembled an open sandal but were sturdy enough to march long distances.
These were sturdier than the basic sandal and could be dyed or tooled, or even have a gilded design. One type, the cothurnus, was worn by actors in classical tragedies. They are still used in reenactments of ancient plays today.