non sibi sed toti

Classics Teaching Resources

Roman Shoes

Introduction and Plato

A famous American was once asked what he noticed first about a woman. His answer: "Next, I notice the hands."

With me it has been the feet - not of present day women, but of ancient statues, mosaics and frescos. I commend to you the habit of concentrating on some specialised part of ancient works of art. It freshens one's vision. Has this statue bare feet? If so, why? You question the artifact, and so you begin to see it more clearly.

Even literature can gain extra interest when you read for a purpose like this.

I begin with a teacher of the teachers of the Romans. The teachers of the Romans were the Greeks, and the teacher of the Greeks was Plato. In setting up an infant republic, Plato has Socrates choose the four or five essential people:

- Now, the first and greatest of necessities is food, which is the condition of life and existence.
- Certainly
- The second is a dwelling, and the third clothing and the like.
- True.
- And now let us see how our city will be able to supply this great demand; we may suppose that one man is a husbandman, another a builder, someone else a weaver - shall we add to them a shoemaker ... ?

The shoemaker is fourth in the list of the people essential to a city. Our subject is as important as that. In early Rome, the shoemakers' guild was among the eight craft guilds established by King Numa. [Mommsen 1.249] The others were flute-players, gold- and copper-smiths, carpenters, dyers, potters and fullers.

Just a small digression while Plato is fresh in our minds: did philosophers like Plato wear shoes at all? Study the famous Pompeii mosaic of Plato and his disciples and you find that some wore sandals, while Plato himself, pointing with his stick at a globe, wears - what? At first glance, long-toed slippers; but a closer look shows just the curiously placed shadow of his bare foot. As for other, later philosophers, Tertullian tells us that they wore palm-leaf sandals called baxae. Comic actors wore these too. Is there a spiritual link between comedians and philosophers? Or were philosophers too poor to afford leather? You can find baxae from Egypt in the British Museum. In the Golden Ass, Appuleius introduces us to a leading necromancer (is there a link with philosophers here too?) called Zatchlas "dressed in white linen, with palm-leaf sandals on his feet (pedesque palmeis baxis indutum) and a tonsured head."


My first Roman shoe, as it were, was in the famous shoe manufacturer Clarks' museum in my home town of Street, Somerset. There the comments are made from a shoemaker's viewpoint, for example:

Leather for both uppers and soles was used double, the two flesh sides being stuck together so that the smooth tough grain side was on the outside.

So we enter the world of the Roman shoemaker. Among the 700 shoes and parts of shoes found in the City of London is one which would fit a medium-sized giant. Now Londinium bobbies may have had extra large feet, but it is much more likely that this was a shop sign. So we imagine the shoe shop in action. Were shoes actually made in Londinium or merely sold there? Evidence in the form of pieces of leather, cut but not fully pierced for sewing or thonging, shows that they were made there.

Evidence for how the shoe shop looked comes from the small shops in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and reliefs from Roman and Gaul showing the craftsmen at work. Perhaps, then, there was a workshop and a small counter, and seats for customers to be measured for sandals. An Athenian vase painting shows a man standing on a counter or table as the shoemaker traces round his foot, and the soles of many Roman sandals are exactly the shape you would get from such a tracing. Today it is only the rich or the disabled who have custom-made shoes, but probably a resident of Roman Londinium would expect to have his or her shoes made to measure. Horace [Epistles 1.10.42] is clear how important the right fit is:

A man's means, when they don't fit him, are rather like shoes - he's tripped by a size too large, pinched by a size too small.
si pede maior erit, subvertet, si minor, uret.

The translation I use talks of shoe sizes, but of course they are a modern invention, not needed in the world of bespoke shoemaking.

These small shoe shops, in Rome at any rate, huddled together in a shoemakers' street. The Roman shoemakers plied their trade in the Sandalarius, a street with its own statue of Apollo donated by Augustus.

We even know the names of some shoemakers. Lucius Aebutius Thales stamped his name on a lady's slipper found in Vindolanda. His father was Titus, and evidence suggests that they lived and worked in Gaul. Did a Roman officer's wife pick up a pair of slippers in Gaul on her way to their posting at the end of the world?. A female shoemaker, Latin sutrix, called Septimia Stratonice had a marble tombstone in Ostia. Other shoemakers were content with a trademark stamped on the product: in London, the marks include a wheel, a rosette and an urn. One maker used to impress a straight line on the insole from toe to heel, and added a number, X on one insloe, XII on another.

One modern researcher has suggested that shoes were produced in large quantities in factories, and that a substantial export trade was involved. I am not entirely convinced. Evidence for the export trade includes the fact that a shoe found in Vindonissa, near Basel in Switzerland, has the same pattern of nails as some found in Londinium. If the pattern match is more than coincidence, then one can easily imagine a soldier or merchant buying a pair of shoes in London for the journey to Switzerland, and throwing them away, well worn, at the end of the trip. As for evidence against an export trade, it is impossible to prove a negative, but I ask you to consider a list of customs dues found at Zarai in the Province of Africa. It was posted in AD 202, and the section on clothing includes such varied items as:

dinner mantle
purple cloak
other African clothing, per garment
1 1/2 denarii
1 1/2 denarii
1/2 denarius
1 denarius
1/2 denarius

There is no mention of complete shoes, but there are taxes to be paid on materials for shoemaking: hides, dressed; hides with hair; supple saddle hides; coarse hides; glue. This surely suggests that even if the materials for his or her craft had to be imported, the shoemaker would be a local craftsman working for local people. As Plato said, every city needs one.

Evidence comes from a variety of places. In considering the claim of one recent writer that "the literary evidence [unspecified] shows that Roman shoemaking and repairing were divided into a number of related specialist crafts, so that ... [different] categories of shoe ... were probably each made (and perhaps repaired) by different groups of craftsmen," I came across an inscription of the 2nd century AD from the copper- and silver-mining district of Vipasca in Portugal. By that time mines were under the direct control of a resident procurator, a small-scale Gaius Salvius Liberalis. He, the managing director of this nationalised industry, subcontracted the service industries to private enterprise, giving annual concessions for administering the baths, barbering, fulling (the ancient laundry or dry-cleaner), and shoemaking. The regulations were strict. Woe betide the man who shaved a beard or cleaned a toga if he was not the concessionaire, and

"Anyone who make any of the shoes or thongs which shoemakers customarily handle, or who drives or sells shoemaker's nails, or who is convicted of selling within the district anything else which shoemakers are entitled to sell, shall have to pay double to the concessionaire, or to his partner or agent. ... No one will be allowed to repair shoes, except to mend or repair his own or his master's. [Even if you went in for D.I.Y. you would have to buy the nails from the official shoemaker. Now, here is the relevant passage:] The concessionaire shall be required to offer all types of shoes for sale; if he does not, everyone shall have a legal right to purchase wherever he wishes."

I would argue that the concessionaire did not just sell shoes; he made them too, else why the nails? So even if he employed specialists for different types of shoe, at least they were all part of the same workshop.

Finally, in our survey of shoemakers, we ask: Where did the leather come from? The answer seems to be that you could get it just about everywhere. At Catterick, for instance, the army had a depot for working hides. The army, of course, did not use leather for shoes only, but for belts, shields and tents. Silchester and Leicester had tanneries. Were tanneries mainly outside towns, because of the smell? We remember how Aristophanes made fun of the tannery smell that clung to Cleon the tanner. And Simon the tanner, with whom St Peter lodged in Joppa - did he live well away from the smell of his tannery? I just don't know.

Types of shoe - the evidence

Actual shoes

The first kind of evidence is actual ancient shoes. You would think they were perfect evidence, but they would be even better they did not deteriorate, both in the ground and in conservation. Consider the Bog People, those shrivelled, prune-like remains of men and women preserved by the chemical composition of bog water. A similar fate befalls leather. Tests, due to end in 2087, are taking place to determine the rate of shrinkage. First results show that shrinkage begins slowly, speed up between the first and fourth years, and then slows down, so that we end with a piece of leather about 9/10ths of the original size. Clearly the change is not so great as with the whole human body, but we can be sure that the shoe the archaeologist has dug up is not exactly the same size as that which some Roman lost or threw away.

After discovery, there must be careful conservation. Once away from the water, leather will shrink and harden if care is not taken. One of the Roman shoes in the Clarks museum was found in 1955 down a well near the famous Dido and Aeneas mosaic from Low Ham in Somerset, ten years after the mosaic came to light. It is a nearly intact sandal, as Clarks say, "of small children's size."

This sandal was taken to the Chief Chemist at Clarks, who discovered the conservation method advocated by one textbook:

First treat with warm dilute alcohol containing a little carbolic acid, and then with melted vasiline. After a few days, half an hour in a bath of molten paraffin, to fill up the pores before drying.

It is a good thing that the chemist first tested the method on some small pieces of leather found with the shoe. They shrank during the vasiline stage, and shrank again even more drastically in the paraffin bath. As they dried they went hard and inflexible. The chemist consulted the Guildhall Museum, now part of the Museum of London. Their advice was this:

Immerse waterlogged leather in sulphonated castor oil for about a month or six weeks. It is important to get the right grade of oil and we have acquired a special brand from Messrs Sternol, Royal London House, E.C.2.

The chemist followed this advice, and the child's shoe hardly shrank at all. At the end of the process, it was quite reasonably flexible. Clarks last shop made a wooden filler to put in the little sandal, and so it was put on display. One drawback of the castor oil treatment was that it "left the objects with a sticky black surface and unpleasant smell." There is a better method now, but the results are still not perfect.


Pictures and statues also have advantages and drawbacks as evidence. We can learn from statues to associate certain types of footwear with certain kinds of people - Roman or barbarian, male or female, rich or poor. Unfortunately, if a statue is damaged the extremities, including feet, are the first to be spoiled. Again, in some statues, like the Pompeii Aphrodite adjusting her sandal, the shoe-straps, like her necklace and bikini, were just painted on, and have vanished. Mosaic pictures can lack detail, and paintings are often damaged; still, taken with other evidence, art has much to tell us.


Literature gives us the stories and the etiquette of different kinds of footwear; the difficulty is in matching the names of shoe types to archaeological finds and to shoes seen in art. Names are sometimes used loosely, and it is impossible to be absolutely sure of the difference between a caliga and a calceus. Still the search for shoes in literature leads us to sidelights on emperors, criminals, witches, priests and seduction.

Types of shoe listed

Compare my list with this one.


Calcei were good solid shoes, worn with the toga. A calceus had a sole made of leather, grain side down; an insole of leather, grain side up; and as many layers in between as were needed to make a solid shoe. A difference between the Roman calceus and the modern Clarks walking shoe is the lack of a heel; no Roman shoes had raised heels. Those who wished to look taller simply had the whole sole thickened. Augustus, according to Suetonius, did this:

His shoes had rather thick soles to make him look taller.

Juvenal, in his notorious Sixth Satire against women, derides a woman who has her hair piled up high to make herself look taller, but from the back still looks like a pigmy. If she does not wear thick soles, she has to stand on tiptoe to be kissed:

multis adiuta cothurnis ... levis erecta consurgit ad oscula planta

Those middle layers could be narrower pieces of leather, with slits cut in the middle, and the strip opened out - why, we are not sure. Perhaps it was to keep the weight down. The uppers of the calceus covered the whole foot, and were normally made of a single piece of leather with a seam over the toes or up one side. The sources speak of a lingula , but whether this was the tongue of the shoe or a shoelace is not clear. Uppers and soles were not stitched together, as in a modern shoe, but nailed. The last feature of the calceus could be patterns punched or cut in the uppers.


If the uppers of a calceus reached over the ankles or even higher up the leg, the resulting boot might be called a pero. Some scholars in the past thought that the pero was made of raw-hide, basing their view on a passage of Vergil, Aeneid 7.690. A slinger is being described:

vestigia nuda sinistri
instituere pedis, crudus tegit altera pero.

The left foot, taking the weight of the slinger's stance, was naked, the right being shod with rawhide.

This pero was crudus, but it is unlikely that this was true of them all.

Juvenal (14.186) approves of perones:

nil vetitum fecisse volet quem non pudet alto
per glaciem perone tegi...

The man who doesn't disdain to wear knee-boots when it's freezing, he'll never turn out a bad hat.

Tertullian, on the other hand, dismisses such pandering to weakness, calling the boots perones effeminati.


The other nailed shoe is the famous army boot, the caliga. It is so much a soldier's footwear that caligatus or caligatus miles can be translated 'common soldier'. Suetonius, for example, tells us that Augustus awarded mural crowns as rarely as possible and with due regard for merit, and caligati sometimes won them. The same Suetonius says that Vitellius would greet even caligatos milites with an embrace.

Although I myself have sometimes described the caliga as a hobnailed sandal, the term 'sandal' is wrong. Although the caliga normally showed some of the wearer's foot, the uppers did not consist of individual straps, but of a single piece of leather with slits deliberately cut out of it to ventilate the foot in a hot climate. On Hadrian's Wall things were different. Lindsey Alison Jones told the 2004 ARLT Summer School that museum reconstructions of Roman soldiers were often wrong in this respect. Soldiers on the Wall needed, and had, caligae that protected them from the damp and cold. I myself have wondered as I compare the neat footwear worn by soldiers on Trajan's Column with the flimsy articles worn by the dummy soldier in, say, the Lunt fort - when I visited several years ago. The Lunt reconstruction showed a caliga threaded with a thong down the top of the foot, and the result was, to be blunt, an unwearable muddle of leather. A good range of caliga patterns can be seen worn by American members of Legio VI here.

Civilians, too, could wear the caliga, just as there are from time to time today fashions for wearing military-style clothing in civvy street. Umbricius, in Juvenal's Third Satire, moves out of Rome to a quiet country small-holding, and promises to visit Juvenal if and when he also retires to the country:

gelidos veniam caligatus in agros.

I will come over to your cold country in my thick boots (so the Loeb translation has it).

Diocletian's price list even includes 'caligae without hobnails', as worn by civilians, but the caliga was really a soldier's shoe, and it was in an army camp that the future Emperor Gaius was given the caligulae, the bootkins, which gave him his famous nickname. Gaius was not the only army child to have such little boots. At least one shoemaker on Hadrian's Wall (where so many shoes have been found at Vindolanda that they are filling the museum's underground storage space) turned out a nice line in caligae in women's and children's sizes, for the wives and children, no doubt, of the troops.

By the way there are instructions from the (American) Legio IX Hispana for making your own caligaehere.


So to stitched shoes, socci. These would be no good for route marches or for tramping through cold fields. The uppers, sewn by their edges between sole and insole, were of thin leather or sometimes fabric. Who wore them? Primarily they were indoor shoes for women and children. Soles found in London (their fragile uppers have all disappeared) come in a range between child size 5 and adult size 3, so there is no evidence here of men wearing socci. The bride in Catullus 61 is to wear yellow socci:

huc veni, niveo gerens
luteum pede soccum.

And Messalina wore them. We know this because Vitellius' father Lucius, a great man, eminent enough to have been left in charge of the Empire while Claudius was off in some remote venture at the world's end - Britannia, as it happens - this Lucius, who lost no chance of social advancement, used to beg Messalina to grant him the tremendous privilege of removing her socci; whereupon he would nurse the right soccus inside his gown, and occasionally take it out to kiss it. So Suetonius alleges.

Yet men, too, wore socci. The great and good Publius Rutilius Rufus, who was the first to teach the Roman soldiers the principles of fencing, and who was exiled by Sulla, wore socci. Cicero's eyebrows shot up at the thought:

ille P. Rutilius, qui documentum fuit hominibus nostris virtutis, (a paragon of virtue) antiquitatis, prudentiae, consularis homo, (he'd even been consul) soccos eos habuit.

He had socci? It wasn't his fault, Cicero hastens to add. We must put it down to the age he was living in:

nec vero homini sed tempori assignandum.

Of course Greek men wore socci - but then they were Greeks, of whom one could not expect Roman decency. Bootkin, Caligula himself, wore them:

In his dress he ignored male conventions, and even the human decencies. Often he made public appearances ... even in a woman's robe, and came sometimes shod with crepidae, slippers, sometimes with caligae, sometimes with socci, women's shoes.

Socci were worn also by comic actors, when they were not wearing baxae. They were linked with comedy as cothurni were with tragedy. Horace in Ars Poetica points out:

A comic subject will not be presented in tragic metres. Likewise Thyestes' banquet is far too grand a tale for verse of an everyday kind which is more akin to the soccus.

You may remember Pliny's two houses on Lake Como:

I have named one Tragedy, because it seems to be raised on actors' boots, and the other Comedy, because it wears soculi.

As a schoolboy reading Milton's L'Allegro I was puzzled by the lines:

Then to the well-trod stage anon
If Jonson's learned sock be on.

Knowing what a soccus is, and having studied one of Ben Jonson's very learned comedies, I see what Milton means.

Solea, Sandalium, Crepida, Ansa

Who wore sandals, soleae or sandalia? They had two to four layers of sole, were often hobnailed for extra wear, and fastened to the foot with leather thongs, usually one between the big toe and the second toe, and with various patterns of thonging for the back of the foot. Who wore crepidae, half way between sandals and closed boots, with the edges of the uppers opened up with a series of loops, or ansae, through which a thong would pass? In London the sizes found range from child size 2 to adult size 5, which suggests that they belonged to women and children, and in our climate I guess that they were summer wear. They were normally indoor wear. A law of the mysterious Arval Brethren said:


This must have been an arcane regulation, but in general men did wear soleae indoors. In later times they may also have worn them out of doors, although the evidence cited by nineteenth century scholars Dr Smith in his Dictionary of Antiquities and Professor Becker in his Gallus is not entirely convincing.

How to behave at dinner parties

In Roman literature shoes are often mentioned in connection with dinner parties. When a Roman set out to dine with his friend or patron he wore his calcei while his slave carried his soleae, his indoor shoes, under his arm. Horace, sending Vinnius with scrolls to Augustus, begs him not to carry them under his arm 'like a guest carrying his soleae to the house of a fellow-tribesman.' At the entrance to the host's house, the Roman took off his muddy or dusty shoes and put on his sandals. Many people still observe this excellent custom. At an Ephesus pension I noticed how the owner and his wife took off their shoes and left them on the landing before entering their flat. Taking off one's shoes before entering a mosque is not, I have been told, a matter of religion (like Moses at the Burning Bush: Take off thy shoes ... for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground) so much as of respect for the carpets; perhaps that is why I was shouted at when I stepped on a carpet right outside a mosque before removing my shoes. Apparently one may put on felt over-shoes instead. But let us return to the Roman entering his host's house.

Wearing his sandals he went into the dining room, where a slave removed them so that he could recline barefoot on one of the upholstered couches. Martial assumes this custom when he writes of dining with Ligurinus:

I had hardly put off my soleae when in comes an immense volume, among the lettuces and sharp sauce.

In other words, they had scarcely sat down to dinner when the host began to inflict his poems on his luckless guest. If any of the diners had to leave the table for any reason during the meal, he called for his sandals. In Horace Satire II.8 Fundanius tells Horace of the disastrous dinner party held by Nasidienus, during which "the awning suspended above collapsed on the dish (of lamprey), wreaking appalling havoc." Another guest of philosophical bent speaks words that comfort the unfortunate host, and:

Nasidienus answered "May heaven send you all
the blessings you pray for! You're a fine man and a delightful guest!"
And he called for his slippers.

Only with his slippers on could he go to the kitchen and arrange a substitute dinner.

When the Roman dinner was over, the guests called for their soleae or even directly for their calcei. One imagines that the slaves cleaned their masters' outdoor shoes during the meal, ready for the walk home. It seems unlikely that the guest would call for outdoor shoes to walk directly from the dining room if they were not clean, and certainly not if they were the hobnailed variety. Imagine the discomfort and damage caused by walking over mosaic floors in the equivalent of rugby boots.

On the stage, meals had to be taken out of doors if the audience were to see them, but the indoor etiquette of shoes was observed. Meals in Plautus sometimes ended hurriedly. When another character was expected, one character wants all traces of the meal to disappear, and commands:

cedo soleas mihi; auferte mensam.

In Mostellaria, the hero Philolaches' father is expected, and everyone has to be on best behaviour when he comes. A drunken friend joins the on-stage party and falls asleep. Philolachus manages to wake him eventually, saying

My father will be here in a minute.
Your father, did you say? Give me my shoes!

Martial, who picks up on the unfortunate and the hypocrites, adds three more vignettes to our collection of anecdotes on shoes at the dinner party. The first unfortunate was Cotta, who complained that he had twice lost his soleae through his slave's negligence; Martial hints that this was a fictitious excuse to go out to dinner barefoot, excalceatus, while the real reason for lack of shoes was his extreme poverty. The second fellow-guest of Martial's was such a cleptomaniac that if there was nothing else to steal at a dinner party (we remember Asinius who stole Catullus' dinner napkins) he would steal his own shoes from his slave - an extraordinary and pointless action, surely. The third Martial situation was when when you had no slave present to fetch your shoes for you;

defuerit si forte puer, soleasque libebit
sumere, pro puero pes erit ipse sibi.

Your feet will act the part of slave for you. We find it hard to imagine a society where fetching your own shoes was a big deal.

Shoes and Sex

Ovid is the expert in seduction. Here is some of his advice:

When she's on her chaise-longue, make haste to find a footstool
for those dainty feet of hers, help her on a off with her slippers
(et tenero soleam deme vel adde pedi.)
Such attentions please.

Perhaps Vitellius' father had read Ovid and was treating Messalina accordingly. Perhaps if Propertius had paid Cynthia that kind of attention, rather than coming early in the morning to check up whether she had been sleeping alone, he would have fared better. As it was, he got a telling-off and a brush-off:

dixit, et opposita propellens suavia dextra
prosilit in laxa nixa pedem solea.

She sprang, and with a hand thrust out to stay
my kisses, sped on slippered feet away.

What this translation does not bring out is laxa solea. So angry was Cynthia with her suspicious lover that she did not wait to do her sandal straps up. As for advice to the lady, Ovid again is our guide (Ars Amatoria 3.271). If her feet are unsightly, then sandals are not at all the thing. She must cover her feet in alutae, shoes with uppers of a soft leather treated with alum. Ovid recommends that the leather be white:

pes malus in nivea semper celatur aluta.

If the love-affair goes wrong - or ends in marriage - then the solea will come in handy for the wife or wronged mistress to beat her man with. In Terence's Eunuch the soldier Thraso, who has earlier gone so far as to attack the house of Thais, finally resolves to surrender to her, as did Hercules to Omphale. The unsympathetic parasite Gnatho comments:

utinam tib commitigari videam sandalio caput.
I hope I'll see her take a slipper to soften your head.

The learned Dr Smith in his Dictionary of Antiquities, is clear in his own mind about married life in Roman times:

In domestic life the sandal commonly worn by females was often used to chastise a husband and bring him into subjection. (My emphasis)

Davus told the satirist Persius what his mistress would do to him when he told her he was giving her up:

But Davus, do you think she'll cry when I leave her?
Nonsense, my boy! She'll give you a whacking with her red slipper.

Juvenal knows what a wife can do, with the help of magic:

Here comes a pedlar of magic spells and Thessalian philtres.
With these any wife can so befuddle her husband's wits
that he'll let her slipper his backside.
quibus valet mentem vexare mariti
et solea pulsare nates.
(Satire 6.612)

Shoes in wood and iron

Wooden soleae were used to protect the feet of bathers from the hot underfloor heating of the bathhouse. Visitors to Vindolanda can see several examples in the museum. They were also used, according to Cicero, as part of the shameful clothing put on someone convicted of killing his mother:

Malleolus was convicted of matricide: at once (because there was no chance of escape) wooden sandals (soleae ligneae) were put on his feet; his face was wrapped in a wolf-skin and tied up, and he was taken off to prison.

Iron soleae were for mules. Catullus once wanted the husband of a lively young girl to be pitched off a rickety bridge, in hopes that his sluggishness might stick in the mud "as a mule leaves her iron shoe in the sticky mire."

ferream ut soleam tenaci in voragine mula.(Catullus 17)

Horseshoes can be seen in British museums - I saw my first one in Reading - and were not nailed on to the animal's feet, but were put on and taken off just like humans' shoes.

To be concluded later.


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