Ancient Roman Sandals and Other Footwear

Modern Obsessions With Footwear Begin With the Roman Empire

Roman Sandals and Other Footwear
Roman Sandals and Other Footwear. NYPL Digital Library

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 slaves. 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.

    Roman Sandals

    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.


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    Gill, N.S. "Ancient Roman Sandals and Other Footwear." ThoughtCo, Oct. 4, 2017, Gill, N.S. (2017, October 4). Ancient Roman Sandals and Other Footwear. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Ancient Roman Sandals and Other Footwear." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2018).