The cothurnus was a distinctive boot typically worn by hunters, horsemen, and men of authority and power in ancient Rome. Made of leather, the boot was pulled on to the foot and laced all the way to the top. It could reach as low as mid calf and as high as the knee. The portion of the boot that covered the lower leg was very close fitting. The boot could be very distinctive, with cut leather patterns adding decoration, or with long laces that were wrapped around the lower leg before they were tied. Like other elements of Roman clothing, the cothurnus became more decorative over time, showing the growing fascination with more elaborate costume.
Originally the soles of the boots were a thin layer of leather, but wearers soon devised ways of padding the sole, often using layers of cork. The padded sole may have been meant to provide protection for the feet, but costume historians suspect that thick layers of cork may have been added to make the wearer appear taller and thus more powerful. Perhaps these were the first "lifts," devices meant to add to someone's height.
The cothurnus also has a long history in theater. In classical Greek and Roman theater the cothurnus was the shoe worn by the players in tragedies, serious plays that showed the conflict between a great man and powerful forces such as destiny or fate. Depending on the importance of the character in the play, the cothurnus was made of different heights. The taller the actor, the more important his role. The cothurnus is still worn in reenactments of classical tragedies, and the word cothurnus has come to stand for the unique style in which such ancient dramas are performed.
Symons, David J. Costume of Ancient Rome. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Yates, James. "Cothurnus." Smith's Dictionary: Articles on Clothing and Adornment. http://www.ukans.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Cothurnus.html (accessed on July 24, 2003).