Along with the inhabitants of India, the ancient Romans were one of the first peoples in recorded history to develop a wide range of footwear. The ancient Mesopotamians (inhabitants of the region centered in present-day Iraq), Egyptians, and Greeks either went barefoot or used simple sandals as their dominant form of footwear. The climate in these regions made such footwear choices reasonable. But the more variable climate on the Italian peninsula, home to the Etruscans and to the Romans, made wearing sandals or going barefoot uncomfortable. These societies developed many different styles of footwear, from light sandals for indoor wear to heavy boots for military use or for travel to colder climates. Leather was the primary material used for making footwear in ancient Rome. The Romans were very skilled at making quality leather from the hides of cows.
The Etruscans, who preceded the Romans in creating a fully developed society on the Italian peninsula from as early as about 800 B.C.E. , developed several different forms of footwear. We know little about Etruscan footwear, however, because few records of their culture remain. They are often referred to as the "mysterious" Etruscans. But historians do think that they borrowed footwear styles from the Greeks and from the Far East, perhaps from the societies of India. The available evidence, primarily statues and some wall paintings, as well as Roman histories, indicates that the Etruscans wore light sandals, slippers made of cloth (probably wool), and leather boots that were held closed with leather straps. One form of sandal which had pointy toes that curled upward seemed to be borrowed from eastern Asia. All but this last style can be seen in later Roman shoes.
The shoes of the Romans
The basic types of footwear worn by the Romans changed very little from the formation of the Roman Republic in 509 B.C.E. to the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 C.E. The basic outdoor shoe was known as the calceus. This shoe covered the entire foot and was closed with leather laces, called thongs. Another slightly lighter outdoor shoe was called the crepida. It covered the sides and the back of the foot, and could be made in several different styles. The Romans also wore several styles of boot. The cothurnus, a high ornate boot, was worn by horsemen, hunters, and some authority figures to show their status. It was a high, ornate boot. Another style of boot, adopted by the Romans from the inhabitants of a conquered region known as Gaul, in present-day France, was called the gallicae. It was a rugged boot made for work and for cold weather. Finally, Romans wore several styles of shoes indoors. Most common was the solea, or sandal. A light shoe of leather or woven papyrus leaves, the solea was held to the foot with a simple strap across the top of the foot, or instep. Other indoor shoes included the soccus, a loose leather slipper, and the sandalium, a wooden-soled sandal worn primarily by women.
Though the basic types of footwear remained the same during Roman history, the styles did change over time. Footwear styles before and during the Roman Republic (509– 27 B.C.E. ) were plain, with little ornament, expressing the simplicity and frugality of the early Romans. With the rise of the Roman Empire after 27 B.C.E. , which saw the Roman people grow in wealth and power, footwear styles became more ornate and decorative. Wealthy people especially often wore shoes that had gold trim or ornaments, metal buckles, embroidery, or jewels.
As with other forms of clothing, the Romans used differences in footwear styles to indicate the status and power of the wearer. For example, the senators who made the laws in Roman times wore a special form of calceus that was secured with four black thongs, while emperors wore calcei (plural of calceus) that were secured with red thongs. Slaves, on the other hand, were not allowed to wear calcei at all. They went barefoot. And prisoners were often forced to wear heavy wooden crepidae that made it difficult for them to walk. The actors in Roman dramas also used footwear to symbolize the status of the characters that they played. Comic actors wore light, leather crepidae, while actors in more serious plays, called tragedies, wore cothurni (the plural of cothurnus). Just like today, you could tell a lot about a person in ancient Rome by the kind of shoes they wore.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
The Mysterious Etruscans. http://www.mysteriousetruscans.com/index.html (accessed on July 24, 2003).
Symons, David J. Costume of Ancient Rome. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.