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Roman footwear

Updated Wednesday 1st July 1998

Romans might be known for their sandals - but there's much more in their shoeboxes.

Mark Beabey Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

On Open Minds, Mark Beabay demonstrated how a simple Cabatina would have been constructed. The leather used is most likely to have come from a cow, goat or deer. It would have been quite thick and have been prepared using a simple vegetable tanning process.

An example of a Roman soccus Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

After the leather has been cut to shape, the shoe is created by cutting a number of slits around the edge of the leather, thoroughly soaking the leather in water, threading a string through the slits and drawing the shoe into shape around a last. When the leather is dry the last is removed and the shoe maintains the shape.

Roman shoes would often have been individually tailored – even simple shoes have been found with a high degree of decoration, created through punching and stamping the leather.

The footwear would also have been available in roughly the same range of sizes as our shoes are today, although the Romans had, on average, smaller feet than we do. There was, however, little protection from the elements built into the footwear as water was expected to flow through the shoe, rather than be kept out.

The Romans had a great influence on footwear construction and brought the industry on by leaps and bounds in Britain. Their most revolutionary introduction was the concept of nailed construction whereby nails were hammered through the layers of leather onto a metal last creating a solid and hardwearing shoe.

Some terminology

Soccus

One of the most basic forms of Roman shoe. Made from one piece of leather which is sewn up along the heel and toe.

Cabatina

Another fairly simple shoe made from one piece of leather. This would have been worn mainly as a house shoe and by off duty soldiers.

Caliga

A more tough and sophisticated shoe for marching. These would have had several layers of leather on the sole held together with hob nails to make them more hard wearing.

Calceus

A much smarter type of footwear worn by centurions (officers). These went higher up the leg, were made in much finer detail and were often dyed bright colours.

The Last

A piece of metal or wood, roughly foot shaped, used for shaping the shoe in construction.

Tanning

The process of turning skin into leather by steeping it in an appropriate infusion.

Take it further

The Roman Empire, C Wells (Fontana History of the Ancient World)

The Roman World 44BC-AD180, M Goodman (Routledge History of the Ancient World)

Roman Civilization: Selected Readings Volume II The Empire, N Lewis, M Reinhold (Columbia University Press)

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