Roman men wearing a basic Roman sandal. Romans used different footwear styles to indicate the status and power of the wearer. Reproduced by permission of© Stapleton Collection/CORBIS.
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 (50927 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.
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