Thursday, September 8, 2011

Antiquity: The Pharoah, the Sandal, and the Wars Men Wage

Dear Friends,

Below is the start of the antiquity bit from "A Mile in his Shoes." Currently a broad overview, I'm searching for suggestions on how to incorporate tidbits of historical factoids and clever ways to SHOW that shoes are, in fact, a symbol of power without saying it as such. Anything helps!

Much love,


The triad of antiquity’s remarkable civilizations – the Greeks, the Romans, and the Egyptians – all had social hierarchies based on the rule of one, though Greece and Rome did respectively boast democracies and republics, however corrupt. There were inherent classes in these hierarchies, which determined where one might live, what work one might do, and the luxuries one might be able to afford.  Our tale begins in the 700s A.D., specifically 735 A.D., the start of the Roman Empire.

At the start of their empires, Greeks and Romans had in place sumptuary laws, which dictated a kind of dress code. For instance, Grecian women were only allowed to wear three garments at one time, so often women would go barefoot. These laws also arranged by income how much a family could spend on clothing. The Romans passed laws (stated in the Lex Fannia, 161 BC) restricting the amount of color any particular class could wear: peasants – one color; officers – two; commanders – three; members of the royal/ruling household – up to seven, including the color purple, reserved specifically for royalty, and scarlet, available only to royalty and high noblemen. Some three hundred years later, under Emperor Lucius Claudius Domitius Aurelianus (270 – 275 AD), the colors red, white, yellow, and green were reserved exclusively for women (J.A. Brundage, Sumptuary laws and prostitution in late Medieval Italy, 1987). It is not a surprise then that, in all three of these cultures, shoes played a large role as a visual status clue for passersby. The higher ups – the Emperor and the Pharaoh, the senators and the Parliament – all had on their feet significantly better shoes than their lower class “inferiors.”

In Egypt, where the climate and land didn’t always dictate a need for shoes (sandals), any footwear was a symbol of class or of military membership, although what today we would describe as “middle class” Egyptians also had access to sandals for special occasions (funerals, weddings, etc.) or for times when their feet were likely to get hurt (long migration, travel to foreign land, etc.).

The poorest Egyptians, however, did not have access to sandals at all. Regardless of whether or not they could have potentially afforded a pair, they could not purchase shoes. It is very likely, though, that the poorest citizens could not have afforded sandals, which were often soled with leather and intricately stitched. Made in a way similar to the construction of baskets, Egyptians sandals were often built up with thread and material, creating a sort-of cradle for its wearer’s feet.

Since most citizens, including the wealthiest, opted to go barefoot most of the time, that left room for shoe makers to create elaborate and showy sandals for the pharaohs. King Tutankhamen, for instance, had 93 pieces of footwear, mostly made from wood. Several pairs had depictions of King Tut’s enemies on the soles, and another pair boasted fastening buttons. During the transition of Ramses III to Ramses IV, Egypt’s citizens were instructed, “Be ye attached to his sandals, kiss the earth in his presence, bow down to him, follow him at all times, adore him, praise him, magnify his beauty” (J.H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, p. 245). To our modern day standards, this Old Navy flip-flop predecessor may not carry any desirability, but to the ancient Egyptians, sandals held a special importance and meaning that not only symbolized power, but also equated shoe-wearers with beauty and mystique.

Ancient Greek sandals differed from their Egyptian contemporaries in design. Grecian sandals normally had one or two bands across the front of the foot, a thong between the big and second toes, and interwoven straps that ascended slightly above the ankle (modern equivalent: gladiator sandals), although the wealthy could have different designs made for or accessories attached to their sandals. Those with money could afford to have their sandals dyed in almost any color; could pay someone to create elaborate designs with the best-available material (leather); and wealthy women could have such precious items as pearls or gold. Ancient Greek women also made the platform sandal (corthornus) fashionable. Traditionally the wealthiest women had many pairs of shoes, which her slaves would carry around in her sandalthique, a carpetbag specifically for shoes.

Also different between the Egyptians and the Greeks was the fact that all socioeconomic classes had access to shoes, affordable material varied greatly between the plebeians and the noblemen. Commoners and slaves generally wore wooden shoes, although some might have been able to afford felt or linen. Countrymen and priests’ shoes were often made from felt or linen as well.

Greeks who could afford to or needed to stand on ceremony (such as priests, dramatists, and senators) additionally had the option of wearing shoes besides sandals. Actors wore shoes called sykhos; nymphidiai were wedding shoes for females; shepherds wore karbatine, the influences of which were still popular amongst German peasants in the sixteenth century; Greek gods were often depicted wearing endromis (fur-lined boots) also popular amongst soldiers. Still, most Greeks in day-to-day lives opted for sandals, functional in the Mediterranean climate and with the option to dress up if one had the means.

Compared to the Greeks and Egyptians, Romans had a relatively large selection of shoe choices. But unlike with the Greeks, the poor often went barefoot. Geographically speaking the Roman Empire covered a very large area, and its climate was more diverse than that of the Grecian or Egyptian empires, with territory stretching from modern-day Spain to Armenia, and covering sparse deserts in modern-day Turkey as well as the snow-covered mountains in Gaul, modern-day France and Switzerland. Scholars have taken great strides to study and understand this powerful ancient culture, and have learned that Romans were particular about appearances. From roads to aqueducts to shoes, the Romans had an intricate social system and seemed to prescribe to the adage, “A place for everything and everything in its place.”

Romans were especially careful to assign appropriate footwear to their soldiers who consistently fought other empires and tribes to advance Roman rule. Roman legionary soldiers and auxiliaries wore carligae, Roman marching boots, which are related to sandals but offer considerably more support and protection. Constructed from three layers of leather, which covered the toes and laced up the center of the foot on the ankle, carnigae also provided iron hobnails nailed into the soles for added traction, reinforcement, and armament. Unlike modern military boots, carnigae designers specifically left the boot open so as to lessen the possibility of painful blisters as well as foot fungi and diseases such as trench foot.

Romans did not place much value on assigning specific shoe types for the sexes, other than the fact that oftentimes women’s’ shoes were made of a finer, softer leather. Rather, Romans assigned very specific class and status roles for their shoes. For instance, a shoe worn by an older, wealthier man would not be worn by anyone outside his class or even by a younger man in his same class bracket. Slaves weren’t allowed to wear shoes at all, and the poorest of Roman society oftentimes couldn’t afford shoes, although by law they could wear them. Criminals, on the other hand, were outfitted in heavy wooden shoes that made escape harder. Rome’s wealthiest and most important had a plethora of shoes to choose from and equally as many rules to follow regarding wearing them. It was considered bad manners for the wealthy to not wear shoes (except at certain events wherein slaves would go through an elaborate ritual of washing their masters’ feet) and not all shoes were appropriate for all occasions. For instance, true Roman sandals – rather scantily bound – were more of an inside shoe than an outside shoe, and very often slaves would carry sandals around for their masters so that they might be appropriately dressed in any situation. Heavier duty sandals (boots, in Roman terms) were appropriate for outside wear.

Following that logical, in typical Roman fashion, the more distinguished the wearer the more distinguished the dress. This meant that the wealthy and even some middle class Romans could afford sandals with intricate designs, dyed fabric, or ornamentation, while the poor were stuck donning decidedly unmarked shoes. This was also true of Roman dress, and was simply one way in which Rome worked tirelessly to visualize social class, or to be more accurate, exemplify status.  


  1. One suggestion: is it possible for you to be more specific when you are speaking about the Greeks? Do you mean the Athenians, the Spartans, etc etc.? Just a suggestion!

    Maggie K.

  2. See! This is why I need your help. I'm talking about the Athenians, but I had no idea that qualifying that was important. Thanks, Classics major!