Did the Romans Wear Gladiator Sandals?

By Danièle Cybulskie

This summer, the ancient world is taking fashion by storm once again in the form of Roman sandals, with all of the major stores hawking the “gladiator” sandal for those who want to stay on trend. Although Roman statuary often feature sandaled feet in light and airy creations, fashionable Romans would not have been caught stepping out in their formalwear and sandals. Feet should be covered properly, they thought, in ankle-high boots called calcei.

Gladiators from the Zliten mosaic.

According to Norma Goldman in The World of Roman Costume, early calcei featured elongated, pointed toes that curled upwards back over the foot, although this fashion was relatively short-lived. Less-fancy boots carried the day, and were available to all citizens, although the more fashionable elites stepped it up by dyeing their calcei. Julius Caesar is well known to have worn red boots, which would have been a striking fashion statement against imperial purple, a colour which at times was more red than purple depending on the trend. Another way to improve upon your calcei was to have decorative patterns cut out in the leather for everyone to admire.

Later, Roman fashion borrowed from its military, Godman asserts, with regular people adopting the caliga, or soldier’s boot. Naturally, a military-style boot had a tougher sole and more lacing up the calf, but soldiers’ toes remained uncovered. In colder temperatures, soldiers did wear socks with these sandal-like boots, but woe to the barbarian who told them it was unfashionable. As with everything military, the Romans worked to create caligae that would give their soldiers maximum efficiency. Goldman notes,

Even the nailing on the undersole is not random: the characteristic D-shaped pattern distributed the support where needed. The pattern identified footprints of soldiers, even on drying clay tiles. This pattern is echoed almost two thousand years later on the bottom of modern sport shoes.

Via Labicana Augustus

The famous statue of Augustus in his toga (the Via Labicana Augustus), head covered respectfully, features his feet entirely covered by calcei in the formal fashion. On the statue of Augustus in embellished armour (Augustus of Prima Porta), however, the feet are completely bare. This wasn’t meant to show that Augustus hadn’t yet put on his caligae, though; his feet are political. Augustus’ bare feet resemble the bare or near-bare feet of the gods featured in other Roman statuary, and thereby symbolize his own resemblance to them.

By adopting feather-light “gladiator” sandals and showing off their feet, then, modern fashionable types are likening themselves to the gods more than gladiators or ordinary Romans. What, then, did actual gladiators wear? Mosaic evidence seems to suggest they didn’t wear sandals at all, but covered their feet in something less fashionable but much more practical: armour.

Danièle Cybulskie is a guest editor, along with Sandra Alvarez, for Issue 12 of Ancient History Magazine.

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