Roman socks and sandals: fashion or faux pas?
In this article Mark Griffin explores the history of this unlikely pairing.
Conquest and Caligae
In AD43, a Roman army of around 30,000 arrived on the Kent coast with the Emperor Claudius. For the next century or so, soldiers moved across the land bringing the Roman way of life with them. As they spread the ‘Pax Romana’ they wore the very distinctive ‘caligae’ or military sandal. The soles were sturdy, covered in hobnails, but the uppers were just an open lattice of laced leather.
When discussing the climate on this island at the edge of the Empire, the Greek historian and geographer Strabo wrote,
“Their weather is more rainy than snowy; and on the days of clear sky fog prevails so long a time that throughout a whole day the sun is to be seen for only three or four hours round about midday.”
Regular questions from visitors when I’m out and about dressed as a 1st or 2nd century Roman legionary are: “Aren’t your feet cold?” and “Don’t you wear socks?” Both of these are perfectly reasonable and understandable questions. My role as a re-enactor does mean that anything I wear must be authentic to the time period. So, the question is: “did the Romans wear socks with their sandals?”
Firstly, speaking from personal experience, the sandals are actually comfortable – they allow my feet to breathe and, if I have to ford a stream, they dry out quickly. However, I’d prefer not to march across gravel or a sandy beach with broken seashells. They let all of the most uncomfortable things in under your feet – which is not something you want to contend with when you’re already burdened down with your heavy armour, shield and helmet. Plus, in answer to one of those common questions, the design of these sandals does mean that your feet get very, very cold. Just a few hours’ duty anywhere in Britannia outside of high summer and the plus points vanish pretty fast.
In the past, centurions and the well-off might have had the benefit of a hypocaust, under-floor central heating system, indoors (no ordinary barracks have been found with such luxury) but even they had to go outside sometimes and brave the cold. So yes, Romans definitely wore socks or ‘udones’ as anyone speaking Latin in Britannia 2,000 years ago would have called them. For a culture that was so obviously keen on comfort it’s a little surprising that there was ever any doubt of this.
‘Udones’ were made either of pieced together cloth or woollen yarn using a type of knitting called ‘nalbinding’ or something that looks similar to netting called ‘sprang’. Sometimes they had open toes and heels. A very early example found in Egypt even has a split toe to allow for the thong of a sandal. Another woollen example found is so well preserved that it still shows the impression of the leather thong of the sandal from when it was last worn nearly 2,000 years ago.
Evidence from Roman Britain
The Romans also used warming insoles and had other ways of dealing with the chilly conditions. There is evidence for the wearing of socks from statues, archaeology and written sources from across the whole empire, but we have a surprisingly rich record of them in the UK.
Discovered in the River Tees near Darlington is a knife handle made of bronze in the shape of a leg. It’s wearing a type of simple sandal called a solea, a bit like a flip flop with a sole and toe thong plus some laces holding it on. The foot is clearly wearing something akin to a stout hiking sock. There are also two very similar examples from Housesteads Roman Fort along Hadrian’s Wall.
Head down the Roman road Dere Street, or the A1 as it is now known, and you come to Healam Bridge. Here, archaeologists uncovered a thriving settlement along with thousands of items including the sole of a sandal, where the impression of woollen cloth was found preserved in the rust of the hobnails.
Under the now packed streets of Southwark on the south bank of the Thames lies evidence of a Roman piazza with temples and the larger-than-life-sized bronze statue of a man, likely an important civic figure such as a Governor or possibly even the Emperor himself. The only thing that remains of the statue is a foot but he’s clearly wearing socks under his sandals.
Leather shoes have been found at every fort on Hadrian’s Wall, and some examples of these can be seen on display at Housesteads Roman Fort.
Just south of Hadrian’s Wall, at Vindolanda, one of a number of preserved letters found includes mention of some mundane but very telling items sent to one of the inhabitants 1,800 years ago:
"... I have sent (?) you ... pairs of socks from Sattua, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants...”
Let’s hope they helped keep the recipient toasty warm all those thousands of miles from Rome.
Mark Griffin is a historian with a wide range of interests ranging from industrial heritage, to historic food, to arms and armour and jousting. He can often be found giving talks and demonstrations at English Heritage sites up and down the country. His first event for English Heritage was at Pevensey Castle in 1985.
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