It has taken me quite a while but I’m finally posting a bit about my caligae, the standard soldier’s shoe of the Roman Army. Of course, the design changed somewhat over several centuries and as the army moved into different environments but the basic plan remained the same. I have finally field tested these enough to get the gist of how they perform in various terrains and feel on the feet. A modern westerner would have difficulty thinking of these as “boots” due to the openness of the uppers but I can attest to their substantial feel when worn. I don’t generally feel the need to wear them with socks but it is winter here now.
The archaeological basis – Shoes, and leather goods in general, do not generally survive well in the archaeological record but there are enough examples discovered to understand the constancy of the design. Also, the Romans created a lot of sculptural art celebrating the soldiers, athletes, or documenting historical events, recording the clothing and footwear of the subjects. As with modern footwear, it appears that the civilian population adopted the style for general use as well. These boots follow the same essential pattern as the carbatina but have the addition of a replaceable outer sole and are obviously much higher on the ankle. These are not coming off easily.
Why the open design? Well, some of this is educated conjecture on the part of the archaeologists and historians of early Europe but the bottom line is that less is more when it comes to equipping foot soldiers. Earlier closed boot designs were not as adaptable and had to be precisely fitted to each man or serious trouble would ensue on long, sustained marching campaigns. The boot is arguably the most important piece of gear to an infantryman. The Legionaries marched thousands of miles and depended solely on their feet and legs to get them there over mountains, woodlands, wetlands, snow and ice, and across countless streams and rivers. You cannot really keep the feet dry anyway, you might as well make them well ventilated to avoid moisture-related problems such as trench foot. The flexible uppers also allowed for an inner sock of woven wool or leather to be worn as dictated by the weather. In some designs, the big toe is completely open to relieve the pressure associated with ill-fitting shoes.Creating the caligae – After looking at every scrap of information I could find regarding archaeological caligae, as well as recreations made by museums and reenactors around the world, I sketched out a pattern primarily based on the example below. These take a lot of leather, so there was much hesitation and caution exercised during the design phase. Looking toward the long-term, I chose the best leather I could find which is 12 oz (3/16″ thick) vegetable tanned leather from Hermann Oak.
Cutting out the parts – There are four essential parts to the caligae: the upper, or body of the shoe, the mid-sole, sewn to the upper, the outer-sole, and the lace. An optional insole was added to mine from a thinner leather to protect the upper from inside wear and to help avoid the possibility of a hobnail working through to the foot. I wear a size 13 so a fair portion of a hide was committed to this project.
Pattern and Assembly – I apparently failed to photograph my cutout patterns but the one above is very similar in shape and design. When it is at this stage, it’s a good idea to put a couple of temporary stitches up the back, lace it loosely and test for fit. I felt that even if they weren’t perfect for me, I would be able to find someone they fit so I pressed on. Fortunately, they fit well. From this point, I cut out two mid-soles and out-soles and sewed the mid-sole to the upper and the out-sole to the mid-sole. You can skip the mid-sole for frugality but the point is to provide a solid base to attach a worn out out-sole later on.
I hope this brief tutorial is enough to get you started on your way. Comments and questions are welcome.
A point of departure – The above fragment of a bronze statue depicts a variation on this theme; a lightweight sandal that laces up above the ankle. If you are thinking of making a pair of these, an image search will find many depictions in art for inspiration.
Finally, I added hobnails for authentic traction and feel. If I remember correctly, there are about 113 per shoe. Warning, hobnails are great in soft terrain but stepping onto a hard surface like a tile floor or even into a street have little grip. It’s a bit like hitting an ice patch and must have been something to contend with in days when hobnails were common.
An important anecdote about the dangers of hobnails:
The Jewish chronicler Josephus, writing about the Roman siege of Jerusalem in AD 70, recounted the death of a centurion called Julianus. After seeing his soldiers put up a poor defence against the rebels, he charged into the mass of Jewish rebels alone. He killed many and and gave chase to the rest the inner court of the Temple.
“he was wearing the ordinary military boots studded with masses of sharp nails, and as he ran across the pavement he slipped and fell flat on his back, his armor clanging so loudly that the runaways turned to look.” “the Jews crowded round him and aimed blows from all directions with their spears and swords … Even then as he lay he stabbed many with his sword;…but at last, when all his limbs were slashed and no one dared come to his aid, he ceased to struggle.”