What shoes did the ancient Romans wear?

When the Roman soldiers and their families left the fort on Hadrian's Wall for good one day in 211 AD, they simply threw shoes that did not fit in their luggage into a ditch. This collection of amazingly well-preserved shoes for men, women and children was only recently discovered by archaeologists in Vindolanda in northern England. "A unique time capsule" calls it Andrew Birley, who is currently in charge of the excavation, which has been going on for many years. "Such a collection of shoes, all of which came into the earth at the same time, tells a lot about society," confirms Carol van Driel. The archaeologist, currently visiting professor at the University of Leiden, studied footwear from various Roman military settlements. The 421 shoes from the trench are "a spectacular find".

The models are very different in terms of style, quality, price and size, and reflect a cross-section of society at the time, says Birley. The men's shoes differ from those for women mainly in their width. The archaeologists found thong sandals (Solea), clogs with thick wooden soles and wide leather straps that were worn in the bathroom, boots for toddlers and slippers (Carbatina). The Carbatina was made from a single piece of cowhide and, unlike street shoes, had no nails under the soles. "A lot of Romans switched to these slippers when they came in from outside so as not to bring the mud from the street into the house," explains Birley. The skill of the shoemaker seems to have been preserved over the millennia: A child-sized Carbatina resembles a modern football shoe in the modeling of the leather. The fact that the shoes are so well preserved is thanks to the loamy soil in which the leather was preserved.

The first fortress in Vindolanda was built by the Romans in 85 AD. In the following 400 years it was rebuilt nine times, first out of wood and later out of stone. In 121, the Emperor Hadrian in Northern Great Britain had a wall built across the width of the country with a watchtower after every mile. Vindolanda is three kilometers south of this so-called Hadrian's Wall. The fort was too far away to guard the border; nevertheless it remained in operation for the time being.

However, in 211, after a rebellion by British tribes, the garrison abandoned the fortress. People - presumably reluctantly - left behind what they couldn't carry. In addition to shoes, pets also ended up in the trenches: puppies and cats. Before they left, the soldiers tore down all the buildings and filled the wells. In the following year, however, a new cohort came, leveled the area with clay and built a new fort.

The layer of clay sealed everything that lay underneath, airtight. In Vindolanda, therefore, not only is leather superbly preserved, but also other organic material. Most important are the wafer-thin wooden tablets written with ink, which give an insight into life in Roman Britain. There is the message from Claudia Severa, with which she invites Sulpicia Lepidina and her husband, the commander of Vindolanda, to her birthday party on September 11th of the year 100. Or the letter from a unfortunately unidentifiable person who sounds like a mother worried about her soldier's son stationed in the rainy northern England: "I sent you socks, two pairs of sandals and two underpants."

It is puzzling that in the year 211 almost only single, mostly worn or broken shoes landed in the Vindolanda Trench, not pairs. Did people wear two different shoes back then? Archaeologist Birley can't rule that out. However, he thinks it is more likely that they had several pairs of the same model and could therefore combine individual shoes into new pairs if one broke.

Shoes were rarely repaired. New ones could be acquired from local production - apparently not too costly. Manufacturer's marks on some particularly elegant specimens show that there were also imports, for example from Gaul. In general, explains Carol van Driel, Roman footwear was very international. "People across the empire wore the same type of shoes and sandals," she says. "However, fashion has changed very quickly, and we can date some shoe models to exactly 25 years." Vindolanda plays a special role here because there are so many superbly preserved specimens from precisely datable contexts. Almost 7000 Roman shoes have appeared in Vindolanda over the centuries, it is the largest collection from the entire Roman Empire. Experts are currently analyzing how the leather was tanned in the laboratory - Birley suspects that tree bark and wood were used, perhaps oak, which is rich in tannins. "The shoes are still very soft and elastic," says the archaeologist. The specimens from the trench are now awaiting conservation in airtight plastic bags, for which money still has to be collected.

The first pictures of the find confirm van Driel's experience: "I am always surprised that people in remote border regions of the Roman Empire like Vindolanda were just as fashion-conscious as those in cities like London," she says. Just like today, most residents owned several pairs of shoes: nailed boots for marches, preciously decorated shoes for special occasions. Contrary to the cliché, the Romans by no means always wore sandals. And if sandals, says van Driel, then definitely with socks.