BMCR 2019.05.46

Shoes, Slippers, and Sandals: Feet and Footwear in Classical Antiquity

, , Shoes, Slippers, and Sandals: Feet and Footwear in Classical Antiquity. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2018. 338. ISBN 9781472488763. £115,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This collection originates in a 2015 conference at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and the Great North Museum. It offers thoughtful examinations of its topic from multiple viewpoints and disciplines, including literature, myth, archaeology, art history, and cultural studies. The focus is Hellenic; only five of the fifteen chapters deal exclusively with Roman material culture.

K. D. Morrow’s groundbreaking Greek Footwear and the Dating of Sculpture (1985) has been a standard reference for the current generation of footwear scholars. But in spite of numerous recent publications on feet and shoes in antiquity,1 there has not been until now a scholarly collection that gathers so many sources on the subject. The chapter bibliographies in this volume are a major contribution to the field, and the abundance of reference material (both material culture and literary works) will greatly enrich future studies.

The Introduction surveys the wide reach of the subject, with appropriate references to each of the 15 chapters that follow. I summarize their contents below.

1. “Sandals on the Wall” is by far the longest (70 pages). The authors discuss the iconography of the Shefton cup in the Great North Museum and other vases that show sandals hanging on walls, with detailed and scholarly summaries of the types of scenes, where they appear, and possible meanings of the relationship between the suspended sandals and the scenes. They conclude: “The suspended sandal, albeit polysemic, relates to a nexus of interrelated themes linked to mobility, transformation, transition and eroticism” (43).

2. In “At the symposium” Valérie Toillon gives a good account of the relationship of boots (and canes) to citizenship and the symposium, pointing out the civic meanings of dress and what the donning and doffing of footwear means in the political, social, and sympotic spheres.

3. Yael Young’s “Donning Footwear” explores the invention of the “shoe-tying” scenes found on Attic vases between 520 and 480 B.C.E. Restricted to young men and hetairai, scenes of tying (or untying? — interpreters disagree) denote mobility and liminality, topics stressed in most of the book’s chapters. Shoe-tying relates to the owners’ performance in a role, be it sympotic entertaining, hoplite racing, or sex work. What underlies the creation of these scenes, Young speculates, is aristocratic anxiety in the face of loss of privileged social status. The new scenes on these vases helped to consolidate aristocratic group identity “by presenting a hedonistic lifestyle, where young males and hetairai, inferior in social status, perform servile roles, forming the target of their scrutinizing gaze” (114).

4. “Boots Everywhere”: The title comes from Theocritus’ Idyll 15.6, “ Pantāi krēpides. In this fascinating chapter, Christiaan Caspers shows how Greek poets use common items like shoes to lead their readers to reflect upon the nature of poetry in works that appeal to the senses and to the readers’ desires. He shows how the Odyssey provides the context for raising the simple word hypodēmata from its basic meaning of “things bound below” to things that prevent you from having to go barefoot because a patron gave them to you: agents of a “radical socio-economic elevation of the gift’s recipient” (119). From Anacreon’s erotic gaze at the poikilosambalos girl (fr. 358) to Herodas’ sixth and seventh Mime s about the dildo-stitching, hard-bargaining shoemaker Kerdon, Caspers stresses the fact that the poets take a subject that is ‘under the radar’ and help readers create a new reality: one that transforms “the desire for material objects and objectives into the pursuit of truth” (126). He shows how poets forced their readers to use the lens of Plato’s barefoot (and sometimes shod) Socrates to view later poetic appearances of barefoot and shod characters, such as the Cynic Sochares, whose shoes are part of a dedication to Aphrodite in Leonidas of Tarentum’s epigram on that sham philosopher ( AP 6.293) and Theocritus’ Simichidas ( Id. 7.24-26), an urban poet who wears the wrong kind of shoes on his trip to the country.

5. Sebastiano Molinelli’s essay is a close examination of the sources dealing with Simon the Athenian cobbler, who may have been considered “Socrates’ first philosophical interlocutor” by the 3rd century CE (140). After reviewing the excavations of the “house of Simon” in the Athenian Agora, Diogenes Laertius’ mention of his Socratic-inspired dialogues, and the Letters of Socrates and the Socratics (c. 200 CE) — which show that later philosophers considered Simon “a model of Cynic self-sufficiency and freedom of speech” (137) — Molinelli concludes that Simon was probably a real person.

6. Susanna Phillippo offers an insightful interpretation of Orestes’ appearances in Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers. This piece fruitfully connects the text to vase paintings and terra cotta reliefs as it builds its argument that in the play’s original production, Orestes removed his shoes upon approaching Agamemnon’s tomb, leaving them visible during the first scene, and that when he re-appeared at the palace, he was shod. Phillippo’s logic is irresistible and her arguments compelling.

7. Andrew Parkin convincingly argues that an oversize sculpture of a porphyry foot in the Great North Museum was originally a dedication to an Egyptian god. A post-antique re-fashioning has obscured its original ex-voto form: an unshod foot surmounted by a bust of Serapis, representations of which appear in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and on Roman imperial coins from Alexandria. Such objects were probably meant to “symbolize the presence of Serapis, as well as evoking the healing power of the deity” (188). Parkin concludes with the possibility “that the foot once adorned an Egyptian sanctuary somewhere in Italy” (188).

8. Amy C. Smith’s “The left foot aryballos” considers foot vases from widespread archaeological contexts. Close inspection of 32 archaic network-sandal foot aryballoi leads her to conclude that a workshop in Euboea produced the vessels, contrary to the current communis opinio that they originate in “East Greece”. On the basis of references in Aristotle and Hippocratic treatises, Smith speculates that these left feet might have been symbolic of movement and femininity. Perhaps the products of “a single craftsman,” they seem to be “one of our earliest examples of mass production of fine wares” (206).

9. Sue Blundell’s “One shoe off and one shoe on” is a welcome survey of monosandalism. Touching on ideas of journeys, brides, religion, myth, rites of passage, initiation, practicality, and the physis/nomos dichotomy, Blundell leans towards a ritual interpretation of monosandalism. The most delightful part of this chapter is the photograph of the author demonstrating monosandalism in some thick Devon mud (Figure 9.1), in an attempt to test Thucydides’ statement that the fleeing Plataeans wore sandals only on their left feet, so as to have surer footing in the mud (Thucydides 3.22-24). Her conclusions about their escape and subsequent walk to Athens demonstrate Blundell’s sharp insights into monosandalism’s practical considerations.

10. Sadie Pickup’s refreshing look at the late Hellenistic (c. 100 BCE) statue group from Delos in which the Aphrodite uses a sandal to threaten a sexually aggressive Pan is a ‘must read’ for those who see the sandal-slapping goddess as a humorous piece. Reminding the reader that this work was “the first large-scale work to replicate the gesture of the [Aphrodite] Knidia”, and that it was a religious dedication to ancestral gods, Pickup warns against a frivolous reading of this work. Aphrodite’s nudity, her adorment, and, above all, the sandal put her in a position of control, and Pickup concludes that the sandal “is an expression of Aphrodite’s power, albeit very much within her sphere of sex and love, and to this end, also of marriage” (243).

11. Charlotte Chrétien offers a useful summary of both the imagery of Achilles wearing one sandal as he transitions from disguised girl to emerging Trojan War hero, and some details from Statius’ Achilleid (which does not mention Achilles’ single sandal). Chrétien points out that extant literature lacks any reference to this part of the Skyros story, but that the single shod foot of the images underlines the liminal states of Achilles, as he transitions from female to male, youth to adolescent, and finally to warrior. Her perceptive comments and sharp eye for detail make this a convincing piece.

12. Annika Backe-Dahmen’s informative chapter on Roman children suggests that images of childhood monosandalism may refer to initiation into a mystery cult, that shoes offered in graves and represented on sarcophagi might “hint at what the child might have achieved” (275), and that children’s footwear can indicate the social or religious status of the individual or the family. “Bridal shoes” in burial iconography indicate the “domestic female sphere” (274), for both girls and boys. Shoes in graves generally indicate the journey the deceased must take.

13. Eva Christof’s essay on the footwear of the Antonine monument at Ephesus is a solid descriptive piece, with many useful comparanda, pointing out the similarities and differences between “real-world” shoe depictions and those belonging to the “mythical and unreal” (293). Shoes in the battle-scenes here serve to distinguish the participants, but the footwear does not establish the identities of the adversaries.

14. Alexandra T. Croom’s fascinating discussion of Roman brooches forms a context for the description of a particular ‘shoe’ brooch from the Roman Fort at South Shields. The distribution of this popular type was mostly urban and they are often found in religious contexts. The difficult questions that Croom addresses concern the significance of the shoe design: Were they badges to show a cultic association? Amulets for protection in one’s life journey? Helpers in the journey to the next life? ‘Footprints’ to remind the wearer another’s absence? Or were they simply decorative? Due to the paucity of evidence, the author wisely leaves it to the reader to decide.

15. With the aim of gauging ancient knowledge of podiatry, Elizabeth M. Greene re-examines some of the 4,000-plus shoes from Vindolanda that were apparently modified “in order to mitigate the effects of gait” (310). She describes shoes with iron additions, leather modifications, and extra hobnails — alterations tailored to the needs of individual feet. In one intriguing case, a copper sheet was added to the insole of a shoe, perhaps, as Greene speculates, because copper was thought to have curative powers (as Pliny’s Naturalis Historia makes clear). In discussing the importance of shoes in relation to foot care, Greene points out that Celsus mentions removing corns/callouses to reduce pain, but then she bemoans “the lack of attention to gait problems in our significant surviving medical writings from antiquity” (316). I have found, however, that the Hippocratic treatise De Articulis does include several sections devoted to gait problems (50-61), as well as a section about what we might call orthopedic shoes which can help to ameliorate clubfoot (62). While this prescription is not strictly “shoe modification” meant to cure an ailment, it does show how ancient doctors thought that therapeutic shoe use could help treat a pedal ailment and assist in re-establishing a regular gait.

All of these essays are informative, innovative, and competently done. Drawing upon the latest modern studies, and with preceptive use of ancient sources, these scholars offer numerous insights which invite their readers onto scholarly ground that has until recently been mostly untrodden.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Surveying shoes, slippers and sandals / Sadie Pickup and Sally Waite
1. Sandals on the wall: the symbolism of footwear on Athenian painted pottery / Sally Waite and Emma Gooch
2. At the symposium: Why take off our boots? The significance of boots placed underneath the kline on Attic red-figure vase painting (c. 500-440 BC) / Valérie Toillon
3. Donning Footwear: The invention and diffusion of an iconographic motif in archaic Athens / Yael Young
4. Pantāi krēpides : Shoe-talk from Homer to Herodas / Christiaan Caspers
5. Simon the Athenian: Archaeological, sociological and philosophical remarks on a philosopher shoemaker / Sebastiano Molinelli
6. Stepping onto the stage: Aeschylus’ Oresteia and tragic footwear / Susanna Phillippo
7. A colossal porphyry foot in Newcastle / Andrew Parkin
8. The left foot aryballos wearing a network sandal / Amy C. Smith
9. One shoe off and one shoe on: The motif of monosandalism in Classical Greece / Sue Blundell
10. A slip and a slap: Aphrodite and her footwear / Sadie Pickup
11. Achilles’ Discovery on Skyros: Status and Representation of the monosandalos in Roman Art / Charlotte Chrétien
12. Sandals for the living, sandals for the dead: Roman children and their footwear / Annika Backe-Dahmen
13. The footwear of the Antonine monument from Ephesus / Eva Christof
14. A ‘shoe’ brooch from the Roman Fort at South Shields / Alexandra T. Croom
15. Metal fittings on the Vindolanda shoes: Footwear and evidence for podiatric knowledge in the Roman world / Elizabeth M. Greene


1. A few examples: Edmunds 1984 “Thucydides on Monosandalism”; van Driel-Murray 1987 Roman Footwear and 1993 “The Leatherwork”; Goette 1998 “Mulleus, Embas, Calceus”; Dunbabin 1990 “ Ipsa deae vestigial ”; Blundell 2002 “Clutching at Clothes” and 2006 “Beneath Their Shining Feet”; Haetjens 2002 “Ritual Shoes in Early Greek Female Graves”; Slavica 2005 “Lamps in the Form of a Foot”; Levine 2005 “ERATON BAMA (‘Her Lovely Footstep’)” and 2015 “Acts, Metaphors, and Powers of Feet in Aeschylus’ Oresteia ”; DeMello 2009 Feet and Footwear; Petridou 2009 “ Artemidi to ichnos ”; Cattani 2010 “Il monosandalos nell’arte”; Lebrun 2010 “Les dépôts de sandales dans les inhumations de Gaule romaine”; Sumler 2010 “A Catalogue of Shoes”; Lee 2012 “Dress and Adornment in Archaic and Classical Greece” and 2015 Body, Dress and Identity in Ancient Greece; Rothe 2013 “Whose Fashion?”; Bond 2014 “Follow Me: Courtesan Sandals, Shoemakers, and Ephemeral Epigraphic Landscapes”; Greene 2014 “If the Shoe Fits”; Young 2015, “Binding, Loosening, or Adjusting Her Sandal?”; Klinger 2018, “Terracotta Models of Sandaled Feet.”