Friday, January 15, 2010

Caliga Caligae

At some point I got interested in Roman sandals. The kind that shod the feet of legionaires as they marched all over the empire. Caligae, as the Romans called them, are those familiar leather sandals we know from countless movies, paintings and statues. I ended up reading a lot and looking at a lot of those countless movies, statues, paintings, mosaics and historical artifacts.

I talked about them, wrote papers (and articles) and made a pair to tromp around in and ...write about. They are surprisingly comfortable and pleasant to wear but the first pair aren't quite what a legionaire would have worn. That is to say they are historically "possible" but defintitely reflect the materials I had on hand and my distilation of historical design aesthetic. So, I'll be making at least one more pair at least somewhat closer to the originals.

The initial pair, started with a single question, what was it like to "live" in these sandals?  So far they have survived a fair bit of paved city walking without any blisters, or signs of real wear after more than 20 miles of walking (with 30 lbs + on my back) and without losing many of the cut tacks I substituted for hobnails. This is a lighter load and not much walking when compared to even a typical Roman citizen let alone a soldier on the march but I'm calling it a successful proof of concept.

How was it to make some? It turns out, not all that "hard" per se but far from easy. Uppers are cut from a single piece of thick leather then stitched and sandwiched between even more heavy sole leather. The orignals  had funky hobnailed soles the more closely resemble today's golf shoes than military footwear from today. There is also quite a bit of evidence to suggest that this style may have been somewhat regional.

Where the heck do you get reproduction Roman hobnails? Answer, India. Or you find a guy who imports them, put in an order and wait for a very long time. In the end it's sort of like getting a gift because you wrote them off and half forgot you ordered them. "They're on Indian time." Ok, I can wait. I always seem to have too much to do anyway. I did finally recieve them and I have a more appropriate sole leather as well as some really nice stuff for the uppers.

In making the first pair I learned a lot, especially about process. In pre-industrial conditions things are simply made differently. Beyond the obvious making by hand there are other factors to consider like, how do you "mass produce" an item without knowledge of mass production methods? You can still do it but again, the focus has to be on process. With pre-industrial production the order in which you not only assemble but even make the pieces becomes in some cases critical. It's hard to make a pile of identical parts that will fit with another pile of identical parts when it's next to impossible to actually make them "identical". There are patterns and they were certainly used but in many cases it's more about the method. I do have some experience with this sort of thing from blacksmithing but I'll save that for another post.

Think of it something like this. Make part A. Make sure it fits or is as close to the foundational piece of your design as possible. In this case it needed to fit my foot. Then make part B and to fit part X and fullfil whatever other design function it needs to. Next make part C so it fits A and B and on and on until you are finished. If you make a pile of part C with no A and B to fit it to, when you finally get around to making A and B you'll probably have a lot of adjusting to do to make things work if it works at all. I think I kind of got the process right for the caligae but I'm sure I have some things to figure out before I use my hard won hobnails on the next pair. The big lesson here is that in a pre-industrial environment everything is somewhat custom and needs to be treated that way. It is at best extremely time consuming to make a batch of components within tight enough tolerances to reliably fit batches of other equally varied components. In some cases your end product is better due to this process byproduct we can call customization. I'm also pretty sure I can account for some design elements of examples in the archeological and historical record that suggest a need for real mass production and how that production level was attempted.

I also learned a thing or two about fit from actually hiking around in my first pair and I'm calling it aexperimental archeology at this point. I actually do have a BA in anthropology and this project has produced a couple of scholarly papers. Along with the fit I'm pretty sure I can identify where popular reproductions used by re-enactors and filmakers got it right and sometimes wrong. The next phase, as time permits, will be looking at the practical limits of this type of shoe. It's no coincidence that we have so many shoes from companies like Teva, Keen, Merrell, Birkenstock and numerous others that very much resemble Roman sandals. They are a lot more durable than they may look but they are definitely from a time before cement covered the earth. There were "paved" roads in ancient Rome but not quite like we have today.

Amusingly, I learned that they sound cool on stone floors. Yeah, I know, that was taboo in Rome too. Without the historically correct hobnails you can pretty much get away with wearing them anywhere. Though you might still want to avoid places with metal detectors and easily damaged floors. The metal detector thing usually ends up just being funny, "I'm sorry for the confusion officer. I'm doing a study of ancient Roman sandals." Another thing I learned is they are even practical in cold and snowy weather if you add some wool socks. This is something that is somewhat contentious among historians and re-enactors but like so many other things, the evidence is in the doing. You can only learn so much sitting in a lab, office or study carrel.

All in all it's been fun and I think with maybe one more pair I'll have satisfied my curiosity. They've already contributed to my grad school experience and taught me some things I can apply to my company making shoes for toddlers as well as answered some questions that hadn't been dealt with very well in the research canon yet. So it's been more than worth the time and effort.

I'll be sure to post again when there are any developments or misadventures worth mentioning. I'll also post an excerpt and link(s) if I publish the scholarly work. In addition to another more historically correct pair I'm hoping to wear them on a hike in the wilds of northern California to take the experience to the next level. 

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