Socks and Roman Sartorial Sins ....

An excavation on the site of the proposed extension of the A1 Motorway between Dishforth and Leeming in North Yorkshire, England, has unearthed the remains of a Roman military fort. As so often happens, the modern road follows an ancient one - the Roman Dere Street.

The finds are interesting, whether or not the fort has a link to the mysterious Ninth Legion as the Daily Mail claims (story, with good photos).

The headline that amused me the most though is the Telegraph's Romans wore socks with sandals, new British dig suggests

Yup, this sartorial sin was not restricted to modern Englishmen Abroad. The Romans wore socks with sandals. Shock, horror!

Actually, this is nothing new to us, and archaeologists have known about this horror for decades. We've puzzled over whether the carved feet on some statues showed boots or sandals and socks, and we've even found socks intact in excavations, with suspicious indents by the big toe suggesting that they were designed to accommodate the thong of a sandal ... I blogged the ones in my photo above recently.

So the tagline for these new articles is that this new excavation has found a bit of sandal with some fibers attached. The story is such big news that The Sun has even run an article on the excavation (here - love the 'reconstruction') - the first such story in the paper better known for photos of topless women that I know of.

Socks are not surprising in Britain, as for much of the year the weather is quite cold. There is even a letter preserved from the Vindolanda Fortress on Hadrian's Wall (Scotland is even colder than England), about socks. It is highly fragmentary, but TVII Tablet 346 concerns a gift of socks to the soldier from a certain Sattua (not the correspondent). Sandals are mentioned next, although there is no proof that the two need have been worn together.

With marble statues that have lost their paint, one can argue over whether the toe-less feet are carved to show socks or boots. One this copper Roman 'novelty' razor it's clear - the herringbone pattern is clearly intended to show wool (or cloth), and these are ... socks. And yes, it too was found in England (in the Tees River at Piercebridge in County Durham). It may only be 5 cm high, but it's pretty damning evidence.

Fortunately we English were not the only ones committing this sartorial sin. The Egyptians did it too. The red split-toe socks in my first photo were made circa AD 300, found at Oxyrhynchus, and now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

A papyrus from Egypt, in the third year of the reign of Domitian (AD 81), record the pay and expenses of a soldier named Gaius Valerius Germanus - the text is discussed a bit by military historians, but 12 drachmas in the accounts is for boots and either socks or 'leggings' (as this edition uses). Germanus was, despite his name, from Tyre - and again, there is no suggestion that even if they were socks that they were intended to be worn with sandals (one wouldn't want to defame the long-dead man).

The truth is that it's hard to be sure when socks were worn with sandals and when they were worn with boots. But, like trousers (which I blogged about here), they became part of the Roman Legionary's uniform in the Imperial period.


  1. Even though it's not really new information, it's just so dang funny (as we say here in the South) to picture the socks & sandals combo when its modern counterpart has become almost universal code for "clueless tourist geek!"

  2. Preston Chaunsumlit3/24/2011 03:23:00 pm

    I personally love wearing my socks with sandals every opportunity I can.
    The contrasting textures and comfort are worth it. I think it gets a bad reputation because of the type of people known to wear them, and not for their function and aesthetic value. I am sure those Romans looked awesome and quite fashionable by today's standards.


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