In antiquity, as in the contemporary world, shoes were a key element in the visual language of self-presentation and self-fashioning. As markers of age, gender, status, and identity, shoes eloquently communicated who a person was and, in some cases, who s/he wished to be. For instance, an elegant black leather woman’s sandal found in the praetorium in Vindolanda not only indicates the presence of women at this Roman military fort, but also tells us something about its owner: first and foremost that she was someone who could afford this luxury item. But this sole surviving sandal also suggests that, for the woman who wore it, the dictates of Roman fashion were (at least on certain occasions) more important than considerations regarding the weather and environment of the northernmost regions of Britannia. Clearly, to be and appear Roman while living in the limes sometimes required donning rather impractical footwear.
While such examples of actual Roman women’s shoes offer invaluable information about the material aspects of everyday life, visual representations of open-toed thong sandals (soleae) on several private and public monuments reveal these objects’ greater symbolic valence and their role in constructing an imperial ideal of femininity. As the objects depicted on a second-century funerary altar from Ortona in Southwestern Italy and a fifth-century mosaic from Sidi Ghrib in Tunisia demonstrate, shoes together with a set of other exclusively feminine items were often used as metonymies in a visual, gendered discourse of praise. Since Roman women usually lacked the traditional titles and accoutrements of public achievement, items designed for self-care (cultus) became emblems of these individuals’ physical loveliness and refinement—characteristics that were, in turn, seen as exterior signs of women’s inner virtues.
Thus, by considering actual shoes and the representation of these objects in Roman art, this paper explores the ways in which such a seemingly ordinary item of clothing became a powerful, ubiquitous symbol of feminine virtue from Rome to the farthest provinces of the empire.