Note: this post is republished from my email newsletter.
When discussing the first page of Issue #1 and the character designs, Unai asked me to explain what kind of shoes I was thinking for that Celts. I also got a question (and many helpful follow-up links) about Roman shoes from my friend David, per my remark about walking back then not being much fun.
So let's discuss footwear!
If you know me personally, you might guess I've already done... a lot of clothing-related Googling for this, and I did indeed have a few images in my back pocket. But then I went home for Thanksgiving, and in one of her usual fits of convenient brilliance my mom told me to take a look at the costume books (which I'd kind of forgotten she had) for anything that might be useful. Spoiler alert, they were useful, especially Auguste Racinet's Complete Costume History!
Before I say anything else, can we appreciate Auguste's commitment to fitting in so many shoes on one plate of Roman footwear:
To my untrained eye, a bunch of these don't look 100% historically accurate, though I do hope the ones that look like teeny wolves are eating your feet are Based On A True Shoe. I assume that the more ornate of these were drawn from statues and artwork, which presented stylized versions of life as it was. But it's a costume book, and it's research for a comic book! We're here to have fun.
Some of the others on this page look very much like photos of artifacts and reconstructions I've seen. Some of the shoes in the middle of the page look like they have cleats, because they do -- lower-level Roman soldiers wore sandals called caligae with hobnail cleats nailed through the soles in the soles. These made the sandals more durable: the nails hold the layers of the shoe together and you're not wearing down the sole on your miles of marching. This came at a grave cost, though, because they also must have made the infantry sound like a bunch of tapdancers (there's a reason the Scots call hobnail shoes "tackety boots"). Speaking from experience--we wore "spikes" for cross country in high school, which have removable spikes in them for traction--walking in shoes with metal nails in the soles is unpleasant and potentially ankle-breaking on smooth surfaces, but pretty great on turf and trail.
To support my point, here's Roman historian Josephus describing an ancient Monty Python sketch during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD (the "he" in question is an invading Roman solider; the runaways are Jewish people he's terrorizing):
"He was wearing the ordinary military boots studded with masses of sharp nails, and as he ran across the pavement he slipped and fell flat on his back, his armor clanging so loudly that the runaways turned to look. The Jews crowded round him and aimed blows from all directions with their spears and swords ... Even then as he lay he stabbed many with his sword;...but at last, when all his limbs were slashed and no one dared come to his aid, he ceased to struggle."
Knowing what we know about the way Romans retold history (in short: they lied a lot to serve their own aims), I'm betting that it was even less heroic and more hilarious than it seems on the part of Clumsy Claudius.
Other than this small design oversight they were pretty comfortable and pretty well-ventilated as far as we can tell.
Most of the other Roman shoes we have evidence for are also lacy sandals, which is kind of how I always used to imagine them: togas and sandals and laurels and fussily braided hair for the mostly balmy Mediterranean, North African, and Middle Eastern weather they did most of their stomping and sculpting and subjugating through. Not all Roman shoes had tough soles. Some were meant for lounging around or city life, and as you wouldn't wear stilettos for a roam through the marshes, you wouldn't wear shoes made of palm leaves for a march.
A GREAT AND TERRIBLE CRIME
So now you might be thinking: how did these besandaled people cope in the not-so-warm climes, like Britain? Weather plays a pretty big role in this story, as it does in lots of war stories; it often behaves like a third foe for the melee. I can imagine that when Cesar got to Britain in 55 BC, and once he'd recovered from the disappointment of the island not being populated by monster deer and giants, he was not super pleased about the weather. I wasn't super pleased about the weather there, and I'm from New York, which is not much better.
There are two answers to this toe chilling question. One is perfectly acceptable to me. One is extremely upsetting on an aesthetic level: 1. They wore calcei, closed-toe leather boots (I've found a bunch of different usages of this word, so I think it also applies to taller sandal-boots, but am not sure), and other kinds of enclosed shoes like the ones found in 2016 on the site of a 3rd century fort in Scotland. 2. They wore SOCKS AND SANDALS. There is a lot of circumstantial archaeological evidence for this: archaeologists found fiber on the hobnails from some ancient caligae, as well as letters from Roman soldiers begging their families to send socks and warm jammies to Hadrian's Wall. There was also a copper razor handle purportedly showing a socked-and-sandaled foot found elsewhere in Britain. It's thought that they also wrapped their feet over the socks for more insulation.
And if I flip back to Racinet's Costume History, which I thought I could trust, what do I find at marker 22?
That's right. A smug, hairy little sock.
If you want to see fascinating and very detailed instructions for making your own caligae written by a Roman reenactor from Indiana, look no further (he shows off a pair of heelless, toeless udone socks with his second version):
I did get a few panels from my distress at learning all of this: in one of the Roman-perspective storylines we'll see a young soldier discovering The! Sock! and then getting ragged on mercilessly for wearing socks and sandals to battle practice before September rolls around and the other legionaries decide it's a good idea if humans don't discover trenchfoot until the 1910s.
I also like the idea of highlighting instances of Romans incorporating the innovations of other cultures into their own -- it's something they were very good at, and it's part of what made them so successful at conquering other people. They did love their battles: Roman society was martial, patriarchal, and glory-focused. But it wasn't all bloody war. They used diplomacy and soft power whenever they could (Like in Britannia! Which we'll see!), because it was less expensive and politically easier back home if done well.
STOP YELLING ABOUT SOCKS PLEASE
Ok, fine. I haven't found any evidence of the kind of footwear the Celts wore pre-Roman invasion, so we went with simple, practical, leather shoes and boots with laces for starters, like updated versions of the ones that were found in pre-Roman bogs. Some folks also wear bigger leather boots, which make sense from a practical standpoint for the climate and amount of historical license we can take here. Speaking of which, here's another character drawing from Unai of Dad (Prasutagus, co-leader of the Iceni).
Prasutagus models some defining features of the Celts (per Roman historians): he has a fancy mustache, long hair, and penchant for jewelry. Torcs -- open collar necklaces that ranged from very simple to super ornate -- were especially important to them, but that's a story for another week!
Unai's currently working on page 3, which will give us our first look at some battle scenes, and IT'S COOL. Here's a teeny little peek at two of his panels-in-progress:
And finally, for you, a gif of a chicken wearing pants, which is still not as bad as a human wearing socks and sandals, as a reward for reading 'til the end.
As always, if you have any questions about the process of writing a comic book script/Celtic and Roman history, please let me know!
And if you see any glaring historical errors in this email, tell me! I'm curious and also not a historian.