Shoes are far more ancient than ancient Greece, with the first footwear dating as far back as 40,000 years ago. While versatile and stylish options began to appear in the late Middle Ages, the shoes of ancient Greece were largely utilitarian. In fact, the stereotypical image of ancient Greek citizens wearing simple sandals is actually not far from the truth. However, there's more to the story -- some ancient Greeks actually sported boot-like footwear, and their sandals even have a link to classical mythology.
Although going barefoot was common -- especially for children -- the ancient Greeks also wore basic leather sandals, a type of footwear known as the carbatine. This sandal, which dates back to the beginnings of ancient Greek culture, featured a single piece of leather secured to the sole of the foot with laces, which pulled the tops of the shoes together when tied, leaving the toes exposed. This type of footwear was worn until about A.D. 1000.
In addition to sandals, the ancient Greeks wore a simple, boot-like footwear known as the cothurnus. Also made from leather and laced in front -- generally with red straps -- the cothurnus covered the entire foot and featured thicker soles than the carbatine. Like the carbatine, each boot fit either the left or right foot, unlike modern shoes. The Greek playwright Aeschylus, who wrote from 472 B.C. until his death in 456 B.C., made it customary for stage actors to wear this type of shoe in tragic plays to increase their stature.
In ancient Greece, the sandal transcended its place as simple footwear and became an important symbol in myth and art, particularly as part of a commonly occurring visual theme known as “monosandalism.” As the name implies, monosandalism refers to art that depicts a figure wearing only one sandal. This element appears in the Greek myth of the hero Jason -- who fulfills a prophecy that states a one-sandaled man will usurp the throne of Pelias -- and often appears in sepulchral artwork. Scholarly interpretation of monosandalism's significance varies; the image may represent freedom or the breaking of bonds, or it may symbolize deference to the gods of the underworld, for example.
More to Consider
The soccus, a type of low-cut, loose slipper, served as a sort of middle ground between sandals and boots. While the cothurnus was worn in tragic plays, ancient Greek actors of the Aeschylean era donned these slippers when performing comedies. The ancient Greeks weren't alone in their use of the carbatine, as it was also worn by ancient Roman and Celtic peoples. The Romans in particular continued to refine ancient Greek-style footwear. For instance, first century Roman soldiers wore sturdier boots known as caligae, while Roman citizens also sported wooden-soled shoes and continued to develop the soccus into more modern footwear.
- Ride2Learn: Fact Sheet: The History of Shoes
- The University of Tulsa: General Glossary of Shoe Types
- PBS: In Search of Myths and Heroes: Jason and Argonauts
- Myth in Indo-European Antiquity: Gerald James Larson, C. Scott Littleton, Jaan Puhvel
- University of Pennsylvania: Greek and Roman Mythology: Dictionary
- Utah State University: Classical Drama and Society: SECTION 2: CLASSICAL GREEK TRAGEDY AND THEATRE Chapter 7: Classical Greek Tragedy, Part 1
- Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images