These heavy sandals are the classic Roman army boot. Numerous examples have been found at first-century sites.
The open design of caligae allowed for the free passage of air to the feet and, unlike modern military boots, was specifically designed so as to reduce the likelihood of blisters forming during forced marches, as well as other disabling foot conditions like tinea or trench foot. Socks were not normally worn with caligae, although in colder climates such as Britain, woolen socks were used.
Caligae were constructed from three leather layers of which the top formed the outer shell. They were laced up the center of the foot and onto the top of the ankle. Additionally, iron hobnails were hammered into the soles, to provide the caligae with reinforcement and traction.
How Do I Make Mine?
Construction involves a lot of careful cutting but is otherwise straightforward. The upper is cut from a single piece of 3 to 6-ounce leather, well-oiled (with neatsfoot oil) to prevent decay. The sole is one-half to three-quarters inch thick and is made of several thick layers (8-ounce or heavier), with the upper sandwiched between the top two. The layers are held together with hobnails: lay them on an anvil or flat piece of steel, and drive the nails into the sole so that the points go through the innermost layer and bend over as they hit the steel. Cover the clenched points with an additional insole of leather, felt, or sheepskin, securing it in place with a few stitches. Complete the shoe by sewing up the heel seam with a butted or overlapped seam.
The Legion XX website has down-loadable patterns for making your own caligae. Various styles are available, but many of these styles are now considered “old”, meaning that they have been around for a while and a lot of guys wear these types of sandals. If you are looking for something distinctive, do some research, and find a set that suits you. We can help you transfer those designs into cuttable patterns.
The tabs or straps are made long enough to meet in the middle and turn upwards, reaching another half to three-quarters of an inch. The slits should end just short of the point where the tabs turn upwards.
The conical or domed iron hobnails should be about .25″ to .5″ in diameter. The heads need not be perfectly shaped–irregular or flatter shapes are acceptable. World War I or II-style hobnails will work, or “Antique Nails” from some hardware stores. Upholstery tacks are not durable enough. Soul of the Warrior has good hobnails available.
Before cutting good leather, make a working mock-up out of vinyl, junk leather, or heavy cloth. DO NOT MAKE THE SOLES TOO WIDE–trace your foot and cut the soles narrower by 1/4″ on each side. Make the tabs extra long and the slits shorter than necessary, and adjust them later.
One clever trick for making a pattern is to put on an old sock and cover it (not too tightly) with a couple layers of duct tape. Then cut it carefully off, slitting it down the front and back, and open it out flat. Use this as the basis for your mockup, remembering that the tabs need to extend beyond the cut top/front edges of the taped sock by an inch or so (because the edges of the taped sock just meet in the middle, while the tabs of the caligae sort of overlap, right?).
Purchasing a Set
The latest version of Deepeeka’s caligae are much improved from their older ones, but are still too wide, and the leather and nails are not great – stay away.
There has been a lot of improvement in the last few years in off-the-shelf caligae. Soul of the Warrior has a good selection available at their site.