Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Friends, Romans, Countrymen send me your socks ...

Why don’t they tell you 'Limes Britannicus' is so cold compared to our beautiful Mediterranean? So spoke a Roman centurion, almost 2,000 years ago, on being stationed at the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire, which is today called Hadrian’s Wall.

No doubt so did many other infantrymen, auxiliaries, and guards posted along the Wall to the 17 main forts, smaller forts, as well as the signal towers in between. Think of the winter we have just had: all that snow, freezing winds from the Arctic or Siberia, the longevity of it – though now Spring seems to be springing – how would you have survived in Roman times?

Hadrian’s Wall viewed from Vercovicium, one of the auxiliary forts along the wall.

This weekend beacons flared along its eighty mile length with the whole Wall being lit for 30 minutes reminding us of how this imposing structure from 1700 years ago would have looked to those sentries and their freezing feet on marching duty between the ‘milecastles’, as the smaller forts were known, keeping a watchful eye for a possible Celtic barbarian invasion from the north.

The Romans were very efficient in settling an area after invasion, so they were self-sufficient and self-contained within the forts. They had barracks, baths, stables, a granary, administrative and the commander’s quarters, where his family and entourage lived comfortably. Outside the fort defences civilians (innkeepers, shopkeepers etc) settled to make a living from the garrison and its men. In fact the area along Hadrian’s Wall is one of the first places in England to be extensively farmed and was agriculturally productive even then.

Granary at Vercovicium. The pillars supported a raised floor to keep food dry and free from vermin.

We know that the Romans wore bare feet, sandals or light shoes in their town houses, while outside and marching they would have worn heavier leather sandals or boots. Tanning leather was commonplace, with the thicker skins being used for boot, shoe leather, or less expensive armour.

Tanned leather was also fashioned into heavy coats as a protection against poor weather. Though in England the Romans adopted the local double layered wool cloak, made of fleeces straight from the sheep and still containing the animal fats as natural insulation from the cold and wet.

Roman Shoes – per Vroma.org

Socks had evolved over the centuries being made from animal skins gathered up and tied round the ankles, to the Greeks and Romans wearing socks made from matted animal hair for warmth, or wrapping their feet with leather or woven fabrics. Easily obtainable as they travelled the empire, and certainly here they would have needed extra warmth.

A sock (soccus) was a light shoe worn by the comic actors of Greece and Rome, and was used by John Milton (1608 – 1674) in L’Allegro as a description for a comedy ..

Then to the well-trod stage anon,
If Jonson’s learned sock be on.

[Ben Jonson (1572 – 1637) the English Renaissance dramatist, poet and actor. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, he is best known for his satirical plays.]

Milton also used the word 'Buskin', to describe a Tragedy, as the Greek tragic actors wore thick-soled (high) boots (cothurnus) to elevate their stature .. (taken from Milton’s “Il Penseroso”) ...

Or what (though rare) of later age
Enobled hath the buskind stage.

Buskins: A buskin is a knee- or calf-length boot made of leather or cloth which laces closed, but is open across the toes.

Shakespeare’s words spoken by Julius Caesar “Friends Romans Countrymen lend me your ears ..” is still quoted so often today, let alone when spoken in the Play itself.... it does not look as though they would have had to snail-mailed to Rome for socks, as the natural materials were readily available!

Yesterday, 15th March, reminded me of Plutarch’s record of Julius Caesar’s words before his assassination in 44BC: “Beware the Ides of March”, as his death ended the Roman Republic and from then on it became known as the Roman Empire – Augustus, who won through the civil war following Caesar’s death, made himself First Citizen, Commander of the army, while his successors used the title ‘imperator’ (commander), from which we obtain our word ‘emperor’.

The first Romans to campaign extensively in Britain were the forces of Julius Caesar in 55 and 54BC (both hindered by poor weather conditions!), but it was not until AD43 under Claudius that a provincial government was established and the Romans pushed their “limites” north to the province’s northern border with Hadrian’s Wall taking six years to complete in AD 128.

In Latin the plural of ‘limes’ is 'limites' – limits, boundaries in present day English – hence the Roman boundary name of Limes Britannicus, while the comedic word soccus has now turned into the accepted word for sock .. but not quite like these in their sandals I suspect?! Not much more to say here = socks and shoes, but not from Roman times!

The distinctive Romano—British culture that emerged following the conquests fusing the imported Roman culture and that of the indigenous Britons, a people Celtic in language and custom, which survives in many forms today ... in our language, our structural system, our foods, our customs, our traditions, etc influencing us still.

Those chilly Romans on Hadrian’s Wall pulling on their socks before their sandals have much to answer for – but for which we have much to be grateful for too. In the days of the Roman Empire it was common for the wall to be lit as sentries stood guard over the land, but since their departure no such line of light has been repeated until this past weekend, which was a sight to be seen, as shown here.

Dear Mr Postman – at last some warmer Spring sunshine, which are bringing out the greening shoots and leaveas, while the daffodils are starting to push up and colour out a radiant rich yellow. My mother seems to be settling in downstairs, but there are still things to be addressed, which is somewhat frustrating ... but we keep going.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories


heph said...

interesting post

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Heph - thanks for visiting and glad you enjoyed it .. Hilary

Barb Hartsook said...

A fascinating tale. Your last post about the Romans bringing their culture to England I also found fascinating. I read a lot -- and the book I picked up at the library that week was set in the period you had just taught us about. I felt right at home!

I can only imagine what it could have been like all those years ago along that wall. Or, for that matter, building the wall! And to have worn the heavy clothes required for survival. I read long time ago that the Roman soldiers also wore leather vests drenched in water, to survive incoming fire arrows from their enemies. Heavy! That was in Biblical times. And yes, they wore sandals.

Wilma Ham said...

Hi Hilary. It is amazing how animals serve us. They feed and cloth us. Leather, wool and felt, astounding really. I wonder what bunny has to say to this!?
So the Romans were good for the local economy with their settlements, were they?
BTW I have a pair of those striped socks with separate toes, they are indeed handy to put on those shoes when you go outside to the garden or garage and you do not want to put real shoes on.
Glad spring is showing, and hang in there with your frustration. As always hugs to you both. xox Wilma

Barbara Swafford said...

Hi Hilary,

Every time I visit you I learn something new. Today I learned how socks originated. I never knew. I was looking at the photos of the shoes and am amazed how similar they are to the some of the shoes that are currently the fad - round toes, strappy.

It's good to hear you mom is settling in. Hopefully both you and her are feeling good and enjoying the onset of Spring.

(((hugs))) to you both. :)

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Barb .. isn’t that surprising that you were able to slot into this Roman world and immediately relate to Hadrian’s Wall and the sort of life the Romans lead through the book you were reading.

The clothes would have been very heavy in winter particularly and not desperately comfortable I guess. I didn’t know about the Romans wearing wetted vests – but that would make so much sense .. I’m not sure I’d like to have a burning arrow in my chest, then relying on my wet vest to put it out!! Sandals – yes .. with all that marching they would definitely have need soles of some sort ..

Thanks so much for the interesting comment .. Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Wilma .. yes we seem to have made the best from animals .. rabbits I’m sure would have been used for food and fur – certainly the Phoenicians used them and the Romans to an extent – but they wouldn’t have provided a lot of food, or fur .. and perhaps because they weren’t beasts of burden either. I’ll keep my eyes open though to see if I can find some other information at some stage: they’re not very good for survival food, as they have little fat .. the same as hares. Charles Darwin in The Voyage of the Beagle also noted that the South American tribes were aware of the need to eat fats, not dried meats.

I found it interesting that they actually settled the land – kept the garrison happy with more peoples around and good husbandry prevailed to keep their spirits up.

Do you – they look fun I must say .. I think it’s just with the pair of thongs – it sort of jars!

Now it's Spring .. those rabbits will be coming out!

Thanks for your thoughts .. and Mum will be pleased for her hugs - as am I! xxoo Hilary

Colin said...

Hi Hilary,
Thank you for your blog post. We live and work in the shadow of the Wall.To us it has always been a constant in the background, not offering the allure of the lake district or the brilliance of the sandy beaches of Northumberland.
So it was great to see so many people introduced or reminded about what the Wall.

There is, as you say, so much more to the Wall than a defensive fortification....it wasn't the most northerly and it also controlled goods and people travelling from the south ( thats why the vallum is on the south side).
I believe that the weather was much warmer back then and i always wonder about the auxiliaries who came to man the wall from across the empire and how many of their descendents are still here.

All the best and kind regards

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Barbara .. thank you! Nor did I – it was Jannie, who asked how they were made, and eventually I’ve got round to posting about it. The fashionistas of this world must go back in time for their ideas – because as you say they look so similar to those of today.

Yes – Mum seems to be settling in and we’re getting things sorted – and with all things we all just feel brighter if there’s warmth and longer light around – so thank goodness it’s coming at last!

Thanks for the hugs .. and back across the pond .. Mum appreciates being told she gets her worldwide hugs! All the best Hilary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Colin .. good of you to visit from your Northumbria site – with its lovely evocative pictures – memories from times gone by ...

Lucky you – to work and live in such a wonderful place .. as a constant – that great testament to all the hours, days and years of work that must have gone in to building it, let alone maintaining it. I know the Lake District from my young days, and had one wonderful holiday on the sandy beaches of Northumberland, because it was so hot .. and we didn’t travel far .. couldn’t be bothered: it was that hot! But I must come back – it’s got so much to offer.

I realised my description is not fully comprehensive .. as I mix and match to provide entertainment, information with some eclectic education thrown in for good measure! The “vallum” I thought about, and the military road .. but I ‘try’ and keep it relatively simple .. vallum – meaning palisade, or earthen wall I probably should have mentioned = rectified now! There’s always so much information I could impart – but not being an expert .. I just mix and match the ideas that I spot or like and bring them together in what I hope is an entertaining way.

Was it warmer then – that’s interesting to know .. certainly Caesar’s two expeditions were severely hampered by weather, and so they turned up in force when Claudius gave the order for another invasion.

Anyway it’s very good to meet you and good to have some definitive comments from a possible ancestor of one of those Centurion descendents .. I wonder if some did remain – I guess so ..

all the best to you too and kind regards from the south coast - Hilary

Blue Bunny said...

i just knew it was the romings hoo invented those stripey socks. and my jannie thinking it was some guy in new jersey named bob the sock builder.

from me -- blue bunny
xo again.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi BB .. Yup – woz ‘dem Romings Romans again .. sox wiv feathers, fur, moss – pretty colours .. I tink yure Bob the sox bilder probably straitened up the lines ... and emboldened de colours ..

Bye, bye Blue Bunny .. enjoys Sunday .. & hugs agains ..

Liara Covert said...

Have human beings ever evolved when it comes to footwear! Did you know the original marathon runners in Marathon, Greece, never wore any shoes? Now the high tech "must-have" running shoes brainwash people int spending enormour amounts of money for style and foot technology that one only needs if one believes that:)

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Liara .. yes they did .. and so do the Africans now .. in fact so did Zola Budd (South Africa) in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics .. Haile Gebrselassie and most Ehtiopians, Kenyans start their running as children running across the bush barefoot. We, as you say, comfortably shod forget that.

In fact the latest technology is based on barefoot running .. a quote from the Daily Mail here “Researchers found that people who run barefoot tend to land on the ball or the middle of the foot and avoid jarring their bones” – and we can if we wish at enormous cost buy branded shoes, coloured or otherwise, .. barefoot oriented or otherwise .. specialist shoes – such as the Olympians wear. I just like comfort!! Always been important to me.

Thanks Liara .. those were the days moss socks, or no shoes!!