Follow Me: Courtesan Sandals, Shoemakers, and Ephemeral Epigraphic Landscapes


One of the tough things about reconstructing epigraphic landscapes, is that so much of it is now gone. Whether it be graffitipainted inscriptions, or just waxen etchings, most of the inscriptions that populated the ancient world are now lost. Today I want to explore just a bit of this ephemeral epigraphic landscape, and hopefully clarify some points about interpreting ancient sources.

Relief of Septimia Stratonice, a shoemaker, from Ostia. Picture via Ann Raia.
Relief of Septimia Stratonice, a shoemaker, from Ostia. Picture via Ann Raia.

Born around 150 CE, Clement of Alexandria is a particularly interesting early Christian writer. He taught at the catechetical school in Alexandria, where he taught both large and small classes. Alexandria was a large city with around 750,000 inhabitants at this time. As such, Clement had the chance to observe a great deal of daily life and culture, even if he did not partake in many of the sensual pleasures of the city. The Paedagogus was written by Clement in order to instruct Christians on an ethical lifestyle, and the work incorporates a number of the things Clement saw on the streets. In one portion, he notes that women put erotic scenes on the bottom of their sandals, so as to imprint obscene suggestions as they walked along (2.11.116).


Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus, 2.11 (PG 537-538. Thanks to Roger Pearse as always for posting the PG Volumes).
Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus, 2.11 (PG 8: 537-538. Thanks to Roger Pearse as always for posting the PG Volumes).

A number of secondary works have mistranslated and indeed misrepresented poor Clement (e.g. Younger, Sex in the Ancient World from A-Z, 172) as saying that there were inscriptions on the bottom of these sandals, but that is not actually what the Greek says. In actuality, the evidence for inscriptions that usually read ‘ΑΚΟΛΟΥΤΗ[Ε]Ι’ (‘Follow me’) on the bottom of these sandals is largely material. There is a ceramic-vessel shaped like a shoe from the Louvre (drawing) and a surviving lamp exemplum from Mainz.

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The first thing is: this shoe does not also say: “Hey, I was worn by a prostitute!” We must simply assume. Something else that usually bothers me about this reference is that scholars tend to refer to those that wore these sandals as female, when in reality, it should be kept in mind that both men and women were prostitutes in antiquity, and thus both women and men would (I would argue) want to advertise their services via epigraphic footwear. I’d argue that it would be good for a pimp to wear these sandals as well. Frustratingly, most depictions of prostitutes have them naked and without shoes, since vase scenes and frescoes (e.g. from Pompeii) depict courtesans in the act–and, I mean, most people would take their shoes off while having sex. Greco-Romans: Just like us! There is a vase from the Louvre depicting a courtesan putting on sandals, however.

Roman hobnail footprint from the Museum of London.
Roman hobnail footprint from the Museum of London.

Now that I have asked you to follow me (okay, kind of a stretch) using an enticing blog title, I want to explore something a little less sexy: associations of shoemakers. Prostitutes would have had to have worked with such shoemakers in order to make their supposedly-specialized shoes, and we know that there were special trimmings just worn by these men and women of the night. Female courtesans could wear saffron dyed sandals or put gems on them, and thus a relationship with a fine cobbler would have been essential. Luckily, we have a number of inscriptions and reliefs to tell us a bit about these male and female professionals.

Silver Ring Dedicated by Rusticus [c.100 CE]   (Valkhof Museum).

D(ono) D(edit) D(edicavit)

As a gift to Salus. Rusticus gave and dedicated this gift
to the shoemakers of the Noviomagus  from the group
of Esseravus.

In 1993, a silver ring was found in Noviomagus indicating the existence of sutures or shoemakers in the town. Line five contains a backward C, which I am given to read as indicating some kind of voluntary association–a collegium, perhaps. In any case, the inscription (along with many others) provides evidence for the existence of shoemakers in the Roman provinces. There were in fact many kinds of shoemakers to choose from in antiquity, and each often had a specialty. We often thinks of stonecutters or mosaicists as the ones inscribing things in antiquity, but this blog post has at least attempted to explore the possibility of inscriptions left by footwear and then to celebrate (all too modestly) the cobblers that must have tailored these shoes for their courtesan clients.

Saint Remi Museum of Reims (Champagne-Ardenne, France). Image via WIkimedia.
Saint Remi Museum of Reims (Champagne-Ardenne, France). Image via WIkimedia.

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