Running in the Roman Empire

So I’ve been running in my Vibrams for a while now. I love them. I adore them. I wear them every chance I get, and I’m continually surprised with what a wonderful conversation starter they are. People stare sometimes, but they smile, too, and before you know it you’re laughing with a perfect stranger. One thing I’ve noticed, however, is how many people simply cannot believe that my feet, legs, and spine would be perfectly comfortable wearing what amounts to no more than a protective skin on my feet. Vibram Five Fingers Shoes are wonderful precisely because they are so thin and flexible, so you can enjoy a natural, light stride even in the city when you need to protect bare feet from hard terrain.

The thing is, throughout most of history men and women went barefoot. The annals of great literature generally don’t mention people’s aching feet, so I can’t help but assume it wasn’t much of a problem. People ran down their prey on foot, women did all kinds of back breaking labor around the home unshod. Finally, and perhaps most applicably, thousands of ancient men crossed entire continents on their bare feet, and were still in good enough shape that they could fight when they arrived at their destination. I’m specifically talking about Roman soldiers.

These guys were hardly coddled, and they didn’t want to be. In fact, they’d be insulted if they were fed a diet of anything other than plain wheat, which they knew as frumentum. Wheat was thought to be good and pure, and the only nourishment fit for Roman soldiers. It symbolized to them how different they were than Barbarian hordes, who would devour meat and guzzle alcohol even before battle. Roman soldiers strove to be ice-cold and calculating in everything they did, like machines. They resented any kind of perceived pampering.

Needless to say, tromping thousands of miles over ice, rock, and jagged land would not have been mentioned. In fact, before a Roman soldier had even begun his tenure, he had a long barefoot journey ahead of him. Once he’d taken his oath to join the army, he had to go back home to prepare to leave. This would have been on foot. Afterwards he had to journey once again, by himself or perhaps with a few neighbors, all the way to the actual war. Often soldiers would gather again at a port so they could leave from there to do battle.

Roman soldiers kept themselves sequestered from the towns. They stayed in military camps–again, this served to separate them from the Barbarians, who would flop down where-ever they were and sleep on the naked ground–presumably the soldiers would have practiced all sorts of war games and races to entertain themselves during their journey. Again, this would all have been on rations of wheat and done entirely on bare feet.

When the soldiers arrived at their destination they would have immediately thrown themselves into battle, carrying heavy armor through battle fields which were no doubt littered with bones and sharp metal. Certainly some people’s feet would have been injured, but after traveling barefoot for so long through so much different country, the soldiers would have developed very touch callouses. Their feet and legs would have been much stronger and more powerful for the extra training. After all, Romans were one of the greatest powers of the ancient world. Their men had to have been some of the greatest warriors that ever lived.

Fast forward to present day. We live our lives scooting back and forth from car to office, office to car, car to grocery, etc. We exercise several times a day for a total of only hours a week–and we fret about damaging our feet and legs by subjecting them to vigorous pounding in expensive, cushioned shoes. We fret with good reason, of course, because we’re always getting sports injuries. The vast majority of Roman soldiers must have been uninjured for them to win so many battles. This is what makes me think there must be something to going barefoot, or very nearly so, by wearing Vibrams or any other barefoot shoes. Our bodies are perfectly capable of going very long distances, and they know what to do, if we’d only let them. When we wear cushioned shoes or shoes with heels, we throw off the delicate alignment of our spine and legs; we overstrain ourselves. I think it’s high time we put some faith in Mother Nature again. If we can’t exactly kick off our shoes, at least we can wear ones which simulate a natural stride, and reduce injury and strain.

Article by Thomas




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