When we think of ancient Rome, it's always the sandal that springs to mind; and as it happens, that Roman footwear look is oh-so-hot this summer: here's Rihanna, flavour of the month Cara and hit-and-miss Anna Hathaway showing they have their finger on the pulse. Tory Burch does a neat line this season, as do Gucci, Balenciaga and, um, Old Navy. Gwyneth Paltrow, of course, has long been a devotee: here she is back in 2008.
This would have been music to the ears of the fashionistas seventeen centuries ago: although we always think previous generations were less interested in what they wore than we are today, the stone tablet tells us just how seriously the Romans took their style. So forget the idea of the dull leather never-changing sandal and say hello to consumers who were just as fashion conscious as we are today.
It's a little hard to make out the text from the image, but it describes no less than 26 different type of shoe/boot/footwear. They include boots with spikes (for mule-driving, rather than something more risqué), soldiers' boots, and many different kinds of day-t0-day footwear for both men and women.
But there are also a lot of shoes and sandals that were designed by those with their finger on the pulse - and not just of the Roman fashion scene. Gilded shoes for special occasions and for the (super) rich were a hit in the c.300 AD season, as were women's boots in styles from the province of Gaul (modern France). The French were famous nearly two thousand years ago for their shoe design - plus ça change !
But what is also striking is that fashion tips and influences came from much further away too. Low cut boots, in purple, from Phoenicia (basically, the Middle East) were coveted, as were both purple and white shoes inspired by the metropolis of Babylon, which must have been though of as really racy: these were styles lifted from Rome's arch enemy, Persia. Wearing them must have been exotic, provocative and dangerous. The peers of the conservative matrons who have heart-attacks over what Rihanna wears today would have been gasping on their olives then too.
And men were equally vigilant about what they wore on their feet. Judge a man by his shoes was never truer than in the Roman Empire. In fact, the tablet reveals that you would know a man's status just by looking down: there were patrician's shoes (very posh); senators' shoes (doing quite nicely, thank you very much); and shoes for members of the equestrian class (ancient yuppies); and many more besides.
So what made this tablet go up in the first place, I hear you ask ?
Well, something that again would ring a modern day bell.
Around 300 AD, Rome had been teetering on a very similar fiscal cliff to the one that we've been hanging on to these last few years. The solution: raise taxes and cut costs (and in Rome's case, crucify a truck-load of Christians, but that's a different story). This tablet was one of hundreds that were set up throughout the empire to announce new taxes. And the fashion and footwear industries were hit hard. Although these listings tell us about tastes, they also tell us about how a government acts when it tries to balance its books.
The target of these edict, issued in the name of the Emperor Diocletian, were retailers, merchants and consumers. Money had to come from somewhere, and then, like now, bean-counters tend to figure that luxuries were a neat target because that's just what they are - a luxury.
There's much talk right now about hitting the retailers all over again, though this time, we don't need stone tablets to communicate the news but do it online. And those online retailers who have made fashion travel quicker than before (though not, it turns out, further), are ripe for being hit with a raft of new taxes. Hitting online sellers (and of course, therefore, buyers) would not surprise a historian. And nor would the fact that it really didn't work: all that carving, all those tablets and all that financial planning - turned out to be unmanageable and deeply unpopular. Plus ça change !