August 22, 2017

Shod to Stand (The Armor, part 4)

Men the world over all want to ask one very serious question: why do women need so many shoes? I own exactly seven pairs of shoes. One pair of Nike Air Monarchs, two pairs of dress shoes (one black, one brown), two pairs of work boots, and two pairs of house slippers (one of which is a pair of overstuffed moose-head novelty slippers – VERY cozy!). My wife, on the other hand, has a mind-boggling array of shoes of various styles and colors. But I must say I thank the Lord that she doesn’t have a monstrous shoe collection like the legendary (infamous?) collection which once belonged to Imelda Marcos!

I believe strongly that a shoe should be functional, and that aesthetics are a secondary concern (oh yes, I’m a walking fashion disaster, I know!). It would seem that the first century Roman military shared my view that the value of footwear must be measured primarily by its performance, though one must admit that Roman footwear was indeed quite fetching…

To the modern eye, the “boots” worn by Roman soldiers during most of the first century resemble sandals more than modern combat boots. But as the saying goes, appearances can be deceiving. Truth be told, these ancient Roman military boots (caligae) are superior to modern boots in some surprising ways, and were actually instrumental in spreading the rule of the Roman Empire.

Caligae are made entirely from leather and are secured to the foot by a network of straps which actually form the body of the “boot.” This design results in an open framework which is not sealed against water or dust like modern boots would be. Fully enclosed footwear was by no means unknown to the Romans, so one theory for the use of this kind of open design stems from economics: it takes far less leather to produce the combat “sandal” than a full-fledged boot. Thus, caligae would be far more affordable than closed-design boots.

However, there is another theory which may reveal a true stroke of genius on the behalf of the Roman military, and which turns what may at first glance appear to be a design flaw into an indispensable benefit to an army of foot-soldiers. One of the most serious problems associated with fully enclosed leather combat boots is trench foot, a condition where the flesh of the foot begins to die and decay as a result of prolonged exposure to moisture trapped within the boot. Trench foot sets in as the capillaries within the waterlogged flesh become damaged and burst. It can begin in as little as 13 hours, resulting in open sores, fungal infections, gangrene (which may require amputation) and even death. As one might imagine, a solider afflicted with trench foot would quickly become unable to fight, march, or even stand. The open design of the Roman caligae promotes quick drainage of water from the feet and allows air to freely circulate, resulting in rapid drying. Feet stay dry and healthy, and the army marches on.

There are other benefits arising from the sandal-like design, as well. Because they are formed by strips of leather which must be tied individually, caligae are fully adjustable. Firmly securing the sandal to the foot provides a more comfortable fit and prevents the rubbing of blisters (a common problem with enclosed boots), which are not only painful but can possibly lead to infections. Loose-fitting boots lead to other challenges as well, such as poor balance and decreased mobility, both of which create difficulty when attempting to run or change direction quickly in hand-to-hand combat situations. Properly fitting boots eliminate such problems.

The soles of caligae are truly remarkable pieces of technology which rival modern athletic cleats with their ability to grip the ground. A look at the underbelly of the Roman combat sandal reveals an array of studs (hobnails) which provide greatly increased traction on a variety of ground types. It is thought that all soldiers in the field would use such studded footwear, while only those stationed within cities with paved streets and walkways would employ non-studded caligae.  Whether on the march or in combat, these studs (clavi caligarii) provided superior traction. While good traction is important even on flat ground, traveling across hillsides or steep slopes (especially during combat situations) makes reliable and stable footing all the more vital.

All of these features make the caliga an impressive and effective tool for the Roman legions, allowing the soldiers to maintain solid footing. It is interesting that Paul introduces the Armor of God as a way for believers to “stand firm.”

From Ephesians 6 (ESV)
11 “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.” 
13 “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.
14 “Stand therefore…”

The goal of Paul’s writing here was to help believers stand their ground in the face of opposition. But how does that work? How do we put on the caligae, spiritually speaking?

We must always begin with the realization and admission of our own inability to successfully overcome life’s obstacles on our own. This is not a sign of weakness, as some would have us believe. Quite to the contrary, we understand that our Lord is the source of all our strength. It is indeed His strength in which we stand…

“Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”

“For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him.”

“…for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

“The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.”
~Psalm 9:9 (ESV)

“Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’”
~Psalm 126:2 (ESV)

“In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence…”

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.”

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