Proud reenactors

13 February 2013

Untitled-5Every two years, the Roman Festival is celebrated in Nijmegen, a city in the Netherlands that was founded, more than two thousand years ago, by the Romans. Attracting thousands of visitors, the festival is the country’s main Roman event, and it takes place on one of the country’s main Roman sites: the Kops Plateau, once the headquarters of the army of Drusus. The visitors can see ancient trades, buy the latest journals and books, have a Roman snack, or listen to lectures offered by historians, classicists, and archaeologists.

But the reenactors are responsible for most fun. A first, too simple definition of a reenactor is that he is a volunteer, dressed in a historical costume, who explains how things used to be in the past. In Nijmegen, reenactors stage wedding and funeral ceremonies, but you can also see fighting gladiators and exercising soldiers.

Romans. Clothing from the Roman era in North-West Europe by photographer Stef Verstraaten contains more than 180 portraits of those modern Romans. You can see a potter, and when you turn the page, you face a mother with two children. A general just stood up from his chair, a surgeon with a bloody tunic stands next to a musician. You can see cavalrymen, a fortune-teller, a standard-bearer, a female slave and a priest. Two soldiers look at you from behind their catapult. One photo shows a beautifully dressed woman, and another photo shows her hairdo.

1Look at the details, like a soldier’s mantle, and you can see with how much care these clothes have been made. The chair of the Roman general is the reconstruction of a find from Nijmegen, the woman’s hairdo is from Palmyra, and the strange staff of the seer is a lituus from Kalkriese. As a reenactor, you don’t want to be seen in a costume that’s not perfect.

That reenactors aim for perfection is, of course, a good thing. However, debates about the perfect reconstruction can be very intense. Fortunately, most reenactors can laugh about it: the discussion about the colors of the uniform of Roman soldiers is mockingly called “the tunic war”. Sometimes, however, the debates get out of control and reenactment groups fall apart. It is the down side of a sincere passion.

The passion for accuracy is the reason why the definition offered above is too simple. Several reenactors do serious research and there is no clear distinction between reenactment and experimental archaeology. The book I reviewed before, Die römische Armee im Experiment by Koepfer, Himmler, and Löffl, illustrates some of the results of a project by the University of Augsburg.

2To be honest, scientists have conducted experiments of greater importance. It is not extremely important that, when there is 10 mm of rain, a Roman shield becomes only 500 grams heavier. Granted, a very famous description of soldiers being unable to fight in the rain because their shields were soaked, must be an invention by the author. And granted, this forces us to reconsider his account of a very famous battle. But the world will not really change by this new interpretation. The importance of reenactors for scholarship and science is, therefore, not terribly great, while their importance for the transfer of knowledge can hardly be overestimated.

But the question why reenactment is important, is in fact the wrong one. We don’t ask about the importance of a visit to a forest or a concert either. No one will contest your right to enjoy some lovely trees or nice music. And so it is with experiencing the past: it is nice, there is nothing wrong with that, and reenactors are specialists in helping people enjoy the past.

Romans. Clothing from the Roman era in North-West Europe shows what, nowadays, we think the inhabitants of northern Gaul, Britain, and the Germanic provinces must have looked like. But there’s more to enjoy. Verstraaten’s book also shows the proud faces of people who know that they can make their audience happy by sharing their love for the past. Reenactors are privileged people.


II Adiutrix’ base in Nijmegen found

16 February 2011

Detail of the Peutinger Map: Noviomagus

In 19 BC, the Romans founded a legionary base on the Hunerberg, east of Batavodorum (modern Nijmegen, Netherlands), the capital of the Batavians. Even when the legions were transferred and the soldiers’ expenditure disappeared as a source of income, this civil settlement continued to flourish.

As is well known, the Batavians revolted during the Year of the Four Emperors. Tacitus writes that when the Roman general Cerialis arrived to restore order in 70, the rebels set fire to Batavodurum (Histories 5.19). The Roman historian also says that the site was occupied by the Second Legion Adiutrix (5.20). Archaeologists had already established that the civil settlement, Noviomagus, was rebuilt a bit more to the west.

Recently, Dutch archaeologist Harry van Enckevort has identified the remains of a praetorium and a ditch of a hitherto unknown fortress. The absence of objects from the Flavian period suggests that it was built immediately after the revolt had been suppressed, which can only mean that its inhabitants were soldiers of II Adiutrix. Built on the ash layer of Batavodurum, the fortress controlled a new civil settlement.

The stone foundations of the praetorium prove that II Adiutrix was supposed to stay in Nijmegen. Eventually, however, it followed Cerialis to Britain and was replaced by X Gemina, which reoccupied the Hunerberg.

[Also published in Ancient Warfare; thanks to Harry van Enckevort]


Seventeen pages on Roman Nijmegen

25 December 2008
Nijmegen on the Peutinger Map.

Nijmegen on the Peutinger Map.

Nijmegen was not the largest or most important city north of the Alps, and because there is a major city on top of it (Nijmegen is Holland’s tenth city), excavating it is a pretty complex and frustratingly slow process. Still, the cluster of six settlements is one of the most fascinating archaeological projects I know, and fortunately, the Valkhof Museum is up to its task in explaining it to the larger audience.

Milestone along the road to Xanten.

Milestone along the road to Xanten.

Briefly summarized, the Romans arrived in 19 BCE, and founded a military base that was called Hunerberg; next to it were the HQs of the army of the Rhine, which have been identified on the Kops Plateau. To the west was the town where romanized Batavians lived: Batavodurum. In its center was a monument, dedicated to Tiberius. As long as Rome tried to conquer the land east of the Rhine, this was the situation. Later, the Hunerberg was abandoned, and when the limes was created, the Kops Plateau was converted into a cavalry camp.

In 69, the Batavians revolted (one of the subjects of TacitusHistories), and although they achieved some remarkable successes, Rome returned. The Hunerberg became a legionary base again: X Gemina stayed there for about thirty years, and was later replaced by troops from Britain (including a part of VIIII Hispana), and a subunit of XXX Ulpia Victrix. It was a luxurious base, with an aqueduct that was identified only recently.

A glass vase; Valkhof Museum.

A glass vase; Valkhof Museum.

The civil settlement Batavodurum had been destroyed during the Batavian Revolt, and a new city was built in the west, called Noviomagus. There was a bridge across the river Waal, two or three temples have been identified, the baths, the walls, and several splendid tombs.There were important satellite settlements, like the pottery at De Holdeurn, the Batavian sanctuary at Elst, and the bridge at Cuijk, which was vital for reaching Nijmegen.

In the fourth century, the situation had changed. The garrison was now concentrated on the Valkhof hill, and the civil settlement was along the river. It was still called Noviomagus, which became “Niomagus” after the Frankish take-over. The Valkhof remained an important castle, which was used by important rulers like Charlemagne and Frederick Barbarossa.

The Waal and its bridge.

The Waal and its bridge.

The castle was demolished in the eighteenth century, but if you go there, you can still see why this could become a city of some significance: you have a splendid view on the bridge that was so important a target for the Allies during the Second World War. Nijmegen will always be the place of one of the most important river crossings in the Low Countries.

I devoted seventeen pages to ancient Nijmegen, with some ninety photos. And if you prefer to read only about the history, this is your starting page. Enjoy!

[Update: page #18: three maps.]


Roman Festival, Nijmegen

23 August 2008

Nijmegen is not only the oldest Roman city of the Netherlands, it also boasts the Kops Plateau, an archaeological site that has been called “the Night Watch of Dutch Archaeology”. The comparison to the most famous painting ever made by a Dutchman is a bit exaggerated -Dorestad did more to change our perception of the first millennium- but it’s only a minor exaggeration: the Kops Plateau is one of the most important Roman settlements north of the Alps. It’s the only place that has been identified as the HQs of an entire Roman army – not just a legion, but four of them, with their auxiliaries and allies. This is the place from which Drusus and Tiberius led the invasion of the country east of the Rhine.

On Saturday 23 and Sunday 24 August, this historical site is the scene of a great festival, in which all kinds of Roman activities are displayed. We witnessed a gladiatoral contest, a potter making ceramics, and an impressive demonstration of a Roman catapult. We also had some Roman food, and met the author of a recent book on ancient Nijmegen (Paul van der Heijden, Romeins Nijmegen), who gave us his autograph.

I cannot deny that I found the soldiers the most interesting part. The most spectacular activity was the reconstruction of a part of the original wall of the base, with replicas of the original tools, which have been excavated at the Kopse Hof. As I wrote a book on ancient warfare, I think I know something about legionaries, and I was impressed by the reenactors’ accuracy and love for detail. Several professional ancient historians might learn a thing or two about that (example).

Among the people demonstrating ancient crafts and armies were gladiators from Hungary, soldiers and citizens from several groups from Belgium and Holland (Corbvlo, XI Claudia, Chariovalda, Noviolocus), and legionaries, a writing tablet maker and cooks from Germany (Römercohorte Opladen). I am pretty sure I heard several reenactors speaking English, but I was unable to find out to which group they belonged. The men of X Gemina were at home: the historical legion with that name was stationed in Nijmegen (here‘s a little movie they made). It struck me that only twenty years ago, an international line-up like this would have been impossible, so perhaps the most impressive thing of the festival is that it’s a display of the successful European unification.

So, it was an exciting afternoon. I had prepared very well, even recharging the batteries of my camera. Being Jona Lendering, this of course meant that when I arrived, I discovered that -ahem- I had forgotten to put the batteries in the camera again. The photos I add to this article were made by my friend Jan Pieter van de Giessen, whom I would have met at the Kops Plateau if my travel companion Marco could have left a bit earlier. However, he had to go to a specialized dress shop first to buy his fiancée’s bridal gown. Of course that’s more important – though he might have considered taking part in the grand finale of today’s part of the festival: the Roman marriage ceremony.


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