Every 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.
Look 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.
To 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.
- Stef Verstraaten, Romans. Clothing from the Roman era in North-West Europe (Vantilt|fragma, Nijmegen; 97-90-814500-4-1)
- Christian Koepfer e.a., Die römische Armee im Experiment (Frank & Timme, Berlijn; 978-3-86596-365-9)