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.


Die römische Armee im Experiment

4 March 2012

[Fourth part of a series of articles; 1, 2, 3; this is a review/summary of Christian Koepfer, Florian Himmler and Josef Löffl (eds.), Die römische Armee im Experiment. 2011]

In the introduction and two first chapters, Christian Koepfer and Sebastian Bernhard describe the project: an attempt to reconstruct the equipment of the Roman soldiers of the age of Augustus. The objects found at Augsburg, Haltern, Dangstetten, Anreppen, and Kalkriese offer a wealth of information. Using the reconstructed equipment, the members of this project group, called Legio XIII Gemina, did several experiments, like building a road in a mountain area (six men could build about twenty meters of road in two days) and a fourteen-day march.

During these experiments, Legio XIII Gemina collaborated with locals schools and a Bavarian broadcasting organization, but the results can be applied by anyone involved in Roman re-enactment. One chapter in the book, by André Niebler, deals with the didactic methods, and explains how the participants interacted with their audience. A similar article, by Florian Himmler, compares the project with an earlier project, and explains how previous errors were now prevented.

Incendiary arrow

After this, the books contains twenty-one chapters on the various aspects of the soldiers’ equipment, tactics, and strategy. In the first of these, Robert Wimmers describes some finds from Augsburg-Oberhausen from a blacksmith’s point of view. I had not expected that I would ever read an article with interest about forging handcuffs, knives, or an “object of unknown purpose”. Florian Dörschel shows in his article that one of Wimmers’ objects may have served as an incendiary arrowhead.

A soldier with shield, spear, and sword

The next weapon to be dealt with is the spear. Mischa Grab vindicates Plutarch, who describes how Marius invented a pilum with a wooden peg that would break upon impact, making it impossible to throw back the missile (Marius 25). The truth of this statement has recently been challenged, but Grab suggests that Plutarch may be right after all.

Building a catapult

Dominik Molnar’s checked Vitruvius’ description of a catapult; he concludes that it is useful as a do-it-yourself guide, but that one needs to have practical experience to understand the tensions within the machine. There must have been a mouth-to-mouth tradition in the Roman army about the finer details.

Moving from weapons to armour, Andreas Raab checked the types of leather that might have been used in a lorica segmentata, and concludes that chamois leather was best.

Three shields

Christian Koepfer, Matthias Bofinger, and Johann Schmalhofer conducted some interesting experiments with shields. In his account of the battle in the Teutoburg Forest, Cassius Dio says that the shields of the legionaries beame useless because it was raining (Roman History, 56.21.3), but the experiment proved that. although the weight of the shields did indeed vary with the air humidity, this change was not enough to make them unusable or even difficult to use. Nor did the shape become unstable. This again proves that Dio’s account of the battle in the Teutoburg Forest is not as reliable as it seems.

The focale is the subject of the article by Josef Löffl. He suggests that on rainy days, it protected a lorica segmentata’s inside against rain, and on hot days, it protected the carrier against the heat of the metal.

The nails of a sandal

In his article about military boots, Florian Himmler arrives upon a very curious conclusion: a legion that was marching for about a month, lost about half a million sandal nails. I was very surprised, but it is interesting to know that the march route of the soldiers to the Harzhorn battlefield can be reconstructed from the lost shoenails.

Turning to the soldiers’ food, Philip Egetenmeier argues that an average legionary or auxiliary soldier might lose some weight during a march. I would have liked to know more, and fortunately, the author seems to be looking forward to further research.


The usefulness of water buckets is the subject of Marcel Giloj’s contribution, which had more to offer than I had expected. They were really designed to be very practical, for example to be filled very quickly. Water bags, on the other hand, might leak easily, as Reinhard Nieβner shows; again, information about how to make objects, must have been rendered orally from one craftsman to another, and things are not as easy as they seem.

At the end of the book are several chapters about subjects that are not directly related to the experiments. One of these is an attempt to reconstruct what a German warrior might have looked like in the early third century. He was better armed and protected than I had expected. Ross Cowan deals with fourth-century battle tactics, proving that the army was still excellent, but that its strength was wasted by too many civil wars.

The participants

Markus Handy deals with the strategic roles of XIII Gemina (the historical unit) and XV Apollinaris in Pannonia in the second half of the first century. It seems that the Fifteenth was more often involved in actual fighting than the Thirteenth. This cannot be an optical illusion, caused by the incompleteness of our evidence, because the commanders of the Fifteenth were selected on military experience. Meike Weber offers a similar account of strategy and space, showing that long before the distinction between limitanei and comitatenses was created, there was already a mobile reserve in the hinterland.

All in all, this was delightful to read. Given the nature and scale of the Legio XIII Gemina Project, it is inevitable that Die römische Armee im Experiment does not deal with all aspects of the Roman army, but one theme was almost conspicuous by absence: the way the Romans dealt with information. How to make a perfect water bag or a catapult, the function of certain objects, how to carry a shield and where to march – all this must have belonged to an oral tradition. This book is essentially an attempt to recover the lost stories that belong to the objects, and left me wondering how information spread from Britain to Pannonia to Syria.

Final note: that perennial insult to Anglo-Saxon scholars, the English summary of a text they understand perfectly well, is mercifully absent.

Christian Koepfer, Florian Himmler and Josef Löffl (eds.), Die römische Armee im Experiment. 2011 Frank & Timme; 978-3-86596-365-9; €24,80

Photos on this page taken from the Facebook page of Legio XIII Gemina.

Bridging the gap

4 March 2012

On more than one occasion, I have indicated how the study of Antiquity is its own reward (example, example). What it offers, is essentially a sensation: a surprise, the experience that this text or that battle changed your own life, the sense that you’ve made contact with someone in a distant past, the Aha-Erlebnis of realizing how things actually were.

This is of course a personal experience, but that doesn’t mean that academic study is useless. It’s nice to know that your experience of the past is based on correct facts, and besides: the study of Antiquity has offered us much of great value.

As researchers, ancient historians, classicists, and archaeologists have little to be ashamed of. Their work is highly relevant and offers much pleasure. Still, they exclude the man in the street. As I already indicated, books for the larger audience are often of very poor quality and have little to offer to those who are most interested.

This is why I am happy to review Die römische Armee im Experiment by Christian Koepfer, Florian Himmler and Josef Löffl, which was published in 2011. Admittedly, the study of Roman army equipment is not of the greatest importance, but the contributors manage to combine the professional standards of the university with the enthusiasm for the past found among re-enactors. They show that is possible to share the excitement of research with those who are really interested. Experimental archaeology is better-suited for this purpose than other subdisciplines, but this book is a clear sign to any scholar that it is possible to keep the larger audience within scope.

[to be continued]