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.


An Interesting Experiment

30 July 2010

The High Alps

Not content with dressing like Roman legionaries, giving shows, and explaining things to the visitors – one of the most efficient ways to bring the results of scholarship to a great number of people – a group of Austrian and German reenactors has started to reconstruct a Roman road in the High Alps, on the original foundations, with original tools and methods. Of course it is nothing but a splendid piece of antiquarianism. The real questions we have, are different, and will not be answered by this experiment. But splendid it is.

Photos here. Watch them, if only for the beautiful landscape of the Mallnitzer Tauernpass.

Roman Festival Nijmegen

20 June 2010

A Roman cavalryman

Few sites are as suited for a Roman festival as the Kops Plateau in Nijmegen, one of the oldest Roman military settlements in the Low Countries, and almost certainly the headquarters of the legions that Augustus sent out to conquer the east bank of the Rhine. Drusus must have been here, perhaps Tiberius too. The site was later used by a mounted unit of auxiliaries, and may have hosted Caligula and Corbulo.

This weekend saw the third installment of the “Romeinenfestival”. There were shows by several Roman reenactment groups (from Holland Fectio, Corbulo, and X Gemina; from Belgium XI Claudia and the Corpus Equitum Legionis X Equestris; from Germany XV Primigenia and Time Trotter; from Britain the Roman Military Research Society, and from Hungary the Familia Gladiatoria). Elsewhere, you could buy books and objects. My friend Richard, who accompanied me, was more interested in pottery and returned home with a replica of a Drachendorff 37 bowl. I bought some books and a lead defixio; I still have to think of a person I want to curse, write down the name, bury it with a dead cat, and we’ll see what happens.

It was possible to eat Roman-style food, and various archaeological companies explained their activities. Children could take part in an excavation, and on one part of the Kops Plateau, the archaeology of the Prehistory and the Middle Ages was explained. It was interesting to compare the products of the various smiths on the field. The object I found most interesting was a big fifteenth-century gun: a careful replica of an original found in the Meuse. The Roman coach was also worth seeing.

Among the shows were the usual military exercises, which are always impressive. We watched a gladiatorial contest and a reconstruction of a Roman cremation. Had we been there on Saturday, we might have seen a reconstruction of the Mithraic mysteries – plus the soccer match Holland-Japan, because there are more important things than ancient history and archaeology.

One of the most interesting things was the place where people could show old objects they had found in their backyard – usually recent stuff, but who knows what they may have discovered. Maybe a dead cat with a lead defixio.


Meanwhile at LacusCurtius: chous.