What’s the link between Late Roman History, Reenactment and Public History?

Author: Andrea Oldani, Italian Association of Public History: “PopHistory.

The UNESCO’s Archaeological Site of Castelseprio, near Varese in the north of Italy, hosted the 4th edition of Sibrium Langobardoum from the 28th to the 30th of June. This historical reenactment, set between the VI and the VII century A.D., aims to recreate the everyday life of Lombardian (Invicti Lupi) and Byzantine (Numerus Italorum) societies. These two populations lived at the site of Castelseprio and left behind many traces and ruins of their passage. However, the aim of the organizers is bigger: involve the visitors in the process of learning history by doing. In fact, they had the unique chance to witness how these two populations used to live, dress, eat, work metals and leather, and fight. The reenactors organized a parade that took place in the early afternoon: a group of three or four people moved to the front and showed themselves to the visitors while a speaker started to explain which society was portrayed (Franks, Goths, Alamans, Lombards, Byzantines) and the time period (for example, there were differences between how the Lombards used to live before and after contact with Roman culture). Furthermore, the speaker explained the different objects, items, weapons and dresses that were presented and how they were actually recreated. 

Here, I saw the will to go beyond simple historical divulgation because the speaker was explaining the archaeological source – name and location of every barbaric tomb/necropolis in Italy or Europe – that was used by the reenactors’ association to recreate those samples of material culture. This is extremely important for a time period, like the Late Roman Empire, marked by the lack of written sources that can, however, be uncovered by archaeological and iconographic sources. 

The parade was the chance to show the exchange of influences between the Romans and the Barbarians from the fashion, social and military point of view. It’s rather significant to remember that such exchange took place from the II century A.D., although the IV-V centuries’ migrations accentuated it and increased its impact throughout the entire Roman Empire.

Members of the Association Numerus Italorum showing the changes occurred in the Late Roman Army.

At the end of the afternoon, Lombardian warriors and Roman legionaries fought against each other in a single duel or in teams. At the end of the day, as a Public Historian, I asked myself: can we consider reenactments as a practice of Public History?

Historical reenactments are cultural products that address a wide and vast audience that is not fully satisfied by a historical book or documentary, and seeks an immersive experience. Historical Associations are the linchpin that links “gamefication” and didactics of history. It is up to them, alongside the organizers, to decide whether history is being used as a background setting that stimulates common imaginary, and stereotypes, or to use different ways of storytelling to combine historical and academic accuracy with public divulgation. 

I believe that the necessity to mediate between academic knowledge, and it’s instruments of diffusion, and public knowledge, opens the doors to Public History. Public Historians can work with these events in order to create a first layer of information, leaving all the practical explanations to the reenactors in order to create a second layer. The first layer can be, in theory, made up with videos, audios and information panels offering the historical background and the local setting of the reenactment event. A possible implementation for the future can be an information center edited by public historians, considering, of course, the economic means of the event.

Public Historians, according to their knowledge and skills, may also help the associations to focus on and research new and unknown topics, like the music and the art of the Late Roman Empire society, and show them to the public. Furthermore, another way to allow the public to interact – or learn by doing – with history could be historical workshops. At Subrium Langobardorum, there were workshops showing people how our ancestors used to coin, to forge and to work the leather or animal skins. Another possible new implementation could be a Latin paleography workshop, to teach audiences the evolution of handwriting and bookmaking, and a language workshop, to teach, for example, the influence of Germanic languages over modern day European ones.

In future, I really hope to see more historical reenactments organized with the same historical accuracy and attention to historical divulgation I’ve seen in Sibrium Langobardorum.

The Lombardian camp in Castel Seprio.

Andrea Oldani has a degree in Medieval History from Università degli Studi di Milano and attended a II level Master in Public History at Università degli Studi di Modena e Reggio Emilia. Recently has joined the Italian Association of Public History “PopHistory“. His fields of research are Italian Medieval History (XIV century), Latin paleography, modern day medievalism and  local history of Northern Italy.

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