What once began as a dream became a reality. What was a reality once again became a dream, but this time, of a different sort. It was a living, beautiful dream but one I could not live in forever and so like a dream it was fleeting while the feeling of reality remained.
After my weekend in Spello I had thought that my time with the gladiators was over. It had been like living in a movie and to every start there is an end. However, as I was to find out, the end had not yet come. It was only a few days after my return to Rome I was extended an invitation to again join the group for the weekend, because, really, I was told, I couldn’t return to Canada without actually being a Roman! I liked this logic and they had the means to dress me up and let me join their exhibition for the weekend. I guess I didn’t insult them too heavily with the revelation that I ate peanut butter in Italy!
It was with great expectation of what was to come and joy at meeting again some of my “old” friends that I headed out for another adventure. This time we were going to Cassino, a town about 2 hours south of Rome famous for the very terrible series of battles which happened there in World War II. The Germans had encamped themselves in the mountains of Cassino which was the way the Allies needed to take to get to Rome. It was a very costly campaign for the Allies, for the city, and for the monastery of Cassino. Today the city still stands and once again, in spite of the heavy bombing which happened there, the mountains of Italy were astounding. They did not have the same glory as the area of Spello but they were still beautiful just the same.
This trip was going to be more typical of what this group of re-enactors do. We were going to be about 25 in number, gladiators, legionaries, normal citizens of Rome and were joining up with the Legio XIV and then on Sunday some Praetorians. Think of it as something akin to an exhibition or fair. But I will get into that more as the chronology of the story progresses.
After getting picked up at the metro just as last time it was back to the storage building where a small army awaited the arrival of the van to pack it full of everything from shields and helmets to tents, war machines and tables. Did you know that the camp of the Legio X fits into the back of a van? One of those mysterious, unmarked white vans mind you but still, this helps to answer the question: what are in those things?! Kidnapped victims and nuclear bombs we already know, but now Roman Camp can be added to that list. Mario from last weekend was there with his wonderful family of whom I had the privilege of meeting and it kind of felt like making a surprise visit to friends: surprise then hugs. And then, just like before I was welcomed right into this family of reenactors but this time with an expectation for me: I spoke English. And there were many people who wanted to practice their English. But I needed to practice Italian! We compromised.
Upon arrival at Cassino, it all went quite as one would expect. Unpack the van, make camp, grab some lunch provided us and continue building camp. Within a few short hours, in combination with the tents of the Legio XIV, we had a decent looking Roman camp to make any Romanophile or curious walker-by feel like something very exciting was happening here. And then out came the period dress meaning all the guys were soon decked out in chainmail and segmentata ( the chest armour so named from the segments, or strips, of metal it was made from) and caligulae (soldiers’ sandals). And us ladies were soon strolling around in dresses and thanks to a very Italian grandmotherly type, all had our early Empire hairstyles to match.
The main point of the weekend’s exhibition was to educate through taste and touch. Taste the food of ancient Rome (we have some of their recipes which survived and it is good food!!!), touch the surgical instruments, put on the helmets and bear the shields- learning through experience. So there were a series of six tables all full of wonderful treasures and we were all casually stationed behind them to answer questions playing host to the show-and-tell. I was able to pick up a lot from the Italian explanations and I loved seeing for the first time many things I had only read about, like for example the first “Swiss Army Knife” which held a fork, knife, spoon, and toothpick. The only problem with my role was that I had nowhere near enough of the required vocabulary to be a part of the discourses, which for anyone who knows me and how much I love talking about history, this was something of a painful experience for me. But there is a good ending to this; Sunday a family from California walked by!! Taking care of their education was passed off to me and I was So. Happy. Like setting a bird free happy! And I guess the American family was pretty shocked to find a native English speaker in this mass of Italians too. Surprise!
It rained lightly Saturday evening which cancelled the gladiator show and pushed it to Sunday but it cleared up again before the night’s end which made the evening really nice. It smelled great, the temperature was fresh, (though some of my Italian friends were finding it chilly. And they kept asking me if I was cold. I don’t know if they truly believed me when I said I was just fine), and there was talk of going out to a bar. I should have asked if they were going out in costume or not because that probably would have altered my decision! For the present I was more interested in laying my head down and so that I did. For those not into sleeping in the legionary tents or in their own tent, a school gym was provided and may I just say the gym bathroom looked like something straight from a fugitive movie, or even better a zombie movie. Hidden away in some janitor, storage hallway, just barely enough industrial strength lighting, ¾ walls covered with Sharpie marker graffiti, a door that didn’t really close, sketchy toilet and sink, shower which you wonder if it was used for anything other than having mop water dumped in it…..it certainly could have been worse. The water was clean and the tap worked! Once I crawled underneath the blanket on my cot I went to sleep to the sound of the odd soldier or two walking around in the dark finding their way, the sound of their metal vestments rattling around to the beat of their footsteps. May I just say that some experiences will never be found in North America.
Sunday it was back up at 8 and straight into costume again. A healthy Italian breakfast of Nutella and mini-toasts, coffee and juice was shared and before we knew it people were wandering around and it was back to being a teacher of history. The three guys who were going to partake in the gladiator show were all ready to go from the start and at one point Mario makes a stab at me from across a table with a rudius (wood practice sword) and I return the gesture, and with that he invites me to a lesson in gladiator fighting. Never one to refuse a gentleman’s offer of a fight, I am only too happy to oblige, and in Roman domina dress and all I picked up my rudius and begin my training.
Now, two people in period dress performing anything in the open are bound to attract a crowd. Two people in period dress with swords are going to attract an even bigger crowd. Two people in period dress with swords and one of them is a girl getting the 101 on gladiator fighting is going to bring everyone. Truth is, I really didn’t even notice the audience. There were five main blocks to make with the sword against an incoming attack and then a final sixth move for the counter-attack of which I picked up fairly quickly. My muscular memory served me better in the second round of training but I got it quick enough where soon after some rudius only sparring Mario throws me (not literally), a shield and the next lesson begins.
As a note, I had a few disadvantages here. One, my sandals were a bit too big but they didn’t prove to be a liability but I’m still counting them. Two, my costume was not made for fighting in. My dress went straight to the ground giving me an average step of about twelve inches so this meant I kept having to hike my dress up over my knees in the middle of the fight so I could get into my fighting stance and have some manoeuvrability. I also ended up losing one piece of my costume because it kept falling off my shoulder. Three, the shield. Although not the largest shield there, it was still solid wood and you grabbed the handle from above, not below as you would if doing a bicep curl. This meant that the muscles on the other side of my wrist were getting something of a workout they had never experienced before. Hoisting up a plank of solid wood is tough stuff and I was able to successfully manage it for a few minutes but it wasn’t long before I was trying to find some new ways of bracing the weight because I wasn’t going to show any girly weakness! But I was secretly glad when our sparing was interrupted shortly after this problem was starting to make life difficult for me. So the question remains, how did I fare against a seasoned gladiator? Well, not too bad. Obviously my partner was not doing his best, he has years of experience gladiator fighting on me, but I still gave him cause not to let his guard down! That and I got a few legitimate strikes on him which just added to the fun. However, in the end he got me in the ribs and “killed” me.
So that was in the morning. The gladiator fight was afterwards, the Praetorian peacocks gave a little marching demonstration which had the benefit of being the first real collection of soldiers marching around of the day. They had a fellow with them as emperor which is fine and all that, but THIS guy was like exactly 5 feet tall and somehow reminded me of Lord Farquad from “Shrek” and I’m not sure if that gave the whole Praetorian scene a bit more authenticity than having someone who actually looked like the imperial statues or if it made it all rather a bit silly. For their benefit I’ll say the former. The Xth and XIVth soon stretched their legs out as well, the American family came through which I mentioned totally making my day and letting me feel useful! Lunchtime came around and then an effective siesta for both tourists and educators followed due to the heat which had come back after the rain in a way that asked “Did you miss me?!” Not really no, but the tent we had provided all the shade we needed to keep from frying and I mean that literally for the guys. It was little wonder that even the die-hard fans of walking around in chainmail and the segmentata were soon found without them. That is pure metal- it cooks you like a pig!
As the worst of the afternoon heat passed another one of the gladiators asks me if I would like to have a lesson. I had told this very fellow earlier that he was very much going to have to teach me and I was more than pleased to pick the rudius up again. The dress got hiked up again and again within moments a crowd forms and this time I have the basics down much better and can give a more experienced looking training show. There really wasn’t any sparring per say but there was another shield session and, with much relief I must say, the shield was significantly smaller, metal, and I could wield it with ease. A couple guys from the XIVth came over and asked to borrow some of the weapons for play and so there were two pairs fighting it out and soon after that some others picked up some of their favourite toys and next thing you know it looks like a regular training arena!
I progressed with my lessons quite well if I do say so myself and though I was sad to say good-bye to my sword and shield I was immediately presented with the challenge of mastering the tools of the famous retriarius- the trident and net. The net swinging is a bit of a movement you have to play around with but by the end of it all I had it swinging through the air like a pro and even got a few thumbs up from my gladiator friends, so I put that feather in my hat! The trident was a different story. About 5.6 feet in length it had to be held out in front in its entirety and if anyone has ever tried to hold something rather great in length out in front of them they know just how gravity works against you in a very real way. So I managed to figure out how to swing the net in front of me while holding out the trident but the trident was something more akin to a pole vaulting pole for me because I couldn’t hold it up! That and I’ll admit my ability to throw, and throw accurately, the net still required some help. But small steps, I was only a gladiator for like an hour! It was in the middle of my self-practice of net swinging that Giorgio walks by and asks if I’ll be returning back to Canada. Talk about a well placed question to get optimum results! Can’t say that I’m too sure at this particular moment…
I was also given the opportunity to throw a make-shift spear at the legion. While they were practicing their formation and testudo (where they covered themselves with their shields to protect from incoming missiles) they needed a few people to test the strength of their formation. So, along with two others, start jabbing their line to see if we could find a weak spot to break through, then throw the “spears” on their testudo. It would have been more fun if my inability to throw wasn’t highlighted quite so publicly…. At least the other two “barabarians” with me gave me a bit of slack accounting to the fact that they failed to tell me from the start HOW to throw a spear; they gave me the 101 pretty quickly! I would have figured it out eventually but people were watching and I didn’t have time to experiment! Oh well, just another experience for the day- it was still fun.
It’s funny how when you aren’t in charge of anything surrounding time, time itself loses its meaning. Somehow before I knew it, it was time to pack up. The rain from the night before was moving in with the pre-party of clouds so the heat of the day was chased away nicely. As night was just starting to come in heavy we had just begun to caravan out and on the way home I was treated to an insight into the Italian soccer culture as we were listening to a game of AS Roma against Milan. No longer attached to my perceptions of highway safety, I embraced with love all the highbeam flashes and wedding party-esque horn honking going down the highway between our cars.
Now, for anyone who has ever partaken in any kind of production or group travel it’s no mystery that the party isn’t over until it’s over and that means unpacking the van. So now it’s late at night, it’s raining, aka, chilly, and it’s back to the storage unit for another party- the un-loading party. Out comes all the shields, the war machines, the armour trunks. In a standard Italian way that I could really get used to, the espresso was passed around but considering all the stuff stuffed into the van, the process was very painless. Again, another round of good-byes were extended in all directions and in a reminiscent scene from the week before I bowed out at the metro-station but this time knowing I had not just had a “chance” encounter but had found a great group of people- not when they were asking in earnest if I could change my plane ticket so I could stay for another week and join them in the biggest event of the year. Nothing is chance when you believe in God.