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Entertainment for Empire – Great Roman Games

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Les Grands Jeux Romains, 2018
Les Grands Jeux Romains, 2018

For many years, spring and summer weekends have been filled with numerous reconstruction events. Not only do they provide an opportunity to come into contact with the history of the region, but above all, they are an opportunity to meet enthusiasts of a given historical period and to have fun together with education.

Antique enthusiasts have many opportunities to take part in events like the Empire. Every year in the capital of the Empire itself, many cyclical events take places, such as the staging of Caesar’s assassination on March 15, or processions around Colosseum on the anniversary of the founding of the city on April 21. In cities and towns throughout Italy, France and Germany, wherever the history of the Roman Republic and Empire has left its mark the most, there are many reconstruction events.

The city of Nîmes in France has been organizing Les Grands Jeux Romains for nine years, providing entertainment for lovers of the antiquity of all ages and budgets. This year, the Great Roman Games have unfortunately already been held.

The leitmotif of the whole game is the moment in history when Nîmes, or Nemausus, was visited by not just anyone, because Emperor Hadrian, i.e. Imperator Caesar Traianus Hadrianus. The event commemorates the authentic visit of Emperor Hadrian in 122 CE when he stopped in the city on his way from Britain to Spain. Here he found out about the death of his protector, Empress Plotina, widow of Trajan, who made him a son. In her honour, he decided to build a basilica (at that time it was a place of trade, settlement of disputes between merchants and meetings) named after her. For the time being, however, the Emperor decided to add splendour to his stay with the Games for the People.

Testudo in the arena

Professor Éric Teyssier, a lecturer at the Universities of Montpellier III and Nîmes, author of articles and popular science books, including books for children, who are willingly involved in events in the field of life history and experimental archaeology, has been the content supervisor and scriptwriter of the show for many years.

The event usually takes place at the turn of April and May.

It is a tradition that during this type of event, battle shows are accompanied by presentations of period clothing or weapons. There are craft workshops, stalls with handicrafts and tasting local specialities prepared on the basis of ancient recipes. Also this time, other attractions, marches, parades, dances, visits to villages of gladiators, Romans or Gauls, and activities for children were available to everyone with time and strength. The city is large, and individual stalls or villages were spread out in different parts of it.

Although the show is the title attraction, no words can convey the atmosphere of the streets and squares filled to the brim. On the first day, a presentation of all groups participating in the shows took place in front of the Arena. As an explanation, it should be added that each group represented a different legion, a tribe of “barbarians”, or a cohort existing at a specific point in history. The clothes and weapons were different each time and precisely reconstructed according to the rules of art. It may not have happened without some minor mishaps, but for a militarist, it was a treat.

You could admire the legionaries of specific legions armed according to a given era, auxiliares– auxiliary cohorts, the praetorian cohort – imperial bodyguards, hordes of barbarians, captives, dancers, slaves and commoners delighted by the Emperor’s visit from the Arena in different directions cities. And the city was bursting at the seams. A different attraction started every few hours. Vendors of tunics, oil lamps and brooches, just like two thousand years ago, invited people to their stalls. Heters graced each other by tempting with bare arms, and veterans of a good age supplied themselves with jewellery, probably for their chosen ones. Let us remember that Roman legionaries were not allowed to marry, and those married before a warrior had to divorce. The recruits evidently rearmed at the stalls, searching for the most appropriate items of equipment. The inattention could entangle the senator’s toga checking the quality of the goods with a trained eye.

Such experiments, probably not fully arranged by the organizers, perfectly matched the nature of the event. Today, observing the effect of white gowns framed in red against the background of grey and grey commoners, we understand what impression they must have made two thousand years ago.

Meanwhile, the streets gleamed with swords and chain mail, and lorica hamataand segmentata, though from different eras, stretched bravely side by side with their owners for photos with graceful commoners. The smirked senators never left their faces, which invariably brought to mind the more modern words “The government will feed.” The expected tens of thousands of tourists with their sesterces, pardon, euro, tightly filled the streets, pubs, and thus, in some part, also the city treasury. If the marches, the market, the inspection of construction equipment or ships and the cries of children hanging from the Trojan horse made the peregrini weak on the first afternoon, the gardens by the fountains near Diana’s temple tempted with silence and coldness. Like all monuments of Nimes, this one is also in perfect condition.

Barbarians in the arena

As in the past, the show in the amphitheatre at Nemausus was the highlight of the program. The show takes place in a real ancient arena preserved, like everything else in Nîmes, in perfect condition for our times and adapted to the requirements of modern mass events. Currently, the Arena seats 12,000 spectators, once the fights were admired by twice as many people. Renovation continues and there are more and more places every year. It is worth mentioning that the performances take place in the afternoon, so the viewers can participate in all the attractions without any loss. In the past, admission to the Olympics was free for everyone. However, the arenas had their capacity, so admission was rationed. In 69 BCE the tribune of the people Lucius Roscius Otho led to the enactment of the law Lex Roscia theatralis, which guaranteed the theatre seats 14 rows above the senatorial seats, and ejected women to the higher ranks. The equites were superior to the commoners, but it is presumed that the law only applied to a small group of lucky people who were entitled to a horse kept at the expense of the state.

The theme of the performance is different each year, devoted to a famous person or event. Among others, Caesar, Cleopatra, Hannibal and the British Boudicca. This year, the hero was Spartacus. The organizers wanted to create a spectacle that resembles the real games that took place during the Empire. Perhaps that is why the figure of Spartacus was shown from a completely Roman point of view. This time he was not a romantic fighter for freedom and equality, but a deserter, monger and bandit (sic!) Turning Roman cities to dust.

All current reconstruction groups were involved in presenting the fate of Spartacus. So we saw the slave market, the first revolts, the escape from the familia, the plundering and looting of the city. The subsequent defeats of the Romans were shown until the Senate-designated Marcus Crassus entered the scene. Meanwhile, Spartacus was deceived by pirates, for whose help he paid dearly. The pirate ship with gold sailed away. The rebels thus crucified several Romans but were soon eventually defeated by Crassus, who crucified the survivors.

According to the historical message, Spartacus wore the costume of a Roman commander (he systematically robbed the supplies and armaments of the Romans), which for the viewers meant a blood-red coat and a helmet decorated with a “plume” and paraded on a horse, which, according to Plutarch, he was to take from praetor Varinius. The role of Spartacus was played by a former model, currently an animator, Gilles Sindt, whose appearance always resembled the now absent Andy Whitfield, who played the role of Spartacus in a popular series. Jeanne Delajungle, who was Budikka last year, played the role of his wife, the prophetess.

Nightlife.

When the corridors of the amphitheatre were empty, the party moved back to the squares and streets. On the stage at the Square du Chapitre, an antique dance show was performed by the artists of the “Nenuphar” group to the sounds of antique-styled music and music known to lovers of films on ancient themes. A trained ear could also recognize a piece known as “Hymn Hurrian No. 6” reconstructed on the basis of an inscription found on clay tablets in 1950 in Ugarit, whose age was determined to be 1400 BCE, and the read characters were considered the earliest melody in the world.

On Saturday night, as soon as the sounds of the zithers and flutes had died down and the dancers had jumped off the stage, at 9 p.m. the legions gathered again in front of La Maison Carrée. With the sound of trumpets and the light of torches, a crowd of participants, legionaries and dancers marched towards the Arena. This time it was magical and amazing. Although children and photographers literally ran at the feet of the soldiers, they, as if completely ignoring them, marched their way. You could almost believe that the audience was on a journey into the past and was completely out of place. One can imagine what an impression on the agricultural peoples was made by such a phalanx in shiny helmets, and later also in the famous armour of plates, flooding, like the sea, uncivilized lands.

Hoping for the next Games in Nemausus, we can click http://www.jesoutiensnimes.fr/en/ just in case that it will finally gain its rightful place among the jewels of Humanity’s World Heritage.

Author: Izabela Henning (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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