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Historical re-enactment and ancient warfare: what can play-fighting tell us about real fighting?

Written by Adrastos Omissi |

Dr. Adrastos Omissi (University of Glasgow) shares some thoughts on the re-enactment of ancient battles, after hosting an event funded by an ICS public engagement grant.

One of the very real problems with studying accounts of military conflict, in any age, is that narratives relating to the battlefield experience can seem bafflingly difficult to square with any vision we might possess of what mass violence looks like. This problem is less pronounced for those who study warfare in the modern period. Academics rarely have direct experience of warfare but they can nonetheless draw on interaction with those that do have such experience, so that a historian of – say – the Falklands War can supplement traditional study of archival documents relating to battles and combat with interviews or even conversations with individuals who actually experienced those battles first hand. The mysteries of combat are likely to remain mysterious (indeed, it is striking that combat often retains its mystery and irrealism even in the minds of those who have firsthand knowledge of it), but basic mechanical questions and more profound psychological questions have answers that can be sought, however imperfectly.

Reconstructed Greek phalanx. Image credit Wikimedia Commons.
For pre-modern warfare, these resources evaporate. No one alive on the planet today can claim any direct knowledge of what it is like to stand in a Classical Greek phalanx or to receive the charge of a body of medieval knights. And so the questions that arise from the study of pre-modern warfare are far harder to answer. Why did pre-modern armies go to the trouble of making bolt throwing machines, when, for a considerably lower investment of men and resources, one could use a body of archers who would be more mobile, whose weapons are easier and safer to operate, and who could put orders of magnitude more darts into the air? Why didn’t everyone who had access to them use war elephants since – on contact with an elephant in a zoo – one could be forgiven for assuming that any army that employed them as weapons of war would be unstoppable? Why could Roman armies routinely defeat much larger forces of Gallic tribesmen, whose warriors were universally declared by the Romans themselves to be larger, stronger, and more inured to physical suffering than were Roman warriors?

It was with questions like this in mind that I organised, with the generous sponsorship of an ICS Public Engagement Grant, an event at the Hunterian Museum of the University of Glasgow entitled ‘Acts of War: Understanding Ancient Warfare through Re-Enactment’. Its aim was to explore how simulated experience of battle and of military life could enrich our understanding of the mechanics and dynamics of pre-modern warfare. The evening featured talks from me, from the YouTuber Nikolas Lloyd (aka Lindybeige), and from Glasgow teacher Martin McCafferty, also known as centurion Gnaeus Pinarius of the Antonine Guard.

I spoke first, mostly to introduce my two speakers but also to give a little bit of reflection on perhaps the most ubiquitous form of modern battle re-enactment, that is the staging of battles in film and television. For anyone alive today, cinematic battle provides the primary – if not the only – visual touchstone in imagining what John Keegan called ‘the face of battle’. And as anyone who has made even passing study of the history of warfare quickly comes to realise, whatever a pre-modern battle looked like, it cannot possibly have looked like that. Cinematic violence consistently portrays two lines of soldiers charging at one another and then intermingling into a mad melee of individual duels in which formation is forgotten and friend can only be told from foe thanks to the costume department’s efforts to dress each side very differently. But under such conditions, why would anyone go into battle carrying a standard, or a trumpet (as we know many did)? What purpose would reserves serve, if battles were decided by sheer weight of slaughter? And how can we explain the frequent accounts of battles in which no one – or very few people – actually died, as in 55 BC when 300 of Caesar’s soldiers fought the Morini for more than four hours, and not a single Roman died?

Relief panel of the ‘Great’ Ludovisi Sarcophagus (c. 250-260 CE), depicting Roman battle scene. Image credit Wikimedia Commons.

Having posed these questions as food for thought, I handed over to Nikolas Lloyd. Lloyd – more generally known by his YouTube soubriquet Lindybeige – has had a lifetime of experience of what one might call ‘playing at war’. He spoke to us about wargaming and how his own efforts to write wargames rules drew him deep into the study of battle mechanics. He also talked about traditional re-enactment and the importance of actually handling the weapons and armour that ancient and medieval people used in order to understand what one can and cannot do with it. But to my mind his most valuable and interesting insights came from his experiences with LARPing (Live Action Role-Playing). Though traditionally thought of, if it is thought of at all, as a fantasy game (Dungeons & Dragons, but outside), many LARPers engage in – often very largescale – recreations of battles in which each side competes to win and there are rules that govern ‘killing’ enemies and so forth. Whilst no one on a LARPer’s battlefield is afraid for their life (a hugely important dynamic all too often missed in the study of warfare), LARPing nonetheless recreates, in a way that virtually nothing else can, many of the conditions of a pre-modern battle, gathering large numbers of people together to ‘fight’ an enemy en masse. Lloyd stressed, for instance, the total supremacy of communication as a weapon of war, and provided examples of fights he had participated in where, in terms of position, weapons, and ability to wield them, he had been on the clearly superior side, but had nevertheless lost because he and his fellow combatants were surprised by enemy troop manoeuvres and confused because, from within the press of massed ranks and the sensory deprivation of armour and helmet, they could neither see nor hear what was actually going on.

Antonine Guard Living History Society. Image credit Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, we were treated to a talk on Roman military life from Martin McCafferty, aka Gnaeus Pinarius of the Antonine Guard. The Antonine Guard are Scotland’s Roman re-enactment society and have nearly 25 years of experience Roman re-enactment. Martin himself is a long-time member of the guard, and he was kind enough to deliver his talk in full arms and armour: his bright red centurion’s transverse crest on his helmet, his red soldier’s cloak over dark mail, and a number of phalera – the Roman equivalent of medals – on his chest. He also brought with him his huge shield (scutum), throwing spear (pilum), short sword (gladius), dagger (pugio), and the characteristic short stick (vitis) of the centurion. Helping him manoeuvre these items through a crowded museum and its glass fronted display cases was a hair raising experience. Martin talked about the arms and armour, about the stresses and complications of wearing it – Roman sandals, we learn, are not comfortable things – and about some of the basic practices of camp life, including what it is like to sleep in a Roman tent and to bake Roman bread for dinner after a long day’s marching. These insights help to humanise the lives and the stresses of the Roman soldier, and make them more intimate and relatable.

We had some fifty attendees for the evening, both members of the public and students of the university. After all the talks were finished, a number of people joined us in a nearby pub where we were able to continue the lively discussion that had been started in the Hunterian. I think many people were very excited to meet Lloyd – who, with a YouTube channel now approaching one million subscribers, is something of a celebrity, particularly among the re-enactment community – but for me the evening was a fantastic chance also to meet members of the public, to share with them some of the fruits of my research, but above all to hear and learn from them. The depth of knowledge and the passion for historical study that I encountered that evening really impressed me, and it was such a welcome opportunity to share experiences with people not involved in university life, people from whom we as researchers can often feel very detached.

I would like to express my thanks to the Hunterian Museum, whose Deputy Director Mungo Campbell was incredibly hospitable in placing at our disposal both the palatial surroundings of the museum itself and the time and energies of its staff. Holding and event such as this surrounded by beautiful displays of bronze age weaponry and the Hunterian’s exquisite Antonine Wall display gave the whole proceeding an air of considerable gravitas. Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to the ICS, whose funding made the event possible.

by Adrastos Omissi