Inside the Weird World of Historical Re-enactorsHistorians in the News
tags: historical reenactment
It’s a drizzly day in Marathon, Greece, and a group of citizen-soldiers in bronze breastplates and tunics are lined up one behind the other. Each man pushes on the back of the man in front of him; the man at the front of the column pushes against a 3,000-year-old pine tree. It’s a strange sight on its own, made stranger by the pressure gauge attached to the tree—and the fact that this is happening in September 2015.
The soldiers are dressed for a re-enactment of the ancient Battle of Marathon, which took place about 2,500 years ago; the pressure gauge is for testing a modern theory about military tactics. A group of living-history enthusiasts—people who dress up in period clothing and practise historical crafting or martial arts—planned the trip and brought along a scientist with a hobby interest in the way the ancient Greeks waged war.
Historians have long debated whether arranging soldiers in this way would add to their collective strength—perhaps after ten people, more wouldn’t make a difference? “Oops, false,” says Christian Cameron, a seasoned re-enactor and one of the event’s organizers. “In fact, as far back as we could successfully stack people, they could continue to [add] meaningful amounts of force.” Some suggestion of this appears in historical sources, Cameron says, because evidence shows that people freed their slaves before a big battle. “When I’m a small farmer and all I own is you, and I free you, I have made a 100 percent capital investment in this battle,” he says. “So we had evidence that this mattered, but it was fascinating to prove it right.”
Cameron and his companions are captivated by what’s generally known as historical re-enactment: roughly, dressing up and messing around with historical items. It’s hard to estimate the size of the re-enacting community; people may join a battle once, or only for special events, or they may be dedicated weekend warriors (literally) but only within a private group. Skirmish, a monthly living-history magazine, estimates its readership at 50,000 “hardcore re-enactors, living historians, and history enthusiasts” from around the world. And though it’s hard to pin down the precise origin of re-enacting, we do know that re-enactments of Civil War battles started even before the war itself had ended. ...
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