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    Volume 9 Issue 19| May 7, 2010|

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A Roman Column

A Historical Birthday

Neeman Sobhan

The cobbled stone streets of ancient Rome ring out with the approaching sound of soldiers marching.

Roman maidens in flowing robes with little boys in short togas and girls with wreaths of flowers on their heads stand back to watch the Legions pass by.

There they come. First the scarlet banner with gold letters heralding the Emperor's Royal Guards: the 'Cohors II Praetoria', then the Legions of the unit 'Legio XXI Rapax', followed by other units. They come in full regalia, the sunlight glinting off their armour, chain mail, shields, spears and helmets.

Suddenly one of the soldiers stops dead in his tracks. He puts down his shield.

"Che pesante! So heavy!" He mops his forehead under his plumed helmet.

One of the maidens giggles and steps up from the crowd of Plebeians and Patriarchs lining the streets, to hand the weary soldier a plastic bottle of mineral water.

He refuses it sternly, lifts the shield again and marches on bravely a few more feet, till the armies reach the arena of the Circo Massimo, where a battle against the army of the Celts is to take place in an hour.

Almost everyone in ancient Rome seems to have converged upon the grassy valley of the Circus of Maximus. It is a historical birthday party, a six day long celebration.

The grand old lady, whose birthday it is, has just turned 2,763 years old.

Gladiators and Roman soldiers

Her name is Roma.

Yes, about two weeks ago, I attended the birthday party, called the Natale di Roma, or the celebration of the Birth of Rome, a national festival.

Since 1870, historians and archaeologists, after analyzing
facts and …figurines, decided upon the 21st of April, 753 B.C. as the date of the founding of Rome.

This city, founded by Romolo or Romulus (everyone knows the myth of the twins Romulus and Remus nurtured by the she-wolf) has been my home for the last 30 years. But in all these years, I must say that the Comune di Roma (Roman Municipality) has only been observing the day with the appropriate pomp and ceremony in just the last decade or so.

And for this, much of the credit goes to a highly creative and enterprising cultural association called, the Gruppo Storico Romano, a non profit organisation dedicated to the research and recreation of the history of ancient Rome.

With passion, scholarship and artistry, every aspect of that age: the costumes; arms and weapons; rituals and ceremonies; the banners, shields, uniforms and military maneuvers of the Roman legions; the battles of the gladiators; all are accurately reproduced in minute detail.

With their involvement, the recent festivities of the Natale di Roma or the Birth of Rome have become magnificent events of pageantry and creative imagination. They have shown how we can relive the past and learn lessons of history while having fun.

So here I am at the Circo Massimo in the centre of ancient Rome on a Sunday, feeling as if I have stepped back in time. Long lines of Romans from the past dressed in full and authentic costumes are walking up the cobbled stone road near the Palatine hills, where Rome was founded. Toga clad Roman senators; slaves and gladiators; Vestal virgins and queens; and armies of marching legions all come parading and trooping down like an illustrated page from Livy or Plutarch.

Except for a few of us unprepared spectators, almost everyone is dressed to play a role in the history of their city. The grassy arena of the Circus of Maximus is a throbbing, populated stage.

Around me are swarming literally thousands of ordinary citizens of modern Rome all transformed into the populace of Republican and Imperial Rome, the capital or Caput Mundi of a long ago Empire. I have a dizzy feeling of being either in a time warp or on the set of another Roman Epic film like Spartacus or Gladiator. In fact, since the ancient arena of the Circo Massimo, was the chariot track, I feel the fictional character Ben Hur will show up any minute.

The sense of unreality takes further root when a mock battle is announced. The picnicking 'ancient' Romans get up from the slopes, dust off the crumbs of their crusty sandwiches from their togas and robes and take their places in the crowd to watch the battle in the valley.

The re-enactment of a battle between the Roman Legions and the Celts is so authentic that every time the wooden arrows fly towards the Roman forces and clatter off their shields, the crowd lets out a sigh of relief. But when the wooden spears of the Legions fail to land even a yard from the enemies, the crowd starts to laugh. However, the Celts, after fighting bravely and being defeated, commit mass suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Romans, everyone is touched. The 'corpse' of the dead enemy king is taken away with honour and the second in command, allowed to sing a lament before he too falls on his sword. The wounded Roman soldiers are carried off the field in authentic stretchers. No detail is omitted, and the seriousness of the enactment is pure theatre.

We have a time constraint and have to leave before a Gladiatorial battle can take place. I am relieved to miss this, and happy that we live in an age when horrendous spectacles such as gladiators fighting to the death are no more. Glad also that the crude, head-on battle methods of ancient armies also are over.

But are they really over? Have we in the modern and enlightened world not simply exchanged one kind of arena, one sort of amphitheatre, one type of battle field for another? The basic nature of wars, the cruelty, the horrors, the blood-letting and destruction, whether on the streets, on land, in the air, in water--- aren't these the same, if not magnified? The soldier's fate, marching to the orders of generals and distant politicians, and waiting like gladiators for the thumb-signal of the emperor to be allowed to live or die: has anything changed, fundamentally? Rather, in today's battles, it is not just the designated armies of soldiers and gladiators facing each other in defined battle areas and arenas who fight and suffer, but unarmed women, children, old people and by-standers who are the victims of war.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if one day, future generations would stand around some valley, enacting the wars and battles of today as pure history, sheer drama, to be staged and studied as entertainment and as lessons of the past?

May we dare to hope that one day, the foot soldiers of armies will simply drop the shields of warfare, saying:

"Che pesante! How heavy!"

And walk off smiling into a world of Peace.

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