ROME — Recently, residents and tourists around the Coliseum watched in awe as a legion of Roman soldiers marched in unison down Rome’s Imperial Avenue.
“Caesar!” called out the commander in Latin as the legion came to a stop. “I, Centurion Lucius Valerius Seianus, have brought your favorite legion here to return the scepter of command to your hands!”
A horn blared as the Centurion placed a large laurel crown on the pedestal of the statue of Julius Caesar, the great Roman general who was stabbed to death in the Forum 2,053 years that day — March 15, or the "Ides of March."
As an excited crowd of tourists snapped their cameras, the legion made its way to the Roman Forum.
“It’s our way of exporting Rome’s history without being boring,” said the Centurion, whose real name is Giorgio Franchetti. He is president of the historical reenactment group, called “SPQR.”
The name is an acronym in Latin from ancient Rome, Senatus Populus Que Romanus — meaning the Senate and the People of Rome. With 35 active members of all ages, “SPQR” is one of several non-profit associations in Rome devoted to experimental archeology.
“Experimental archeology means putting yourself in the shoes of ancient characters who can no longer tell you how they lived,” Franchetti said, “to experience their struggles in first person.”
Members of the group are not actors. They are passionate Romans who believe their approach to archeology helps keep ancient Rome alive, much as Civil War reenactors in the U.S. discover history by portraying period characters and recreating scenes from another era.
In addition to studying archeological findings, such as jewels, weapons and military equipment, these enthusiasts re-create an entire living environment by organizing Roman encampments, gladiator trainings and religious rituals.
Their devotion to the study and practice of the Roman Empire has turned them into a subculture of purists.
Last summer, when rumors circulated about an idea to build a theme park inspired by the Roman Empire, SPQR President Giorgio Franchetti went on alert. He feared the plan would provide a superficial rendition of Roman life with one goal in mind: making a profit.
Last month, Rome’s Vice Mayor Mauro Cutrufo officially presented a 7 billion euro plan (about $9.4 billion) to launch modern tourism in the Eternal City. The Roman theme park was among the 23 projects presented.
“Disneyland Paris attracts 12.5 million visitors every year,” Cutrufo said. “We want to follow that path.”
While Cutrufo promises historical accuracy and entertainment, experimental archeology groups believe that formula will betray the true atmosphere of ancient Roman life.
Sergio Iacomoni, president of “Gruppo Storico Romano,” Rome’s largest experimental archeology club, said that the challenge for accuracy lies in the details. “You want Coke? There was no Coke in ancient Rome. Want a beer, you can’t find that either. That’s the whole point,” he said.
SPQR president Franchetti agreed. “In Rome, we have already vulgarized our culture by allowing vendors to sell cheap gadgets by our monuments,” he said. “All we need is a Disneyland-like theme park on ancient Rome to complete the picture.”
Iacomoni, whose Roman alter ego is Emperor Nero, said that without a fully participatory and strictly realistic experience, the amusement park project could fail. “People know fiction all too well and they don’t need another Hollywood-style rendition of Rome,” Iacomoni said.
While Rome is may become a more modern tourist destination under Cutrufo's initiative, the Roman theme park remains just an idea. The city hasn’t yet found funding for the project. At a recent conference, management from Disneyland Paris said that they would not invest.
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