Sunday, August 14, 2011

Fear and loathing at the Coliseum

There's no doubt that my favorite news story of the week is the one about policemen in Rome going undercover as tourists, garbage collectors, and--yes--gladiators in order to cool the jets of rival groups of real faux gladiators who pose for tourists' photographs near the Roman Coliseum and elsewhere. Apparently some of these bad boys had been fighting amongst themselves over prime pieces of tourist turf, and the police stepped in to try to restore order.

Having studied military reenactment for a number of years, I can attest that the public seems endlessly fascinated by the antics of men in arcane military garb, and I'm not surprised that this story has been flitting through the mediascape as a quirky novelty item. I also suspect there's more going on than the basic news story is capturing, but even the bare-bones version raises questions for me about the place of self-outfitting performers within historical places and productions. Whether it's hobbyist reenactors providing a corps of extras for a History Channel project, "natives" of various kinds pursuing the time-honored strategy of performing themselves for the tourist gaze, or "olde tyme" tour guides taking visitors around a city near you, encounters with the past increasingly seem to involve these entrepreneurial costumed figures who animate the landscape and give their audiences a little jolt of "pastness," along with a good photo op.

As I say, there may well be much more to this particular story, but it makes me wonder whether this is just an Italian thing--wise guys in leather skirts--or whether our globally straitened circumstances are producing new tensions at these frontiers of the knowledge and service economy. If there aren't enough tourist euros to go around, do the costumed performers start turning on each other, making represented warfare into something real? In a year that's already seen camels and donkeys from tourist concessions at the Egyptian pyramids ridden into the midst of a revolutionary gathering as an intimidation tactic, maybe we're getting hints that the boundaries of the real world and historical make-believe are not only blurring, but becoming impossible to sustain at all.

~ Cathy Stanton