Last summer, I started noticing that when the thermometer got over 75*F or so, I was having a hard time functioning. Brain fog, fatigue, getting confused easily – and it was even worse when I was wearing my full Elizabethan clothing. This isn’t to say that the clothing itself was intolerably hot by default (I’ve been wearing it for years and thousands of others did so their entire lives) but that I was suddenly having problems with the heat where no such problems had existed before. I realized that the culprit was a medication I have to take every day. It’s not something I am willing to stop taking, so I decided I had to minimize my heat exposure during warm weather. That, sadly, meant giving up my beloved working class clothing of the late 16th century.
I agonized over this decision for a very long time, not the least of which was because I had no idea what time period to do next if the 16th century was out and all others had to be eyed suspiciously for heat index. None of the other SCA-period centuries really appealed to me. I do like the dorky hats of the Burgundians, but I’ve been less than impressed with how the rest of that era’s clothing looks on me. I look like a potato sack in Viking, and besides, the culture doesn’t resonate with me. I like the material culture of the Vikings – beads, obviously, but also the personal items and weaponry and the ships – but I’ve never made it through a saga without falling asleep. The culture just doesn’t feel like “home” to me.
Finally, I decided to become a citizen of Rome. Some of the people I really respect in the SCA have been doing kick-ass Roman impressions for years, and they make it look good. The clothing is dead simple to make, cool and comfortable, and still looks elegant if draped correctly on any size or shape of body. I took Latin in college and studied a bit of Roman history there. A lot of the things I like most about my research in the 16th century still translate to this culture and period – there’s a heady mix of cultures swirling around across oceans, with all the fascinating pushback and compromising and appropriating that intrigues me.
The big stumbling block for me was finding the human faces out of those centuries of anonymous crowds. I have a hard time really feeling interested in a given culture or time period unless I can feel like I know its residents and have a sense of their daily life. It’s why I’m not that interested in prehistoric stuff all that much – there’s just too wide a gulf in what we know to be able to get the sense that they were everyday normal people. For me in the 16th century, I found that easily through the vast body of primary source material and all the Elizabethan-themed movies, books, TV shows it inspired. I really liked being able to read the firsthand words of some fishwife being called into court for slandering her neighbor, or hear a joke told 400 years ago and still find it funny. Most of my experience with Rome was of the sonorously formal “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres” type from Latin class and the stoic old white dudes in toga statues you see everywhere with pretensions to neoclassical culture.
It took two TV series, one fiction and one nonfiction, for me to dip my toes into the water and finally see living, vibrant Rome. I started by watching the HBO series Rome, which was a fun show. It was full of historical inaccuracies, but it made average Romans seem real and alive. I followed that up with Mary Beard’s Meet the Romans series on YouTube. It’s a wonderful romp through the graffiti and realities of everyday common Roman life. I highly recommend it. With those two series under my belt, I’d seen the faces in the crowd. Now I’ve moved on to primary source sculptures, frescoes, and paintings. I am excited to have a whole new world of research opportunities!