Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Marathon 2015: A Retrospective

The wind howls along the beach, flapping the canvas of a single strange house-shaped tent.  Outside, a small crowd has gathered to watch four men in shining bronze armor go through their ancient paces.  It's the first of November, the last day of Marathon 2015, and I'm too tired to even change into my costume, but I'm still standing there, saying hello to the public as best I can with my total inability to speak Greek.  And in spite of all the things that went wrong, I don't regret it.

It's a truism that the Battle of Marathon shaped the modern world.  A long and largely-successful campaign by the Persian empire to solidify control of its Greek corner came to an abrupt end with defeat by the army of the city-state of Athens (and their Plataean allies), which went on to become the dominant political and cultural force in Greece over much of the fifth century BC.  How would things be different today if Athens had been conquered?  I don't know.  "If not X, then not Y" doesn't strike me as a reliable formula when we're talking about something so complex as human history.  I balk at the notion of trying to say what would have taken place when we're talking about two and a half thousand years and countless historical variables, and I disagree with the cliche that democracy would have been smothered in its cradle.  But what did happen is an epic story in its own right, and it's an honor to be able to stand on the very spot and pay my tribute to it.

For five days, we - fifty history geeks like myself from across the globe - pitched over a dozen tents, did battle on the beach and gave presentations on everything from ancient warfare to ancient cosmetics before crowds of students and sightseers.  On the last day, someone asked me if the government paid us to come here.  No, I said, we paid for our own plane tickets and equipment.  "Why do you do it?" he asked.  "Because we want to," I said.  He looked a little surprised and left the obvious next question unasked.

Reenacting is something you really, really have to want to do.  It's hours of stitching, cutting, gluing, grinding, and even hammering or pouring red-hot metals until your fingers are raw and ringing.  It's bank statements that make you wince and endless hours trying to sleep in a tiny airplane seat.  It's running until your lungs hurt before being knocked flat on your back and trying to die convincingly.  And it's really hard to explain what makes it worthwhile.  But it is.

It's a joy to be able to connect with people over such out-of-the-way interests, to be able to talk in terms like "trilobal" and "othismos" and have the other person understand what you mean (and not be bored by it!).

You can't not be happy hearing the "ohhh" of a classful of kids watching the archery demonstrations.  And at the same time I find that even when I'm in a position of educator, I have a lot to learn.  For years, I've been using the same straight draw on my old-fashioned recurved bow that I learned on a modern compound bow at college; it took careful instruction from heavy warbow archer Chris Verwijmeren for me to get the proper power and accuracy from the one I'm now using.  After a week, my left shoulder was just about recovered.

As well in the area of reenactment combat, I found I still need to get the basics down.  Fighting with Alan Rowell, I had it in my head that I shouldn't "die" until he feigned an attack with his knife, even though he'd already said that it wasn't blunt and he couldn't safely do so.  He had to knock me over with his shield to kill me, whereupon I spontaneously decided to wave my dagger in defiance, and could well have hit him in the face.

I found that a single-layer lining isn't good enough for my stupid skin; I needed to wear my linen tunic (with its multi-ply collar) under my wool one to stop my rash getting any worse.  I found that all the glue and sinew wasn't enough to stop my small-socketed arrowheads from simply popping off the arrows when embedded in a wood target.  And I'm now determined to obtain a good sharp belt knife like Jax Reeder has, because funnily enough, there's still a need for things like that, even for just opening boxes or cutting rope.

I'm sorry to say that I learned firsthand that you can't be too cautious with visitors.  Until now I'd been lucky not to be in the position to keep an eye on people around our weapons, and anyway I'd say 98+ percent of visitors are intelligent and respectful about them.  But then there are the times that you're deep in conversation with someone, and then you notice a kid picking up your bow and trying to string it backward.

For the most part, though, our relationship with the Greek public has been pretty good.  Which leads to the inevitable and innocent question:

"So will you be back next year?"

I grow timid.  I say things like "Well, maybe in a couple of years from now."  But it's almost a lie.  The truth is, we have no idea.

Marathon 2011 was a triumph, the first international event of its kind in Greece, commemorating exactly 2,500 years since the turning point of the Graeco-Persian Wars, showing the public what we're about, and concluding with the formation of Amphictyonia.  For me, Marathon 2015 was a bit of a letdown.  It's not just the fact that most of the reenactors had to pack up and go home a day early because of the PNO ferryboat strike on November 2.  It's not just the chilly and gray weather.  It is, rather, the fact that pulling off an event of this nature isn't any easier now than it was four years ago.  I expected a hundred or more reenactors this year; instead, we got fewer than in 2011.  As much as we love the hobby, maintaining enthusiasm for an event that costs each participant thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours of labor, and wrangling for a week or more off from their real jobs, is no cakewalk.  As for our misunderstandings with the municipal government of Marathon - I won't deign to comment, except that a feeling of quiet discouragement was in no way difficult to find.  I wonder if every iteration will be as if it were the first one.

Will there even be another, a Marathon 2019, or Thermopylae 2021?  I asked Jevon Garrett of Taxeis Plataia, one of Amphictyonia's leading voices.  He said that while he was sure there would be future events in Greece, participants have been looking into other venues, for example Plataea.  The mixed opinions of reenactors on this year's event may well amount to a tacit "no" to further events at Marathon - something like this simply doesn't happen without a lot of enthusiasm.

We're now almost at the halfway point between the 2,500th anniversaries of the first and second Persian invasions of Greece, immortalized at Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea and Mycale.  It may already be time to leave stop thinking about how we can redo our last event bigger and better, and start thinking about what we haven't done before.

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