Recently, my employer had been acquired by a Taiwanese start-up, shifting our official work schedule 14 hours off local time. Being employed at a job technically half-way across the world has its advantages, but it’s tiring work. Fortunately, they were at least flexible with allowing breaks to their offsite employees.
Sometimes during those breaks, a few of us would chat over the same connection we used to collaborate. It was in one of these breaks that Maria mentioned Nova Roma to the rest of us. We’d been discussing our adjustment to the telecommuting situation, and she mentioned this organization had helped her keep up the global-trotting lifestyle she’d adopted now that she was no longer bound to an office.
“I know people in every country in the world through Nova Roma. They’ve got a million or so members scattered all over the place; some are even willing to let visitors from other countries stay overnight. And wherever there is a few members there something going on to which I can RSVP online.”
Some of the others mentioned gaining similar benefits by combining couch surfing with social networking sites geared specifically to itinerants, and the conversation moved on. Still, I found myself wondering about this group of modern day Romans. It wasn’t the first time that they had been mentioned.
I found their website and started reading through the forum during another late night, when I should have been working on my statistical analysis. At that point, my third cup of coffee had already worn off and my fourth, fifth, and sixth had yet to kick in, so it was a choice between distracting myself with something interesting online and collapsing then and there. I chose the former, although the later would have been healthier.
It was true what Maria had said about things going on everywhere. There were threads about activities on all six of the inhabited continents: book discussion, Latin circles, military re-enactments, and many other things, all posted as events for the general public. There was also a discussion of the inauguration of the second temple, leading me to wonder how long it would take for this Herodian thread to be caught and moved to the history sub-forum where it belonged.
It all seemed very cheery, even strangely so. Anyone who has been awake through the early decades of the 21st century knows that online communities always have drama. Still looking for something to keep me awake, I clicked on the thread with the greatest number of replies, looking for something controversial.
It was a thread about a re-enactment unit stationed in Rome itself; “Legio II Traiana Fortis”, it was called. The discussion started off tamely enough, with a picture of a scale fortification the group had built somewhere around the city and a link to their own website. Given this inoffensive foray by the group’s commander, Appius Furius Dentatus, it was hard to see what had inspired the fury in the responses.
“We’ve had concord in Nova Roma for the past 20 years. Why are you stirring up trouble now?” asked one fairly representative comment.
“Let them go their own way if they like,” said another. “Most of the members of SVR, RR, and RRCG eventually found their way back to us, even where they also chose to maintain another affiliation. I’m sure that will be the case here too.”
“One-person rule like this always has unhappy results. Just look at the last civil war.”
Finally, I decided to go to the local group website, bracing myself for poorly auto-translated Italian. It was actually surprisingly clear; obviously the tech giants had been working on their language software since the last time I visited a foreign language website.
There was the source of the controversy, visible along the right hand of the screen at the top of a column of press release headlines.
“Appius Furius Dentatus, acclaimed Imperator by troops, declares separation from Nova Roma to form Imperial Roman state.”
It was unclear exactly what effect that would have; for now at least the self-proclaimed emperor was still happily welcoming visitors from elsewhere, even allowing them to stay overnight in the semi-permanent camp his group had succeeded in assembling in authentic Roman style.
Hm, I thought. I’ve never been to Italy. This might be a good chance. Who knew how long someone would be offering free rooms in one of the most expensive cities in Europe? It would be a chance to see whether Maria was right about Nova Roman hospitality.
I boarded the plane bound for Italy, then spent most of the flight second-guessing that decision. It disquieted me somewhat to be entrusting myself to the hospitality of strangers; all I knew about them came from their own website, after all. If even that painted them as disciplined scholars of living history labouring under a somewhat unpredictable and peculiar leader, how much less flattering was the reality?
One can easily exhaust one’s patience staring at a set of directions; I prefer to enlist a guide. They may be more expensive, but they also tend to be more interesting. For instance, from Nicola Masina, the man whom I’d contacted online and convinced to meet me at the airport, I learned the ins and outs of the local middle grade education system. How likely would I ever have been to look that up – and yet how useful if I ever decided to raise a family in Italy! An unlikely prospect for a 75-year old bachelor, I know, but no one can be sure of the future.
“The state needs to recognize that if they continue to underpay their teachers, they will lose more and more of us to the countries in the north. Not everyone is so dedicated as to supplement the income from a full-time job by escorting tourists in their spare time,” Mr. Masina told me.
“I’m very grateful,” I said, by way of consolation. He snorted.
“They cut back on everything now, sell off everything we own, they have charges on everything you foreigners do here in our country. All fine. Be frugal. But you cannot discard education. It is everything: the past and the future too.”
“It so happens that that I’m here for some self-education,” I said, hoping to change the topic to something more positive, “A chance to learn about your history, from some people who call themselves Nova Roma.”
“You would be a fool to come to Rome and not learn what you can about our past,” the struggling teacher said with feeling. “The group you mention sounds familiar. I think they were involved in preserving a few old monuments here some years ago. Odd name, as if this Rome was only old and not new too, but whoever helps us educate is a friend.”
My new friend guided me down a maze of streets that I was grateful not to have to explore using directions pulled off the internet. As it was, I nearly got lost a few times when my guide turned a corner too quickly, but fortunately he seemed to have a sixth sense to help counter tourist cluelessness and always returned before I bumbled off in another direction (the fact that I was paying half on arrival may have helped there too).
Finally, we arrived at a tightly packed row of apartment buildings.
“This is the address you have given me,” said the gentlemen who’d taken me this far.
I gave him the rest of his money with a gesture over my wristband. They make a whole lot of varieties of these portable devices these days – the one I had resembled the rubber bracelets which had been popular back when my nephew was in high school, except for the colour, which resembled an oil-slick on parking lot puddle. If it wasn’t as versatile as the version most people wore in the form of earrings, it was at least easier to deal with when it overheated.
I knocked at the door three times, as instructed. A man in an orange knit cap and an olive jacket opened the door. Not the sort of dress I’d been expecting from the legion’s welcoming committee, and I wondered for a moment whether the guide had dropped me off at the wrong block, but then I noticed the man’s lapel pin – an olive branch crossed with a branch of laurel.
I gave the man the passphrase, and he escorted me into the building. As I walked inside, I noticed that what had looked like aged stone was actually a thin plastic veneer over steel-reinforced concrete.
“Historical zoning,” the man said when he caught me glancing at it, “Ironically.”
There inside the block, which turned out actually to be a single large building, I saw that all the intervening walls had been cleared away (or I guess had never been there in the first place) so that we were in an extremely small field, in the centre of which was the building I’d seen on their website.
I was curious about the political intrigues, but, figuring it might be a sensitive topic, I instead asked jokingly, “You build that in a day?”
“Not I,” the man responded seriously, “I was living in Arquá at the time. But I understand the basic structure of the camp was built in one day. They’ve been adding to it piecemeal ever since.”
I wondered how far they planned to take it. Permanent camps had expanded into cities in ancient times, but that would prove difficult for this one, since it already had a city surrounding it.
“How did you get a hold of this building?” I asked. “I’m Nelson Rodgers, by the way.”
“Omar Schiavone, but around here I go by ‘Prefect Gaius Sergius Longinus’, or just ‘Longinus’. As for the building, the original was destroyed in the disturbances of the ‘20s. It was a blessing that most of Rome remained untouched.”
I followed the Longinus into the camp and to a tent. Along the way, he greeted various people in Italian or Latin, one dressed in full armour, a few in street clothes like himself, but most in simple tunics. It looked like at least some of them were made of real linen, which must have cost a fortune.
“You’ll notice we don’t actually maintain military discipline here,” the prefect said as he left, “Feel free to sleep in; we’re having a group come through tomorrow afternoon that you may want to join. Other than that, you’re pretty much at your own recognizance.”
“Any suggestions for breakfast?” I asked.
He directed me to a place around the corner where past visitors had enjoyed their morning expresso.
The next morning, I was at a small café overlooking the Piaza Campo de’ Fiori. I had not actually taken any vacation time for this trip, so I was exhausted from putting in my usual eight hours the previous evening. Working remotely did have its advantages, though, I reflected. Those of my co-workers who made a habit of travelling continuously around the world were able to do so because of the high-speed wireless connection to our main office.
Maria had lived in a different European city every month, back when travel within Europe had been relatively easy. Now that it had become such an ordeal, she had taken up travel around the Pacific instead, but she had still been to Rome recently enough to point out some landmarks I should visit and a number of resources for long-term visitors. The prefect back at the fortress had given me a similar list. It was helpful to have both because the first was geared to sites less than a century old, and the second to those which dated back further. Still, it came out to five printed pages, plus scribbled notes that Mr. Masina had written in when I’d shown him my itinerary the day before.
“It would have been a better idea to arrange a guide for the whole trip.” I muttered.
Fortunately, I noticed a particular symbol on the T-shirts of two other diners a table over, not the crossed laurel and olive branches of Legio II, but the laurel wreath enclosing “S•P•Q•R” on a field of red, which I had learned was Nova Roma’s original symbol. One of the two women might have been in her early forties, while the other seemed about twenty. They looked alike.
“Tita, you’re going to need to put more thought into your application essay if you want to earn a scholarship. It’s not just one person applying like it was when I was in school,” said the older of the women to the younger.
“Yes, Mom,” said the younger woman, Tita, with exasperation.
“Please be a little more polite in your tone. We are taking this trip because you thought it would inspire your essay writing. Is it unreasonable of me to ensure it’s a good investment?”
“No, but you know how hard I’ve been working…”
“Well, question answered, let’s leave it at that.” The mother lowered her voice, “We may have been disturbing people. That old man at the second table over is looking at us.”
“Salve,” I said, imitating the way Longinus had greeted other reenactors. Both returned the greeting automatically, before the older of the pair corrected the grammar.
They introduced themselves as Decima Valeria Flacca and Tita Cilnia Vera.
“Are you staying in the encampment?” I asked.
“Encampment? You must mean Legio II’s place. No, we’re here for the 2038 Conventus,” Vera answered.
Apparently, there was one major event I’d missed while looking through Nova Roma’s website.
“We’re staying at a B&B on the outskirts of Rome that offers a discount to citizens,” Flacca said. “There is a lot of activity in this city that’s not associated with Dentatus and his friends. There may even be another reenactment legion, although I’m not certain of that.”
“My mom and I are more religious people,” Vera explained, “Religious and literary in mom’s case, religious and philosophical in mine. We are curious about what’s going on with Legio II though; do you have any inside information?”
I wasn’t sure how to interpret the series of adjectives, but the question was easy enough to answer. “Not really, but I do know they’ll be having a tour of their grounds early this afternoon. Everything will probably be explained then, or, if not, then we can ask during the Q&A.
“In the meantime, could help me with figuring out how to visit the places on this list?”
“You’ll never see all of Rome in one trip,” Flacca answered matter-of-factly, “I’ve been here 10 times, and there are still new things I want to see. Why don’t you come with us to the Conventus activities and then lead us back to the encampment at 2 p.m., when there happens to be a break.” Flacca pointed out this part of the schedule, labelled “Explore on your own.”
We all assented, and Flacca led us to where the next organized event on the schedule would take place. It took longer than estimated by her mobile device, since we kept admiring places Flacca recalled from previous visits, or which Vera thought looked interesting. I didn’t say anything when we passed places I would have chosen to visit, since they were letting me tag along on their family trip, but even so we had scratched fourteen sites off the list before founding a crowd carrying the wreath insignia as a banner.
My two new friends introduced me to a host of people, a few local and many more from all over Europe and the Americas. It was hard to take note of the odd-sounding Latin names with the polyglot snippets of conversation I could hear in the background.
Back in the encampment, the three of us stood near the back of a medium-sized crowd, as Appius Furius Dentatus himself narrated the tour. It seemed like the precise placement of every twig carried some sort of historical significance, and like a tutor with no time to spare before the college entrance exam, Dentatus was determined to cram as much of the available knowledge into our heads as possible. Much of it was fascinating, but it was delivered in too much of a rush to really be enjoyed
“It seems like a waste,” Vera whispered. “They can build something like this anywhere, but there is nowhere else in the world you could have a genuine Roman apartment building.”
I was still trying to figure out whether she had a point or not when the historical portion of the tour abruptly ended.
“Some of you here are from our parent organization, Nova Roma,” Dentatus said, nodding at two or three others in the red shirts as well as Flacca and Vera. “You are no doubt curious as to why we have seceded. Simply put, the taxes and other restrictions on foreign non-profits operating in Italy are simply too high. Rest assured that we will continue to work with you on any cause in our power, and that you will continue to be welcome here in our headquarters.
“Please also be aware that the members of this legion can at any time acclaim a new imperator. It’s all here in the articles of incorporation,” he said, holding up a sheaf of papers, “which I will file today.”
“There’s no doubt it’s good news,” I said later, back at the B&B where Flacca and Vera had been staying. “It’s just a little anticlimactic, that’s all.”
“A little suspicious too if you ask me,” Vera agreed, “Isn’t the Pomerium Association already incorporated as an Italian non-profit? Why does Dentatus need to call himself emperor?”
“Let’s not question it too closely. I’m just glad that the international organization reached an agreement with him that everyone likes and got it in writing. Let’s just hope that our concord lasts unbroken for another twenty years.”
“I’ll drink to that.” Vera said.
“To 20 more years of Concordia,” we all said, and we clinked our glasses together.