I am clad in a scratchy tunic and sandals, wielding a sword that weighs as much as a small child and peering through the visor of a helmet that threatens to smother me under the Hades-hot Roman sun. The mosquitoes are feasting on my ankles, but worse, somewhere out there, in the segment of my vision that is blocked by the helmet, my opponent waits to lunge. Such are the trials of a gladiator wannabe.
I am here, at Ludus Magnus – gladiator school – largely because my 14-year-old son, Ben, and I share a fascination with the ancient Romans. It began when I was looking for a way to get Ben to move beyond his continuing obsession with Harry Potter to some new reading material. I hit upon British writer Conn Iggulden's four-book series on Julius Caesar. Ben ate it up … and so did I.
Gladiator school was intended to be a more hands-on activity for Ben, to offset the boredom of being forced to view priceless art and ancient stone piles while on a family trip to Rome.
Gladiator school is usually a day-long session, but we've talked Giorgio Franchetti, the school's founder, into doing a special two-hour class for us. The big bluff Italian played at Romans v. Gauls as a kid, sparring with sticks and wooden swords. That interest in the centurions and gladiators of ancient times grew as he got older. He began to follow up on archeological digs, talk to scholars and read everything he could get his hands on about the early fighters.
In 2004, riding on the success of Ridley Scott's Hollywood blockbuster Gladiator, Franchetti formed the Associazione Culturale S.P.Q.R. with a group of fellow history buffs. The 54-member troupe engages in swordplay regularly as a form of workout, and performs re-enactments both in Italy and abroad. They've been featured on the History Channel (Don Wildman spent a day at gladiator school for Cities of the Underworld) and on National Geographic channel in a segment on Pontius Pilate. Ludus Magnus ( www.ludusmagnus.info), which followed shortly after, offers a hands-on experience of life as a gladiator for Italian schoolkids and visiting tourists. “You see the movies. You read the books. But if you want to experience the point of view of the gladiator, you have to come and live it,” Franchetti says.
The problem, he tells us, is that little is known about gladiator training. Much of what Franchetti and his companions have discovered comes from replicating and then sparring in the equipment that gladiators would have worn.
After a journey to a park on the outskirts of Rome, Ben and I don tunics and sandals, like the rest of the troupe. The shoes have been hand-tooled to match those worn by the gladiators of old, and they're surprisingly comfortable. I can't say the same of the impenetrable-looking helmets Franchetti lines up on a hobby horse. “You may believe that these were meant to protect the gladiators,” he says. In fact, he points out, the heavy helmets were more of a hindrance than a help. As I soon discover, they block your vision and are hot and confining. Ditto for the body armour that hinders movement and leaves fighters overheated.
“The most successful gladiators were the retiarii,” Franchetti says. These men fought in bare feet, with nothing more than a loin cloth and a piece of armour that protected one arm and a shoulder, as well as a trident, a dagger and a net that could catch on an opponent's helmet, bringing him down. The trick, of course, is learning to swing that net so that it fans out over your opponent's head. With the help of burly Franchetti, Ben has some success. In the meantime, I'm engaged in trying to block the thrusts of another gladiator's sword (a gladius) by deflecting it with my own – the practice weapons are fashioned out of wood, which is fortunate for me, as I prove somewhat inept at the whole business.
While we swing and sweat, Franchetti continues to explode some myths about gladiators. Contrary to common belief, he says, they were not he-man meat-eaters who always fought to the death. By examining their skeletons, physical anthropologists have concluded that they were largely vegetarians, whose diet primarily consisted of legumes, barley and dried fruits as well as an “energy drink” high in minerals. In addition, although the games began as an early form of multitasking – amusing the citizens of Rome while putting condemned army deserters and killers to death – professional gladiators eventually became a valuable commodity. These were usually free men who signed on as gladiators for profit or thrills.
“They had sex appeal,” Franchetti says, “like Becks.”
“It's true,” confirms Richard Norman, a guide for Roman Candle Tours ( www.romancandletours.com), during a later tour around the Colosseum. Gladiators had eager fans – there was even a line of gladiator kitsch. Archeologists have turned up baby bottles, flasks, plates and earrings decorated with gladiator images. “They had themed merchandise, just like the souvenir shops now.”
Although a multitude of fierce beasts were fed to the crowds' appetite for spectacle in the Colosseum – so many that “the Romans caused the extinction of species in some areas of Africa,” Norman points out – a good gladiator was a valuable commodity. Gladiator owners invested time and money in training fighters and then sold or rented them out for the games, keeping most of the proceeds and the prize money. They even took out a form of insurance on their assets. In turn, the gladiators received nutritious food and regular medical treatment, often surviving many battles. Tombstone inscriptions translated by physical anthropologists indicate some weathered more than 100 fights.
As we enter the Forum, Norman points out the open space where the first gladiatorial contests occurred in 264 BC. By 80 AD, the Colosseum became the venue of choice, with seating for 50,000 people. The four-storey edifice still impresses. In fact, when Norman took two theatre buddies through it recently, they were gobsmacked by the ramps, cages and pulleys used to lift people and animals into the ring – mechanics comparable to those used in modern stage productions. Even better, in case of fire (which was common), the Colosseum could be emptied in just five minutes. As we gaze up into what remains of the seating area, Norman asks us to visualize 50,000 fans baying for blood.
“The smell of fear must have been rampant down below,” he says.
Ben, I am gratified to see, looks fascinated.
Pack your bags
Air Canada offers a direct flight from Toronto to Rome.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Nord Nuova Roma Via Giovanni Amendola 3; 800-783-6904; www.romehotelnord.it. Summer deals are available with rates from about $180 (as part of a three-night stay). Family rooms available.
WHAT TO DO
Roman Candle Tours www.romancandletours.com.
Associazione Culturale S.P.Q.R. Ludus Magnus (gladiator school) 39 (335) 153 5878; www.ludusmagnus.info. Day-long sessions about $150. Check for availability.
Special to The Globe and Mail