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“Your warrior face is … terrifying.” So I’m told by my sparring partner, Nikki.

The effect, I’m sure, is amplified by the fact that I’m barefoot, covered up to my knees in dust, clad in a torn tunic, and wielding a sword (OK, it’s wooden, but I feel badass none-the-less). My instructor, Marcus Valerius, snarls at me. “You’ll get a real sword when you become a gladiator. Now, you’re only a slave. Slave!”

I get the point. Marcus, and his partner-in-arms, Hermes, are teachers at Scuola Gladiatori Roma, a one-of-a-kind training centre in Rome dedicated to preserving – through instruction – the fighting techniques used by real gladiators more than 2000 years ago. Back then, the warriors were a mix of prisoners, POWs and impoverished volunteers.

Gruesome though these contests were, gladiators who did well earned money and status. Those that did poorly decorated the amphitheatre with their entrails.

Before the lessons begin, our group of trainees do

a ‘warm up’, which entails running through the type of obstacle course you’d expect to find on The Krypton Factor. Hermes swings a sinister-looking carousel with bars jutting out at neck and knee level.

Fearing for my life, I jump and duck as each bar approaches, and curse that no story is worth a concussion or broken kneecap. Miraculously, I don’t get hit, but when I’m done, I’m streaming sweat. It doesn’t help that the heat in Rome is roasting.

Finally, we’re each given a sword and shield. Marcus teaches us how to slice a man’s head off, how to gut him and how to make a eunuch of him. He shows us how to block each move with our shields, then lets us loose.

As we change back into our civilian clothing, a wave of what look like hairy bikers arrives. These are bonafide members, who hit up the school regularly to practise their gladiator moves.

These boys have graduated from playing with wooden sticks, and spar with the long, straight-edged gladius.

The more advanced tackle a trident while expertly twirling a net to ensnare enemies.

Seeing them makes me wonder about the real lives of these modern-day gladiators; unlike their predecessors, who were slaves battling for their freedom, or else a bit of local fame, these guys are history buffs and re-enactment geeks (albeit with a harder edge).

I ask Hermes and Marcus Valerius what their real names are, but they decline to give them to me. As far as they’re concerned, they are their gladiator personas.

OK, fine, but what do they do when they’re not, um, gladiators? Hermes shrugs. “I work in real estate.”

The next day, I visit where the action really happened, the Colosseum. My guide, Maria Grazia Barbieri, describes how some gladiators became addicted to the fame, and chose to stay in the job indefinitely.

“They’d get recognised on the street,” she adds, putting me in mind of how ex-Apprentice contestants must feel. However, today’s reality TV has nothing on the spectacles that took place here.

An audience of 50,000 would gleefully tune in to watch condemned prisoners get disembowelled by wild beasts, or ex-slaves
fight to the death.

The amphitheatre’s main floor is, predictably, packed. Luckily for us, few tourists seem to know that for the first time this year, the lower level – where the gladiators waited underneath the stage for their turn to come up – and the upper level (basically, the nosebleed section) are now open to the public, but only with advance booking and a guided tour.

 


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Fight club: Discover Rome's gruesome past at gladiator school
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