Rome’s Gladiator School

October 9, 2009 by

Europe, Family & Kids

The Gladiator School (Scuola di Gladiotori) in Rome is nestled very appropriately off the ancient Roman road of the Appia Antica, where cars and buses still roar over the original paving stones that make up this ancient via. The school is like a genuine little fortress, complete with its wooden ramparts constructed from sharpened wooden logs.

When I first arrived I wandered gingerly into the fort and found myself in a sand-covered courtyard. The place had the distinct vibe of a training ground. In one corner little sacks tied to ropes were hanging from a wooden pole. I couldn’t imagine what their use was but thought – ah, gladiator training equipment!

Laurence prepares for battle!

Laurence prepares for battle!

At that moment a man dressed like a senator wandered past me hurriedly, he greeted two ladies dressed in the evening dresses of ancient Rome, helping each other adjust their earrings. Not long after another character appeared – this time in full Centurion battle dress, chain mail included. I had arrived early and wondered what was taking place – it was full of Italians immaculately dressed in the various ranks of the ancient citizens of Rome.

They looked so ‘at home’ in their ancient dress that it became clear that this was more than just a fancy-dress party.

Sledge hammers in the name of mercy

An upper-class Roman

Ancient Roman evening dress

A lady looking a bit rougher than the rest (with frightening black paint over her face – it turned out to she was a barbarian) came up to me. I explained I was early for my training and she apologised, explaining that it was a little chaotic that day as a whole group of them were preparing to attend some kind of political demonstration. She said there would be a small delay and offered to take me on a tour of the little museum at the back of the training ground.

What followed was a lively explanation of life and war as a Centurion, as half the museum is dedicated to life as a Roman soldier. Then we moved onto life as a gladiator. She explained that there were two levels of gladiator – the professionals and the slaves.

The fundamental difference between the two? As a professional you stopped after the first “blood wound”; as a slave you were destined to fight to the death, slave against slave.

Apparently dying takes some time. So once one of the slaves was bloodied and struggling, a special executioner was called to dispatch the defeated. He had a creepy leather hat and would crack the losers head open with a large sledge hammer (in the name of mercy, of course). There is a full-size model of the executioner and his hammer in the museum.

The gladiators assemble

Soon more trainee gladiators arrived, an American family and two retired ex-US Navy men, with their wives and friends as spectators. Each of us are handed a beautifully pressed red tunic and told to change. Our trainer is Alex, dressed in period costume including some great Roman sandals. From the beginning we are drilled with cool military precision. The first exercises involve warming up both physically and mentally to get our concentration up.

Soon enough we are onto the hanging sand bags. Alex gets them all swinging haphazardly and we have to try our best to run through them without getting hit, then we leap over a small log at the end. It’s more fun than it sounds. The smallest of our group – a little boy – tries to run through them in one go, but it ends in disaster as he tangles himself up in the ropes (don’t worry, he survives). If forward wasn’t hard enough then we have to dodge the swinging pendulums in reverse. This is the last exercise in the warm up.

Gladiators, to combat!

Gladiator gear, ready for the students

Gladiator gear, ready for the students

True combat training begins. We are issued with little wooden paddles roughly the same size and shape as real Roman swords. We are split into two sides – one side attacks and the other defends.

Thankfully it is not a free for all. With military-like discipline Alex, in his Roman sandals, drills us in four attack moves and four defensive moves. Under the hot Roman sun we repeat them sequentially over and over again. It’s fun – you start to feel like a genuine warrior as the sequence of attack and defence maneuvers becomes more complicated.

Each of thus then mounts a frenzied attack on large a wooden pole with a specific sequence of attack moves – it’s hilarious as peoples coordination fails them. The scene is more like something out of a Woody Allen movie than Russell Crowe in Gladiators.

Next up – real swords!?!?

Thoroughly drilled in the ways of the wooden sword, we are then issued with the real thing! Heavy steel swords and shields are handed out, plus a whole amazing collection of replica Gladiator helmets.

It’s time to concentrate and hope your sparring partner has a caring side (these swords can do real damage!). With the helmets on it’s hot and you can hardly see a thing – the spectacle of the other trainees with their helmets on is slightly surreal. We don’t look like tourists anymore, but strange ancient warriors with sneakers on.

Soon we are at it again – clunking our heavy steel swords against each other and banging our shields in a completely new move. It’s hot work but hugely enjoyable and you start to get an idea of what ancient combat must have been like. Alex then brings out la rete (the net) and a trident, and pits one of us against two attackers. I manage to completely cover the little-boy gladiator with the net and fend off the other attacker with my trident. Success!

We are now gladiators

We end with a highly competitive sword fight with foam swords. A little low on sheer aggression, I don’t fare so well but it’s fun nonetheless. As the winner is cheered we are provided with juices and water to hydrate. We all rest except for father and son who continue a frenzied private combat. Finally Alex the trainer hands us out our certificates declaring in Latin that we are now citizens of Rome and we all shake hands and pat each others backs.

Gladiators, ready for battle!

Gladiators, ready for battle!

The training is roughly two hours. In full summer it must get pretty hot, especially once the helmets are on, but there are plenty of breaks with refreshments provided. It’s very hands-on and physical and not for those unable to take a bit of discipline (all in the interest of safety and historic accuracy).

I had a great time. The whole experience was fun and very competently put together. If you go in late summer I would recommend you bring some mosquito cream especially if you are wandering around the little museum or sitting in the audience seats.

-Laurence Belgrave

Planning a trip? Browse Viator’s Rome tours & things to do in Rome, including the Roman Gladiator School. You can also read more reviews of the Roman Gladiator School and see more photos of the Roman Gladiator School over on the Viator website.

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