Two American tourists, kitted out in glinting helmets and handsome tunics, grapple with each other, swords clanging, as if their very lives depend on it.
“We thought we would take a break from cultural touring and walking around,” said Chris Coffman, 43, visiting from Pennsylvania with his family and some friends, adding that they learned about the course on the Internet.
Just a stone’s throw from the Colosseum, on the ancient Appian Way leading from the Eternal City to Brindisi, they boarded the time machine of the Rome Historical Group (Gruppo Storico Romano or GSR) and whiled away an entire afternoon in the Rome of 2,000 years ago.
“What we are doing here is experimental archeology,” said their instructor, who goes by the artistic name of Hermes, between two especially strenuous exercises. “The teaching consists of experiencing all the sensations of a Roman of the time.”
Like the 140 other members of the association of history buffs, Hermes — who sells real estate during the week — became a gladiator trainer because of his “passion for Rome.”
“Being Roman doesn’t just mean living in Rome, but making ‘Rome’ live,” he said.
The course can cost up to 100 euros (US$120) per person for two hours, but slides down to 25 euros for groups of at least 10.
The 2000 Hollywood film Gladiator starring Russell Crowe led to a surge of interest in the course.
“I did see Gladiator,” admitted Coffman, adding that he thought the weapons seemed “a little heavier” than they appeared in the film.
Hermes, himself clad in a tunic, puts seven would-be gladiators through the paces in the sand, kicking up clouds of dust.
The students learn to dodge heavy sandbags hanging from ropes, before moving on to another exercise testing their timing and reflexes, avoiding heavy poles attached to a carousel.
After this warm-up, the students get into hand-to-hand combat, starting with wooden swords, before graduating to the metal ones, under Hermes’ watchful eye.
“I’m always nearby to make sure they don’t hurt themselves,” Hermes said.
Even children can pretend to be Spartacus for a day.
Filippo, 11, from Prato in Tuscany, dragged his father to the course.
“When I was really little, I played with little toy soldiers. Now I love playing Roman battles on the computer,” Filippo said. “Here, I’ve learned that a provokator is a gladiator who provokes the adversary, but my favorite is the sekutor: the professional gladiator who always wins.”
Nearby, the GSR has a museum that seeks to correct myths concocted in Hollywood about gladiators.
Visitors can touch and try out the about 350 objects on display, from the classic gladiator’s sword to the noisy metal belts used to intimidate the enemy, to lances, helmets and other paraphernalia of the Roman Empire.
“It was interesting to get some historical information — I liked the old-time, original feeling,” said Coffman, who practices karate and enjoys biking and hiking.
“There were some inaccurate things in the movie [Gladiator], like the thumbs-up and thumbs-down signals” determining whether the slave-gladiators would be freed or killed after the battle, he said.
The weapons are churned out by the workshop of the association, which regularly stages parades and historical reconstructions, not just in Rome but across Europe, as well as in China — in Shanghai and Hong Kong — and in Boston.