Life as a gladiator was tough. Aside from being forced to fight other gladiators – or, worse still, ferocious exotic beasts – accommodation was prison-like and training intense – it even included how to die in a heroic, unflinching manner. If, by some miracle, gladiators survived their first match, they were expected to go through the whole ordeal again with fresh opponents. If you want to experience a hands-on, but health-and-safety-approved experience of what gladiatorial battle entailed, enrol at the Gladiator School in Rome.
Located on the Appian Way – one of ancient Rome’s earliest and most strategically important roads – the Scuola Gladiatori Roma (Rome Gladiator School), offers a variety of activities and courses that aim to bring history to life.
Classes range from just a few hours to more in-depth and extensive courses which see participants rise through the gladiator ranks and learn all there is to know about combat movements, weaponry and defence positons – all taking place in a reproduction of a castrum, a Roman military defence camp. The classes are organised by the Gruppo Storico Romano (the Roman Historical Group) and led by a number of the group’s members who specialise in the re-enactment of Roman life and gladiatorial combat.
The ‘real-life’ gladiators even have their very own backstories. There’s Kratos; a captured Greek native bought to Rome by a slave dealer who fights to regain his freedom, Spiculus; a master of many types of gladiatorial disciplines, and Scorpius; especially skilled in the use of a trident.
Just like in ancient times, there’s even a female gladiator, Avrea. (Before emperor Septimius Severus banned them in 200AD, female fighters were rare but not completely unheard of.)
Live as a gladiator for a day
Short ‘day in the life’ sessions begin in the Gladiator School museum (which can also be visited separately free of charge) with an overview of the exhibits on display. The objects in the museum were faithfully reconstructed from careful historic research. As well as weapons and armour used by gladiators, legionaries and praetorians (the elite personal bodyguards of the emperor), the exhibits include models of heavy weaponry and objects that depict daily life in ancient Rome.
Visitors are invited to try on a helmet for size and test out the model onager – a type of catapult used for besieging forts and settlements.
Each gladiator-in-training is given a typical Roman tunic and a wooden training sword known as a rudis. In the school’s modest arena, the recruits get to grips with some basic techniques of attack and defence before moving on to more complex routines performed by specific types of gladiators. The retiarius, for example, carried a trident and a net, and most commonly fought against the scutarius. While the retiarius had no helmet, his opponents’ helmet was smooth and round to help him avoid getting tangled up in the net.
Those that prefer to take in a blood-soaked spectacle from a safe distance can cheer on the competitors from the viewing gallery.
Whether you go for glory and wield a sword or just form part of the baying crowd, a trip to Gladiator School will make that visit to the Colosseum even more awe-inspiring.
Scuola Gladiatori Roma, Via Appia Antica, 18, 00179 Roma RM, Italy, +39 06 5160 7951