Tony Perrottet
Writer, Editor, Historian
Tony Perrottet photo
Cuba Libre cover

Bring On the Bloodbath!

In Rome these days, gladiators don't have to give up their day jobs.


To visit Rome's premier training school for gladiators—the Gruppo Storico Romano, or Roman Historical Group—it helps to have had a stiff drink first: just finding the place is an obscure test of nerve. Or so it seemed one moonless night, when a taxi driver dropped me on an empty stretch of the Via Appia Antica, the ancient Appian Way, pointed grimly down a muddy side alley and sped off into the fog. Groping my way through the nebulous darkness, I was quickly surrounded by a pack of barking dogs, who eagerly followed my every step. After stumbling into several abandoned yards, I spotted a dimly-lit paddock full of full of promising-looking debris—including a full-sized catapult and sinister items like tridents, nets and helmets. As the door to a corrugated shed creaked open, I was relieved to see a half dozen students in tunics, ready for blood.

"Salve," roared the teacher, Carmelo Canzaro, a burly figure with a close-shaven head. (The Latin greetings is still commonly used by Italians.) By day, Carmelo runs a clothing store, he explained, but by night his name is changed to Spiculus, and he teaches the cut and thrust of the arena.

The Gruppo Storico is one of a dozen amateur groups in Rome catering to history-loving Italians who want to learn the arts of the gladiator. The students are everyday Roman citizens like bank clerks and truck drivers. Aiming at authenticity, they want nothing to do with the cheesy 'Roman legionnaires' who hang around the Colosseum, bumming tips from tourists in exchange for photo ops. This is a serious business.

"There's nothing in ancient texts that describe gladiators' training techniques," Spiculus admitted, as he presented me with my wooden training sword, "so we have to improvise, using later information." The school offers occasional "theory lessons" on hand-to-hand combat, but I had arrived for the more practical training, so I dashed into a back room to change into my tunic—a fetching little number in rough white cotton. Soon, as I began to go through the cut and thrust routine—we went through a dance-like set of movements, chanting unus, duus, tres, quartuor—Spiculus added ominously: "You have to pay complete attention. One lapse and you can be caught off balance." He himself was sitting the evening out, recovering from a broken ankle. (The injury had occurred while battling with a real iron sword, Spiculus hastened to add; even so, I hoped my fellow students didn't get too over-enthusiastic with their wooden versions).

During the rest period, a wiry young computer programmer, Massimo Carnevali, whose gladiatorial name was Kyros, explained the school's deep appeal. "It combines history with physical exercise," he enthused. "I love the discipline." An American Latin student living in Rome agreed: "I loved this stuff before, but to have the opportunity to come here and chop at people with swords was a dream come true."

I spent a good hour and a half swinging away with my toy weapon, and felt like I was getting the hang of it—although my coordination left something to be desired. "Non è un Russell Crowe," one of my sparring partners admitted, as we downed weapons. ("You're no Russell Crowe").

As the group disbanded, I slipped out into the darkness and passed Spiculus constructing a large wooden box. "The difficulty with modern students is to convey the mentality of the gladiator," he said, "the idea of fighting to the death. Many students start off with a casual attitude, but they soon learn what it was like to be in the arena."

I asked Spiculus what he was building—some gruesome battle device from antiquity? He shook his head. "No, this is where we're putting the Nativity scene.'

* * *

The enthusiasm of the bank-clerk gladiators may be a little extreme, but is hardly rare in Rome these days. In fact, Romans are still basking in a new "golden age" of interest in the classical past, which was kick-started by the city's year 2000 Grand Jubilee. This energetic new spirit—and influx of hard Euros—can still be felt in all the classical sites of Rome, once notorious for their apathetic staff, erratic schedules and eerie absence of display labels. Arguably, Roman museums now are among the most elegantly designed, and its archaeological sites the most user-friendly, in the world.

"Compared to Rome in the mid-1980s, the improvement is incredible," Nicola Laneri, a Roman archaeologist, told me over pizza in the shadow of the Colosseum. "And there is another big change: it's not just foreign tourists who are taking advantage of the cultural improvements. A huge number of Italians are now visiting them."

The popular enthusiasm is such that Rome's Archaeology Department cannot keep up with demand. A whole roster of fringe attractions is open one day a month for Italian language-only tours, on a calendar that is erratic enough to discourage all but the most persistent. I stumbled upon the schedule by accident years on one visit, when I picked up a nondescript Carnet di Viaggio at a museum store, and noticed the page called Archaeologia Nascota, "Hidden Archaeology," whose prime objective is to reveal otherwise off-limits tombs, temples and sanctuaries for Roman aficionados.

And so, on a sunny Saturday morning, I found myself the only foreigner in a crowd of fifty Italians standing outside one of Rome's most intriguing landmarks, the Pyramid of Gaius Cestus—an Egyptian-style tomb built by a Roman nobleman in the Augustan Age. It was a genially chaotic affair: Only thirty people in the crowd had reservations, and after much heated discussion, the lucky ones were allowed through an iron gate, down steps to a garden below street level—a lush green grove, crowned with poplar trees and prowled by a dozen cats. Then we filed into the Pyramid, hunching through the entrance like grave robbers ("Last one in close the door!" the guide yelled out. "If those cats get in, we'll never get them out!"). There was a heady sense of privilege inside the humid inner chamber, as we gazed at frescos of four winged figures on the ceiling, along and one enigmatic piece of graffito from the 1600s—Antonio.

Meanwhile, all across Rome, urban planners have been trying creative new ways to blend ancient and modern. The Markets of Trajan, created in the second century AD as a multistory shopping mall, now double as a gallery space for contemporary art. In the maze of vaulted arcades, where vendors once hawked Arabian spices and pearls from the Red Sea, and where fish was kept fresh in salt water pumped 16 km away from the coast, the ancient shops are filled with metal sculptures, video installations and mannequins flaunting Dolce and Gabbana suits as minimalist harmonies twang through the corridors.

Equally effective is the Montemartini Museum, which was opened as a temporary exhibit in 1997 and became so popular with Romans that it has been made permanent: Here sensuous marble sculptures have been placed amongst the soaring metal turbines of an abandoned 19th-century electrical plant. Meanwhile, the dark corridors inside the Colosseum have been turned into an exhibition space using the latest modern audio-visual techniques, projecting films onto scrims, while the nearby Crypta Balba Museum uses sleek chrome and glass passageways to allow visitors into the bowels of a building that had been occupied almost continuously for two thousand years—tracing Rome's layered history back to 100 BC on this one spot. There are even vaguely sci-fi plans for transparent walkways to link the various Forums in the city's heart.

Other adventures into the ancient-meets-modern design world have been more controversial. In April 2006, Italian officials unveiled a new museum pavilion designed by American architect Richard Meier to house the magnificent 9 meter-high Ara Pacis, or Altar of Peace—a sacrificial altar dedicated by the Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C. to celebrate the advent of the Pax Romana. The first new edifice in Rome's historical center since the days of Mussolini, it has been criticized for its starkly angular travertine-and-glass design, which many Romans feel violates the traditional ambiance of the old city. In one notorious attack, the vocal undersecretary to the Ministry of Culture, Vittorio Sgarbi, compared its boxlike form to a "gas station in Dallas" and burned the building in effigy at a demonstration; others have mourned the "Los Angelization of Rome."

But such attacks are rare: Most of the experiments have been warmly embraced by Romans, and have quickly become part of the city's fabric.

* * *

On my last night in Rome, still nursing my bruises from my session at the Gladiator School, I decided to visit the most successful of Rome's recent renovations, the Campidoglio, or Capitoline Hill. The site is thick with symbolism: throughout antiquity, this was the most sacred of the city's seven hills, crowned by the golden-roofed Temple of Jupiter; inside, an immense statue of the god presided over magnificent artworks from around the Roman world. Today, the site is occupied by the newly-buffed Capitoline Museums, twin Renaissance palaces whose gleaming hallways are lined with ancient masterpieces. But the most beloved corner of the museum—a modern sacred site for Italians—is the new outdoor café. It's located on the precise spot where ancient travelers once came to gaze out on Rome, the Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World, whose marble buildings, gushed the Greek orator Aelius Aristides, covered the horizon "like snow."

That ancient euphoria was not hard to recapture. Emerging onto the expansive café terrace at dusk, cradling a glass of prosecco, I gazed across Rome's spectacular terracotta roofs turning pink in the sunset and silently congratulated myself on being in the most beautiful city on earth—just as I might have done 2,000 years ago.

Past and present, ancient and modern, were seamlessly blurring—and nobody was even chopping at me with a wooden sword.