"If I catch you, I will make your face like an old saint!"
It's Day One of gladiator school, and my teacher, Vates, is trying to get me to fight, egging me on with some choice Latin insults, but his taunts are lost in English translations looser than togas and syntax as mangled as felled legionnaires. "Your armpits ride to 100 miles!" he yells. "Screw you and three quarters of your building!"
Here, in an open field behind a bus station on the outskirts of Rome, under a murky December sky, a half-dozen novices and I stand shivering in sandals and short white tunics. We are simulating savagery and trying to get in touch with our inner warrior, which, in my case, has been hibernating since a fourth-grade snowball fight.
Gladiator classes are offered two nights a week by the Gruppo Storico Romano, a fledgling historical society whose 200 or so members love to dress up like Animal House frat boys and reenact Roman revels for pageants and town fairs. The society has been inundated with applicants since Gladiator splattered the silver screen with its gore last year. Classes are held in a makeshift arena just off the Appian Way, where Spartacus and his rebel army were hung out to dry. The Roman physician Galen described gladiators as massive and overfed. Not much has changed in two millennia. The assembled irregulars—bank clerks, sales managers, traffic cops—tend to be weightier than Umberto Eco novels. We all work at drills designed to teach us agility, tactics and swordplay, thrusting and parrying with wooden practice swords that resemble outsized tongue depressors. Never swing your gladius in an arc, Vates tells us, lead with your stronger leg, present as small a target as possible.
The intricate etiquette that prevents our hacking from degenerating into mayhem is vigorously enforced by Vates, a 23-year-old history major known outside the ring as Alessandro Rizzo. He moves through the six-blow sequence of sword thrusts with the sure economy of a veteran dancer. The first maneuver, an overhand thwack to the skull, looks something like a Pete Sampras smash. The second, a low sweep at the legs, suggests an Andre Agassi backhand. The sixth, a swift thrust to the navel, is not unlike John McEnroe spearing a line judge with his racquet.
By the second session I am ready for what Vates calls "virtual killing." Points are awarded for whacking various parts of your opponent's body. The first gladiator to rack up 10 points wins. (Decapitation is worth only three). Swaggering into the armory, I spy dozens of pikes, brooms and blunt-edged metal swords stacked against the walls. What are the brooms for? I ask Vates. "Blood and severed limbs," he says.
He and I pair off for combat. Vates enters the arena bareheaded, armed with a net and a trident; I wear scaly iron armor and a helmet. The claustrophobic headgear tunnels my vision and pinches my cheeks. Already, I have the face of an old saint. We recite the frightful gladiator oath and touch swords. Then the sound of metal clanging against metal echoes in the air as sword meets trident, trident meets shield. While circling each other like gun-fighters in a spaghetti western, Vates hisses, "I give you a kick on your bottom that it goes to your shoulders." Ouch! "I cut your ass in four halves." Yow!
Quickly, I launch my own Roman riposte: "At whom it touches, it does not grunt." I'm not sure what that means, but Vates seems to know—his eyes narrow and his fingers tighten on die trident as he heaves his fishnet, snags the fin on my helmet and fillets me. I flop in the cords, nicking my shield hand with my sword. I untangle myself. I lick the blood from my wound with, gladiatorial gusto. I lunge forward and take a wild swipe at Vates, leaving myself wide open. He charges. I freeze...and become an exceedingly dead gladiator. "Good gladiators try not to die," Vates says with a pained sigh. "Die, and your career is over."