Italy isn’t always set up for family tourism, unfortunately. For my son’s first trip to Italy, I have been looking to make his experience fun and engaging, looking for something to do that can bring history to life. I was lucky enough to have that very something fall into my lap, a combat lesson at a gladiator school in Rome.
Ok, I know what you’re thinking. That really cannot be a real thing, and if it is, it cannot be good. I’ve been working in Rome for ages and have never even heard about it. Turns out, the Scuola Gladiatori presented by Gruppo Storico Romano has been around for a while and has a good reputation for doing historical recreations that try to be as accurate as possible. It’s a little on the expensive side, about $75 per person for a 2 hour lesson, but I thought I’d give it a try and if it wasn’t good, at least I’d be saving all of you the money!
The Scuola Gladiatore is at the end of the ancient Appian Way, just outside of the walls of Rome. Once you get out of the Aurelian Walls in this area, the big city suddenly turns into a poetic slice of countryside with ancient walls and Roman pines.
The school is down a lane just before the bus stop called “Quo Vadis”, a very famous spot. It was here that they say Saint Peter, escaping from certain execution in Rome, met a stranger in the road who asked him the question that roughly means, where you going? Here, 2000 years ago, Saint Peter turned around and headed back to Rome to face his fate, crucifixion upside down in deference to Christ’s (the stranger on the road) position.
A few blocks beyond this you can see the entrance to the Catacombs of San Callisto, one of the largest and most picturesque in the area. It’s a lovely spot, filled with history and oozing ancient character, setting the mood for a little time travel to Ancient Rome.
I was expecting the venue to be some sort of warehouse or theater, since I was under the impression that this was essentially a theater troupe teaching fake combat. The venue was quite charming, a mostly shack-like affair with outdoor stages and arenas. It seemed like an elaborate stage set, but in a good way. With all the years I’ve spent around the Colosseum, my imagination has constructed the idea of gladiator school, and even without sweaty slaves and strange smells, what I found there wasn’t so very far away from my imaginings.
We were met by our instructor, Emmanuele, and I think my son almost fell over from shock. The instructor was the most massive, muscular hunk of a man that I’ve ever seen. He looked like someone that just stepped out of a comic book of superheroes, but in a Roman tunic and covered with tattoos. Impressive and seriously legit. He played his role very well, and we found out later that he was no actor. His day job was as a bodyguard and Mixed Martial Arts champion, basically the modern-day equivalent to a gladiator.
A few months after we returned home, we had a bit of a surprise. My kids and I were watching the History Channel, and who did we spy? Our gladiator school instructor, who apparently moonlights as a background character in a documentary on the Renaissance!
We spent the first half hour in their museum of sorts, getting a lesson on the history of gladiatorial combat and the Roman military. We got a chance to look at some fun recreations of armor and weapons. I was expecting something cheesy and fake and although it’s all fake by definition, the information was good and generally quite accurate.
If you’ve seen Ben Hur or Gladiator, you probably think you’ve got the concept of what a gladiator does and who they were, but the reality is a little different. Gladiators were often slaves sent into the ring to fight to the death with swords, a weapon called a gladius, which is where we get the name. The fights and fighters were very similar to our boxers today. They were well fed, well trained and didn’t fight very often. Those that were good could become really famous, earn their freedom and eventually become wealthy. The men chosen to become gladiators were chosen from captured enemies, and they usually looked for the strongest, most angry and aggressive captives who would not be suitable to work in family homes. While it’s true that many were slaves, some were volunteers, people with little to lose that saw the allure of fame. The fact that men volunteered to fight confirms that not every fight ended in death. In fact, with the amount of food and training required to train a decent gladiator, it wouldn’t be a good business model for them to die in the first fight.
After our introduction, it was time to jump into the physical part of the class. We each received a tunic and length of rope to tie as a belt. It seemed a little silly to wear a costume, but was super important in the end. Arena is the Latin word for sand, and the fighting arena was covered with a thick layer of it…and so were we by the end.
Our instructor, who used the Germanic gladiator stage name “Alfgar”, started us with some warm-ups. We ran through an obstacle course of ropes and sandbags, push-ups, running the circuit three times and hitting a gong at the end of each. I felt like I was in one of those basic training montages from military movies. The group was a mix of adults and kids, so while I felt a little silly, it was all in good fun.
After our warm up, we got down to the fighting techniques. The instructor shared some maneuvers, some of them drawn from history and some from his own experience as a professional fighter. He showed us a series of excellent self-defense techniques that are practical to know in any case. I particularly appreciated how he showed the kids escape maneuvers from a variety of holds. We got wooden swords to practice our moves in a series, sort of like the kids do in karate class.
The culmination of our gladiator school training was one on one fights with swords wrapped in foam. I remember a Simpsons episode once that had the family whomping away on each other with foam bats. Our fighting wasn’t quite that bad, at least I’d like to think so. I’d like to think we had some technique and style. Did I beat my 8 year-old in combat? Nope. He’s a fast little guy! But I think the judge of the match gave him extra points for cuteness.
We ended our class in gladiator training with a bottle of water and a graduation certificate. I’m not sure if I’d be any good at being a gladiator, even if they do think that female gladiators existed. They told us that women combatants in Roman times were typically more like clowns of the games, sent in as a diversion between bouts.
Was it worth it? As a gun activity for a mom and siblings, absolutely. I’d suggest it for families or for theatrical adults who like historical recreations. It was surprisingly well done, and the location made for a perfect day. After we were done, we walked along the ancient Appian Way and visited the Catacombs. It doesn’t get more Roman than that.
Want to give it a try? Contact the gladiator school here: www.gruppostoricoromano.it
Prices start at €150 for two people, but decrease if there are more in the group. Classes happen most days beginning at 9, 11 and 3 and take about two hours. The site can be reached by bus from central Rome. Taxi or Uber is about €20.