Rome’s Gladiator School: My two months swinging a sword and learning truth was bloodier than fiction
(Director’s note: I’ve been traveling in Greece this week and in light of last week’s blog on the Colosseum Underground, I am posting a deep dive into the time of gladiators. During my first stint in Rome, I spent two months in La Scuola dei Gladiatori (The School of the Gladiators). Yes, Rome has one. It started as a magazine story and ended with an embarrassing fake death in front of 1,000 tourists in a small colosseum outside Rome. This was the central chapter in my 2008 book “An American Gladiator in Rome: Finding the Eternal Truth in the Infernal City.” Cheap plug: It can still be bought at Amazon.com by clicking here.)
I stood in a sandy pit hoping a stiff breeze didn’t fly under my tunic. Surrounded by torches and three dozen tourists, I realized my tunic was too short. Way too short. I weighed the embarrassment of revealing my brand of underwear to strangers against giving a Latin oath to a chunky tie salesman wearing animal skins. It was graduation day at Rome’s La Scuola dei Gladiatori (The Gladiator School), and I had just demonstrated how to use a sword and skewer, fillet and behead an opponent in six strokes. Somehow I don’t think when Spartacus took this oath, he was worried about bending over.
“Paratus es virga caederi, flamma consumi, et ferrum recipere (Are you ready to strike with the rod, to be burned by the fire and die by the iron?),” the man running the ceremony asked solemnly. The man wore animal skins, which made it difficult for me to remain as solemn as he was.
“Ita (Yes),’’ I replied.
“Possit ignis suam vim donare, posit tus deorum fidem donare! (May the fire give you the strength and incentive for loyalty to the gods!)’’ he said.
“Nunc Caractacus, gladiator sum! (I am Caractacus, the gladiator!)” I said. I walked up to a stage filled with Roman soldiers and vestal virgins and receive a diploma from a middle-aged printer who was a dead ringer for Emperor Nero, except for the cell phone. I walked away to polite applause and wondered what one does with gladiator skills in the 21st century except confront former bosses. I knew one thing. After two months inside the Gruppo Historico Romano (Roman Historical Society), which runs the school, I knew gladiators had not just returned to Hollywood. They had returned to Rome.
This group is made up of every walk of Roman society from cooks to flight attendants and is into this up to their breastplates. They have an entire armory of authentic weapons and armor. They refer to each other by their gladiator names. They hold gladiator battles, complete with weapons and, yes, animal skins, all over Italy. They have read Cicero’s ancient accounts of gladiators – in Latin. This whole love affair with Rome’s bloody past began in 2000. Sergei Iacomoni, a grizzled, rugged 49-year-old printer for the Bank of Italy and sometimes Nero, had seen the movie “Gladiator” five times. Already a wild fanatic about Roman history, he researched everything he could find on weaponry, fighting techniques and lifestyles of the ancient gladiators. He approached the Roman Historical Society about starting a school. The resulting program includes twice-weekly two-hour courses for two months and you learn how to fight like men who inspired a nation, historians and movie studios everywhere.
Gladiators were the main event in an era when hundreds of thousands of men were slaughtered in the name of entertainment, when the Colosseum flowed with blood from gory killings by man and wild beast alike. Hollywood wouldn’t dare touch the true accuracy of what I learned really happened.
“I am Roman,” Iacomoni said. “This is my history.”
More than 70 students had lied about being ready to die by the iron. I was one of them.
My Gladiator School introduction
My first exposure to gladiator school came when I went to the historical society’s headquarters and watched a performance. I had read brief European dispatches about the school but couldn’t quite comprehend the meaning of it all. I made a couple phone calls and a man who gave his name as Morpheus invited me to the headquarters on a sunny March afternoon.
I nearly fell off the bus when it dropped me off. The headquarters is on Appian Way. That’s the same road where, in the year 73 B.C., 6,000 gladiators were crucified after the Roman legions quashed a revolt (see “Spartacus, first failed union leader”). Down an adjacent gravel road is an abandoned bus garage where the Roman Historical Society has built a miniature Roman village.
A small fire burned on a white Roman stand as I passed a tiny wooden cashier booth. A giant iron gong hung with a wooden mallet. A life-size catapult rested on the other side of the sandy pit. Inside a tiny archway with the word “TAVERNA” in those classic Roman letters consisting of all straight lines was a table complete with ancient table settings and plastic food. I kept waiting for the sound track from “Gladiator.”
Morpheus heard my voice and stepped outside to see me gazing at pictures of modern gladiators fighting in various Italian villages.
“We put a weapon in a person’s hand and they say, ‘What do I do?’ ” Morpheus said. “‘How do I kill someone?’”
Morpheus was really Guido Pecorelli, a short, wiry, 25-year-old student with short-cropped hair, Fu Manchu and dark, piercing eyes. Morpheus was his gladiator name, a name he took from the Greek god of dreams. I didn’t ask why. I was just told not to call him Guido.
He took me inside the gladiator armory. The place looked like a training camp for vandals. Along one wall were long spears lined up like giant toothpicks. On another row were helmets of various shapes and functions. Some had full faceguards. Others had large bulky points on the top. A few had armor stretching all the way down the back.
Also along the wall was every blade man has ever known: axes, machetes, sabers, daggers, tridents the size of sculling oars. Full body armor, from leg guards to arm shields to chest plates, were scattered around like throw rugs. You could supply three government coups from this room. I thought it was a nice touch that they added brooms, authentic replicas used in the Colosseum to sweep away blood and detached limbs.
I picked up one of the machetes. It was heavy, real heavy. The average machete weighs about seven pounds, the same as in Ancient Rome. All the weaponry and armor are hand made, and the ironworker soldered over the points and edges of the blades to make them less sharp. You probably couldn’t cut off a man’s arm, but you certainly could break it.
Then again, I couldn’t imagine these guys passing themselves off as cold-blooded killers. The school’s graduates are normal overweight, middle-aged Romans who would look more fitting in a café watching a soccer game. The gladiator image loses some glitter when you see a guy in a tunic and full body armor with an ax in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
One guy is the spitting image of Joaquin Phoenix, the villain in “Gladiator.” Morpheus’ father, Giuseppe Pecorelli … oops, I mean Pertinax, stands about 5-foot-3 but screams real loud. He said he wanted “to get in touch with my warrior past.” These guys are serious.
“The Roman Empire was all over Europe,” Iacomoni said. “Everyone has something Roman in their history. I wanted to do something to give new life to what was beautiful and important. It is something from your history. Try to discover again your roots.”
I met Giorgio Franchetti, known as Ferox, a 32-year-old flight attendant for Alitalia wearing full leg armor, armored shoulder pads, a leather belt with iron rings and a long gray cape. He was carrying a machete.
“I left my house like this,” he said straight faced. “After a long period of fighting like a gladiator, you feel like a gladiator. At night here, when you don’t see modern Rome, with this magic and it’s dark, you can think back to that age. You feel the spirit. You feel a shiver.”
The demonstration began, and out stepped a massive hunk of humanity named Aureus, “The Golden One.” Leonardo Lorenzini stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 280 pounds, seemingly three times the size of your average Roman. He had a roll of fat but his shoulders and chest were massive. He wore nothing but shorts and a bearskin rug across his chest. Ever see those anthropological charts showing the evolution of man?
He was the third one from the left.
Following a parade of gladiators carrying an arsenal of weapons, Aureus walked into the pit in front of about 60 high school boys visiting from Northern Italy. Opposing him was a young kid, a muscular, good-looking Roman carrying a shield and a machete. As Aureus smashed his ax against the shield, it reverberated like a gong. It brought the first audible “ooh’’ from the crowd who kept yelling “Grande!” whenever Aureus came by.
The young kid took a vertical swipe and Aureus caught it with his ax. Aureus followed with a backhand to the kid’s shield, knocking him into a backward somersault. The kid charged full speed and Aureus, showing the agility of an NFL linebacker, stepped away and used his sword to deftly flick away the kid’s machete.
Seeing his opponent defenseless, Aureus dropped his weapon and put the kid in a bear hug. They might have heard the bones crunch in Milan. Aureus threw the kid on the ground and grabbed his sword. Then, putting his foot on his chest, Aureus yelled something unintelligible in Italian. The high school boys gleefully put their thumbs down, and he shoved his sword inches from the kid’s neck. That’s how the gladiators did it – except they didn’t miss. In the background, on a small loudspeaker, I could hear the soundtrack of “Gladiator.”
Morpheus saw me as I was about to leave.
“See you at practice Wednesday night,” he said with a demonic grin.
Morpheus and Pertinax picked me up in their silver Renault near the Vatican. We drove west out of the city past drab 1960s and ‘70s apartment houses to a square white building that looked like a DMV office. It was one of the many simple, municipal gymnasiums the city built in the ‘90s. It was about three-quarters the size of a high school gym covered with tumbling mats. One mat hung from the ceiling to serve as a wall, separating us from a girls gymnastics class. Our section of the gym was lined with mirrors.
We were a long way from the Colosseum.
After a brief warm-up, Morpheus put me under his wing. He gave me a crude, wooden practice sword wrapped in duct tape and showed me the crucial six-step program, or six ways to turn your opponent into second base. We stood in front of the mirror and got in the ready, or guardia, position. I had one foot slightly ahead with a bend of my knees and my hands up. I held a wooden sword and an imaginary shield. It’s similar to boxing except my weapon couldn’t hurt a hamster.
“Your right arm is your friend,” Morpheus said.
The six blows are really quite simple. For example, fendente is the playful act of smashing a sword onto the top of a man’s skull, splitting it in two. I guessed I wouldn’t be learning that word in Italian class. The others were more direct: alto dritto, a parallel swing to the neck, similar to hitting a high fastball in the way you get your arms extended; basso revescio, bending down and cutting below the knees, very effective for limiting your opponent to crawling if you have a tee time to catch; and affondo is a straight thrust to the stomach, the best way to kill a man if you want to see them squirm and bleed for a while. Alto revescio is a backhand alto dritto, and one blow is repeated each sequence.
They sound simple. Actually, they’re quite awkward. On the basso revescio I found myself leaning over on my follow through. I looked like I was watering a small plant. “You’re leaving yourself too open,’’ said Guido as he took his sword and pretended to cut out my lower intestine. “Keep running through.’’ To help my form, we stood in front of the mirror and he told me to look at my reflection as the opponent.
“Now pretend to cut off your head,’’ he said.
I fulfilled a dozen copy editors’ fantasies by making a perfect parallel slash right below my chin. I looked like an outtake from “The Omen.’’ We spent the next 90 minutes going through the same six strokes over and over again. Morpheus then showed me the defensive moves. He went for the top of my skull and I held up my sword just above my forehead parallel to the ground. It caught his sword in a perpendicular clash. He went for my neck and I held up my sword like Hano Sono’s laser in “Star Wars.’’
I twisted my body to the left and caught his sword; I twisted it to the right and caught it again. I went low and bent down and stuck my sword toward the ground like it was a putter and I just missed a two-footer.
“Perfetto! Perfetto!” he said. Suddenly, I wanted to put on a tunic and invade Greece. We went back and forth for 15 minutes. When it’s all choreographed and done properly, you never touch a hair. You also feel like you are partners in some weird ritual. “This is like dance steps,’’ I said innocently.
Guido stopped. He looked as if he was about to take off the duct tape.
“This is not a dance,” he said, indignant. “This is a fight.’’
However, I could see where it would be a good workout. Before each practice, we did a half hour of calisthenics ranging from sprints to extended push-ups to hundreds of stomach crunches. Guido was very wiry. He was short and taut. He said he lost more than 30 pounds in his one year of gladiator school. However, he was also young. I would be 46 in 15 days. I told him I might be too old for this.
“You’re not too old,’’ he insisted. “When you stop playing, that’s when you become too old.’’
During my first two weeks, I felt 66. I spent 90 minutes a night shuffling up and down mats, tapping my sword against my partner’s. It took me half a second to tell my basso from my alto. It had all the ferocity of two really ugly people doing the tango. In the Colosseum, I would’ve been American shish kabob by the time I reached someone’s reveschio.
Pertinax would yell “ALTO DRITTO!” and I’d go through my mental flash cards before delivering a nice, soft even slice toward the neck like a Roger Federer drop shot. At one point, Morpheus took my wimpy little fendente and told me to pretend I was hitting an overhead smash and not patting a dog on the head.
“This is supposed to be a fight,” he said. “It looks better. It isn’t ‘tap, tap, tap, tap.’ ”
They once put me in the middle of the mat between Morpheus, Pertinax and another student, a portly, scruffy soldier in the Italian army who looked like Friar Tuck. Each man went at me with a different blow, I’d have to defend, turn to the next guy and defend his blow, all in the same sequence. When done at full speed with full force, you look like one of the Four Musketeers defending a French castle.
I couldn’t defend a cappuccino machine.
I got my pivot foot confused and staggered around, nearly falling on various forms of wooden cutlery. I only got really frustrated once, but I calmed down. This isn’t golf. In gladiator school, it’s bad form, not to mention bad luck, to throw a machete.
“Tempo. Tempo. Tempo. (Time. Time. Time.)’’ Morpheus told me.
So I took time. Over the next month, my six blows became my daily routine, my six commands my mantra. I’d come home from Italian class and practice my blows with a cheese knife. I’d shuffle up and down my marble floor, giving a fendente to a lamp, an alto dritto to my laptop, a basso revescio to a wastebasket.
I’d walk up the stairs of my apartment building and give a Latin “Hail, Caesar” salute to perplexed resident cats. I’d stand before a mirror wearing a towel, imagining what I’d look like in a tunic. I stopped just short of calling my girlfriend “wench” or refusing silverware when I ate.
By the fourth week, I about nailed it. I was swinging my little wooden sword in long, glorious death slices, ignoring Pertinax’s instruction of “Piano! Piano!” (Slowly! Slowly!). I shouted out “FENDENTE! ALTO ROVESCIO!’’ as I wheeled around the mat defending three men at once while delivering blows just as fast. It was starting to get fun. It was also starting to get scary. I fought off the urge to ask Pertinax to replace the wooden sword with the 15-pound ax. I wanted to draw blood even if it was my own.
I slowly became accepted. They even give me my gladiator name – two, in fact. The first was Flavus, Latin for “blonde one.” Flavus? It sounded like a disease. Then I off-handedly tell Morpheus I come from Scottish descent, and he raced out to the car. He brought back a list of Scottish names.
“You are now Caractacus.” Who? He told me Caractacus was a Scottish warrior whose battles against invading Roman armies were so legendary he lived forever in Roman lore. I thought it was a real hip name until I learned Caractacus was later beheaded in battle. I wondered how far these guys took this gladiator stuff.
Once I got to know them, the gladiators seemed normal and far more interesting than baseball players. Morpheus started in judo where his father’s a black belt, moved on to archery then to the Sunday medieval games held in various Rome parks. His father learned about the gladiator school at a Rome book fair.
“Judo is a different kind of culture,” Morpheus said. “That’s the Orient. I’m Roman. Roman culture is 2,000 years old. I can do something that is mine.”
There have been three women come through the school, and none has stuck around as long as Barbara Milioni. Known as Nemesis, the 24-year-old entertainer was a black belt in judo at 16 and also a medieval war games refugee.
“I always liked men things,” she said. “I never played with a Barbie. I was playing with a car or a pistol.”
When friends grew out of the medieval games, a friend told her about the gladiator school. She had found her niche. She’s short but powerfully built with big shoulders and muscular thighs. She also looks typically Roman with the dark, beautiful face of a runway model. She was a huge hit.
“For me, the comment you hear everywhere is ‘Xena,’ ” she said. “That’s my nightmare. Always. Always. But I hear also, ‘Hey, the girl is a good fighter.’ When they look at a girl, especially in something like this, I hear, ‘Oh, God, it’s a girl with all the men.’ But when they see me fight, they go, ‘Oh, she’s not bad.’”
The unofficial star of the show was Aureus. A 26-year-old cook at an elementary school, Aureus got tossed out of kickboxing for hitting opponents too hard. He often warmed up for gladiator practice by high-kicking a heavy 6-foot stationary dummy clear into the gymnastics class. He saw a gladiator demonstration outside Castel Sant’Angelo, a 1st century castle near the Vatican, and said he’d do anything to join.
“I love a show,” he said one night after practice while blow-drying his back. “I love Gruppo Historico. I love fighting, but this is more. This is like warriors. If I was in a battle, I’d want another battle.’’
His dark, curly hair and blonde streaks make him look like a surfer on steroids. But there is nothing laid back about him. Some gladiators refused to spar with him because they valued their lives.
“In his mind, he lives in the gladiator age,” Ferox said. “It’s true. He trains to fight all the time. He’s always trying to get stronger, harder. He makes the heaviest hits. He’s so serious. He smashed right through my shield and nearly broke my hand. If you met him 2,000 years ago in the Colosseum, you cross yourself because you’re going to die.”
In one of my most ill-advised bouts of over-confidence, I asked Pertinax if I could fight Aureus. During the second month, we often had free fights. There were no sequences. No planned attacks. We used foam rubber swords. Using real weapons for free fights was way too dangerous, they said. Still, I wanted a shot at the star, the king gladiator, the man thousands of ancient Romans would have paid good money to see. I wanted to throw away the wimpy foam rubber and use forged iron.
Pertinax said no. Aureus said yes. After much pleading, Pertinax reluctantly agreed only if we did it in planned sequence – slooooowly.
Pertinax slipped my forearm through the two leather holders behind his iron shield. It was like carrying a door of a bank vault. While going through the sequence, Aureus gave me a basso rovescio to my lower leg and I tried slamming his ax with my 7-pound sword. I missed. The sword hit the top of his finger and produced a half-inch gash.
“NO BUONO! (NO GOOD!),’’ Pertinax said and took my shield.
“NO PROBLEMA! NO PROBLEMA! (NO PROBLEM!),” Aureus reassured.
Uh-oh. Now I’d made him mad. His eyes bore in on me as if I was a slice of tiramisu. After a couple more blows, I missed a block on another basso rovescio and suddenly, heading right toward my frontal lobe, was a 15-pound iron ax. Aureus stopped it one inch from my nose. My heart dropped into my jockstrap, and I suddenly visualized what the last thing gladiators saw 2,000 years ago before getting their heads axed open like a cantaloupe.
A man like Aureus smiling over his blade.
The truth about gladiators
Four things “Gladiator” didn’t tell you about gladiators:
* The warm blood of a fallen gladiator was believed to cure epilepsy. The Ancient Romans worshipped courage, and few in Rome were as revered as successful gladiators. Russell Crowe’s character showed how a gladiator could win freedom in the arena but if the movie was accurate, Crowe would have survived and built a villa on Palatine Hill with a bevy of young maidens. Then he’d go back to the arena every Sunday.
That’s because many gladiators liked it.
While most began as slaves, the successful ones started earning high wages from agents and emperors whose longevity in office often depended on their ability to placate a bloodthirsty populace. Nero gave the gladiator Spiculus a palace. The son of Veianius, another famous gladiator, was made a knight. Ancient scratching on the walls in Pompeii called Celadus, “suspirium et decus puellarum” (the girls’ hero and heartthrob).’’
Possibly the most famous gladiator, Flamma, had his face appear on Roman coins as Mars, the god of war. Sculptors made statues of him. A female admirer gave him an estate. Street walls were inscribed, “Flamma is a girl’s sigh and prayer.” No wonder this guy refused the wooden sword, the symbol of a gladiator’s freedom, four times. Considering the tunics these guys had to wear, these are real rags-to-riches stories.
They also received a few breaks in the arena. Highly successful gladiators were rare and killing one didn’t much help future attendance. When two faced each other, it wasn’t always to the death. It was often to first blood. If a gladiator fell, the victor raised his sword to the crowd with his foot on the man’s chest and his sword over his head. The emperor waited for a crowd’s verdict and would often give mercy. But pity the poor fallen gladiator who was favored and cost the crowd money.
Gambling ran as rampant as the blood.
* Gladiators were often Romans. They were traitors. Anyone escaping the tough regiment of the Roman legions was turned into a slave. That’s one reason they had the biggest army in world history until World War II. They also turned POWs into gladiators, one reason why you saw so many gladiators with different skin color. Since the Roman Empire stretched from Great Britain to Central Asia, the gladiator pens looked like a UN Executive Board meeting in tunics.
* Gladiator games began to honor the dead. According to Daniel Mannix’s excellent 1958 tome, “The Way of the Gladiator,” the first reports of gladiators come from 264 B.C. The brothers Marcus and Decimus Brutus, members of the Roman aristocracy and obviously bored, wished to honor their dead father by more than just the usual animal sacrifice. The brothers had heard that in prehistoric times, slaves fought over the grave of a popular leader. Why not bring back that ancient custom? Thus, more than 600 years of blood sport began.
It became huge. Three pairs of gladiators started it. By 145 B.C., 90 pairs fought over three days. It became a necessity for anyone running for office to put on gladiator games, and each emperor tried outdoing his predecessor. Marcus Aurelius held 230 one year.
It was a difficult time in Rome. Warfare and violence were constant. After wars, emperors would stage gladiator battles to show how they killed the enemy. They tried new weapons in the arena for future use in the battlefield. The populace worked inhuman hours trying to keep the war machine grinding. Much as the National Football League does for American society, gladiator games became the diversion for the Roman society.
Romans flooded into the makeshift arena in the Forum. The emperors Vespasian and Titus scored big points in the ballots in 80 A.D. by building the Flavian Amphitheatre, later known as the Roman Colosseum. It seated 60,000 and admission was free. Theaters emptied in the middle of plays when word of gladiator games surfaced. Just watching, women were known to orgasm in the arena. Prostitutes lurked under the archways of the Colosseum to service men turned on by the bloodshed.
It eventually ended around 400 A.D. when the falling Roman Empire gave way to the rise of Christianity. The extreme measures the church took to counteract the bloodshed are one reason many historians believe Rome is the center of Christendom today.
Christians bore the brunt of it
And speaking of Christians …
The gladiator games were far bloodier than ever depicted on the big screen. The gladiator battles were headliners of games also used to execute Christians, deemed heretics and terrorists by the Roman Empire. Christians viewed Rome – somewhat accurately – as the second Sodom.
Then again, since Christianity was young at the time, the Christians were considered moral threats and suffered wholesale slaughter in the most inhumane manners possible. They were thrown in defenseless against wild tigers starved for a week. According to Cicero, it took about 30 seconds to corner and kill the poor, sniveling Christian and another half hour to eat the sinew, flesh and bones. (That’s one way to shut up sidewalk evangelists.)
They were hooded and given sticks and torn apart by wild dogs. Apparently, the screams could be heard clear across Rome. They were covered in pitch and set afire to provide light. For a few laughs, they would put a Christian in with two wild bears and given nothing but a musical instrument.
They were told to imitate Morpheus (no relation to said gladiator), a Greek with music reputedly so sweet he could put to sleep wild animals. That wasn’t easy with two bears eyeing your head like a fudgesicle. Of course, the victim’s futile attempts and subsequent mauling were of great amusement to the Romans who hated Greeks as much as Christians.
The death tolls were astonishing. Augustus killed 10,000 Christians over eight shows. Emperor Trajan had 11,000 people killed over 122 days. Diocletian killed 17,000 in a month. They burned incense to help erase the stench.
Nietzsche philosophized that the Romans found no more worlds left to conquer, leaving them with only these sorry exhibitions. The more I learned about my adopted Roman past, the more I questioned what I was doing with a sword in my hand. I asked Iacomoni if he was glorifying one of the most gruesome, embarrassing periods in man’s history.
“Obviously, these are completely different times,’’ he said. “But I respect one thing about the Roman times. In war, when you had to fight someone, you had to be in front and see his eyes. Today, you may kill someone without seeing them.’’
Unsatisfied, I turned to Morpheus whose vision had been a guiding light through these entire two months.
“We’re not glorifying the killing of that time,’’ he said. “We glorify the people. We glorify the genius of the people at that time to build something enormous. The Colosseum was something enormous at that time. You have to be a genius, very powerful, very rich, but also very rich in culture. You must have a government with an open mind to know all the good things of other cultures and taking them for your culture.”
Which is why I was standing in sand telling 30 tourists I was willing to die by the iron.
March to the Colosseum
The closest a woman came to orgasm when seeing me in full battle gear was a wink from a woman about my mom’s age. It was the morning of graduation day, and it coincided with the 2,755th birthday of Rome. Every year on April 21, the entire Roman Historical Society dresses in full battle regalia of the gladiators and Roman Legionnaires, the Roman army, and marched from the Appian Way to the Colosseum.
My girlfriend, Nancy, recruited (kicking and screaming) as a vestal virgin, and I were late. Way late. The police had informed the group that a road race that morning cancelled our parade. Nancy and I were not informed of this until we were walking up the gravel path and saw heavily armed men in tunics piling into Volvos and Lancias.
Morpheus told me from the window of a passing car to get dressed and meet them at the Colosseum. As any rational gladiator would do, I became furious. I had no desire to get left behind and walk to the Colosseum dressed like an extra from “Saturday Night Live.”
I raced into the armory and another straggling gladiator helped me with a Legionnaire’s outfit: a short, very short, maroon tunic; a leather chest protector; a pointy iron helmet and a long wooden stick with a point on the end.
I ran out to see Nancy desperately trying to keep attached the side of her dress, a long white gown with a slit that violated a half dozen of Rome’s public decency laws. It revealed a lot of leg. A matronly aide at the headquarters hid her eyes as Nancy stagger-stepped back toward the gravel road. I made a mistake and told her to hurry.
“SHUT UP, John!” she yelled. “I’m wearing a bedsheet for you!”
I shut up.
We turned the corner onto Appian Way and I suddenly felt as if I was falling into a bottomless cobblestone abyss. Everywhere I looked were people. Staring. I may as well have been naked. Considering what I had on, I almost was. From the first car I saw, the driver stuck his finger at me – his index, fortunately – and laughed. The next one honked his horn. Others smiled and shook their heads.
This was THE worst Halloween party I’d ever not been invited to. I thought about covering Morpheus in pitch. Suddenly, a late-model car screeched to a halt and a couple from a wedding got out and took their pictures with us.
After that, I threw myself into the role. When people honked, I gave the Hail Caesar salute. People gave me the thumbs up sign, and I gave them a raised fist. Russell Crowe wasn’t this campy.
When we reached the Colosseum, the parade was already in motion through a phalanx of tourists. Nancy fell in line between tiny identical twins wearing smaller bedsheets, and I jumped in with Legionnaires right out of 150 B.C. Tattoos, bent noses, scruffy beards. One guy next to me had a forehead the size of the left-field fence in Fenway Park. He had a huge back and bushy eyebrows. He looked at me as if I paid my way into a fantasy camp, which I had.
I fell into a steady march around the Colosseum to the slow, ominous beating of drums. Tourists surrounded me. Suddenly, it made sense. I looked through the Colosseum’s sun-drenched porticoes and imagined fighting for my life and honor as my gladiatorial predecessors did 2,000 years ago.
Then Nero buried me.
During a break, Iacomoni walked by and looked me over. He shook his head. It wasn’t good when Nero shook his head. He looked at my stick and I noticed I was the only one without an iron sword on the end. My stick was so much shorter than everyone else’s. I felt impotent.
Then he looked at my tunic. He politely informed me that no Legionnaire in the history of Rome wore under his tunic a pair of gray University of Washington gym shorts. He told me to take them off. Rome gets nearly 6 million tourists a year. I firmly believed all 6 million were at the Colosseum at that moment. I slipped down my shorts to hoots and hollers that would have embarrassed a stripper. I shoved my shorts down my chest protector and continued, slowly — and very humbly — to the statue of Julius Caesar and through the Forum.
Tourists gave us applause. A Japanese couple posed with me for pictures. One of the city’s phony Legionnaires who pose for tourists year round gave us a Hail Caesar salute as we passed. He thought we were real.
When we finally finished and piled into cars, Morpheus came up to me in near tears.
“This is the first time in 2,000 years someone with gladiator dress is in the Forum!” he said, panting. “Two thousand years! We passed by the arch and my heart started to beat. I got so emotional.”
When I finally saw my reflection in a window, I also felt like weeping. I looked like a cross between a deranged stork and a sexual deviant. My legs were too skinny. My neck was so long my helmet made me look like a real tall lamp. The bill of my helmet hung over my eyes as if I was wearing a dinner plate. Surrounding me were all these stocky, grizzled men – real Romans – whom I could see skewering 30 Christians before noon and then for lunch eating live cattle.
And I didn’t even have a point.
We returned to Appian Way and my time in the Roman sun was about over. I gave my oath, but wanted to answer in a much different way.
Magister: “Why are you in this arena?”
Answer: “I want to be a gladiator.” (I want to make an ass out of myself.)
Magister: “You must renounce your name. What is your new name?”
Answer: “Caractacus.” (My idol, the man who sizzled at the stake in 40 A.D.)
Magister: “Are you ready to strike with the rod, to be burned by the fire and die by the iron?”
Answer: “Yes.” (No. I’m ready to strike out with female tourists, to be burned by this assignment and to die by embarrassment.)
Magister: “I give you the fire for the strength and loyalty of the gods!”
But I played the game and screamed Latin commands as I knifed the air with my little wooden sword in a group demonstration. I wanted to join the veterans, all dressed in armor and animal skins as they tried to behead each other. Instead, I stood on the sidelines and looked down at the oracle proclaiming my culmination of two months work. I noticed it was written out to “John Anderson.” They misspelled my name. No matter. It was no longer my name.
“I am Caractacus,” I said, “the gladiator.”
My time to die
I gladly hung up my sword and put away my oracle, imagining how it would later look on my wall next to my college diploma. I had retired as a gladiator. However, I reaped more from the experience than just a Latin diploma and a Scuola dei Gladiatori tunic I wouldn’t wear washing my car. I may not have killed another gladiator, but I definitely killed my inhibitions.
A wry smile crossed my face as I recalled how once at a family reunion in Monterrey, Calif., I ran and hid when we did a sing-along. I refused to dress up for fraternity house dances. Dance? I never even liked to dance. Yet there I was in Rome walking through the streets toward one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions dressed in full battle regalia and posing with Japanese tourists.
Waving my sword around in front of 100 tourists wasn’t a showcase for humiliation. It was a showcase for the new me, the one who traveled 5,000 miles to shed the cloak of depression and suppression. For the first time in my life, I felt silly – and liked it. I realized I could laugh at myself and could enjoy the world laughing around me. I suddenly felt more at home in 2,000-year-old stadiums dressed in armor than I did in Yankee Stadium in a shirt and tie.
And Yankee Stadium felt so far away.
But two months was enough – or so I thought. Four months later, Morpheus called me. There was a show in Sutri, a suburb with an ancient colosseum even older than the one in Rome. “Would you like to take part?” he asked. I thought about it and realized something way too obvious. I couldn’t have really retired as a gladiator. I’m still alive. I owed it to myself to die in front of tourists. I said sure and raced out to a dress rehearsal.
I played one of Caesar’s four bodyguards, a Praetorian, a very respectable gig for a guy whose commitment to this hadn’t gone beyond a laptop. I would look way too hip with a breastplate, pointy helmet and a lance the size of Long Island. I would even change my white tunic for the fancy royal red one.
I also would get a bit of the center stage. The show was about a war between Caesar and Nero who, in real life, hated each other more than Caesar hated any foreign general. Caesar was considered Rome’s greatest leader and Nero’s place in history was just slightly higher than the rat scum in the River Tiber.
In actuality, Caesar was a charismatic, but stupid, thug. He used unscrupulous means to conquer more land than any Roman leader but attacked his own city of Rome to prevent being charged with a laundry list of war crimes. He fought for the sake of fighting and costs thousands of Romans their lives because, basically, he didn’t have anything better to do. I don’t think cutting off every hand of an enemy’s army looked good on his resume, either.
I was going to defend this guy. Nero, played again by Iacomoni, would appear in the arena, and Caesar would beckon me to kill him. I would walk down the colosseum stairs (“Be careful,” Ferox whispered to me. “These steps in the amphitheatre are 2,000 years old.”), take my lance and start toward Caesar, menacingly.
Fortunately, I wouldn’t have to paste a mean look on my baby face long. As soon as I approached, Nero’s army would storm the stage. I was to look around, panic, throw down my lance and grab the gladia conveniently placed at my feet. The other bodyguards would come to my defense and we’d be overrun like rats.
Then we’d all go out for pizza.
As it turned out, the show was a grand success. I was slaughtered like a steer. Americans would hate it. They’d want real blood. Italians have a sense of history. And the Sutrians were just happy that someone came to their little ville in the Lazio countryside.
Built along the same lines as the real Colosseum, Sutri’s is about half the size but just as impressive only because it beat Rome to the architectural punch by about 500 years. The Etruscans built it in about 450 B.C. primarily as an amphitheatre.
I walked into the arena and couldn’t believe the symmetry of the place. When empty, all stadiums look so perfect. It doesn’t matter if it was built last year or 450 B.C. You imagine the seats filled, the crowd screaming, the athletes performing. The seats consisted of three levels of concrete, all interspersed with grass but still holding the same shape it’s had since the beginning of Italy.
To think I was in an arena in use long before the first marble column was placed in the Roman Forum was a bit moving. I walked onto the grass, as nice as a fairway, and felt like a baseball player walking into a stadium for the first time.
Putting on the Praetorian uniform was impossible. There were so many loops, strings and belts I didn’t have a clue. I may as well have been building a helicopter. Carmelo came over and I tried to erase the thought of being dressed by a guy wearing animal skins.
First, I put on the maroon tunic that hadn’t gotten any longer since the time I mooned tourists on the march to the Colosseum. I then tried slipping on the breastplate. It was a leather, sleeveless shirt, kind of resembling a girdle, with a slab of brass from my neck to my waistline. It tied on the side in a manner of cross switches that could pin in a ferret.
Next I put on the belt. It was nothing more than a leather wrap with streams of leather hanging down to just above the knee. I imagined some strippers could’ve used these at one time but on me it thankfully covered chunks of my pale thighs not covered by my tunic. I then put on the sandals, consisting of a pile of leather strips with thousands of strings. I tried lacing them and couldn’t walk five feet without falling over a piece of marble.
Carmelo thankfully fit them and with my brass helmet, complete with a hair tassle on top, and about an 8-foot lance, I started looking around for Christians to fillet. Thank God we didn’t have a mirror.
They hid us in the back of the colosseum while the crowd filed in. Since Caesar entered last, I entered last. Gathered, we looked ready to invade Disneyland. But I must hand it to Ferox. He made it as authentic as possible. What I read in my gladiator books is exactly how it went off.
First, they took the six gladiators in chains and paraded them around the arena. One of them was Friar Tuck, my fellow student who went straight to a headlining gladiator. I was not jealous. I was proud to be Caesar’s bodyguard, even though Caesar spent his time back stage talking on his cell phone and smoking a Marlboro.
After what seemed like an hour of endless circles by the gladiators and Legionnaires, Caesar finally put out his butt and marched out with one of Ferox’s female friends, all dressed in red, on his arm. When I finally exited our cave, my mouth dropped. We emerged from the smoke – Giorgio even brought in a WWF-style smoke machine – and saw people packed behind a chain 10 deep all around the inside of the arena.
I marched slowly past and tried my hardest not to look at anyone. I wanted to see who would come out to this. Old? Young? Beautiful women? The homeless? Who knew? But I couldn’t look. Bodyguards don’t look at the crowd. Not Romans anyway. I just kept my eyes straight ahead and kept the general look of a man who eats Christians over penne pasta, which these guys did.
I circled the field to steady applause and we took our places at the door. I crossed my spear with another guard in a lame attempt to block an entrance to Caesar and prayed none of the people standing near me would heckle. We had one of the best seats in the house. They paraded all the gladiators out, two by two, and they all saluted Caesar.
Spartacus, a well-built but short Roman cop, refused and spit in Caesar’s direction. By the time the sixth fight ended, I was about ready to jump out of my breastplate. I wanted to kill my mother. I didn’t know what to expect. It all happened so fast, I wondered if these guys even had a chance to see their lives pass before their eyes.
We dutifully followed two other guards into the infield and we heard a yell. About two dozen gladiator allies, dressed like idiots and sounding worse, flooded in through the cave. I dropped my lance, looked down and found nothing but grass. I looked around frantically and probably looked authentically panicked because I was. I saw a sword about 30 yards away and sprinted over.
Suddenly, the crowd was a blur. The last thing I wanted was to join a fight with nothing but my fingernails. But I grabbed the sword and saw Animal Skins motioning me over. I went ballistic. I smashed a fendente onto his skull and an alto dritto to his neck. “Piano. Piano.” he tried whispering. Suddenly, another Praetorian came over and I had a clear shot at every vital organ Animal Skins had. Being the dutiful cannon fodder, I hung back and pretended to wind up.
Fortunately, Nero killed his opponent, the signal that we all die. I was a complete pushover – literally. Animal Skin put his foot near my groin and pushed. I fell back slowly in the worst death spiral in the history of theater.
I found myself precariously on my side. I closed my eyes, playing dead while subtly trying to pull my tunic over my underwear. I was stuck. With my cheek on the cool grass and 400 people applauding, I kept thinking, When have I ever seen a movie where a soldier died on his side pulling on his clothes?
I realized I was in the fetal position. I didn’t look dead. I looked like a homeless girl sleeping in a park. I also had another problem. When I peeked through my eyelids, I couldn’t see a single dead soldier. When do we get up? I could have been there all night. I merely lied there and hoped someone would tap me on a shoulder. A child, a deer, anyone.
I saw a wisp of a silk blouse of a dancer entertaining the crowd and about five minutes later I saw the brass breastplate of one of the Praetorians walking by. I quickly got up and joined the rest milling around the infield.
We received a huge ovation. We all gathered around and gave a bow and the sword I still had in my hand nearly sliced off a vestal virgin’s right breast. We then gathered for pictures with the crowd. Spartacus was last seen signing autographs for a bunch of 10-year-old girls.
I loved it. It’s what I expected a dramatic production to be about. A lot of back-stage hugs and grasped forearms – Roman style – slaps on the back and “perfetto” to me. I was not only a gladiator. I was an actor. I had found an inner me hidden somewhere under a tunic I was no longer cared if it was too short. I gave Ferox a bear hug.
I told him to call me next time he needed a bodyguard.