Sunday, May 3, 2009

scuola gladiatori (gladiator school)

Since Marisa has not (yet) taken up the call for further blog posts, I will regale with a tale of might and mayhem.

Prior to our flight to Rome, Marisa had pointed out to me the small note in the 'courses' section of our book about 'scuola gladiatori' ("gladiator school)'.  It said that gladiator school was a good experience for learning the ancient art of arena fighting.  We thought maybe it was a joke, but we read this story online which made it sound like a lot of fun:

How could you not want to get smacked in the face unexpectedly with a shield?

The school was on Appia Antica.  For those with dim memories of middle school Roman history, that's "the appian way".   I remembered the name and not much else, but simply the name was romantic.  The appia antica is still made of old roman travertine marble cobblestone.  It's a fairly quiet road on the outskirts of rome, about 2mi south of the colliseum.  It's lined with small private restaurants and gardens at a quite low density.  You can walk 1/8 of a mi at a time without seeing a driveway.  Further south on the appian road are the old christian catacombs.

We found our driveway to the gladiator school.  It was unexepectedly right next to what looked like a junk yard and a storage area for city vehicles.  There were some chickens in a coop next to the junkyard.  I guess the appian way isn't prime real estate, even if it was a famous Roman road.

We were introduced to our instructor, who was a bulky and imposing Italian woman of about 30 years age.  She would give us a tour of the small arms museum before the lesson began.  She asked us if we spoke Italian.  When we said no, she got an uncertain look on her face, but we insisted we'd be able to work it out.  It turned out she had pretty good English, but really it wasn't that hard to figure out the word for 'sword' or 'pike' when she was pointing at them.  

We had a 20min tour of the armament museum which actually was quite interesting.  We learned about how the matches were intentionally set up so that if the gladiator with a net was fighting, then the other gladiator, who would typically be a slave, would be locked into a helmet with a hook on top.  The slave with the helmet was basically sacrificial meat, because the guy with the net was a trained expert at using his net to catch the helmet to snap the slaves' necks.  We hadn't appreciated before how scripted the gladiator fights were, sorta like WWF but without the metal folding chairs.

They also had example equipment for the Praetorian guard and normal roman army legions.  Apparently the scuola does re-enactments and shows throughout Europe.  They're apparently no joke, because on the anniversary of various events in Rome they are asked to perform.  Two days before we arrived they had a show on the Imperial Forum and around the Colliseum.  They seemed like the people at ren faires in the US, except without the turkey legs or mead.

After our tour of the museum, we went out to the training ground.  She had us change into our tunics and had us warm up by running laps around the yard and dodging swinging sacks of sand.  This wasn't that strenous but was surprisingly hard to avoid the swinging sacks.  I'm not sure it actually trained us in anything.

We then moved on to training.  Our instructor showed us the wooden gladioli (the name of the sword from which 'gladiator' comes).  She showed us 4 offensive moves and 4 defensive counters to those moves and had us practice.  Many of the defensive moves seemed to involve swirls of the sword tip in great arcs in front of our bodies.  That seemed pointless at first, but when we started practicing against each other in slow motion it was actually quite interesting, because it became clear that the arc was intended to use the opponents momentum to continue the movement of his sword (rather than simply blocking it) in order to deflect it out of the way.

The actual final fighting was at first a bit of a let down.  As in the above daily mail article, I was hoping that after we learned the basic moves, they would bring out some badass who would then beat the crap out of me (if not marisa), preferably by also smacking me with his shield when I wasn't looking.  Unfortunately our instructor announced that our opponent would be... each other.

She drew a big circle in the sand of the yard and gave us foam-wrapped gladioli and told us we could start freeform sparring.  Given her limited English it took me awhile to understand that the encouragement she was shouting was actually the word, 'therapy!', 'therapy!'.  As in, apparently, marital therapy via sword fighting.

In the end, though, it ended up being a lot of fun.  Marisa and I each had our separate strengths.  Marisa seemed very good at striking blows (and scoring points, in the gladiator training point system) against my legs.  I came up with a killer combo that involved me switching my sword to my left hand and usually ended with me poking the gladiolus into Marisa's stomach.  (I also have a height advantage.)  I think we both enjoyed the physical activity and the challenge of the sparring, which was surprisingly difficult.  Perhaps we can start swordfighting each other in our backyard.

In case you don't believe that we were serious about the sparring, about halfway through a group of schoolchildren showed up for a tour.  They sat in the stands and watched us.  I kept waiting for them to start giggling at the ridiculous adults fighting with foam swords.  They either thought this was normal or were sufficiently fooled by our seriousness, because they just kept watching.  Eventually the instructor kicked us out so she could teach a bunch of giggly 12 year old girls how to wield swords.


  1. So I guess at this point, we should keep a healthy distance from you when you are carrying anything long and cylindrical. What a fun thing to do! We've got to put that Russell Crowe movie at the top of the Netflix see if he matches up. And what book are you using? Does it suggest any other non-traditional activities? The rest of your pictures show beautiful days at traditional tourist sights. BTW, great pictures.

  2. There's something very goofy about seeing you in a Gladiatorial costume also wearing... sneakers. hahaha

  3. What an interesting way to get schooled about Roman history! The tunics look comfortable. I hope you got to keep them. Your photos of Rome are outstanding.