I was sitting outdoors on a gorgeous Roman afternoon, enjoying the mild breeze and letting my mind wander to thoughts of dinner. I could almost taste sweet sun-dried tomatoes on my tongue when a loud cracking noise jolted me out of my reverie.
Oh, yeah. First I had to watch my son and a friend from our tour group beat each other up.
The boys were wielding wooden swords and metal shields as they battled alongside other kids in an arena run by the Gruppo Storico Romano (Roman History Group), one of several “gladiator schools” that have become popular attractions in Italy. They teach visitors about the ancient Roman fighters by demonstrating how the gladiators battled and letting tourists put those moves into practice themselves.
The Roman gladiators were known for their fierce brutality. According to our instructor’s introductory lecture, they often fought to the death — whether willingly or not — because they were mostly slaves (and some bloodthirsty volunteers) who were bound to follow the wishes of the crowds they entertained and the leaders they served.
If they fought valiantly enough, they could sometimes earn a reprieve from death even if they lost their duel. But then, of course, they’d face future combat. Solemnly, the instructor told us that only a few survived long enough to earn their freedom, which usually took years to achieve. Most bled to death from arteries pierced by swords, to the cheers of the onlooking crowd.
So much blood was shed in gladiatorial combat that the arena floors were covered with sand to absorb it all. In fact, the instructor said as she wrapped up her talk, the English word “arena” comes from the Latin word for sand: harena.
Sure enough, the gladiator school arena was filled with sand. As soon as the instructor finished, the children on our tour ran down from the bleachers where we were sitting and grabbed the wooden swords strewn about the arena floor.
As the instructor shouted directions — “Shoulder!” “Stomach!” “Neck!” — the kids gleefully played along. Some parents watching from the stands smiled and called out encouragement, like cheerleaders at a football game. When my son made an impressive move, I found myself smiling and cheering as well.
But then a guilty feeling crept over me. Should I really be having fun with this?
At that point, a handsome male instructor entered the arena to show the children more combat moves. Watching him demonstrating his fighting skills with the female teacher, I forgot to fret about the many humans who’d died violent deaths as gladiators.
Soon it was time for the parents to take a stab at combat. My husband, Russ, and some other dads were swiftly recruited to face off; for some reason, none of us moms were asked to fight, even though all the kids — boys and girls alike — had gotten the opportunity to whack at each other in the arena. I felt a twinge of disappointment, even though I didn’t really want to get out there and put my best bellicose foot forward.
“OK!” yelled the female instructor. “Now be ferocious! Be vicious! Let’s see what you’ve got!” Then she added: “But be careful. Even though these swords are made of wood, you can still hurt each other with them.”
The dads looked at each other, waiting for someone to make the first move. Russ told me later that his dilemma was trying to find a balance between fighting his opponent so aggressively that he injured him and restraining himself so much that he looked weak and foolish. He ultimately decided to make a lot of dramatic faces but to wield his sword carefully.
As the fathers fought, the instructor whipped up enthusiasm from the bleachers by asking us to decide who we thought should live or die. No dads had actually been pinned to the ground, so the winners and losers were unclear. But that didn’t stop some of the audience from shouting out “Kill him!” and then giggling afterward.
While the men were fighting, thunderclouds had gathered. Suddenly, they emptied torrents of rain onto the arena, turning the sand to mud. Lightning flashed all around, and hail began pelting us from the sky, as if the ancient Roman gods had been angered. The dads dropped their swords and used their shields to protect themselves from the hail as they clambered onto the bleachers.
Everyone huddled close, watching nature’s violent fury, until most of the kids made a run for it to a nearby building, where they talked and laughed together as if they were at a party.
When the storm ended, we gladiator-school students waded through a mud path to reach a small museum with exhibits about the real gladiators. The artifacts — lots of armor, weaponry and sandals — fascinated me, but I barely had time to look at a few display cases before we had to leave, since the time we’d spent waiting out the storm had taken the time allocated for the museum.
The displays hadn’t held the kids’ attention, anyway. They were too busy trying out their gladiator moves on each other again, using their hands as swords — and laughing at the absurdity of it all.