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Sword Play

For today’s gladiators, one man dies, the other gets gelato

Author Paul Abercrombie Illustration Luci Gutiérrez


ROME – A hot, blindingly bright afternoon in Rome. A man and his preteen son enter a gated compound at the edge of Parco della Caffarella, where they are met by a middle-aged man wearing a red tunic and a bronze breastplate. The man introduces himself as Marcus. “Ready to die?” he says.

The man and boy—who take on the noms de guerre Caius and Brutus—have booked a private session at the Gruppo Storico Romano gladiator school, south of the Colosseum. Caius had hoped the class would give his son a sense of history; the boy just wants to mess with the stubby wooden swords.

In the center of the arena, Marcus stands scowling—the Roman equivalent of a drill sergeant. “Because they use the gladius, or sword, they’re called gladiators!” he barks in response to a question. “If they used a bazooka, they’d be called bazooka-ers!”

With this, Marcus distributes the weaponry and demonstrates the five basic moves for attack and defense, shouting out a corresponding number: “One! Three! Five! Two! Four!” The two students follow suit—though it’s painfully clear Brutus is the quicker study. To the older gladiator, Marcus mutters, “You will not live long.”

Soon, it’s time to fight. Marcus claps Brutus on the shoulder: “Imagine 40,000 people chanting your name!” To Caius, he merely rolls his eyes.

For a few minutes, the two combatants clack swords together, as if engaged in a kind of dance. But then Brutus finds his gladiatorial spirit and goes on the offensive. Crack! A lateral swipe just misses Caius’ neck. Whack! Brutus pursues, following up with an overhead chop. Smack!

“Ouch!” cries Caius, grabbing his whacked thumb.

“You’re dead,” Marcus says to the father. “You’re a water sprinkler of blood.” He mimics a sprinkler with his hands—pfft, pfft, pfft. Brutus giggles with delight.

After the session, the trainees are each awarded a replica Roman coin. “Ooh,” Brutus says, “can I use this to buy gelato?”

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