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Modern-day gladiators clash in Rome -- for fun

'I like the philosophy of kill or be killed,' says a man who calls himself Taurus, one of a group of buffs united by an obsession with ancient Rome, especially the gore and glory of battle.

March 03, 2009|Sebastian Rotella

ROME — The gladiators charge each other with a great clashing and crashing of arms and armor. It's hard to say who looks more fearsome: Atropo or Taurus.

Atropo, the towering Germanic barbarian, wears a mask of black war paint, a headband over her blond hair and a brown tunic and leggings. She wields a trident in one hand and whirls a net in the other.

Taurus, the compact Roman, is a tattooed mass of muscle beneath a battered metal helmet that covers all but his eyes. He circles behind his shield, lunging with the short sword known as the gladio.

The combat rages until Atropo snares the sword with her net, twists Taurus off balance and batters him to his knees. She whips a dagger from her boot and applies it to his jugular.

"Hah!" she snarls. "Now comes the moment when I cut your throat."

In her conquering gaze, you can almost see a crowded amphitheater roaring in expectation, an emperor rising from his throne to proffer the gesture -- thumbs up? thumbs down? -- that will decide the fallen fighter's fate.

Instead, a spatter of applause echoes in a workout room at the Sport and Fitness gym (English names are trendy here) in Ardeatina, an outlying neighborhood of Rome where middle-class Italians and concrete apartment blocks are more common than tourists and ruins.

Atropo helps Taurus pull off his helmet, and the two become 21st century Romans again: Giulia Mazzoli, a mosaic artist, and Michele D'Orazio, a construction worker.

Some people play Dungeons & Dragons in their spare time; some reenact battles; some learn martial arts. Mazzoli and D'Orazio have a pastime that combines elements of all three -- and a powerful dose of local pride.

They belong to a group of history buffs united by an obsession with ancient Rome, especially the gore and glory of the gladiator tradition. They immerse themselves in re-creating historic attire, tactics and weapons and honing their combat skills in a compound in the hills of the Appian Way that resembles the set of a low-budget swords-and-sandals movie.

Veteran students at the Rome Gladiator School see it as an all-consuming discipline that expresses the essence of their identity: citizens of the greatest capital in the history of civilization.

"I am a seventh-generation Roman," D'Orazio says. "I am Roman in everything. I am from the Trastevere neighborhood. I grew up with the Colosseum, I saw it every day. I like ancient Rome. I learned about it through books, not films, because they are not authentic. I don't like fakes."

D'Orazio, 42, has a shaved head and a villainous goatee. He adorns himself with a menagerie: a wolf's head necklace symbolizes loyalty, a lion figure on his helmet signifies pride, a bull tattooed on his chiseled torso alludes to strength and his fighting moniker. ("Because I am a bull.")

His thuggish aspect softens when he recounts how he abandoned kendo, the Japanese sword-fighting art, after his wife discovered the gladiator school's website five years ago.

"I like belonging to the group," he says. "I like displaying myself in combat. I try to give the best of myself. I like the philosophy of kill or be killed."

The blades are blunt, but the gladiators strive for the sound, feel and sweat of reality, with accompanying risks. D'Orazio's nose -- describing it as Roman would be cliched but accurate -- had to be reconstructed after a shattering blow from a shield. His wife has become decidedly less enthusiastic about his hobby.

"Blood was pouring out of the eye holes of the helmet," he recalls sheepishly. "A real blood bath."

The school is part of the Historic Roman Group, whose members include air force generals, waitresses and butchers. On weekends, they impersonate archetypes of antiquity: The centurions drill, the belly dancers undulate, and so on. Every April 21, they are joined by foreign enthusiasts to celebrate the founding of Rome with a full-costume parade that passes the Circus Maximus and other landmarks. The group also provides courses for foreign visitors and tours the world giving demonstrations.

"We were in Shanghai for a show called 'Roman Holiday,' " rasps Nero, the group's founder. "It was a big hit with the Chinese."

Nero, a.k.a. Sergio Iacomini, holds court at the club's headquarters, a clammy, dingy warren of wooden buildings that used to be a bus barn. It houses cluttered offices, a small museum and sandy arenas for fighting.

With a touch of imperial swagger, Iacomini prowls the premises in green cargo pants armed with a busy cellphone ("Nero here"). The chunky, graying 56-year-old is both a grandfather and a new father. He shows off Popeye-size forearms developed during years of swordplay.

In his view, things have gone downhill since the days of the empire when battles were up-close and personal. "Now that was warfare. When the Romans fought Hannibal at Cannes, there were 25,000 men killed in four hours."

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