Infected blades! Swarms of bees! Bleeding out! A novel history lesson in Rome grabs the attention of Sally Peck's children.
There are few world attractions more poorly run or more unpleasant to visit than the Colosseum. Arrestingly beautiful from the outside; inside you'll find chaos. For aspiring junior gladiators, navigating through crowds of ticket touts and guides is a one-way path to destroying your Roman holiday.
And yet, since he first learned to speak, my son Henry has eschewed all superheroes and tank engines in favour of gladiators. An early trip to the Roman Baths in Somerset helped, prompting the acquisition of a series of toys, from Playmobil's Roman arena to books (the Usborne time travel volume is good, the out-of-print Ladybird guide even better); there is material aplenty to spark the imagination of a young would-be gladiator. But a walk through the throngs in Rome, or even along the bumpy roads of Pompeii, is unlikely to bring this bustling ancient world alive for a young enthusiast.
However, if you head just 1.5km south of the Colosseum and wander down a dusty lane off the Appian Way, you'll find a road that leads directly to Ancient Rome.
There, on Via Appia Antica, in a series of nondescript sheds and dirt pitches under the shadow of a raised railway line, lie the secrets of centuries of warriors.
Children are experiential learners; lectures leave them cold. So enrolling, if only for two hours, in a training school for gladiators seemed the best way for Henry, 4, and 6-year-old sister Antonia to get to the heart of ancient Roman life.
Run by the Italian capital's Gruppo Storico Romano, this is a temple to life a few thousand years ago, but "Gladiator School"is a slight misnomer — it covers the enslaved performers, but also encompasses soldiers, women and even the vague "barbarian", a group to which my husband Giles was immediately assigned upon our arrival.
Each visit is divided into two parts. First, your guide leads you through a hands-on exploration of history in the museum, for which you don elaborate helmets and armour.
Next comes physical training.
As our guide, Flamma, dressed my husband in replica armour, she explained to the children that Roman soldiers had marched 6500km to Britannia wearing protective gear weighing 30kg.
Flamma's enthusiasm was contagious and the children were quickly strategising with her on how best to deploy the giant shields too heavy for my six-year-old to lift, or the dozen helmets on display, showing styles of protective gear spanning eight centuries.
"Romans were shorter than the barbarians," she encouraged my small children, "but they used their brains: so they invented a strategy to switch constantly. Fight and then go — rotate the front line to remain fresh." My family practised this turtle formation, armed with replica and lighter wooden shields, while Flamma beat us from above. Her jabs at Giles' armour were so robust that Antonia grew tearful — until her father moved to stab our instructor with the spike on his helmet.
Flamma elegantly sidestepped the attack, trilling to the children: "After one minute carrying all of the metal weapons, you're exhausted. You need a break. Romans had to work as one." I was sure that there was a metaphor in this for family unity, but she cut me short: "Romans were crafty, like kids. They used to throw bags of swarming bees into groups of barbarians."
Also a trained opera singer, Flamma has a flair for the dramatic and a gift for attention-grabbing headlines: "The Romans loved good ideas — no one in Italy does today, but then they did. Someone figured out that garlic is an anticoagulant. So they would rub garlic on their swords before battle, and if they simply cut people, they'd bleed out," she explained.
"How efficient!" she crowed, as the children nodded sagely.
Flamma added that the Romans were also fond of plunging their swords down the loo to gather all sorts of things that would help infect wounds. We know this from Julius Caesar's books about his war in Gallia (France). This was rather more than Ladybird reveals about the workings of Caesar's army, and Henry's eyes danced with excitement. After an hour we were ready to train, so we headed out to the elaborate obstacle course.
There, the children and my husband raced between swinging sandbags, honed their agility over a quickstep ladder, did push-ups, roly-polys on mats, walk-squats with wooden weights. I, selflessly, filmed from the sidelines as I had come dressed in an impractical dress.
Once my team had proven its agility, Flamma distributed wooden swords and shields — and the sparring began. To my husband's deep regret, a crowd, waiting for the next session, had come along to watch. There was cheering; booing; laughter. They favoured the plucky smaller fighters over their father.
The emperor used gladiator games as a political tool: keep the people entertained, and you've got their support. I hoped our two-hour rumble in the dusty jungle would cement a love for the classic world. It exceeded my expectations.
The following day, my young citizens and I wandered the Forum. The crumbling stones of the adjacent government buildings require great imagination to raise the dead. I was standing, in innocence, by the Umbilicus Urbis, the symbolic centre of the ancient city, when I was attacked by young soldiers. As they stabbed me from behind, Henry's small voice hissed: "There's garlic on this sword; you'll bleed out!"
Never before have blood sports inspired such maternal pride.
In seven years of testing family-targeted learning experiences, and years as a teacher, I haven't found anything that matches the quality and imaginative strengths of the Roman Gladiator school. It is, objectively, excellent.
The Gladiator School offers a rare combination of interactive learning and exercise which unites the entire family in collaborative achievement. It is, in short, excellent, and should be a top priority on any trip to Rome.
For details on gladiator workshops with Gruppo Storico Romano.