I Have Seen into the Eyes of a Heart Once Beating

Once upon a time a dream was born and it was called “Wow, that’d be Awesome”. Like so many dreams put under this title, to complete it would be Awesome, but unlike many dreams that are called such, this one could easily enough be crossed off the Dream List as fulfilled. What was this dream, you may ask? To be a gladiator for a day at Rome’s “Ludus Magnus”.

More gender specific, a gladiatrix, but that is interrupting the story.

Nevertheless, within days of arriving in Rome I contacted the gladiator school, the Ludus Magnus, inquiring about this opportunity. After a few back and forths with the lanista /president of the school,  I discovered that this group of people who made up the Ludus Magnus were re-enactors not only of gladiators, but they also doubled as Julius Caesar’s famed X Legio (Tenth Legion) and were about as real of a deal as you can get, scoring requests from the Roman government, various documentary makers etc. to star as their gladiators, legionaries and town folk. I won’t get into their resume but it is quite fun. Through our communications the president told me that during the summer they are busy doing shows all over Italy and to set-up for the day of training for anyone other than a large group was not going to be very economical. Okay, so this is disappointing but I completely understand. Normally the story would end there, but obviously the God which is out there has other plans for his nerdy believer.

Knowing my history as Classicist and Krav Maga’er (therefore, not just a cutsie tourist) I was offered an alternative: the lanista and some of his gladiators were helping out another gladiator troupe for a show in Spello, Umbria, about 2.5 hours away from Rome, would I like to join them to see the show and equipment there? It would be completely free to me.

Pause for effect.

As I read this e-mail, I carefully weighed and considered all the pros and co-YES!! Yes, yes , a million times yes! (Egads, that sounds like a response to a marriage proposal.) Of coarse I will run off with gladiators. It’s only what women since the dawn of popular gladiator shows have dreamed of doing.

Okay, so that was NOT my motivation but the thought made me laugh at the brilliancy of this opportunity.

I calmly responded that I would be delighted to take him up on his offer.

Two days later on Friday after class, I packed my little travel bag and met the lanista, Giorgio, for the first time at the metro station and this is where the story really begins.

Firstly we had to pick up the other gladiator who would be traveling with us at their storage unit along with all the equipment. Enter Andrea. That’s Andre’ with an “a” in case you’re reading the female name with the same spelling. Andrea’s gladiator name is Rufus and I loved the authenticity with his chosen name. The name means red, or ruddy and he has reddish, tousled hair, it just goes to show you to what level of detail these guys are committed to.

As the helmets, shields, swords, trident, and all the other equipment they would be needing were being stashed into the back of the small European hatchback (it was a “can you believe this?” sight), Andrea gave me a run down on some of the props and equipment used for their X Legion, most interestingly a surgical kit. He also showed me a recreation of the infamous fork/knife/spoon 3-in-1 utensil I had heard rumors of which rather excited me. Show and tell was soon over but before we left Giorgio gave me a small, blue glass cup from their storage as a gift. It was handmade and is quite a pretty thing.

The roadtrip into Umbria was fun. Both Giorgio and Andrea had really good English and both were easy talkers so my concern that my sometimes reservedness would make this trip a rather long one was put to rest. We talked about a lot of history, of coarse, their shows and had a lot of good laughs. I also learnt that for a day job one of the gladiators works as a flight attendant. So heads up, next time you want to make life difficult for your local flight attendant, or see someone else making their life difficult, remind yourself, or the other person, that they could be annoying a gladiator. Which is generally never a very good idea.

The road e drove on into the heart of Umbria was beautiful, everything you want Italy to be, and the Apennine mountains were as amazing as I always thought them to be. Central Italy is an area which doesn’t remember much of its history any earlier than the Medieval period and so castles and stone houses dotted the area everywhere, vineyards spotted the terrain and non-sensical road signs made the advent of smart phone GPS’ a very wonderful thing- even for Italians who are used to such unmarked and confusing signs.  We finally arrived at Spello without much incident and although it is really “just a spot on the map”, it is a beautiful one. This http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/01/39/a1/0e/town-of-spello.jpg is the center of Spello and while we had passed a few towns similar in nature already, this was *our* destination and as such this was now more captivating than all the others.

We rendezvoused with the other two gladiators in the city, Mario and Antonio, and after a few inquiries tracked down where we were to settle down, a spot at the top of the city, and so we drove up to our spot and in this way, I was taken in to another century long ago lost to the comprehension of North Americans. The streets of old Spello have not changed much at all since they were built and all the streets and buildings were intertwined into crevices and different levels, anywhere in which a street or building could fit, it was made to be thus. The streets all looked like this http://slowtalk.com/groupee/forums/a/ga/ul/842103904/inlineimg/Y/Spello_Umbria_0041_(Custom).JPG , this http://t0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSi3MYuplrMa9mrYemO2tzFMIzKwtEtehlWZbEE9n9i_LgBq504&t=1, this http://susanvanallen.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/spello-street.jpg , or this http://www.casalupo.com/images/region/SpelloStreets.jpg just with no greenery, but instead, candles lit the way along the side of the street and hung from the walls. And then, as we’re driving along these stone streets, out of NO where, a tall, skinny, bald guy turns the corner walking towards us wearing naught but a white toga Greek style (no tunic, just toga) and it was at this moment where I began to put our situation together. As it turns out, Spello was hosting not just a gladiator show but was putting on a three day event where the city was transformed into the first century AD. Colorful drapes hung from the trees, flowered garlands strung from the walls, soldiers wandered around with politicians and ladies with various degrees of class waited to greet you into their stores and restaurants. Even normal signs were replaced with hand chiseled wood ones in Latin (of varying levels of correctness as Andrea’ was always chaffed to point out- I have found my soulmates!!).

There was a “main” street we were to drive up to our final destination which was just big enough to get the little hatchback through and so up, up we went until we reached a look-off spot where members from the XIII Legio were camped out setting up their Roman tents. That alone was cool enough, to be sharing a camp with the XIIIth (of HBO’s “Rome” fame), but then I got out of the car and was greeted by this: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152032990540167&set=a.10152032990035167.880151.569065166&type=3&theater

I was astounded by this sight, but I was not there as a tourist and no one else seemed to really notice the sight they were probably all used to seeing so I calmly took my photo, coolly looked out in the distance over the stone ledge lined with legionary shields, and very collectedly kept myself from dropping my jaw in awe with this whole sight. We had some time before the show began so we all relaxed for a while, the gladiators I was with greeted their friends from the XIIIth and Andrea offered to show me how to use the Roman shield properly which was quite interesting to be sure, the practical uses of it, how to use it as a weapon and what it wasn’t meant for, etc. From there he showed me some of the gladiator equipment, specifically the helmets. As Giorgio had been swift to point out earlier in the trip the helmets were more of a handicap than an advantage of safety. I was able to discover this first hand when I put them on. Some of them have no air holes outside of small eye sockets so breathing was a terrible trial when you are in the middle of a sparring match for your life. Others limited your vision so that as soon as your opponent was no longer in front of you, you couldn’t see him and were probably about to lose. Others had crests which would catch on things such as the net from the retriarius and so on. I had read, and now saw first hand, that nothing about gladiatorial equipment or weaponry was “just because” but instead was a calculated balance of advantages and disadvantages between each fighting pair.

Outside of a side journey to find our accommodation for the night, we spent the hours until show time at the camp quite easily and before I knew it, night had fallen and my four companions had transformed themselves from Normal Joe to four very real looking gladiators. As for myself I had been armed with one of their camera’s hanging around my neck, a small backpack for them and, after a few dozen meters revealed one of Andrea’s greaves had a broken strap, a greave was added to my charge until we reached the arena. It was now dark outside and the only light came from the candles along the street ways and lights from the periodical shop still open, and as we marched down Spello’s tiny, Renaissance streets in full gladiatorial glory past the tourists and crowds of spectators watching the soldiers act out a scene in a tiny piazza, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more like there was a sign accompanying me which read, “I’m with them.

In the main piazza about half way down the city where a parade of sorts would start in a little bit, we all headed to the bar (Italian bar, more like an anything-goes café except no menu- you just gotta know what they have) and grabbed some drinks. I didn’t want anything but after it was insisted that I get something, all that pressure seized up my ability to make a decision so after stalling, badly I might add, I looked to my left where a Roman soldier was drinking something with a lemon in it, and so, as dangerous as it was, I announced, “I’ll have whatever he’s having”. The soldier, who had nothing to do with our group at that moment ordered whatever it was that he was having on my behalf and I was encouraged that my risk paid off as it was only a carbonated lemonade.

Within fifteen minutes the procession of everyone involved in the gladiator show was winding their way down to the arena and until midnight I was treated to a gladiator show. They put everything in there, from a Vestal Virgin using her “save power” to pardon a prisoner, to presenting a rudius to a now free gladiator, gladiatrix (women gladiators, who weren’t presenting themselves as particularly very accurate as myself and companions all noted) and if I was to identify it with something modern, it would be like watching a sparring match.

There is not much to tell at this point other than when it was all over, my companions dusty and tired had done a great job. We all to wait until the right information trickled down on where we were to eat supper and in that time I got some sword training and gained some serious brownie points when Mario, in his broken English asked ,”Do you like to fight?” and I said yes. He figured I misunderstood the question thinking he was asking about the show, so he asked again and told him yes, I practice Krav Maga. His eyes got super big and called out to Antonio and Andrea and told them with a bit of awe that I was a Krav’er. Though the subject was not dwelled upon, the same look of respect passed over their faces. Many of the gladiators at the school have a martial arts background which helped get them involved in this in the first place so they understood Krav. It was a brownie point I took gladly.

We eventually received word of where supper awaited us, and so back up into the city we climbed, found the restaurant and the magic of the evening really began. We were all put outside on a terrace which, during the day, hosted one of the amazing views Spello gives freely, but now it was a black landscape teasing you with the memory of the vista being hid. To one side of us was a beautiful, giant tree draped with ancient decors and, ironically enough, the soundtrack from “Gladiator” was playing in the background. We were given a large square wood table and our crew joined the others already sitting bringing out number to twelve men still dressed as legionaries, an impressively uniformed centurion, a Gaul….and me. But even though I couldn’t follow most of what was said around the table and I was the only lady there for most of the night, I never felt left out. Andrea kept me informed with what was going on when it was needed and the best way to describe this night was a literal page out of history. It’s difficult to describe the feeling of an atmosphere, but it was perfect. Even Giorgio who has been doing events like these for years felt it necessary to comment that it felt like being in a real legionary camp. Just like living a movie. Complete with a soundtrack.

There were clay beakers of wine being passed around and poured into cups without a care of whether  it all made it into the cup or not, clay bowls of bread and wooden plates of sliced meat and calls for more food. Jokes were thrown, and a few poked made in my direction- apparently the centurion thought it was amusing that I was studying Italian but thought it was even better that that meant they didn’t have to watch what was being said! And at some points, they really didn’t.

I will say that even though I haven’t gotten the hang of this wine thing yet, I did try what was offered and I can actually say for the first time I rather enjoyed the red variety. However, it would seem that my judgement is not overly accurate for one of the guys, after tasting it for the first time, immediately broke out of his Italian and exclaimed, “that is f-ing good!!”, and needless to say the red wine was gone very quickly thereafter.

Once the promise of more food and wine was complete and it was evident no more would be had, my centurion friend checking the beakers twice to make sure that there hadn’t been a miracle of wine, our table split off and each in his own manner meandered his way back to the legionary camp at the top of city. Once we got there, (after a photo op with two of the guys on the Roman public latrines), the enchanment wasn’t broken or even interrupted. Wrought iron cauldrons of fire were placed around the camp, a plate of chunks of meat awaited and soon soldiers and gladiators alike had bones of meat in their hands and mouths- never barbarically I might add, just men without a care. As all great stories have, there was a good looking soldier who kept catching my eye and smiling at me and as much as I appreciated the sweetness of him not acting like he was Cassanova, as many Italian men think they are, it was unfortunate that as I grabbed a bale of hay and sat myself beside a discarded helmet he never joined. Nonetheless, there was soon a small group of us in conversation, some sharing my hay find, another perched on the edge of a column base. We were telling stories and laughing, and the centurion came over and gave me trouble for using too much English in my story. So I tried Italian story telling and Andrea was my every-other-phrase translator which sooner rather than later drifted back to English; after the centurion left. He went off to his commander’s tent where it wasn’t long before he was showing some of the finer skills of legion fighting to the local youths . Shields and swords clanged in practice in the background as our little group found its permanent members, two gladiators, a soldier and a Gaul, and as all things tend to do in Italy, our conversation turned to food.  When it was found out that I had a jar of peanut butter for those on-the-go lunches, I think I insulted the Italian palette and was chided profusely for it. All my new friends would be satisfied if the only thing I took away from this night was the absolute truth that I had to throw away my peanut butter.

It wasn’t until about 3:15 am where my gladiator friends had reached the point of needing to call it a night although I was wide awake enough to party until sunrise. But I followed their lead and we made the round through the camp saying goodnight to everyone, Italian style of coarse with kisses on the cheek, and even though I didn’t know anyone’s name, I was considered enough of one of them to be given the same treatment: buona sera, one smack, two smack! Even my centurion friend who had given me a hard time all night made parting sweet sorrow as he told me I was a very sweet girl before we parted ways for ever.

Our room for the night was tucked away down a set of stairs, under an arch at a dead end of stone but it was picture perfect in route and in sight and I actually found a picture of the little alley way, our stairs being the ones on the right hand side going up: http://r.bstatic.com/images/hotel/max300/106/10695671.jpg. The gladiators took the loft in the room, myself and another lady I didn’t know but somehow was connected with the group took the living room area and after all was said and done, 3:45 the lights were turned out and the place was asleep almost immediately thereafter.

At 8:30 Saturday morning, we were all up again. We had all slept in our clothes from the day before and men being typically rather simple in routine anyway, the departure was painless. The five of us found a bar (again, café type place), grabbed a fresh croissant and cappuccino/espresso for breakfast, and made our ways back to our cars. We split ways with Mario and Antonio, I was sad to see our merry group coming to an end, and Andrea, Giorgio and myself headed back to Rome. It was another enjoyable ride back full of amazing pictures and videos from documentaries they had acted in, or battles they had fought in, stories told and history discussed. Once in Rome I was dropped off from whence I came at the metro station and with not much ado, I was again forced to promise that I would throw away my peanut butter and the final page in the book was signed off on. The promise that the Ludus Magnus/X Legio’s doors would always be open to me if I return to Rome was the joy that I was left with.

And from then on, I lived happily ever after, having lived in a land of magic and having felt the echoes of a heart which had once beat across the known world.

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5 thoughts on “I Have Seen into the Eyes of a Heart Once Beating

  1. “Egads, that sounds like a response to a marriage proposal” – Oh Steph, you bring such laughter to me. ;-P

    Sounds like an amazing night! I’m assuming that since you were taking pictures for them, you got none yourself? Any plans to do it again before heading back home?

    • I did get some photos in a few places where I was willing to expose myself as not *actually* being a part of the group. And the camera I was carrying was an actual camera, not a good ‘ol point-n-shoot and when the flash wouldn’t go off I didn’t know how to make it work. So none of the shots really turned out. In between fights I asked Mario for help since it was his camera but it didn’t really go anywhere. So I whipped out my little camera and shot with that instead, haha So I do have photos just mostly all of the fights,

      I would *love* to do this again but alas, I don’t think there is an opportunity, The group is gearing up for a huge 3 day event the city of Rome has got them to do celebrating Constantine’s battle against Maxentius at the Melvian Bridge here in the city. It’s the one where Constantine sees the cross in the sky and “becomes” a Christine, so on and so forth, and they are doing it all up complete with a cross in the sky, first time they’ll be working with cavalry, getting their new equipment in order (armour changed a lot from 1st century AD to 4th and so they have all new stuff to put in order and train with) ect., ect.. All that is around the first bit of October so I’ll JUST miss that by about a week and that’s kind of their next big event. Until then, they’ll be prepping for it. So alas.

    • Actually, I take that back. It looks like I just might be heading out with these guys again next week. Details will be prove yea or ney, but if yea then it shall be with them as the X Legio this time. 🙂

  2. That’s a lot of steps! Stephanie, your English sometimes sounds like you are speaking Italian. Good for you 🙂 You are there IF for no other reason than for Father to give you a once in a life time experience.You have no idea how happy I am for you.

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