Things started badly. Paolo tried to convince me to hold the sword in my right hand. “I really can’t. I’m very left-handed,” I whined back.
“OK. You will die first,” he replied nonchalantly.
Paolo was my gladiator training instructor and it was a beautiful sunny day – a “great day to die” as they shout in the Russell Crowe epic – and we were training on a hilltop on the outskirts of the city, close to the baroque fountain dell'Aqua Paola which features in so many films set in Rome.
Paolo was enormous. Not “ate too much pizza” enormous, but “solid wall of muscle” enormous. I'm reasonably fit but I felt weedy just looking at him.
I guessed the origin of his bulk when he gave us some kit to try on. At first we whinged when he told us we wouldn't be wearing it for the whole session: “What? We don't get to fight in the helmet and chain-mail?”
Then he lowered the gladiator helmet onto my head. It was so heavy it felt like my neck would snap. And I could barely see. As if fighting to the death in incredibly hefty kit wasn't enough, the helmets massively restricted the gladiators' vision, just for added trouble. I meekly handed back the helmet and accepted a cotton tunic instead.
We went through exactly the same rigmarole with the swords. Paolo let us go through the motions with replica metal swords but quickly took them off us and replaced them with swords made from wood. We rehearsed and did drills with the wooden swords, but when we got to the part where we were actually fighting, he took the wooden swords off us and handed us cardboard ones, wrapped in bubble wrap and gaffa tape. At least it was silver, I suppose.
Our session was just one afternoon – we were only in Rome for the weekend after all – so I only learned a few moves and counter moves: how to strike the head, neck, torso, side and lower legs. We took attack and defence roles and Paolo shouted out moves for us to follow: “head, legs, head, torso.” Steadily he increased the pace: “head, torso, torso, head, side, head.” We twisted and ducked and dived as we battered each other, building up a sweat. I’d like to think I moved like Russell Crowe but somehow I doubt it. Luckily I couldn't see myself.
Afterwards, I was a mess. My opponent had whacked me in the face, split my lip and bloodied my nose and I finally appreciated why Paolo had taken the metal and wooden swords off us.
I do know one thing, though: I would do it again in a shot.
Frederika had her Gladiator training lesson as part of a package put together by the Waldorf Astoria Rome Cavalieri
Need to know:
Private gladiator training lessons at the Rome Cavalieri Waldorf Astoria Hotel cost €500 for six people max. For more information see: romecavalieri.com/gladiator.php
Nightly rates at the Rome Cavalieri start from €240 per room, per night, including VAT & breakfast. For further information or to make a reservation at Rome Cavalieri, Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts, call +39 06 3509 1 or visit romecavalieri.com.