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Ludus Magnus: The Great Gladiatorial Training School


By Robert Damien Santagata

I decide to embark on a subterranean tour of Rome – something that I have wanted to do for quite some time – but will first pay a visit to a couple of overlooked but interesting ancient sites. Gladiators needed, and perhaps liked, to exercise. After all, the greater they were, the more they would win; the more they won, the longer they would live.

The Ludus Magnus is located in the vicinity of the Colosseum and was partially unearthed in the early- to mid-1900s. It is where these often admired, at times despised, ancient grapplers trained, honed their fighting skills, and prepared to live another day or die a violent, bloody death at the hand of an equally desperate combatant. Domitian built this gladiatorial fighting complex in the late first century A.D. Gladiators lived, ate, and trained in this complex, also called the Great Gladiatorial Training School. These men hailed from every corner of the empire and were eager to impress the viewing masses, conquer their opponents or, at the very least, earn a thumbs-up in the greatest amphitheater of them all: the Colosseum.

To give you an idea of just how vast, far-reaching, and extensive the empire was, consider that several hundred amphitheaters were scattered around the provinces of the Roman World. The remains of some 230 have survived to put an exclamation on the importance of “entertainment” during her long reign. Nearly a hundred or so remain on the Italian peninsula alone. The men who instructed these gladiators were called doctores. The process is akin to what I experienced in Marine Corps boot camp, though we were shepherded and trained by drill instructors and, unlike the novicius at the Ludus Magnus, we were not instructed in how to honorably die; we were expected to live. Which school of thought is nobler?

The novicius would undergo a physical examination to assay his suitability to withstand the severity of the training and fighting. If he passed his physical, he would – much like a marine-hopeful –serve the nation (the emperor) honorably (it was hoped), nobly, and until either retirement or, in the case of gladiators, death. He would live to fight and fight to live! The Ludus Magnus lacks a cavea (enclosure): the seating section which was generally organized in three horizontal sections. A portion of the school’s barracks is visible: a row of meager cells. It was connected to the Colosseum by means of an underground tunnel, through which gladiatores would pass to reach the great arena and do battle. If they survived, or were granted a thumbs-up, they would return to the school and hope for similar fortune in future contests. The school’s facilities and sleeping quarters were far from luxurious. Like marines, gladiators were more effective, indeed better killers, if kept edgy, angry, and frustrated. The successful ones savored the crowd’s adulation, praise, and adoration; those who failed would either be spared by the thumbs-up and be shamed, or as already stated, die ugly deaths and join their ancestors in Elysium.

I spend an hour and a half at the Ludus Magnus, fascinated by its history and trying to imagine what life was truly like for these gladiators. I’m sure the movie “Gladiator” was less than accurate, or perhaps it was redolent of the actual experience. I must confess, however, that “Gladiator” is far and away my favorite movie of all time. Such a storyline, despite the creative license taken by its writers and director. Watching Joaquin Phoenix play Commodus brought tears to my eyes – the acting was simply brilliant. Hail Caesar!

The author of this series, Robert Damien Santagata, is a “rabid Italophile” and the author of the 2020 book “The Paradise of Exiles.” This series presents his vivid, evocative descriptions of his search for the soul of Italy – rapturous descriptions that the author attributes to Stendhal syndrome, a psychosomatic condition in which overexposure to any form of great beauty induces a state of euphoria that can include elation, dizziness, confusion, hallucinations and even fainting.

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