Can Gladiators Help Sell Rome's Coliseum?

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Russell Crowe (L) and Djimon Hounsou are seen in a scene from the film Gladiator

They are oversized, under-shaven and badly mannered. Their outfits and body armor are off-the-rack (of a bad masquerade store). Their solicitations are proffered in barks and grunts. And if you get close enough without paying for the experience they might just bite your head off. For those who have visited the ancient Coliseum in recent years, you have probably run into these would-be modern-day Roman gladiators, or more precisely, they have run into you. Last I checked, they were demanding 20 euros to pose next to them for a photograph outside the Coliseum, holding-the-sword not included. (See 10 things to do in Rome.)

Still, as tourist experiences go, it's a pretty good gag. In their own way, these hefty and hairy characters are authentically unpleasant, and allow us to imagine that they might be direct descendants of true centurions whose gruff manners were a natural byproduct of a life spent avoiding a grisly death while entertaining the Caesar of the day. (See pictures of the Venice floods.)

But Rome's city government has had enough. It has tried for years to crack down on the city's freelance gladiators — and has now decided that the best way to do that is to give travelers a more realistic experience. Umberto Broccoli, the recently named head of archaeology for Rome, is pushing ahead with a proposal to recreate gladiator battles in or near the Coliseum. Dressed in original costumes and carrying actual swords and tridents (unlike the plastic and aluminum toy replicas used by the current hustlers), well-trained gladiator actors will be choreographed to perform historically accurate battles like those that ended in death two millennia ago.

But with Russell Crowe unavailable for auditions, Broccoli told the Rome-based La Repubblica daily that he may be forced to turn to the unruly amateurs who lurk around the Coliseum. "We shouldn't fear vulgarity when recounting ancient life," he said. "The gladiators were vulgar, sweaty, smelly, cursing folk. Why not show them as they really were?"

Though he insists that the shows will be serious replicas of the battles (without the ugly endings of course), the archeology official says that they will also help make the city's monuments live. "Less sacredness and more showmanship," says Broccoli, who has long hosted scientific and historical shows on radio and television. "We need to make our monuments and museums come alive. They must speak to the public in a new way."

Francesco Rutelli, the former Rome mayor and Italian Culture Minister who now heads the city council opposition, is not impressed. Rutelli says Rome's current center-right administration's ideas for expanding culture are just rehashed, low-brow plans to make a quick buck. "Gladiators at the Coliseum? Compliments for originality," he quipped. "They must have had a think tank of Nobel laureates working in secret to come up with this."

Broccoli is largely echoing the ideas of conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The business mogul turned politico says Italy's cultural treasures need to be showcased and considered a precious source of income for the country. Sounds like history repeating itself: gladiators battling for the pleasure of the latest Caesar.

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