Trainee gladiators change library for sand pit in Austria (Feature)
By Albert Otti Aug 8, 2010, 3:06 GMT
Carnuntum, Austria - Wearing nothing but a loincloth, history student David Vogelbacher stood in an ancient amphitheatre near Vienna on a recent morning, sparred with a sword and went about learning a new occupation - gladiator.
He and 19 other students have embarked on an experimental archaeology project in the former Roman city of Carnuntum near the Austrian capital, in an effort to find out how these fighters trained and battled in their bloody spectacles.
The group of young men from Regensburg University in Germany has set up camp at Carnuntum for two weeks in August, living in tents without beds or other comforts.
A team of archaeologists, sports scientists and psychologists want to measure how their training changes their bodies, and whether it has an effect on their aggression levels.
After the sparring exercises in hot sunlight on a recent morning, the students started lifting logs to gain strength. Most of them had little in common with the muscular he-men depicted in films like the 2000 hit Gladiator.
'I haven't done any sports for the past eight years,' said Vogelbacher, who is slim and wears dark long dreadlocks and a beard.
But gladiators in the ancient Roman empire came in various shapes and sizes, depending on the roles that they played in the games of the ancient Roman empire.
Equipped with a short curved sword and metal helmet, Vogelbacher is training to become a so-called Thracian.
Traditionally his opponent would be a heavily armed Murmillo, a role assigned to the big-bodied students at Carnuntum.
'Some of them were incredibly unfit,' the group's trainer Christian Eckert said of his disciples. The bronzed, muscular martial arts expert started coaching the group in March.
By the time they came to Austria they were able to bear the more than seven hours of training in Carnuntum, which consists of power exercises, sword fighting techniques and boxing.
Eckert had little to work with besides the historically accurate weapons and armour that allow for certain movements and make others difficult.
As his students started to use the equipment, things started to fall into place naturally.
'More and more we notice that they use certain postures that we also find on historical pictures and reliefs,' Eckert said.
But he also searched beyond Roman history and borrowed traditional techniques that are practised in India by Kushti wrestlers and Kalari Payatti martial arts fighters.
Eckert compared his work to that of an archaeologist: 'You can put together the shards, but many holes will remain. So you fill them.'
While details of gladiator fighting remain murky, more is known about Carnuntum.
From the first century, Carnuntum developed into an important military base and town of up to 50,000 people. It lay on the crossroads of two important trade routes. On of them was the Danube, the Roman empire's northern border.
Archaeologists have been able to dig up much of the settlement and have fully rebuilt several buildings.
While the historical gladiators lived in barrack-like quarters, the modern trainees have to sleep in tents, resting on straw and hides.
The young men eat mostly food made from lentils, other pulses and cereals. They shun meat, following a diet that earned their ancient colleagues the nick-name 'grain munchers.'
'It makes one feel very well and healthy,' said Latin student Florian Gartner. He said he planned to continue this diet as long as he is in university and has to live off a small budget.
From studying gladiator skeletons, archaeologists believe that this grain diet led to a speedier recovery from bone fractures.
Those fighters stood not only a high chance of injury, but also of death. At least every tenth of them did not survive their armed clashes, according to Eckert.
While these men were fighting for their lives, their modern successors in Carnuntum were just trying not to get hurt.
Vogelbacher already had a cut on his forehead. He said he was glad their metal swords are blunt.
'If the blades were sharp, we would have killed ourselves several times already,' he said. 'Compared to the originals, we are just a bunch of kindergartners.'