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Learning how to be a gladiator — in the 21st century

REGENSBURG, Germany -- Gladiatorial combat has fascinated people for ages. In August the University of Regensburg in Germany plans to re-enact the spectacle in the service of scholarship.

Twenty-four hours a day for a month, 20 students from various university departments will live, eat and train like the gladiators of Pompeii around 79 AD Participants will prepare for the unusual project in the coming months.

“We know almost nothing about the gladiators,” noted Josef Loeffl, a lecturer in ancient history and the project's director. He pooh-poohed the image projected by the breakneck chariot race in the 1959 Hollywood epic Ben-Hur, which he said was full of “myth and cliches.”

Loeffl and his fellow researchers want to see whether 21st-century men can be molded into Roman gladiators. The experiment will not be all fun and games for the trainee gladiators. Pizza, hamburgers and steak are forbidden. As the ancient Roman physician Galen of Pergamum recommended, fighters' diets will consist mainly of berries and white beans.

About 40 adventurous students applied for the project. A casting process selected those thought most suitable.

The chosen ones have tough times ahead. They may find it hard to breathe in a bronze helmet weighing nearly five kilograms. At the height of summer, with temperatures perhaps around 30 degrees centigrade, they will swelter in thickly padded trousers and shoes in a training camp cut off from the outside world, forgoing girlfriends, showers, shampoo and even a washing machine.

Martin Schreiner, a well-toned archaeology student, is undaunted by the prospects. “For me it's a welcome change from sitting at the computer,” he said.

“We still have no idea how to turn couch potatoes into gladiators,” remarked Stefanie Pietsch, a sports scientist at the University of Regensburg.

Training sessions initially will be held four days a week before the start of the training camp in the summer. Afterwards, the freshly trained fighters are expected to demonstrate their skills with performances at the Archaeological Park Carnuntum in Lower Austria.

The students must learn how to fall correctly and how to move in their armor without hurting themselves. Those who fight with only a dagger and net must above all be quick and agile.

“We presume that those taking part will make it through the experiment fine,” Loeffl said.

Teaching staff and students at the University of Regensburg's Institute of History have experience with re-enactments. In 2004, students built a replica of a Roman galley and rowed it in the Danube. That same year, students wearing 25 kilograms of Roman armor hiked across the Alps and lived like legionnaires.

The Regensburg researchers have secured sponsors to finance their gladiator project, as they did when they built the expensive galley. “Taxpayers aren't paying a cent,” Loeffl said with emphasis.

The armor, which cost approximately 200,000 euros (US$268,000), was donated by Hans Schaller, a businessman from the Bavarian town of Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm. Schaller is an enthusiast of ancient Rome whose hobby is historical pageants.

This summer he again plans to organize Roman chariot races at several Bavarian trotting tracks, himself taking part as “Schallus Brutalus Maximus.” Schaller jocularly refers to himself as “tribune of the northern legions, envoy of the emperor, defender of the German provinces” and “citizen of Rome.”

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