TO visit Rome's premier training school for gladiators – the Gruppo Storico Romano, or Roman Historical Group – it helps to have had a stiff drink first: just finding the place is an obscure test of nerve. Or so it seems one moonless night when a taxi driver drops me on an empty stretch of the Via Appia Antica, the ancient Appian Way, points grimly down a muddy side alley and speeds off into the fog. Groping my way through the nebulous darkness, I am quickly surrounded by a pack of barking dogs that eagerly follow my every step.
After stumbling into several abandoned yards, I spot a dimly lit paddock full of promising-looking debris, including a full-sized catapult and sinister items such as tridents, nets and helmets. As the door to a corrugated shed creaks open, I am relieved to see six students in tunics, ready for blood.
"Salve," roars the teacher, Carmelo Canzaro, a burly figure with a close-shaven head. (The Latin greeting is still commonly used by Italians.) By day, Canzaro runs a clothing store, he explains, but by night his name is changed to Spiculus and he teaches the cut and thrust of the arena.
The Gruppo Storico is one of a dozen amateur groups in Rome catering to history-loving Italians who want to learn the arts of the gladiator. The students are everyday Roman citizens such as bank clerks and truck drivers. Aiming at authenticity, they want nothing to do with the cheesy Roman legionnaires who hang around the Colosseum, bumming tips from tourists in exchange for photo ops. This is a serious business.
"There's nothing in ancient texts that describes gladiators' training techniques, so we have to improvise, using later information," Spiculus admits as he presents me with my wooden training sword. The school offers occasional theory lessons on hand-to-hand combat, but I have arrived for the more practical training, so I dash into a back room to change into my tunic (a fetching little number in rough white cotton). As I begin to go through the combat routine – we move through a dance-like set of movements, chanting – Spiculus adds ominously: "You have to pay attention. One lapse and you can be caught off balance."
He is sitting the evening out, since he's recovering from a broken ankle. (The injury occurred while battling with an iron sword, Spiculus tells us; even so, I hope my fellow students won't become overly enthusiastic with their wooden versions.)
During the rest period, a wiry young computer programmer, Massimo Carnevali, whose gladiatorial name is Kyros, explains the school's appeal.
"It combines history with physical exercise," he enthuses. "I love the discipline." An American Latin student living in Rome agrees: "I loved this stuff before, but to have the opportunity to come here and chop at people with swords is a dream come true."
I spend a good 1½ hours swinging away with my toy weapon and feel as if I am getting the hang of it, although my co-ordination leaves something to be desired. "None of us is Russell Crowe," one of my sparring partners admits, as we down weapons. As the group disbands, I slip out into the darkness and pass Spiculus constructing a large wooden box. "The difficulty with modern students is to convey the mentality of the gladiator, the idea of fighting to the death," he says. "Many students start off with a casual attitude, but they soon learn what it was like to be in the arena."
I ask Spiculus what he's building: a gruesome battle device from antiquity? He shakes his head. "No, this is where we're putting the Nativity scene."
THE enthusiasm of the bank-clerk gladiators may be a little extreme, but it is hardly rare in Rome these days. Indeed, Romans are basking in a new golden age of interest in the classical past, which was kick-started by the city's year 2000 Grand Jubilee. This energetic new spirit, and influx of hard euro currency, can still be felt at all Rome's classical sites, once notorious for their apathetic staff, erratic schedules and eerie absence of display labels.
Arguably, Roman museums are now among the most elegantly designed, and its archeological sites the most user-friendly in the world.
"Compared to Rome in the mid-1980s, the improvement is incredible," Nicola Laneri, a Roman archeologist, tells me over pizza in the shadow of the Colosseum. "And there is another big change: it's not just foreign tourists who are taking advantage of the cultural improvements. A huge number of Italians are now visiting them."
The popular enthusiasm is such that Rome's archeology department cannot keep up with demand. A roster of fringe attractions is open one day a month for Italian language-only tours, on a calendar that is erratic enough to discourage all but the most persistent. I stumbled on the schedule by accident years ago when I picked up a nondescript carnet di viaggio at a museum store and noticed the page titled Archaeologia Nascota (Hidden Archaeology) whose prime objective is to reveal otherwise off-limits tombs, temples and sanctuaries for Roman aficionados.
So, on a sunny Saturday morning, I found myself the only foreigner in a crowd of 50 Italians standing outside one of Rome's most intriguing landmarks: the pyramid of Gaius Cestius, an Egyptian-style tomb built by a Roman nobleman in the Augustan age. It was a genially chaotic affair; only 30 people in the crowd had reservations and, after much heated discussion, the lucky ones were allowed through an iron gate, down steps to a lush green grove, crowned with poplar trees and prowled by a dozen cats. Then we filed into the pyramid, hunching through the entrance like grave robbers. ("Last one in close the door!" the guide yelled out. "If those cats get in, we'll never get them out!")
There was a heady sense of privilege inside the humid inner chamber as we gazed at frescos of four winged figures on the ceiling and one enigmatic piece of graffito from the 1600s: Antonio.
Meanwhile, all across Rome, urban planners have been trying creative new ways to blend ancient and modern. The Markets of Trajan, created in the 2nd century AD as a multistorey shopping mall, now double as a gallery space for contemporary art. In the maze of vaulted arcades, where vendors once hawked Arabian spices and Red Sea pearls, and where fish were kept fresh in salt water pumped 16km from the coast, the ancient shops arefilled with metal sculptures, videoinstallations and mannequins flaunting Dolce & Gabbana suits as minimalist harmonies twang through the corridors.
Equally effective is the Montemartini Museum, which was opened as a temporary exhibit in 1997 and became so popular with Romans that it has been made permanent: sensuous marble sculptures stand among the soaring metal turbines of an abandoned 19th-century electrical plant.
Meanwhile, the dark corridors inside the Colosseum have been turned into an exhibition space using the latest modern audiovisual techniques, projecting films on to scrims, while the nearby Crypta Balbi Museum uses sleek chrome and glass passageways to allow visitors into the bowels of a building that has been occupied almost continuously for 2000 years, tracing Rome's layered history back to 100BC on this one spot. There are even vaguely sci-fi plans for transparent walkways to link the various forums in the city's heart.
Other adventures into the ancient-meets-modern design world have been more contentious. In April, Italian officials unveiled a new museum pavilion designed by US architect Richard Meier to house the magnificent 9m-high Ara Pacis, or altar of peace, a sacrificial altar dedicated by the emperor Augustus in 9BC to celebrate the advent of Pax Romana.
The first new edifice in Rome's historic centre since the days of Mussolini, it has been criticised for its starkly angular travertine and glass design, which many Romans feel violates the traditional ambience of the old city. In one notorious attack, the vocal undersecretary to the Ministry of Culture, Vittorio Sgarbi, compared its boxlike form with a petrol station in Dallas and burned the building in effigy at a demonstration; others have mourned the Los Angelisation of Rome. But such attacks are rare: most of the experiments have been warmly embraced by Romans and have quickly become part of the city's fabric.
ON my last night in Rome, still nursing bruises from my session at the gladiator school, I decide to visit the most successful of Rome's recent renovations, the Campidoglio, or Capitoline Hill. The site is thick with symbolism: throughout antiquity, this was the most sacred of the city's seven hills, crowned by the golden-roofed Temple of Jupiter. Inside, an immense statue of the god presided over magnificent artworks from across the Roman world. Today, the site is occupied by the newly buffed Capitoline museums, twin renaissance palaces whose gleaming hallways are lined with ancient masterpieces. But the most beloved corner of the museum – a modern sacred site for Italians – is the new outdoor cafe. It is located on the precise spot where ancient travellers once came to gaze out on Rome, the eighth wonder of the ancient world, whose marble buildings, gushed Greek orator Aelius Aristides, covered the horizon "like snow".
That ancient euphoria is not hard to recapture. Emerging on to the expansive cafe terrace at dusk, cradling a glass of prosecco, I gaze across Rome's terracotta roofs turning pink in the sunset and silently congratulate myself on being in the most beautiful city on Earth, just as I might have done 2000 years ago. And nobody is chopping at me with a wooden sword.