EIGHT-YEAR-OLD Sophia Izzo was facing her nemesis with a determination fierce beyond her years. The tiny blonde girl was eyeballing a man old enough to be her grandfather and relishing the moment.
"Are you ready, Sophia? You want to kill me?" he growled.
Sophia was about to try her hand at combat, making her debut as a Roman gladiator in a dusty pit just down the road from the Appian Way. It was a long way from her home town of Erie in Pennsylvania.
Sophia is one of 9000 tourists each year who spend an afternoon in a tunic attacking each other with an assortment of weapons at the Gladiator School of Rome.
"At first I didn't want to do this," Sophia said, "but it was fun."
No one knows whether the success of the movie Gladiator is responsible, but the Italians call it a boom. "It is the only one of its kind in the world," says Sergio Iacomoni, the school's director.
"There are others but not with such sophisticated research." Founded in 2000, the school caters for tourists and school groups and Mr Iacomoni says numbers are increasing each year. "If an organisation is serious and conducts itself well, it is easy to grow."
For a couple of hours, combatants dress in heavy metal replicas of helmets and tunics, get a quick snapshot of Roman history and do some basic training in sword-fighting techniques - using padded replicas. Sophia and her 13-year-old sister, Mia, are among 22 Americans who have paid up to €20 ($34) each for the hands-on experience.
After a morning at the Colosseum it seems an appropriate way for the tourists to end their week-long assault on the country's most famous historical sites.
Diane Waterman, from Los Angeles, said her three teenagers studied ancient history at school but this was a totally different experience for them.
"It's the hands-on they enjoy," she said. "They can only absorb so much from the museums - one starts to look like the next."
The school is run by the Gruppo Storico di Roma (Rome Historical Group), an association of 160 enthusiasts who meet twice a week to practise their physical skills, improve their combat techniques and celebrate their city's history.
An annual membership for an experience that combines theatre and sport costs €50. Members undergo rigorous training and have to satisfy different grades of skill, each identified with a Latin name.
By day, 32-year-old Ludwig Delvise is a bursar for a city hotel. At night he slips into a tunic and sandals to face off against his opponents.
"I am fascinated by the history of Rome," he said.
"They conquered the whole world. For me it is a great passion to learn about Roman society."
Officially recognised by the Italian Government for its cultural contribution, the Gruppo Storico has 21 gladiators and an assortment of soldiers, senators, dancers and even vestal virgins.
Enthusiasts are aged from the very young to 70, and participate in parades and ceremonies such as the annual celebration of the birth of Rome that takes place in the city's historical centre in April.
They have also collaborated with TV networks on historical documentaries.
Giulia Mazzoli is a freelance artist by day. The sturdy 33-year-old has been learning the art of the combat for four years and recently recruited her slightly-built boyfriend, Massimo Di Re, to the school.
They enthusiastically enter the dusty backyard amphitheatre to fight each other with swords and shields in a carefully choreographed sequence that sees her victorious.
"We beat each other," she says with a smile, "but it's not just about fighting. It's a great way to let off steam without couples' counselling."
By contrast, tourists at the Colosseum pay €5 for a photo with costumed centurions who have no formal training or legal permit to work there.