(Bloomberg News) The burlap toga itches, the spiked trident is clumsy and the bleacher section chants obscenities at me in Latin.
The crowd at the Gladiator School of Rome wants me to stick the big fork into the neck of Giovanni Bonmartini and bring to a fiendish end his reign as chief executive officer of Europe's biggest chain of printing-supply stores.
"This is what a hostile takeover is all about," the 48-year-old, dual-national Italian-American co-founder of Prink SRL mutters, spitting sand through the bulky rope fishing net I'd hurled over his sword and 15-pound iron helmet. A BlackBerry rings. "Hold on," Bonmartini says. "I'm expecting an important call from Credit Suisse."
It's not easy being a professional gladiator in MMXI.
"There are 850 of us left," says Sergio Iacomoni, aka Nero, the 58-year-old gladiator-in-chief of Gruppo Storico Romano SRL, the last of what were once hundreds of human stables that specialized in training Roman slaves and citizens for the arena. "There's no better place for corporate team building and promoting incentive and competition."
Who's going to argue the point with a man wearing a snarling dead wolverine around his shoulders and ready to thrust a Thracian "sica" into your throat, particularly when one of his 10,000 graduates is alleged New York organized-crime boss John "Teflon" Gotti III.
Swords And Tridents
"I've taught executives from Honda and Nestle how to do this," Nero screams as his sickle-shaped sword sends my trident into orbit and I scramble instead for my fallen notebook. "Forget about writing what I'm saying, defend yourself!"
Nero says the only rule that I need to follow is the guideline set by gladiator Encolpius in Satyricon, the bawdy ancient Roman novel about a bunch of guys roaming around the empire in uncomfortable sandals.
"I vow to endure to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword," is gladiator policy. There are no exceptions. Nero says failure to comply will result in my being ceremoniously slaughtered by the "editor," the Latin name for the umpire who refereed ancient gladiatorial bouts.
Today that would be Piero Giusto, a 48-year-old Alitalia SpA flight attendant dressed in a scarlet skirt and wielding a 5-foot-long staff capped with a bulbous bronze sphere that's now positioned to crush my skull. The insignia of his editorial status is a brass bathroom towel hook shaped like a lion's head and festooned to his chest.
Business Of Killing
"Gladiators were sent into the arena to be killed and that was that," Giusto says. "It was neither unusual nor uncommon for 25,000 people to be killed during one day in the coliseum. It was a business."
Bonmartini removes his helmet, compares it to wearing a microwave oven and says little has changed over the millennia.
"Business is still hand-to-hand warfare," Bonmartini says. "And it's all encapsulated in the body: anger, excitement, challenge. That's why I come to the arena. This is an invigorating perspective and perfect preparation for the negotiating table."
It's also a great way to recuperate from root-canal surgery. "I can't feel a thing in my head," says Prink President Massimo Elser. He's fresh out of the dentist's chair and ready to knock my teeth out. "I'm in attack mode," Elser warns.
At least Nero's gladiators will live to see another day. Ancient Roman slave gladiators rarely survived more than ten matches that lasted three to five minutes. Few lived past the age of 30. Roman citizens joined the fray for sponsorship prize money (some earning as much as 100,000 sesterces, about $350,000 at today's sesterce-gold rates) and to participate in crowd-pleasing hijinks that included harpooning captured whales and flinging lead-weighted darts to decapitate flocks of slaves and ostriches.
"We don't do that," says Nero, who until launching his gladiator school in 1994 worked at Banca d'Italia and made more money than anyone else in Italy. "I was in charge of the machines that printed lira. Everyone else at the bank played golf or bridge, but I wanted to be a gladiator. It's a profitable enterprise and the women like how we dress."
Gruppo Storico Romano, historically located on the Via Appia Antica near the spot where Kirk Douglas found himself crucified in Stanley Kubrick's film Spartacus, also offers customers a fully equipped Roman Legion, including catapults, battering rams and a complete line of siege towers. They've done battle-for-pay in Shanghai and Hong Kong and are scheduled to march north on Bulgaria this summer.
Gladiator training remains the company's core business. A two-hour lesson with padded wood swords for kids costs 20 euros ($28). Adults pay 30 euros and the pain is real. For anyone who would like to get a feel for this at the office, duct-tape 40 pounds of cast-iron skillets to your body and run while a co-worker in culottes tries to skewer you with an array of giant shish-kebab sticks strapped to a rod of rebar. If, after two hours of this, you find that you're enjoying yourself, it's time to sign up for professional certification, a 40-hour seminar in Ancient Roman history and combat, along with three years of further intensive training in spears, pikes and axes. Everybody enjoys the fortifying lunch of jug wine and pasta shells stuffed with sheep intestines served at a nearby catacomb.
Nero's luxury gladiator course runs 500 euros and takes place amid roaring marble lions and prancing bronze unicorns in the aromatic garden at the Rome Cavalieri Hilton. The hotel's scampi carpaccio is excellent, its cellar offers a rare 1958 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo and chief concierge Markus Dobritzhofer is probably the only concierge in the world with a diploma in professional gladiating.
No Dead Guests
"After the Vatican tour, the gladiator school is the hotel's most popular guest attraction," Dobritzhofer says. "But I beg you mention that none of our guests have ever been killed or injured."
Back in the arena, editor Valentino "Hermes" di Lorenzo gives Elser a look that says I'm as good as dead. This was supposed to be my ultimate moment in our absolutely not choreographed match. I dropped my fork. Despite high marks for my facial stubble and menacing snarl, the magister of net and trident is not pleased with my progress.
"The gladiator with the trident always won," laments the professor, Pietro "Petronio" Gallone, a Banca Nazionale del Lavoro teller who moonlights as the school's specialist in seafaring pitchforks.
"You're cheap slave meat," Hermes says. He fires up another cigarette. "It takes 30 wins to gain your freedom in a Roman arena," the editor growls. "The Cavalieri Hilton? You aren't going anywhere."