From The Guardian August 1 2011
Gladiator Games: hacking aplenty, but no phones on pain of death
Museums of London hosts re-enactment on the site of a real Roman amphitheatre in the yard of the City of London's Guildhall, sats Charlotte Higgins
They aren't exactly Russell Crowe, are they?" remarks the woman sitting next to me as the gladiators strut into the arena – or rather into the yard of the City of London's Guildhall. The real Roman amphitheatre, sensationally discovered in 1988, lies some metres beneath our feet.
Whether they could pass as the star of a Ridley Scott sword-and-sandals movie or not, no one could fault these modern gladiators for gameness. Sporting the kind of skimpy loincloths that only the most confident of gentlemen could submit to the eyes of a roaring crowd, they look ready enough to spill blood.
Our master of ceremonies at the games, which are hosted by the Museum of London, is explaining the practicalities. Those whose mobile phones go off, he says, will be dragged into the arena to face the emperor's wrath. Today, that's Domitian, who's turning up in a minute.
The real Domitian never actually came to Britain; the historian Tacitus blamed him for the Romans' failure properly to conquer Scotland. (His father Vespasian, on the other hand, campaigned in south-west Britain, and built Rome's Colosseum.) But Domitian did evidently enjoy the spectacle of gladiatorial contest. A poem by Statius describes games presided over by him that end with a flock of flamingoes being released in the amphitheatre. There were no such avian stunts at the Guildhall.
After the emperor arrives in a chariot pulled by two splendid black steeds, the games begin. The gladiators are in two teams, Londinium and Camulodunum – London and Colchester. The crowd divides into "ends". It is not clear that the "home" and "away" supporters are going to get into a brawl, as happened in the amphitheatre at Pompeii in AD59. On that occasion, swords were drawn and the visitors from nearby Nuceria ended up with "terrible injuries and mutilations", according to Tacitus.
There's still time, though. Goodness, but it's violent out there and, after the warmup – in which gladiators simply cut the throats of a few, unresisting, condemned prisoners – the crowd goes wild when Celadus from Londinium sets to furiously with Hector of Camulodunum.
"I'm not sure this is appropriate for children. I think I want to go and play mini-golf or something," says my neighbour, who has come with her boyfriend and his small son. Small son, let it be said, angelic though he is,, appears to be thoroughly enjoying himself. There are none so bloodthirsty as six- to 10-year-olds, I reflect, as mild-faced children yell: "Stick him like a pig! Kill him!"
Having been told the thumbs-up, thumbs-down routine is "an invention of the Wood of Holly where the Romans never were" we have been taught a more historically plausible alternative: arm out, fingers spread to indicate mercy; clenched fist with horizontal thumb for death. As a crowd, I am ashamed to say we more often incline to the latter.
After a (sketchy) re-enactment of the second battle of Philippi, and another of the naval battle, Actium ("without the boats, obviously"), we get the female gladiators. Women did go into the arena – Statius mentions swordswomen – but how often we don't know. As Achillea springs on to the sandy arena, my neighbour is impressed – "she's the only one who looks the part" – and she dispatches first another woman, Amazonia, and then a male adversary, Rufus, whom the emperor sends to the mines for the ignominy of defeat to a female.
In fact, she is Mandy Burridge, an art and design teacher in a secondary school. Rufus is her husband, Ian. In performance (which, she says, despite appearances is very safe), she always beats him. "In all honesty, she's faster at attacking than I am. In real life she'd probably cut my arm off," says Ian. "It's a great stress buster," says Mandy. "Especially if we've had a domestic on the way."