The tunnel under the Roman amphitheater in Arles, France, is dark and cool. The shade is a welcome relief from the blazing Mediterranean sun beating down on the amphitheater’s sand-strewn arena and stone bleachers.
The gladiator helmet I’ve just put on, though, is stifling. A replica of the head protection worn by a Roman gladiator almost 2,000 years ago, the dented, scratched helmet weighs more than 13 pounds—three times as heavy as a football helmet, and far less comfortable. It has a tangy metallic smell, as though I’ve put my head inside a sweaty penny.
Through the bronze grate covering my eyes, I can make out a pair of men in loincloths warming up for a fight. Metal armguards jingle as one bounces on the balls of his feet, his stubby, hooked sword clutched in a leather-gloved hand. As I shift uncomfortably, his partner lifts his sword and offers to hit me in the head, just to demonstrate how solid the helmet is.