Two gladiators enter—only one leaves alive, right? Think again.

Archaeologists are sifting facts from many fictions about ancient Rome’s favorite blood sport.

Reenactors clash in the dust of the 1,900-year-old Roman arena in Arles, France. Their gladiator contests have helped researchers get a better understanding of this ancient blood sport, which captivated Romans for centuries.

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.

Read This Next

An icy world is in meltdown, amid penguin population shifts
This sacred valley could become the next national monument
This 50-year project is tracking the Cascades' melting glaciers

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet