Centurion at the Colosseum – a cautionary tale

A warning for anyone taking a school party to visit the Colosseum, from the Glasgow Herald

A funny thing happened on the way to the Colosseum. My 11-year-old son and I are on a guys’ long weekend in Rome. It’s just the two of us, getting away from all the make-up, girly soap operas, reality TV and raspberry-scented bath aroma at home.

As an antidote, we settle on grisly history and ice-cream. So we book one of those Ryanair penny flights – excluding airport tax – and here we are, happily taking in the sights on the Via Cavour in the Eternal City when we are set upon by a centurion with a plastic helmet and a glint in his eye.

Perhaps the centurion notices me watching him as he leans on a railing amid the splendour of the Via dei Fori Imperiali, smoking an early-morning cigarette and talking to Caesar in a bedsheet toga. Now he throws down his cigarette, picks up a wooden sword and pounces upon us.

“Yo,” he exclaims like a New York mugger, except this guy is wearing a pleated red mini-skirt and cape. Suddenly, the centurion is in our faces. He slips his toilet-brush helmet on to my son’s head and presses the sword to his throat.

“Photo, photo,” he cries.

My son looks distinctly uneasy. I pull out my camera and snap two pictures, and he lets the boy go.

In one continuous motion, the centurion slips the toilet-brush off my son’s head and plonks it on mine. Impressive, but I’m not in the mood. We want to get to the Colosseum, and I feel stupid standing in the heart of Imperial Rome wearing a toilet brush.

If we weren’t being mugged, I might mention to my son that the Via dei Fori Imperiali was built on the orders of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1930s to link the Colosseum and the Forum with Piazza Venezia.

“No, grazie,” I tell the centurion, removing the helmet.

“Fine,” he says, holding out his hand. “Per favore, 45.” By my reckoning, that’s an exorbitant £35. The glint in the centurion’s eye now turns to menace. I offer him 5 and he hurls an unpublishable stream of vitriol at me. There’s nothing to do but run.

My son and I head swiftly toward the Colosseum. When I turn, I see the centurion waving his sword in anger. “I knew this would be a big adventure,” my son says.

I knew Rome was the perfect getaway for a father and son. It’s hard to go wrong with gladiators, lions, imperial legions, pizza and ice-cream. Some 300 yards later, the Colosseum rises before us with a singular heft. The place throngs with tourists and more centurions with toilet-brush helmets offering guided tours.

“Don’t worry. We’ll get a real guide,” I say. And, to distract him, I add: “They’ve had 2000 years to fix this place up, and look at it.”

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