Two American tourists, kitted out in glinting helmets and handsome tunics, grapple with each other, swords clanging, as if their very lives depend on it.

"We thought we would take a break from cultural touring and walking around," said Chris Coffman, 43, visiting from Pennsylvania with his family and some friends, adding that they learned about the course on the Internet.

Just a stone's throw from the Colosseum, on the ancient Appian Way leading from the Eternal City to Brindisi, they boarded the time machine of the Rome Historical Group (GSR, and whiled away an entire afternoon in the Rome of 2,000 years ago.

"What we are doing here is experimental archaeology," said their instructor, who goes by the artistic name of Hermes, between two especially strenuous exercises. "The teaching consists of experiencing all the sensations of a Roman of the time."

Like the 140 other members of the association of history buffs, Hermes - who sells real estate during the week - became a gladiator trainer because of his "passion for Rome. Being Roman doesn't just mean living in Rome but making 'Rome' live," he said.

The course can cost up to 100 euros (120 dollars) per person for two hours, but slides down to 25 euros for groups of at least 10.

The 2000 Hollywood film "Gladiator" starring Russell Crowe led to a surge in interest in the course.

"I did see 'Gladiator'," admitted Coffman, adding that he thought the weapons seemed "a little heavier" than they appeared in the film.

Hermes, himself clad in a tunic, puts seven would-be gladiators through the paces in the sand, kicking up clouds of dust.

The students learn to dodge heavy sandbags hanging from ropes before moving on to another exercise testing their timing and reflexes, avoiding heavy poles attached to a carousel.

After this warm-up, the students get into hand-to-hand combat, starting with wooden swords before graduating to the metal ones, under Hermes' watchful eye.

"I'm always nearby to make sure they don't hurt themselves," Hermes said.

Even children can be Spartacus for a day.

Filippo, 11, from Prato in Tuscany, dragged his father to the course.

"When I was really little I played with little toy soldiers. Now I love playing Roman battles on the computer," Filippo said.

"Here I've learned that a 'provokator' is a gladiator who provokes the adversary, but my favourite is the 'sekutor': the professional gladiator who always wins."

Nearby the GSR has a museum that seeks to correct myths concocted in Hollywood about gladiators.

Visitors can touch and try out the some 350 objects on display, from the classic gladiator's sword to the noisy metal belts used to intimidate the enemy, to lances, helmets and other paraphernalia of empire.

"It was interesting to get some historical information; I liked the old-time, original feeling," said Coffman, who practices karate and enjoys biking and hiking.

"There were some inaccurate things in the movie ('Gladiator') like the thumbs-up and thumbs-down signals" determining whether the slave-gladiators would be freed or killed after the battle, he noted.

The weapons are churned out by the workshop of the association, which regularly stages parades and historical reconstructions not just in Rome but across Europe as well as in China - in Shanghai and Hong Kong - and in Boston, Massachusetts.

"Here we don't make anything that didn't really exist - the weapons, the costumes - everything has been studied and documented," said GSR's vice president, whose artistic name is Petronio.