When in Burbank, do as the Romans did

“French historical reenactment” might not automatically sound like an exciting day out, but fighters dressed as gladiators pummeling each other into submission for real? Let's just say this could be the most visceral history lesson you'll ever get to watch. On Dec. 15, French troupe Histore'Event brings “Spartacus and the Roman Legion” to the Equestrian Center in Burbank.

“The first part of the show deals with the real story,” says Olivier Brocard, who plays Spartacus. “So we have the revolt of Spartacus, the way he grows his revolution and began to fight against the Roman legion, and then the legion finished to kill him and to erase the revolution.

The second part of the show is our specialty: gladiator fights. It's real fighting, like you can see in the UFC or MMA — that's why we're training every day. There is interaction with the public because we don't know who will win. The public will decide, like 2,000 years ago, if we have to die or live.”

The dying is fake, but that's the only thing about the fighting that is — depending which performers are the better men on any given day, the outcome could be completely different. And there are two shows — Dec. 15 and 16 — so after taking a beating, these guys have to get right back up and prepare for another round.

In case you were wondering, this isn't your typical MMA fight — they do use weapons, “but it's blunted. It's steel, but it can't cut,” says Brocard. And their fighting styles are historically researched, part of a process they dub “archaeological experimentation.”

Just don't go in expecting anything like the “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” TV series. Says Brocard: “It's a good TV show, very good to see, but historically it's very, very bad. It has nothing right about history.” And sorry, Stanley Kubrick fans — he gets low marks for authenticity in his classic movie, too: “This is Hollywood's vision of what gladiators was, but it's not real.”

Among the movie and cultural cliches the troupe hopes to demolish is the idea that gladiators always fought to the death. In fact, many lived into their 60s and became referees, whose job it was to ensure the men didn't kill each other right away, but rather put on a good show. And since many were slaves treated as property, killing a rich man's gladiator was akin to stealing from him, and punished accordingly.

“In this period, gladiators are considered like football players,” says gladiator reenactor Aurelien Nouge, whose background is in Thai boxing and MMA. “He could win a lot of money, and all the stuff like in a modern sport.”

And like today's UFC bouts, the contests were one-on-one (though Nouge adds that getting hit with a shield hurts way more than with a fist); scenes of a lone warrior against a horde are yet another movie invention.

So what about when Russell Crowe had to fight a tiger in “Gladiator”? “They got something wrong and something right,” says Nouge. “Gladiators don't fight against animals, but in this period, some people — the hunters — fight against animals. But it's another thing, not gladiators. It was in the morning; in the afternoon was the execution of the criminals, and then after, the apogee is the gladiator fight.”

With all the talk of real combat, one's mind may wander to the safety of the horses being used, but have no fear — they're just in the first half of the show, safely guided by riders who do not fight while atop them. “This show is as good for adults as for children,” says director Mickael Durand. “It's important to focus on that, because some people are thinking it's too violent, but no. There is a lot of commitment in the fight, but no blood, nothing like that.”

If these shows continue to succeed as they have with European crowds, the idea is to set up an entire fighting league with a historical theme.

For fight fans, this seems like the perfect excuse to bring along your family under the guise of an educational trip. Now if they could only figure out a way to add fighting to other subjects we got bored of in school, like calculus.

L. THOMPSON writes about film and pop culture for Marquee.

What: “Spartacus and the Roman Legion”

Where: Equestrian Center, Griffith Park, 480 Riverside Drive, Burbank

When: Dec. 15 and 16, 3 p.m.

Tickets and info: (818) 840-9066; spartacus-and-the-roman-legion.brownpapertickets.com

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