From Lawyer to Gladiator: John J. Ebel and his Gladiator School

April 8, 2015

John J. Ebel as the “Murmillo” (heavy fighter).

“Suiting up” means two things for John J. Ebel. As both a trial attorney in New York and co-founder of the Ludus Magnus Gladiatores Reenacting Group, Ebel is no stranger to battle. In preparation for the Penn Museum’s celebration of Rome’s Birthday April 18, at which gladiators from Ludus Magnus will vie to “win the crowd” in a series of sword-wielding battles, I reached out to Ebel to find out more about the men behind the armor and to ask if the “mahogany arena” is really so different from that of the gladiator.

Like so many around the world, Ebel found himself “hooked” on the subject of gladiators after watching the epic film Gladiator over a decade ago. However, his journey to gladiatorial historical reenacting began long before that. Ebel has always had a passion for history, and his interest in the history of Gettysburg led him to visit the site with his wife. Watching the reenactments at Gettysburg he “was inspired by their dedication and emphasis on historical accuracy.” He joined a Confederate reenacting group, the 57th Virginia, “B” Company.

A few years later, he was studying for the New York State Bar Exam, and it was during a break in his studies, in 2001, that he watched Gladiator. Ebel then had what he calls a “Confederate yard sale,” the proceeds from which he used to buy a complete collection of gear, and became a Roman soldier in George Metz’s Legion XXIV (a group that will also be participating in our April 18 demonstrations). Soon after, Ebel created his own gladiator school, and Ludus Magnus Gladiatores was born.

A few members of Ludus Magnus Gladiatores assembled in front of their unit tent. Ebel (far right) wears the Roman military style “scutum” and crested helmet.

When asked whether the members of Ludus Magnus have a common thread in their stories about becoming gladiators, Ebel explained that all of the gladiators feel a deep connection to the past:

The one common undercurrent to our reasons for participating in historical reenacting is a deep and abiding love of history, and for many of us, the feeling that we have lived before, in many different lives and incarnations. Just about all of us feel that we have been alive during the Roman era in some way or another.

Despite each individual’s story being different, wherever they are engaging, once the fight begins, many of them feel transported back in time “and can feel the sun on our backs, the smells and sounds of the arena, and the roar of the crowd.”

Albert Barbato, co-founder of Ludus Magnus, as the Retiarius (trident-and-net fighter). Of Barbato, Ebel said, “Only a fool would want to face this man in the arena without proper training and conditioning.”

It is not only during these fights that the gladiators are transported but often before as well. As there is no training manual to learn how gladiators employed different styles, Ludus Magnus uses a technique they call “archaeological reconstruction.” They simply step up and engage each other, coming to conclusions through a process of trial and error much like their Roman counterparts would have. For example, after many trial runs with his co-founder, Al Barbato, they realized that if the Retiarius (trident-and-net fighter) attempted to plunge his trident into the Murmillo’s (“heavy fighter’s”) shield, it would get stuck in the shield, and a strong Murmillo could simply cast the shield aside and disarm the Retiarius. Thus, they concluded that it is likely a Retiarius would not have thrust at the shield, but rather would seek to hit the Murmillo on the sides. It is through this kind of engagement, reasoning, and repetition that Ludus Magnus deduces what the most effective use of any fighter’s weaponry would have been. It seems their technique is on point, as they have “compared some of our learned techniques to actual Roman mosaics depicting gladiatorial fights, and we know we have come up with styles and techniques that were most likely used by our Roman predecessors.”

Ebel “walking the net” (a technique learned from the group’s method of “archaeological reconstruction”) as he and Barbato engage.

When asked how he would classify his work with Ludus Magnus, Ebel made an important distinction. His work as an attorney is his profession, and historical reenactment is his passion, his avocation. Despite the distinction, Ebel pointed out that there is a definite parallel between the two. The same aggressive style he uses in gladiatorial reenactment he also uses in the courtroom. However, there is also professionalism in both arenas: “I treat everyone that I come into contact with: judges, opposing counsel, court officers, etc., with respect and dignity, not unlike ancient Roman gladiators did their opponents.” Using a “gladiatorial ethic” in his profession has made him a successful trial attorney, and that there have even been times the residual energy from an event “crosses over and makes for a stellar result in court.”

However, for Ebel it’s not just about doing battle. There’s an educational side of his passion that aligns with his advocacy work as an attorney. He has fought hard in the courtroom for battered and abused women and children, regularly doing such work pro bono. It is a time when he can “step up and defend those that cannot defend themselves.” It is gratifying, but can take its toll. Working with the victims of such violence has added an important message to his work in the gladiatorial arena. Events such as Rome’s Birthday are not only opportunities to wow the crowd, but are also times to demonstrate temperance. Ebel and the members of the group always take particular pleasure in getting an enthusiastic response from the younger members of the audience. However, he has also found, perhaps due to exposure to more violence, that they are the most “bloodthirsty,” being the first to shout “Kill!” when the mob is polled to see if a competitor should be spared (in true Gladiator fashion). At the end of an event Ebel always issues a cautionary disclaimer, particularly to the younger audience that the group does not put on the shows to endorse excessive violence. Rather, they aim to “show a fascinating and dark side of what was a brilliant and glorious empire, lasting almost 1,000 years.” Indeed, Ebel reminds the audience of all the things Rome gave us: our system of law, architecture, roads, irrigation, language, and so many other legacies that last to this day. He shared that he often asks the spectators if, considering “reality” shows on the air, where people degrade themselves for money, if the ancient Romans were all that different from us today:

I “hold a mirror” up to the crowd and ask them to look into it, asking themselves: “Am I all that different than an ancient Roman citizen who came to the arena to enjoy the ‘spectacle’ of people being degraded and abused?” The answer is evident from the look on the faces in the crowd, and their nods of admission; they know that not much has changed in the human experience.

Indeed, the group adheres to a time-honored principle: “Those who do not learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them.” Ebel characterizes the violence in the world today as a pandemic that shows no sign at all of abating. He feels that because life is more complicated, filled with pressure and competitiveness, we have become depersonalized and somewhat lost our way in our lives. To counter this, he has instilled a deep love of history in his 16-year-old daughter, and stressed that this area of study needs to be promoted more. He is proud that his daughter is a historical scholar in her own right and can “hold her own with her old man in any discussion of antiquity, no matter what era.” History, he lamented, is an ever-diminishing area of interest for too many young people, and it must be revived. Too much attention, in his opinion, is placed on the sciences, technology, and mathematics. That’s not to say that these aren’t very important areas of study in the modern era. However, he argued, history and literature must be preserved and kept alive in new generations. “If not, we truly will be ‘doomed to repeat the past,’ and will never go forward into an era of peace, humanity, and prosperity.” His advice to every thinking person, young or old, is to embrace history and all the valuable lessons it teaches. Embracing a love of history is a true labor of love, which is quite literally the case for the members of Ludus Magnus.

Barbato (left), Ebel (center), and James Massimilo, the Greek “hoplite” or “heavy fighter” (right).

It’s truly a show for anyone and everyone, of all ages, and perhaps nothing is more indicative of that than the gladiators themselves. From an 18-year-old high school senior to the 61-year-young Ebel, the members represent a diversity of ages and occupations. There’s Al Barbato, 46, a Postmaster for the United States Postal Service (USPS), his two sons Patrick and Ryan, 24 and 18 respectively, the former a recent graduate of film school and the latter a high school senior. James Massimillo, 45, and Elizabeth Servidio, 42, are letter carriers for USPS. Dan Bluman and Dave Romero are both 24 years old, the former an electrical engineer and the latter a personal trainer. Connor Dwulet, 19, is a recent high school graduate who will be attending college next year. Barbato shared that the group has some new blood showing up for Rome’s Birthday in his 18-year-old nephew, Brian Mathieu, and his youngest son’s girlfriend, 19-year-old Gracie Soto. All of these individuals have the same passion that Ebel does, and he is certain the other members of Ludus Magnus use some of what they feel and learn as gladiators in their respective occupations as well. He stressed that, despite their differences, they all have the deepest respect and admiration for one another.

That admiration Ebel has for his fellow gladiators and the love of what they all do, will never fade. Although he considers himself to be in much better condition than many men his age, he knows that the time will come when the risk of injury will outweigh the thrill of vigorous participation. When the time comes to put aside his sword, he said, he will most likely play a role similar to that of Oliver Reed’s character, Proximo, in Gladiator. When the time comes to retire from the arena, Ebel will happily be the “crusty old trainer” and owner of a “ludus” (school). The group has had men and women in their late seventies to even early eighties reenact as senators, civilians, and the like. Ebel said that as long as one has the spirit and enthusiasm to participate, there is no reason to retire from reenacting. After speaking with Ebel, it’s hard to envision him ever “retiring.” Like gladiators before him, the spirit and enthusiasm he possesses is timeless.

Rome’s Birthday is Saturday, April 18, 11 am to 4 pm. Events and activities are all FREE with Museum admission ($15 general admission; $12 for seniors [65+]; $10 for full-time students [with ID] and children [6-17]; free for Museum members, children under 6, active U.S. military and PennCard holders). Attendees are encouraged to get in the spirit of the day; those daring enough to wear a toga or gladiator attire receive half-off the price of admission!

Brittany MacLean is a Marketing Assistant at the Penn Museum