‘Sensational’ Discovery: Ancient Gladiator School Found East of Vienna

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Ronald Zak / AP

A virtual recreation of an underground Roman gladiator school discovered in Austria.

A large and well-preserved Roman gladiator school has been discovered near Vienna, Austria, that includes the sleeping cells and training grounds of men who fought to their death 1,700 years ago.

The site is buried, but was detected through sophisticated, ground-penetrating technology that provide three-dimensional images of what lies below. A team at Vienna’s Ludwig-Boltzmann Institute used this scanning and radar system to visually map out the Roman park known as Carnuntum.

The discovery is “a world sensation, in the true meaning of the word,” Lower Austrian provincial Governor Erwin Proell told the Associated Press.

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Officials say the archaeological site, due to its size and dimensions, rivals the Ludus Magnus, the largest gladiatorial training school in Rome. It is reportedly the first gladiator school ever found outside Italy.

The ancient school includes 40 small sleeping cells, a bathing area, a training hall that had heated floors, administrative buildings, and outside, what could be the cemetery for those who died during training. Remarkably, there is even a thick wooden post in the training area, which was used as a mock enemy for gladiators to practice on.

According to Roemisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, one of the institutes involved in the discovery, a gladiator school was “a mixture of a barracks and a prison, kind of a high-security facility. The fighters were often convicted criminals, prisoners-of-war, and usually slaves.”

The fighters who trained at such schools often occupied a dual celebrity-prisoner identity, and brutally fought in matches for the entertainment of citizens and emperors seated in massive amphitheaters. “If they were successful, they had a chance to advance to ‘superstar’ status, and maybe even achieve freedom,” said Carnuntum park head Franz Humer.

The gladiator school is believed to be part of a city that was home to 50,000 people roughly 17 centuries ago. There are plans for excavation, but a start date has not been set.

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Kai Ma is a TIME contributor. Find her on Twitter at @Kai_Ma or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.