By Philip Pullella and Antonio Denti
ROME (Reuters) - Tourists in Rome on Thursday would have been forgiven if they had thought for a moment that they had stepped back in time.
Roman centurions, complete with red skirts, tunics, armor, swords and feathered helmets, fought in front of the Colosseum. But this time it was with a modern enemy - Rome's city police.
The police arrived at the ancient amphitheatre to enforce an eviction notice for the men, who ask for money to have their picture taken by tourists.
Italy's culture ministry says the men have no permits, often harass and stalk tourists, ask for exorbitant amounts and disfigure the historic image of the centurion by wearing jeans under their skirts and running shoes instead of the classic Roman "caliga" leather sandals.
The clashes broke out when city police in modern uniforms arrived to remove two centurions who had occupied part of an arcade on the first floor of the Colosseum.
Some 25 centurions tried to stop the police from taking the two away. In the scuffle one of the centurions fell to the ground and was slightly injured.
"All of a sudden, after 17 years, they want to kick us out. It's absurd," said one irate centurion who identified himself only as Davide.
"I have been making my living like this, I have supported my wife, my children ... and now they tell me: 'You are out'. This is not possible. We want to be regularized and we want our bread," he said. "In Venice they have the gondoliers and in Rome we have the centurions. That's it."
And, as in ancient Roman clashes in the same amphitheatre, the crowd of onlookers took sides and gave an unequivocal thumbs down to those wearing the modern uniforms.
"Leave them alone. We are all centurions," the crowd chanted in Italian.
But Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno, a member of Italy's largest right-wing party, was having none of it.
He said the men had to abide by rules that would be imposed by the city, including permits and rules of conduct.
"We will not let ourselves be blackmailed. Either the centurions accept the rules or they will have to go," he said in a statement.
Caesar could not have been more resolute.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella and Antonio Denti; editing by Patricia Reaney)