Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 02, Part 4 of 9

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

Every precaution was taken to keep the gladiators well guarded. The Romans never forgot the lesson they had learned in 72 B.C. when a gladiator named Spartacus with seventy of his comrades escaped from the school and took refuge in the crater of Mount Vesuvius.

As all these men were professional fighters, getting them out of the crater was quite a problem. They were joined by escaped slaves, robber bands, and discontented peasants.

Under Spartacus' leadership, this band of outlaws defeated two Roman generals and seized all southern Italy. They nearly captured Rome itself before being wiped out by legions hastily recalled from the frontiers.

Flamma first had to take an oath: "To suffer myself to be whipped with rods, burned with fire, or killed with steel if I disobey." Then he was given a cell whose previous occupant had been killed in the last games.

There was a stone shelf that served as a bed, with a straw-filled mattress on it, and a niche in the wall where Flamma could keep a statue of whatever god he fancied.

There was no other furniture. On the walls were scratched girls' names with addresses below them, pictures of naked women, "Sabinus hic" (Kilroy was here), prayers to various gods, dirty cracks about the gladiator master, and the dates of fights.

In Pompeii, these drawings still survive. There were also a few crude drawings of actual combats—a Secutor enveloped in the net but still stabbing at the Retiarius with his sword, and some fights between different types of, gladiators.

Over one figure was scribbled "Bebrix, 20 wins" and over another "Nobilior, 11 wins." Nobilior was down, making the sign for mercy to the crowd by holding up one finger of his left hand. Below him was the sign 0 which meant "killed."

Being a phlegmatic man and used to iron discipline, Flamma settled down in the school without much difficulty. Other gladiators had more trouble. The barracks had to be constantly patrolled night and day to make sure the men didn't commit suicide, but even so some men were able to outwit the guards.

One man, on his way to the school in a cart, managed to stick his head in the turning wheel and broke his neck. Another man took a pottery bowl in which he was given water, broke it into small pieces, and then ate the pieces.

Flamma couldn't understand what was bothering these men. The food was fine, the bed comfortable, and girls were brought in once a week. He had to fight only about twenty times a year and there were no long marches, sudden ambushes, or long campaigns as in the army. Frankly, he'd never had it so good.

For the first few weeks Flamma practiced sword strokes against a wooden pole in the exercise court and then against a dummy hung from a pole under the direction of the lanista.

He had to learn to use his left hand as readily as his right, as some fighters were suckers for a good southpaw. In order to build up his muscles, the weapons given him were twice as heavy as the ones he'd use in the arena.

Then he fought other gladiators using blunt weapons. At last real bouts were put on, but stopped when one man was wounded.

The men all ate at a long table and their meals were carefully prepared by expert dietitians. They were fed a great deal of meat and barley—meat because of its protein content and barley because, so it was believed, the rich grain covered the arteries with a layer of fat and so helped to prevent a man from bleeding to death from a wound.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Two, Part 5 is next.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Index or Table of Contents