Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 02, Part 6 of 9

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

After A. Clodius Flaccus had ridden around the arena in his hired chariot, followed by his stooges, there was a parade of the gladiators, each man wearing the armor and carrying the weapons with which he was to fight.

Very fine it must have looked, too, the armor flashing in the sun, the feathers in the casques nodding, the powerful gladiators striding along and the fifty-piece band playing a march. The gladiators halted in front of the emperor's private box and, raising their right hands straight out, chanted:

"Hail, Caesar! We who are about to die greet thee!"

Then they turned and in military formation marched out through Porta Libitinensis (a small gate under the stands) to their room.

After a few preliminary bouts of acrobats, trained animals and trick riding, it was time for the fights. The gladiators were mainly matched against a group of German prisoners of war. This was because a highly trained gladiator was a very valuable investment and the lanistai did everything they could to keep the men from getting killed unnecessarily.

The best way to safeguard a gladiator was to pit him against a nonprofessional. When gladiator fought gladiator, the match was frequently fixed, at least in this comparatively early period. Even if the mob demanded a fallen man's life, the victor only pretended to kill him.

He was then hauled out with a hook as though a corpse and later sent to some provincial circus where he wouldn't be recognized. A lot depended on the editor giving the games. He could insure better fights if he insisted on the men fighting to the death, but that cost extra.

The Germans were armed with their national weapon: short javelins. They had no armor but wore heavy bearskins as protection.

However, they outnumbered the gladiators sent against them two to one. Still, the highly trained gladiators didn't have much trouble except with one man.

He was a Norseman, a giant with long blond hair and beard. He was fighting with an enormous two-handed sword. He killed two gladiators, cutting off their heads in spite of the gorget that protected their necks.

He got such a hand that the fight was stopped and the Norseman promised his freedom. The applause went to his head for he insisted on making a speech to the crowd in broken Latin.

The Norseman said that he'd killed six legionnaires in battle before he was captured, that the Romans were all yellow-bellies and one Norseman could handle a legion of them, and that he could personally lick any man in the crowd.

The crowd were sportsmen enough to admire his nerve and applauded, but in the stands was a young officer whose father had been killed fighting the Germanic tribes. This fellow didn't like Nordics and he jumped into the arena and challenged the Norseman to fight.

The Norseman accepted and as this was obviously a real grudge match, the crowd was all for it. Not having any arms with him, the officer borrowed Flamma's armor and sword. Then he and the Norseman went to it.

The combatants were so evenly matched that there was none of the usual shouting and cheering from the stands; the crowd held its breath, watching every move. There was no sound in the giant amphitheater but the clash of the swords.

In spite of his armor, the young officer had counted on being quicker than the big Norseman in his cumbersome bearskin but the Norseman displayed an amazing and unexpected agility.

Twice he beat the Roman to his knees and only a miracle saved the young man. Then the Roman, leaping back to avoid a stroke from the great two-handed sword, slipped in a pool of blood. He went down and the Norseman straddled him, shortening his sword for the death stroke.

A gasp went up from the crowd, for it was all over now. Suddenly the prone man brought up his shield between the Norseman's legs.

As the big man doubled up in agony, the Roman rolled away and, bounding to his feet, plunged his sword into his opponent's armpit where the heavy bearskin did not cover him. The Norseman went down while the crowd screamed in delirious excitement and the band played frenetically.

Naturally, all anyone remembered of that set of games was the young officer's brilliant victory, but Flamma was well content. He had disposed of his two Germans in a neat, businesslike way and as an ex-soldier he had learned to do the job assigned to him and let it go at that.

He greatly admired the young officer's feat and was proud that his armor and sword had been used, but he was only a gladiator and that sort of grandstand stuff could well be left to some red-hot young aristocrat with more guts than sense.

The lanista kept his eye on Flamma. He liked the soldier's way of fighting: nothing spectacular, but dependable. In the next few years, Flamma defeated Greek Hoplomachi in full armor and fighting with pikes, Dimachaeri with daggers in each hand and Andabatae on horseback.

His usual opponents were Samnites who were equipped much like the Secutors. The Samnites were the first professional gladiators because the big gladiatorial combats began shortly after the Samnite nation was conquered by the Romans and the prisoners were used as gladiators.

For a long time, the words "gladiator" and "Samnite" were interchangeable, but as Romans conquered other nations, new styles of gladiators were constantly being introduced so the Samnites became simply one type of fighter. However, they never lost their appeal and might be called the "standard gladiator," all other sorts being more or less novelty acts.

Flamma was beaten a few times but was always saved by the crowd, which gave the "thumbs up" signal that meant a fallen man was to be spared. Flamma, winning or losing, always put up a good fight and the crowd liked him.

The fights were by no means always staged. The crowd was pretty shrewd at detecting fakes and also it was hard to persuade a gladiator to throw a fight if he thought he could win because it would be up to his opponent whether to kill him or not, regardless of what previous arrangement might have been made.

Still, up to the reign of Tiberius (or, roughly about 20 A.D.) there was a good deal of give and take in the arena. A highly trained gladiator was a valuable man and he knew it. An experienced gladiator wouldn't fight a tyro.

Many of them openly expressed their contempt of the crowd and used to stop in the middle of a fight to cuss the people out in the manner of Mr. Leo Durocher. They developed an enormous esprit de corps.

A gladiator prided himself on bearing any wound without a cry and even when mortally wounded would shout to the lanista for instructions.

The lanista was allowed to stand on the sidelines while his man fought, like a prize fighter's manager, and shout instructions. This was a great help to Flamma, who wasn't too smart and often needed someone to shout: "Try him with an uppercut under the palette" (the shoulder-piece) and so on.

Slowly, by hard work and considerable luck, Flamma worked his way up to being one of the top gladiators in Rome. He never faked a fight, he always did his best, and he gradually won a following in the city.

Sculptors made statues of him; his head appeared on coins as Mars, the god of war; he was wined and dined in wealthy homes and given an estate by a rich lady admirer.

Crowds of women followed him around and on street walls were scribbled: "Flamma is a girl's sigh and prayer" and "Oh you Flamma! You're the doctor who can cure what's wrong with me."

He never did as well as the gladiator Spiculus who was given a palace by Nero, or Veianius whose son was made a knight, but Flamma wasn't complaining. He began to grow rich.

After a successful fight, whoever was putting on the games had to present the winning gladiators with a bowl of gold coins, the exact amount being specified by the crowd. Also, like Diodes, Flamma sold tips on the fights, having a good idea which of two gladiators had the best chance of surviving.

At this time, a gladiator had to fight for three years. Then he was excused from actual combat but remained a slave, working at the gladiatorial school for another five.

But the crowd could at any time demand that a gladiator be given a wooden sword, which meant that he could retire from the arena. Before the actual combats, the gladiators warmed up by fighting with wooden weapons and so the wooden sword symbolized that in future the man would never have to fight for his life again.

After one of his most brilliant fights, the enthusiastic crowd voted Flamma the coveted wooden sword. Flamma refused it indignantly. "Are you crazy?" he roared at the stands. "I'm making more money than anyone in Rome, I can have any woman I want, I'm living in a villa and I'm the toast of the empire. Leave the arena? What for?"

"Good old Flamma!" howled the delighted crowd. Flamma refused the proffered wooden sword four times, the only gladiator who ever turned down this offer not once but several times over. As a result, his name has come down to us over nearly two thousand years.

When he finally retired, he was given an ivory rectangle, like a G.I.'s dogtag, to wear around his neck. It was inscribed with his name, the name of his former owner, and the date on which he was set free.

Flamma married and lived to a gray old age in his villa, telling everyone who'd listen that the modern gladiators didn't have the stuff the boys did when he was a young man.

When he died, his devoted family had the record of his victories carved on his tomb.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Two, Part 7 is next.

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