Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 02, Part 8 of 9

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

Flamma's attitude toward his profession was not unique. A Myrmillo, during a period when fights were few, was heard to complain that he was wasting the best years of his life.

Epictetus, a Roman writer, says that the gladiators used to pray for more fights so that they could distinguish themselves in the arena and make more money. (Not too surprising, when the famous toast of the armed forces in Great Britain used to be: "Here's to a sudden plague and a bloody war!" —the only two events that could speed up promotion).

Although never nearly as popular as the sword fights, boxing was also featured in the arena. It was, originally simply an athletic event as with our college boxing, and then the promoters decided to liven it up to appeal to the crowd.

The leather straps over the knuckles were studded with leadlike brass knuckles. These devices were called "caestus" and later were even equipped with nails.

The caestus of a famous fighter, covered with blood and brains, were hung up in one school to encourage young hopefuls.

Statius gives this description of a boxing match. The editor opens the fight by shouting: " 'Now courage is needed. Use the terrible caestus in close fighting—next to using swords, this is the best way to test your bravery.'

"Capaneus put on the raw oxhide straps covered with lumps of lead—and he was as hard-as the lead. His opponent comes out, a young, curly-haired boy named Alcidamas.

Capaneus takes one look at him, laughs and shouts, 'Haven't you anybody better than that?' They lift their arms, deadly as thunderbolts, watching each other. Capaneus is a giant but getting old. Alcidamas is only a youth but stronger than he looks.

"They spar, feeling each other out, just touching their gloves. Then Capaneus moves in and starts slugging, but Alcidamas holds him off and Capaneus only tires his arms and hurts his own chances. The young fellow, a smart fighter, parries, ducks, leans back and! bends his head forward to avoid the swings. He turns the blows with his gloves and advances with his feet while keeping his head well back. Capaneus is stronger and has a terrific right but young Alcidamas, feinting right and left, distracts him and then getting his right hand above the older man, comes down from on top. He gets home on his forehead. The blood runs.

"Capaneus doesn't realize how badly he's hurt but he hears the yelling of the crowd and stopping to wipe the sweat off his face with the back of his glove, he sees the blood. Now he really gets mad and goes for the boy.

"His blows are wasted in the air; most of them only hit his opponent's gloves and the boy stays away from him, running backward but hitting when he gets a chance.

"Capaneus chases him around the arena until both of them are too tired to move and they stand panting and facing each other. Then Capaneus makes a wild dash. Alcidamas dodges and hits him on the shoulder. Capaneus goes down! He falls on his head and tries to get up but the boy knocks him down again. Suddenly Capaneus jumps up and goes at the boy, nailing with both fists. The boy falls and Capaneus bends over him, hammering him on the head. The crowd yells, 'Save the poor kid! His skull's cracked already and Capaneus is going to beat his brains out.' The attendants rush in and pull Capaneus off his victim. 'You've won!' they tell him. Capaneus bellows, 'Let me go! I'll smash his face in! I'll spoil that pretty fairy's good looks that make him so damned popular with the crowd.' The attendants had to drag him out of the arena."

Not surprisingly, the old-type circus acts consisting of acrobats, tumblers, and animal trainers had a tough time competing with the gladiators and chariot races. One after another they began to drop out and it looked as though they'd be just as dead as vaudeville.

But one man by the name of Ursus Togatus resolved not to be beaten by a bunch of plug-uglies and horses. Ursus could shoot a bow and arrow with his toes while standing on his hands, juggle five glass balls, and had a troupe of trained bears that acted out a play while dressed in clothes.

Pretty tame stuff, but he must have been well liked at one time, as he had his picture painted on vases as a souvenir of the circus. He was a tall man with abnormally long arms and legs. He seems a trifle pudgy but apparently he was limber enough. He had a long, clean-shaven face and looked like an exceptionally clever horse.

Ursus was one of the few people in show business who was ever able to adapt himself to a new trend and he made circus history. He dropped his juggling and instead of a troupe of performing bears he kept only one—a really tough animal.

When the bear charged him, Ursus would run at the animal with a long pole, vault over his back and race for the arena wall. With the bear right at his heels, he'd use his impetus to run up the wall, jump over the bear again, and then tear back to his pole and repeat the performance. The crowd loved the act, as there was always a good chance that Ursus wouldn't make it.

Other animal trainers quickly got the idea. One man walked on stilts through a pack of hungry hyenas. Another rolled around the arena in a large openwork metal ball while three lions tried to get at him. One of them finally succeeded in tearing his arm off through a hole in the ball but other performers copied the act.

Acrobatic troupes of men and women learned how to grab a charging bull by the horns and turn somersaults over its back. The Romans liked animal acts, especially if they were dangerous, so in spite of the gladiators there were always animals in the circus.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Two, Part 9 is next.

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