Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 08, Part 5 of 5

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

Now Carpophorus could hear the insane, unnatural yelling of the crowd. As Petronius, the Arbiter of Elegance, remarked contemptuously, "These rag-pickers enjoy their carnival of blood."

This yelling was not the usual cheering of an excited crowd during a chariot race, or the enthusiastic cries that greeted a skillful exhibition of swordplay. The pitch of the crowd's voices changed as does the cry of a pack of hounds when they see their quarry in front of them.

Carpophorus knew that when the mob was in this mood, men and women had been known to hurl themselves into the arena in a frenzy of excitement and drink from the pools of blood on the sand.

He knew that women in the stands were tearing long gashes in their cheeks with their fingernails and men were beating on the marble seats with their clenched fists until their hands were raw.

The dull, pointless existence of the Roman mob would be unbearable unless their emotions were given some vent. For this purpose the games existed.

Death, torture, blood were the only spectacles that could really gratify the people's basic longing. They became drunk on suffering. Death and sex were the only emotions that they could still really grasp. The sight of a lion tearing a screaming woman apart gratified both instincts.

The Jews were dead. The lions had begun to devour the bodies. The corpses were jerked back and forth between the big cats and the sound of cracking bones was clearly audible.

Carpophorus took his eye from the peephole. He knew what was coming next. These lions would not be saved as were the trained man-eaters and the arena must be cleared for the next act.

Ethiopian bowmen, magnificent in ostrich plume head-dresses, were forcing their way through the crowded aisles to balconies projecting over the edge of the podium.

Even as Carpophorus turned away, he heard the twang of the bow-strings and the roars of the stricken beasts. As he left the inner barrier, slaves were already rushing out with their hooks for dragging out the dead animals and humans, carrying baskets of fresh sand and jars of perfume to pour on the arena.

There was need for the perfume. On the podium, the patricians were holding sachets of scent to their noses and even the plebeians in the stands had covered their faces with handkerchiefs.

In the hot stadium, the blood and guts covering the arena sent up a fearful stench. Slaves were setting braziers full of burning incense in the stands, and the fountains were sending up sprays of saffron and verbena-scented water.

Carpophorus noticed that the young editor of the games was standing up in his box, trying to crack jokes with the crowd to prove how democratic he was.

The crowd good-naturedly kidded him back. So far, the games had been well up to standard and the mob felt friendly toward the young office seeker.

But if the shows on the following days were not equally good, they would turn on him even though the youngster and his mother had bankrupted themselves trying to entertain the mob.

The inner barrier was hastily struck and the arena cleared for chariot races. These were to be novelty races, the real chariot races were held in the Circus Maximus which had been specially designed for them.

To gratify the demand for racing, Domitian had increased the original four teams to six, adding Gold and Purple to the other colors. For the Saecular Games, he had staged one hundred races a day, cutting down the number of laps around the Spine from seven to five to speed things up.

However, vast as the arena of the Colosseum was, it wasn't quite big enough for six four-horse teams to maneuver, so these races were more in the nature of a joke.

The first race was between chariots drawn by ostriches (called by the crowd "overseas sparrows"), the next by camels and the third by oryxes (African antelopes).

As it was virtually impossible for the charioteers to control the animals, the results were an ungodly mess and meant to be. After the hysterical excitement of the massacre of the Jews, this interlude served as comic relief.

Dwarfs in extravagant costumes ran alongside the chariots, deliberately frightening the animals, and pretending to get run over.

One of the dwarfs got disemboweled by an ostrich kick—he forgot that an ostrich kicks forwards instead of backwards like a horse—and the crowd considered this accident the funniest of the whole show.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Nine, Part 1 is next.

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