Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 09, Part 1 of 3

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

BY NOW, it was growing late and time for the main presentation of the day. As the sun dropped below the edge of the stadium, it became noticeably cooler and the sailors were sent aloft on the great masts to furl the awning.

As it was pulled back, the overheated air rushed upwards, making the sailors' task more difficult as the vast expanse of cloth flapped wildly up and down, but sucking in fresh air through the colonnade of arches surrounding the building.

There were audible sighs of relief as the crowd relaxed, the slaves removed the braziers of incense which were unnecessary now that there was circulation of air, and the patricians put away their scented sachets.

The podium was fuller than it had been at any other time during the day. Many patricians despised the usual run of the games, but now was the time for the gladiatorial contests, and even the most discriminating members of the nobility took an interest in them.

Led by a band, the gladiators marched into the arena, spreading out as soon as they reached the open sand so that they covered the entire arena.

They saluted the royal box and the young editor who was betting desperately with everyone around him. The gladiators were the only part of the games which the sickly youth really enjoyed and, like all patricians, he considered himself an expert on manly arts.

The crowd was wildly partisan, greeting the different units with shouts. "Hurrah for the Puteolaneans! Good luck to all Mucenans! The hook for Pompeians and Pithecusans!" Here and there fights started among members of different factions.

The gladiators made a stirring sight in their magnificent armor and accouterments. Trained to march in military formation, they swept across the arena keeping perfect step.

Each group marched together with their special arms; the Hoplite in full armor, the Myrmillones with their curved scimitars, the Retiarii with their nets and tridents, the Paegniarii with their wooden shields and long bullwhips, the Essedarii coming last in their chariots with their lariat throwers beside them.

There were many classes of gladiators and many types of arms, but the mob not only knew each class but also most of the individual men.

At this time, the gladiators were still a highly trained group of professional fighting men with tremendous pride in their calling. They had a great tradition to live up to.

A hundred years before, Mark Antony's gladiators, whom he was training for a big battle in celebration of his expected victory over Augustus Caesar, had stayed by him after his troops had deserted. They had formed themselves into an army and tried to reach their master in Egypt, and when they could not find ships to transport them, had sent Antony a message urging him to return and let them defend him with their lives.

Antony, however, had refused to leave Cleopatra. Other groups of gladiators had acted as bodyguards for emperors. An important gladiator was still the best known personality in the Empire. Horace wrote bitterly, "If Malcenas says it's cold today, it becomes the talk of Rome."

Nero had asked to have his tomb decorated with carvings showing the victories of Petraites. Boys scribbled the names of famous gladiators on the walls of their rooms and innkeepers had signs up "Tetraites ate here" much as Sardi's has pictures of stage personalities on the walls.

But already the rot that was to overtake this bravest and most terrible of professions had appeared. It first manifested itself when gladiators were set to fighting wild beasts.

Pompey had pitted gladiators against elephants. Claudius had cavalry fight leopards. Nero forced the Praetorian Guard to fight four hundred bears and three hundred lions.

Neither the gladiators nor their lanistia managers knew when the men might be pitted against bears, lions, or wild bulls at the whim of the crowd. As long as the bouts were man against man, there was a fifty per cent chance of survival—or say forty per cent allowing for men who died of their' wounds afterwards.

At that rate, it paid a lanistia to build up a great fighter like Flamma. But when men were sent out against wild beasts—unless they were trained bestiarii, who possibly ran little more risk than does a modern bullfighter—the casualties were ninety or a hundred per cent.

Under those conditions, the enormous cost of creating an expert gladiator wasn't justified any more than building up a boxer whom you know will be killed in his first or second fight.

As a result, anything was grist that came to the gladiatorial mills. Supposedly a man could be sentenced to the arena only for robbery, murder, sacrilege, or mutiny. But with the enormous turnover caused by the animal fights, the demand for gladiators far exceeded the supply.

In the law courts, "sentenced to the arena" was the commonest of all verdicts. As the mob grew increasingly indifferent to good sword play, any criminal might have armor slapped on him and be thrust into the arena. Flamma would have been shocked at the exhibitions some of these men put on.

However, good fighting was still understood and appreciated by many of the mob. In the stands were old soldiers who knew how to handle a sword themselves, and the patricians in the podium had a traditional interest in fine fighters.

Today, the young editor, or rather his stern old mother, was determined to put on a really good show, one that a descendant of Horadus might be proud to present.

All the men in the arena were experts in their own line and there was to be no shamming. Nothing like that miserable exhibition that had taken place at the time of Caligula.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Nine, Part 2 is next.

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