Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 09, Part 2 of 3

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

On this unfortunate occasion, five Retiarii had been matched against five Secutores. At that time, it was fairly common practice for gladiators to take a dive and the emperor would then give the thumbs-up signal.

This trick preserved well-trained gladiators, and cut down the cost of the games. On this occasion, the Secutores defeated the Retiarii as had been previously arranged, for the whole match was as phony as a modern wrestling bout.

The mob became so furious that Caligula decided to give the thumbs-down signal. At this double-cross, one of the Retarii jumped up, grabbed his trident and killed all five of the Secutores who had their backs to him bowing to the crowd.

The whole affair had been a public scandal, and the mob was still highly suspicious of any gladiator who dropped without obvious wounds.

After the parade, all the gladiators left the arena except the Retiarii and the Secutores. In the old days only one such fight was held at a time, but now fifty pairs were to fight together.

The mob had come to regard gladiatorial combats mainly as an excuse for betting, so the more the merrier. The crowd considered the gladiators much as race track fans regard the horses: animated roulette balls or dice designed only for gambling.

As man after man fell on the bloody sand, a groan went up from the losers and a yell of delight from the winners. An unknown gladiator might be spared if he held up his hand after putting up a good fight.

He was only a long shot and no one had expected him to win. But heaven help a favorite who went down before the sword or trident of a dark horse. People had often waged their life savings on him and he had let them down. Then the stands were full of furious faces thrusting out their clenched fists with the thumb downwards, or stabbing at the prostrate man with an outstretched thumb.

In such cases, the young editor always followed the verdict of the crowd. He was putting on this show to get votes, not to antagonize the mob.

Carpophorus, his work finished for the day, strolled back to the "Gate of Death" to watch the fights. Near him, Negrimus, a Retiarius, was fighting Priedens, a Secutor. Carpophorus remembered the tip he'd given the guards on Negrimus and watched the fight with interest.

Negrimus threw his net and caught the Secutor, but before he could jerk the heavily armed man off his feet, Priedens had rushed forward still enveloped in the net and plunged his sword into the Retiarius' thigh.

Negrimus went down but recovered himself, backing away from the Secutor still hampered by the folds of the net. Again Priedens struck, slashing his adversary on the left arm that gripped the net while the Retiarius tried to hold off the Secutor with the trident in his right hand.

That portion of the crowd watching this particular fight yelped with eagerness as the Retiarius received a deep gash on the leg that crippled him. As the Retiarius relied mainly on agility to avoid the armored Secutor, Carpophorus supposed that the guards had lost any money that they might have wagered on his tip, but Negrimus managed to run his trident between the Secutor's feet and bring him down.

Instantly Negrimus pinned his opponent to the ground with the trident, and then leaning with both hands on the shaft, looked to the editor of the games while the helpless Priedens made the sign for mercy.

The crowd voted for death and the young editor turned thumbs down. As the trident was a poor weapon which to inflict a mortal wound, the Retiarius usually dispatched his fallen adversary with a dagger thrust through the visor, but Negrimus had either lost his dagger in the scuffle or preferred not to use it. Instead, he called over a Secutor named Hyppolitus who had won his bout to kill the prostrate man for him.

Priedens managed to struggle to his knees when the trident was removed and as Hyppolitus ran his sword into the Secutor's throat, Negrimus pushed him from behind onto the blade. (We know this bout happened, even to the names of the men and where they were wounded, as it is told in a series of pictures scratched, on a wall in Pompeii. However, it happened in the Pompeian amphitheater rather than in Rome.)

Carpophorus was mildly pleased with the result, and determined to look up the two guards afterwards and demand a percentage of their winnings. As the other fights did not interest him and he was feeling the effects of his wounds, he returned to the spoliarium to have a drink and lie down.

After this first bout, there was a full-scale battle between the Essedarii in their chariots, with laqueurii (lariat throwers) riding with them, and Hoplite infantry in armor and carrying spears.

The Hoplites were Greek mercenaries who fought for hire under their own officers, either against an enemy or in the circus. On entering the arena, the Hoplites formed a closed phalanx, the equivalent of the British hollow square that broke Napoleon's chasseurs eighteen hundred years later.

The phalanx was six men deep, the men in the last rank having spears twenty-four feet long, if we can believe Livy. How they were able to manage such long weapons Livy does not say.

The men in the next rank had somewhat shorter spears, and so on to the men in the front rank who had spears only six feet long. This meant that the chariots were faced by a solid wall of spears and the front rank men were protected by six spears each.

The Hoplite did not stand in close order as might have been expected but at intervals of three feet apart, to allow the spears in the back to come through and give the men more room to handle their weapons.

The officers stood inside the phalanx with drawn swords shouting orders. "Polybius, your spearhead is a good two hand's breadth out of line. Philip, keep your dress to the right. Epaminondas, you're not braced; a fly could knock you over in that position."

The Essedarii were using light, two-horse chariots. They galloped around the immovable phalanx with wild cries, suddenly swinging their horses in as though to force them on the spears and then whirling away again at the last moment.

They were hoping to induce some of the younger Greeks to follow their motions with the spears, then the following chariot could dart into the opening thus formed, but under the iron discipline of the Hoplite officers the line of spearheads never wavered.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Nine, Part 3 is next.

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