Peeps at Ancient Rome - Jamse Baikie

The Games—the Colosseum

Now that we have seen the Circus Maximus, and a Roman chariot-race, it is time to pay a visit to the new Flavian Amphitheatre, and see something of the kind of game which the Romans really did enjoy—the fight to the death between highly trained gladiators. The great building at which Rome has been wondering ever since Vespasian began to rear it has not yet got the name of Colosseum by which it will be best known in the future; for though Titus has knocked the head off the colossal statue of Nero, and put a head of the Sun-god on it instead, it will not be shifted to the front of the Amphitheatre till Hadrian's time. Hadrian will have it hauled to its new pedestal by two dozen elephants; but by that time the Sun-god's head will have vanished from the huge statue, and the head of a scoundrel as infamous as Nero—the Emperor Commodus—will have taken its place. Meanwhile, though the Colossus is not there yet, we may anticipate a little, and call the Amphitheatre by the name with which everybody is familiar.

We have not far to go from the Circus to the Colosseum, which lies just at the other side of the Palatine hill. If you like, we can stroll round by the cattle-market and the Velabrum, and through the Forum, with its crowd of pillars and temples and porticoes; then, as we pass the Temple of Venus and Rome, the mighty building towers up before us. Everybody knows what it is like, so we needn't pause to look at the outside of it, save for a moment, that we may think of its size. It is a huge oval, almost 600 feet in its greatest length and 466 feet across. Its four stories tower aloft to a height of nearly 160 feet, and above them rise the masts to carry the great awning that is stretched over the building when the sun grows hot. Outside, the walls are of beautifully hewn free-stone, adorned with pillars and arcades; within, we shall find everything faced with marble.



At one of the eighty entrances on the ground floor, we show our ivory tickets, which are marked with the number of our door, our section, our row, and our seat. The higher up you are in the social scale, the lower down you sit, and, consequently, the better you see. So, for this occasion only, we shall take the privilege of sitting among the senators, or, at all events, not higher up than the knights. Now that we have found our seats, take a look round before the show begins. Beneath us lies the arena, a great sand-covered oval space, 264 feet by 156, underneath which, and of course hidden from view, are the dressing-rooms for the gladiators, the cells for the prisoners who are to fight with wild beasts, the dens for the beasts themselves, and the horrible place where the dead bodies of the vanquished are dragged.

The arena is separated from the lowest row of seats by a marble wall, high enough to keep the spectators well beyond the reach of the leap of the most savage lion or tiger. Around the top of this wall are ranged the seats of all the great folks. At the two opposite ends of the shorter axis of the arena are two stately chairs of gilded bronze, each raised on a marble dais. In the higher of these sits the Emperor, and in the other the presiding magistrate, or editor. Close to the Emperor are the priestesses of the goddess Vesta, the Vestal Virgins, who are the most sacred beings in Rome, and whose judgment here to-day, for mercy or for the opposite, will mean life or death to many a poor soul in the arena. It is not often that the Vestals vote for mercy, women as they are, and saints as they are supposed to be. Beyond them, all round the ring, sit the aristocracy of Rome, dignitaries of Church and State, great ladies, famous soldiers. Behind, again, and higher up, are the lesser gentry, the knights and their ladies, the wealthy commoners, and so forth. And then, tier by tier, the audience rises in height and increases in numbers, but sinks as steadily in dignity and importance, till in the top rows of all, among the gods, you have all the unwashed rascaldom of the Suburra and the Tiber flats, who live on the free bread of the State, and on what they can steal, and do no harder work than attending a show like this, or perhaps cutting a throat on a dark night.



Now the sailors from the fleet at Ostia have drawn the great purple awnings to screen us all from the sun, and hidden pipes have thrown a spray of delicate scent into the air, so that we are all as comfortable as possible—50,000 of us at least; some would say nearly double that number. The Emperor, who is looking anything but well (indeed, he has only a year to live), has signified his gracious pleasure, and the editor gives the signal for the games to begin. Out from one of the great dark doors which open on the arena comes the long procession of the men who are about to kill and be killed for a day's amusement to the Roman crowd. They march in order round the arena, Samnite and Thracian, Mirmillo and Retiarius, and all the other types of the horrible trade, decked with fantastic adornments, and clad in equally fantastic armour. Under the high brazen crests of the helmets with their gaudy feathers, strange impassive masks of perforated metal look upon you, so that the gladiator can see nothing of his opponent's face. Only an occasional flash of an eye behind the visor betrays that he is fighting with a man, and not with a brazen monster. The great shields are overburdened with tasteless ornament, the sword arms of the champions shapeless in their swathings of leather. As the procession winds round the arena, shouts are raised for this or that gladiator who is a favourite with the public for bravery or skill.

Now they are in front of the Emperor's seat, and as they pass the ruler of the world, every arm is raised in salute, and a thundering chorus rises: "Hail, Caesar! Those who are about to die salute thee." Completing the circuit, the procession breaks up in the midst of the arena, the men are matched in pairs, and blunt weapons are distributed for a few minutes' preliminary fencing. After the champions have shown their skill for a little in this harmless fashion, the editor's voice is heard: "Lay down now your blunt swords, and let the fight with sharp ones go on." Down in the arena, two men come forward—the lanista, who arranges the contests, and the herald, who proclaims the name and the equipment of each fighter. The latter blows his huge horn and announces that the first fight will be between the heavy-armed fighter Gaius Avilius, and the Thracian Marcus Antonius. The lanista draws with his wand a line in the sand for the combatants to stand up to, and the two champions advance.

Avilius is what our forefathers used to call a Samnite—not that he is of the race of our old enemies, but that he uses an equipment something like that of those stubborn fighters of the olden days. On his left arm he carries a big oblong shield, his head is protected by a brazen helmet adorned with a high crest and wings of gaily coloured feathers, while a perforated visor covers his face, He has no breastplate, but wears only a loin-cloth, girt with a broad leather belt; his right arm is swathed from wrist to shoulder in thongs of leather, and his left leg is covered from the knee to the ankle by a brazen greave. His sword is the short, heavy, two-edged blade of the Roman legionary.

His opponent Antonius is no more a Thracian than Avilius is a Samnite, but it pleases the Romans to imagine that he is armed like a warrior of Thrace, though the idea is merely a fancy. His helmet, which has a perforated visor like that of Avilius, bears a griffin for a crest. His belt, loin-cloth, and arm-guard of leather match those of his antagonist; but he has leather swathings on both legs, and highly ornamented greaves as well. His shield, however, is by no means so good a protection as the broad oblong of the Samnite, being merely a small round buckler, and his sword, a curved scimitar, looks by no means such a workmanlike tool as the straight Roman blade. Samnite against Thracian is a favourite fight in the Amphitheatre, and the whole audience takes sides as enthusiastically as over the Blues and Greens in the chariot-races. You can hear bets being offered and accepted on every hand as the rivals face one another across the line.

Now the blades cross, and a few cautious passes are made. The men are merely testing one another, and the spectators wait a little impatiently for the real business to begin. Now the Thracian leaps in; his scimitar is not much use for a thrust, and he swings a swift cut at the Samnite's neck just below the left side of his visor. Avilius never moves his feet; a quick upward movement of his left arm, and the blow is caught on the upper side of his big shield; and, as Antonius leaps back again, the straight sword darts at his chest in a lightning thrust, only to be checked by the round buckler. This little beginning, however, has warmed the men up, and now thrust and cut and parry succeed one another with bewildering rapidity. Both fighters are much quicker on their feet than one would have imagined from the heavy greaves they wear, and the Thracian uses his inferior weapon so cleverly that his cut is almost as swift as the Samnite's thrust. Blow after blow clatters on shield or buckler, or thuds dully on the leather arm-guards; and the spectators lean forward from their seats, or rise to their feet in excitement, urging the fighters to greater exertions.

Now the Thracian, who seems, as he would need to be, a little faster than his enemy, has got a heavy cut home on the Samnite's helmet. Avilius's shield was just a little too slow, and as the keen blade rings on the brass, the Samnite reels under the blow. Before Antonius can follow it up, however, the big shield has come into play again, and Avilius is well covered. A deep seam along the side of the helmet shows the keenness of the Thracian blade; but the audience, watching closely, sees with some disappointment that no real wound has been given, for no blood appears. Among the shouts that come from the upper tiers of seats, there are some unflattering comments on the slowness of the Samnite in thus letting his opponent's blow get home.



The reproach seems to have stirred Avilius's blood. He is pressing now. Carefully covering himself with his shield, he darts in thrust after thrust, so that the Thracian's small buckler is perpetually in motion, and he has little chance for another heavy blow. And then, almost like a flash of lightning, comes the end. The Samnite delivers a straight thrust at his rival's throat just beneath the visor, and the round buckler swings up to meet the point; but the thrust was never meant to be sent home. Almost in the act of thrusting the line of the point is changed, and the short blade goes home just beneath the Thracian's ribs. Antonius staggers as Avilius draws out the reddened steel, recovers himself for a moment, and tries feebly to continue the fight; but the blood is flowing fast down his side, and a wild-beast roar comes from the whole vast crowd—"Habet!" (He has it).

The vanquished gladiator stands swaying on his feet. He has dropped his scimitar and shield, and he raises his left arm, the forefinger of the hand uplifted, in acknowledgment of defeat and in prayer for mercy. Behind the impassive mask of his visor, his eyes, already clouding, scan the long rows above, with the faint hope that he may see the down-turned thumbs that mean at least the chance of life—such chance as his wound may afford. Titus, of course, has the final word, and if the Emperor consulted his own inclination, no doubt he would give the poor bleeding wretch his chance. But, on such a day as the opening of the great Amphitheatre, not even Titus, popular as he is, would dare to cross the wishes of the crowd. Judgment will have to come from the soul of Rome, and surely a fighting race will be merciful to a brave fighter.

Do you think so? The Emperor looks round—first, of course, to the Vestal Virgins, whose position in Rome is such that they, almost more surely than the Emperor himself, can give life or refuse it. Among all those noble and gently-nurtured women, not one sign of mercy. Every thumb is turned upwards, and the cruel verdict of the Vestals is repeated all round the Amphitheatre. Rome would despise itself if the first fight in its great new pleasure-house ended without the finest of all sights, a violent death. Antonius has read his fate, and, as his trembling limbs refuse to support him longer, he gradually sinks on one knee, propping himself feebly on his outstretched arm. The Samnite comes behind him, and one merciful blow closes the tragedy. The attendants appear, strike a hook through the belt of the dead gladiator, and drag the corpse from the arena. Fresh sand is sprinkled over the pool of blood, and we are ready for another sensation. The Flavian Amphitheatre has received its baptism of blood.

You have seen one Roman gladiatorial combat, and I think you will agree with me that one is quite enough. So there will be no need to drag you through the rest of the day's programme. After Samnite and Thracian, follow Retiarius and Mirmillo. The Retiarius has no weapons save a net and a trident, and his aim is to entangle his opponent in the net, and then disable him with the trident. The Mirmillo, on the other hand, is armed with helmet, sword, and shield. Sometimes the audience calls him a Secutor, or pursuer, because when his enemy has missed the cast with the net, the heavy-armed man pursues him, and tries to run him through with the sword before the net can be gathered up for another cast. The Mirmillo's helmet is of the Gallic shape, with a fish for its crest, and the net-man, as he advances to the attack, often chants a doggerel verse, which means something like this: "I am not fishing for you, I am fishing for a fish; why do you run away from me, you Gaul?"

Net and trident, you would imagine, would have no chance whatever against shield, helmet, and sword. The very opposite is the case, however. Net and trident generally win, and there is no more popular fighter among the gladiators than this deadly fisherman with his gigantic toasting-fork and his grim rhyme.

When the fisherman has caught his Gallic fish, or the fish has caught the fisherman, as the case may be, there will be chariot-fights, which the Romans have learned to like since the legionaries brought back word from Britain of how the woad-stained warriors there came whirling down to battle in light cars—tournaments in which horsemen armed with lances will charge one another like the steel-clad knights of the Middle Ages, sword and lasso fights, a variety of the net-and-sword combat, and all kinds of duels that can be planned to excite the interest of the huge audience.

When the regular gladiators have finished their part of the show, the turn of the beast-fighters will come, and slaves and criminals, armed with the paltriest mockery of weapons, will be matched against lions, tigers, bears, or even perhaps crocodiles. In these fights the spectators do sometimes show a little pity, not for the men—you must never imagine a Roman guilty of such weakness as that—but for the animals. They do grudge to see a fine lion or tiger, brought oversea at great expense, maimed, or perhaps even, by extraordinarily bad luck, killed, by a mere slave.

So this banquet of horrors will go on, day after day, for a hundred days on end; for Titus has resolved to make the opening of his great Amphitheatre a thing to be remembered. On one of the days, the whole arena will be flooded, and two fleets will act in the most realistic fashion, even to the sinking of half the ships and the drowning or slaying of half the crews, the famous old sea-fight between Corcyra and Corinth. But we have seen quite as much as we want to see, and perhaps a little more, of the gentle pastimes of ancient Rome. Only, as you have seen the first fight in the Colosseum, perhaps you may take a glance at the last.

For 320 years after the first victim had gasped out his life on the sand of the Flavian arena, the Colosseum remained the favourite gathering-place of the Roman mob, and its bloodthirsty shows the favourite pastimes. Even in Christian days, and in spite of many efforts to suppress the abomination, the gladiatorial shows still drew their thousands year by year to watch the dying agonies of men for whom Christ died. And then, one day in the reign of the Emperor Honorius, it fell out that an untutored Asiatic monk named Telemachus, visiting Rome, strayed into the great Amphitheatre. Appalled at the sight of the cruelties in which a Roman crowd found nothing but the keenest pleasure, he sprang into the arena and rushed with outstretched arms between the gladiators. The rude fighters jostled him aside, but he would not be denied, and still thrust himself between the drawn swords.

The wild beast in the Roman heart, never very difficult to awaken, was roused at once. Each member of the vast crowd seized the first missile that came to his hand. The rash monk was overwhelmed beneath a shower of stones from all quarters of the building, and perished where he stood. But his work was done. Scarcely had the last quiver of his broken body died away, when the crowd awoke to the realization of what an infamy had been committed. Hardened as the Romans were, they felt that they had slain a true man of God. Silently, with bowed heads and burdened consciences, they left that bloodstained and guilty house; and when Honorius issued an edict abolishing forever the cruel sports of the Amphitheatre, they submitted without a murmur.

And now the home of all these horrors stands silent and deserted, the most tremendous ruin of old Rome, and perhaps the most significant also—a witness to all time of how power, and wealth, and enlightenment may only make human hearts more utterly merciless and cruel, unless they are controlled by a diviner spirit. If there has ever been a building on earth haunted by the Furies, surely it is the Colosseum!