Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

A Great Show

A.D. 105

I have been greatly at a loss, my dearest Callias, ever since I came to this city, whether I should rather admire or loathe these Romans. It must be confessed that at this moment, when I recall to my mind the things of which I was yesterday a spectator, I incline rather to hatred than love. How brutal they are!—how cruel!—how they delight in unmeaning show and extravagance!—with what a thirst for blood are they possessed, keener than that of the most savage wild beasts, keener, I say, for beasts are content when their hunger is appeased, but the appetite of these barbarians (for barbarians they are, notwithstanding all their wealth and luxury) can never be satisfied.

Yet when I see with what unwearying diligence, with what infinite labour, they prepare even their pleasures, I am beyond measure astonished. For yesterday's entertainment they had ransacked the whole earth; nor could a spectator, however hostile, forget that though they are vulgar in taste and savage in temper, they have conquered the world. But let me relate to you in order the things that I saw.

Trajan the Emperor—who, by the way, both in his virtues and vices is a Roman of the Romans—having added seven new provinces to the Empire, resolved to exhibit to the people such a show as had never been before seen in Rome; and it is confessed by all that he has attained his ambition. The day before yesterday, my host, whose office imposes upon him part of the care of these matters, took me to the public supper at which the gladiators who were to fight on the morrow took leave of their friends and kinsfolk. The tables were spread in the circus itself; and there were present, I should suppose, not less than two hundred guests (so many gladiators being about to fight on the morrow) for whom most bountiful provision of the richest food and the most generous wines had been made. They were of all nations but chiefly, as I was told, from Gaul and Thrace. From Greece it rejoices me to say, there were but very few, and most of these Arcadians, who, now that the Romans have established peace over all the world, are compelled to hire out their swords, not for honorable warfare, but for baser strifes.

Most of the guests, were, I thought, intent only on indulging in as much pleasure as the time permitted, and ate and drank ravenously. These, I observed, boasted loudly of what they would do on the morrow; the few that were more moderate in their enjoyment were also more modest.

There were not wanting sights that touched the heart. One such I noticed the more particularly because my host was in a way concerned in it. For the most part the gladiators are slaves; but it sometimes happens that a citizen will bind himself for a term of years to the master of the "school", for this is the name by which they call these establishments, receiving in return a considerable sum of money. Such a gladiator may have slaves of his own, if he is able to purchase them—a thing not impossible, seeing that successful athletes often receive no inconsiderable gifts from the young nobles and others who win money by wagering on their success. As we were walking among the tables, a certain Tubero plucked my host by the gown, and begged him to stay awhile.

"Ha! comrade," said my host—I should have told you he is a Fabius and belongs therefore to one of the very noblest families of Rome—"What can I do for you? I hope that all is prosperous with you."

The gladiator, I could see, was profoundly gratified by my host's kindly salutation. He had served under Fabius in Britain, but hardly expected to be so remembered, for a citizen who thus sells his freedom is held to have somewhat demeaned himself.

"I had no reason to complain, most noble Fabius," he replied. "To-morrow I fight for the last time; if Fortune favours me, I shall be entitled to my discharge. But who can tell what may happen? A slip in the sand and it will be all over with me. I would therefore, while I have time, discharge a duty which it would trouble me much to leave undone. You see, noble sir, this worthy man here?"

He pointed to a man of about sixty years, a Syrian, I should judge, from his complexion and eyes, who was standing by weeping unrestrainedly.

"Will you then condescend to be a witness while I set this man free?"

At these words the Syrian broke forth into tears more vehemently than ever. "I will not suffer it," he cried. " 'Tis of the very worst omen that a gladiator should do such a thing. He might as well order the pinewood, the oil and the spices for his funeral."

"Be silent," said the gladiator with a certain not unkindly imperiousness. "Shall I not do as I will with mine own? If to-morrow—"

At this the Syrian clapped his hand on the speaker's mouth with a cry, "good words, good words, master."

"Well!" said Tubero, smiling, "If anything should happen to me to-morrow, how will you fare, being still a slave? Say, if I had not bought you, three years since, when your old master of the cookshop sold you as being quite worn-out, would you not have starved? 'Tis not everyone, my masters," he went on, turning to us, "that knows this Dromio. He is the most faithful of men, cares more for his master's interests than his own, and makes, withal, the most incomparable sausage-rolls! Nay, Dromio, you shall be free, whether you will or not. If all goes well, you shall not leave me—no, no, for I like your rolls too well—if otherwise, then there is a legacy of fifty thousand sestercii, with which you can set up a cookshop of your own."

So you see there is humanity even in a Roman, and that Roman a gladiator. You will be glad to be told that Tubero escaped unhurt; he came to pay his respects to Fabius at the morning levée  on the day after the show.

And now, lest my letter be of so great a length as even to tire your friendly patience, I must pass on without further delay to speak of the show itself.

Happily the day was fine, for though the awnings which are stretched over the amphitheatre suffice to keep the sunshine off the spectators, they are but an indifferent shelter against rain, if it be more than a passing shower. Heavy rain on the day of the Show is indeed a serious calamity, and to none more so than to the unfortunate men who are compelled to exhibit themselves for the amusement of the people. For this same people is on such occasions greatly out of humour, and it goes hard with any performer who may seem to bear himself with any lack of skill or courage.

The day began with an exhibition of wild beasts. In the magnitude of his preparations for this part of the entertainment the Emperor has surpassed, I am told, all his predecessors. My host told me last night that when Titus opened the new amphitheatre which he had built, five thousand wild animals and nearly as many tame were slain, but that Trajan had prepared nearly half as many again, of which, it is probable, but few will remain alive when the Show shall be at last brought to an end.

For a time I saw nothing that was distasteful, and much that was curious and interesting. Strange creatures, of which I had read only in the pages of Aristotle, and which I did not suppose could be seen out of their native deserts, were brought into the arena, and, wonderful to say did not seem unknown to the spectators. A beast that they call the camelopard was one of those—it is something the shape of a camel with the spots of a leopard, only that the neck is longer, and the back without a hump, which, indeed, so does it slope from the forelegs to the hinder, would certainly be convenient for any that desired to ride it. I saw also a monstrous creature that they call a river-horse, why I know not, for it is the clumsiest of all animals, when seen on land at least, for it is its nature to dwell mostly in the water. Of strange birds there was one that I noticed particularly as overtopping a man in stature. It is by nature white, but these Romans, who are, indeed, somewhat wanting in taste, had coloured it, in part, with vermilion. Pheasants from the land of the Golden Fleece—and some of them seemed to shine with this metal—and flamingoes, of a most brilliant crimson, were also much to be admired.

The tameness of many of these creatures was indeed wonderful. We saw not indeed those performing elephants of which I was told stories that seemed past belief, how, for instance, four would walk up ropes carrying between them a litter in which reposed a fifth figuring to be a sick comrade. But I saw many curious sights, such as a great ape that behaved itself marvellously like a man, now dancing in armour, now fencing with its master, lions that pursued and caught hares without harming them, dogs that imitated the movements of a company of soldiers, and other things which it would weary you to read of, for it is only in the sight that these things are really interesting.

So far then, as I have said, I was delighted with what I beheld, and marvelled much at the pains that had been bestowed on the training and teaching of these creatures. That which followed was to me less pleasing, but to the greater part of the spectators far more so. For now began the combats between men and the more savage and strong of the wild creatures that had been thus gathered together. If a man of his own free will risks his life against some beast in the forest, I find no fault with him; nay I acknowledge that there is a pleasure in such encounters, and that the young may be profitably trained thereby to do battle with the enemies of their country.

Do you not remember, my dear Callias, an adventure with that wild boar in the forest of Tegea, and that it was made far more delightful than our customary pursuit of hares and the like, by the admixture of a certain spice of danger? But that the two should be brought together against nature, the wild beast taken from his haunts, and losing thereby, I doubt not, something of his proper strength and cunning, the man, not moved by the spirit of adventure and the love of sport, but bought by money—this seemed to me to be a thing not at all to be admired. Yet I will confess, there is a certain fascination in the fight, for it was not possible not to admire the grace and strength of these creatures of the woods and mountains, and the boldness and dexterity of the men that contended with them. But when the conflicts were ended, resulting, for the most part, in the victory of the human combatants, there followed a spectacle which was to me most revolting, for now unarmed men were exposed to the fury of bears, lions and tigers. It was true that, as my neighbours informed me, these men deserved to die, for they were murderers, robbers, forgers of wills and the like (of the guilt of some I doubted, for they had not committed, so far as I could learn, any worse offence than running away from cruel masters—and how cruel a Roman master may be, you, my Callias, can hardly know). But to see them die in this fashion was something horrible.

As for the spectators they were moved by the love of blood rather than by the love of justice. From this spectacle, which indeed lasted but for a short time, the number of the criminals that were so to die being small, I turned away, hiding my face with my hands. When there was a great silence on the assembly, coming after a great shouting and yelling, I looked up and saw a most marvellous thing. The whole arena was empty, save for a single animal, a bear, that was sitting not far, as it chanced, from the place where I myself was situated. Then, at a signal from the Emperor, there was opened a door, from which issued an old man, of singularly venerable aspect, who walked towards the creature, showing no sign of fear in his gait or countenance, for he was so near that I could observe him closely. "Who is he?" I enquired of my neighbour. "Is he also a criminal?" "Yes," said the man, and of the very worst kind." "Then," cried I, "do his looks most strangely belie his nature, for a face more benevolent and virtuous I have never seen." "I say not," replied my neighbour "that he has done murder or theft; but he is a Christian." "A Christian?" said I, "what is that?" "One," my neighbour answered, "that will not worship the gods, believing only in one Christus, whom Pilate the Procurator crucified some seventy years since, but whom those who call themselves by his name affirm to be alive."

This was not a little perplexing to me. "I see not the heinous guilt of so affirming," I said, "but tell me, is this all that is alleged against this man?" "Many things are alleged," answered my informant, "but nothing is proved. Yet he deserves to die, if only for his incredible and intolerable obstinacy. Can you believe that this fellow is willing to be destroyed by the bear yonder, rather than burn a grain of incense in honour of our gracious Emperor? Yet such is the truth; a man may believe what folly he pleases but he must obey; and verily a rebel that is of blameless life may do more harm than a hundred malefactors." But now happened the marvel of the thing. The bear rose from its place, and approached the man, but when we looked to see it tear him, it hurt him not, but fawned upon him, rubbing itself against his legs, as though it were some great cat. When this had lasted some time, the people growing impatient, the master of the Show cried out, "Let go the lion!" Hereupon the door of a cage that was under the Emperor's seat was thrown open, and a great lion rushed forth. He bounded up to the old man with great strides, but when he reached him seemed to drop all his fierceness.

On this there was a great shout of "Pardon! Pardon!" and the Emperor, who likes not to refuse any request of the people on these occasions, except for the very gravest reasons, gave the signal that the man should be led away. What think you of this, my Callias? According to your philosophy, which is taken, I know, from the sages of the Garden of Epicurus, the gods exist indeed, but take no care in human affairs. Yet how was this man protected when none other escaped? You will say, the beasts were well satisfied with food already. Nay, but it was not so, for on this point I made enquiry. Possibly it was some magical power that the man had. I will not fail to see him, for he has been released, I am told, and I will ask him.

This part of the entertainment being finished, the bodies of the slain animals being dragged away, and fresh sand being strewn over the whole place, there fell upon the whole assembly a hush which was yet full, as it seemed to me, of an intense expectation; for now was to come the sight that goes to the inmost heart of these savages—men fighting with men.

It is not to be denied that it was a splendid sight when a hundred of the gladiators who were to play the "first act," so to speak (they were a mere fraction of all the performers to be exhibited), came marching in two by two. They were armed mostly as soldiers but with more of ornament and with greater splendor. Their helmets were of various shapes, but each had a broad brim and a visor consisting of four plates, the upper two being pierced to allow the wearer to see through them. On the top also there was what one might liken to the comb of a cock, and fastened to this, a plume of horse-hair dyed crimson or of crimson feathers.

Some were called "Samnites" (the name of an Italian tribe that once nearly brought Rome to her knees). These carried a short sword and large oblong shield. Others, were armed as Thracians, or as Greeks. Others, again, were distinguished by the symbol of a fish upon their helmets. But the most curious of all were those called "net-men," who were equipped with a net with which to entangle an antagonist; having so disabled him, the "net-man" stabs him with a three-pronged harpoon. These have no helmets, and are equipped as lightly as possible, for if they miss their cast they have no hope of safety but in their fleetness of foot.

You will not think the worse of me, my dear Callias, if I acknowledge that I cannot describe this part of the spectacle. The truth is that after a certain dreadful fascination, which held me, while the first strokes were given, I turned away my eyes. Indeed had I continued to look, undoubtedly I should have fainted. But I could but observe that the young Fabia, my host's daughter, a girl of about seventeen, had no such qualms, for she gazed steadfastly into the arena the whole time, and her face (for I looked at her more than once) was flushed, and her eyes sparkled with a most inhuman light.

Till yesterday I had thought her the fairest maiden I had seen; but now the very girdle of Aphrodite could not make her beautiful in my eyes. Can you believe, my Callias, that this young girl, who a week ago was weeping inconsolably over a dead sparrow, cried aloud, "he has it!" when some poor wretch received the decisive blow; aye, and when, not being wounded mortally, he appealed for mercy, that she made the sign of death holding forth her hand as if in the act to strike? Verily they have the wolf's blood in their veins, these Romans, both men and women! But what will you say when I relate to you my last experiences?

Hearing my neighbour say the spectacle was over for the day, I ventured to look up; and what think you did I see?—Some sixty bodies lay on the sand, and there came out the figure of one dressed as Charon, the ferryman of Styx, who examined the prostrate forms to try if there was life in them. Finding that none were alive, he returned to the place whence he came, and there followed him presently another person, this one habited as Hermes, bearing in his hand the rod wherewith the messenger of the gods is said to marshal the spirits of the dead when they go down to the shades. At his bidding some attendants removed the poor victims. This done, fresh sand was strewn over such places as showed of conflict, and thus was finished the first day of the Great Show, wherewith Trajan is to please the gods and the Roman people.

It will be continued for many days; how many, I neither know nor care, for I go not again. Next year I hope to see among the palms and olives of Olympia the bloodless sports which please a kindlier, gentler race of gods and men. Farewell.