© Doug Jackson
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The Rhine frontier AD 18
The boy crept stealthily through the low bushes, eyes darting right and left for any sign of the enemy. Today he imagined himself the last survivor of the battle of the Teutoburg Forest, the only man from the three massacred legions who could still complete his mission and kill the Cherusci king, Arminius. He came to the edge of a small clearing and stopped. There was his quarry. He drew the small dagger that doubled as his legionary’s gladius and charged the Cheruscan hordes, smiting their champions one by one. There! And there! Die Arminius, die for your treachery!
When the victory was complete, he stood among the fallen bodies of his enemies, breast heaving beneath the light armour that protected his chest. Except for the helmet, he wore the complete uniform of a light infantryman of the Twentieth legion; red tunic, mail vest, a thick belt that held loops for his equipment, leather greaves covering his shins, and sandals. The uniform had been especially made by the quartermaster to fit a six-year-old and when he wore it his heart filled to bursting with pride.
He brushed the unruly dark hair from his eyes and began to pick up the enemy dead. The thin green saplings would have to dry first, but they would do for the fire. Collecting firewood gave him the excuse he needed to come to the woods. He loved the woods; loved their sharp, resin smell and the way the wind moved through the treetops, loved the way the sun pierced the leaf canopy to create strange, shifting patterns on the forest floor. The birds and the beasts fascinated him, and he was always on the lookout for something new to discover. His mother didn’t like him coming here. She worried too much and thought he should stay close to the camp and try to make some friends of his own age.
What did he need with friends when he had the soldiers? The soldiers loved him as they did his father, Germanicus. Germanicus was a great leader and a favourite of the Emperor. The boy could list each and every one of his victories and had even touched the two eagles his father had won back from the Cheruscans as he wreaked vengeance in the years following the Teutoburg disaster. He loved his father, especially when he gave him presents like the uniform.
When he’d collected all the saplings and a few fallen twigs he began to make his way back to the camp. He had only a vague idea of the direction, but he wasn’t afraid. He followed a faint deer path through the undergrowth that should bring him to a small stream. Once he was there, he would know his way.
A blackbird exploded from a low thorn bush beside the track, making him jump, and he grinned at his own foolishness. He laid the bundle of sticks on the ground and inspected the bush closely, taking care not to catch himself on any of the dangerous, inch-long spikes. There it was, close to the ground, a tight-knit structure of grass and moss. He crouched low and crept forward. There might be a clutch of the pale-blue, brown-freckled eggs.
Once he was in position to see into the nest he realised with a thrill that the eggs had recently hatched. Huddled together in the centre of the grass bowl were four tiny baby blackbirds. Very carefully he reached in and picked up one of the wriggling little creatures and placed it gently in the palm of his hand. He studied it carefully. It was small and naked and vulnerable. A long-necked bundle of pink flesh that was so light he could barely feel it on his hand. Its head was the same size as its body and the little wings were barely formed flaps of skin with bumps that were the first sign of feathers. It had an almost imperceptible pale yellow beak and the eyes were just dark circles beneath the translucent pink skin. The sensation of it, warm and helpless and so alive he could sense the beating of its tiny heart, sent a liquid feeling of pleasure through him
But there was another feeling too, an underlying tension he didn’t recognise, but that made him feel quite breathless. Could he? With his free hand he reached out and plucked one of the inch long spikes from the thorn bush. The breathless sensation slowly left him, and it was as if he grew larger and the baby bird in his hand diminished. He hesitated, still not certain, waiting for a sign. The little bird opened its beak.
He smiled and very deliberately forced the needle-sharp thorn through the fleshy covering and into the centre of the helpless chick’s eyeball. It squirmed between his fingers, but he held it tight. The tiny mouth opened and closed in soundless agony. He selected another needle from the bush.
It was very informative. Each chick reacted in a slightly different way to the application of the thorns. One reared and attempted to wriggle away. Another curled up and simply accepted the torture. As he completed each experiment he dropped the dying birds onto the leaf mould at his feet with the wooden spikes still protruding from their blind eyes.
“Gaiuuus!” His mother’s cry came from the direction of the camp and he realised he was late.
He dropped the last chick to join its siblings and lifted his foot to bring the nailed sandal they called caligae down hard on the tiny pink bodies, twisting and turning the sole until what had once been perfectly formed baby blackbirds were just a red mess among the disturbed dirt.
“Coming mother,” he shouted. In his excitement he almost forgot the bundle of sticks, but he picked them up and began to run towards the sound of her voice. It would soon be time for dinner.
Rome AD 36
Rufus sat with his back to the warm bark of a pear tree and pondered his future. For the first time in his life he was tortured by the luxury of choice.
Should he stay with Cerialis, or should he accept the animal trader’s offer? The question had vexed him all morning, and he was no nearer the answer now than two hours ago.
The household of the fat baker had been his family since he was six years old and he considered himself fortunate. How else could it be when Cerialis showed enough regard for him to allow a slave to decide his own future? He was learning a trade. He did not go hungry and he had never been beaten.
So, stay with Cerialis. It was obvious.
But on the opposite side of the scales, was the prospect, the unbelievable prospect, of freedom. Freedom. The word made his senses spin. Did he really want to be free? Free to do what? To starve? To beg on the streets?
In any case, the animal trader was not offering freedom now. It might be years before he fulfilled his bargain.
It was the bear’s fault. If it wasn’t for the bear he would be at his ovens baking the finest bread in Rome, instead of sitting in the gardens of the Porticus Liviae with his head pounding like the inside of a drum.
Two butterflies, one a delicate pale blue, and the other a beautiful mix of red and brown, flitted across the edge of his vision towards the flowerbed. He grinned and touched the charm at his throat.
So be it. Let the Gods decide.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Cornelius Aurius Fronto was endowed with a laugh that bent forests and shattered roof tiles and he was laughing now.
“So, the baker’s boy has finally made up his mind? He has chosen the certainty of greatness with Fronto, to the drudgery of picking weevils out of stale bread for that lard-arsed shopkeeper. How could it be otherwise?”
This last, with a theatrical whirl, was addressed to the half-dozen slaves and freedmen who emerged at his shout to welcome Rufus. They appeared, showing various attitudes of boredom or interest, at the gateway of a walled enclosure that hid the animals which were Fronto’s stock in trade.
Rufus wondered what the animal keeper would think if he knew that he had placed his destiny in the flight of a blue butterfly?
As the slaves gathered, he reflected on the contrast between Fronto’s welcome and the previous occasion he had changed masters. The ordeal at the enormous slave market outside Ostia when he arrived on the ship from Carthage was one he would never forget. He had been a small, terrified boy, alone among more people than he ever dreamed existed. He remembered looking for somewhere to hide among that great ebb and flow of humanity, but it had been hopeless. Eventually, he had sat down close to the wall and cried until he could cry no more. It was a relief when was bought by Cerialis the next day.
He returned the stares of the little group, noting whose smile was open and who among them saw him as a potential enemy. They were evenly split.
“Did I tell you how he saved my life?” Fronto demanded, and a few wide grins told Rufus the answer was ‘yes’ - several times over - but they knew they must endure the story one more time.
“It was a large bear, but not one of my finest. No, the finest must be kept for the arena. In truth this was old and mangy and worm-ridden. But it still had its claws. Great hooked claws that would tear the top from a man’s head. Is that not so, young Rufus?”
Rufus remembered the bear’s claws were clipped short, but thought it would be impolite to cast doubt upon his new master. So he nodded. The beast’s yellowing fangs were terrifying enough.
He had been escorting Lucretia, the cook, to the fruit market along one of the narrow streets off the Sacer Clivus when it happened. One moment the street was filled with laughing, jeering peasants, the next it was emptied by a single scream. The bear stood on its hind legs, a broken length of chain hanging from a metal collar around its neck, its dark brown fur matted with patches of dried blood.
“And that poor child,” Fronto was almost weeping now, “abandoned by her wet nurse, alone and defenceless with that ferocious monster drooling over her. Poor little …” He faltered for a moment.
“Tullia,” chorused his audience helpfully.
Tullia. She was blonde and tiny; the bear enormous and angry.
“Certain death,” the animal trader roared. “Certain death awaited her, but for this brave boy.” An arm as thick as a tree branch swept towards Rufus.
He meant to run away from the bear with Lucretia. Instead, he found himself scrambling towards it.
“And do you know what he did? He danced.” Fronto roared with laughter, his great belly shaking. “He danced with a bear.”
At the time, it seemed the only thing to do. He couldn’t fight the bear, it was twice his size and many times his strength. But to remain still was to die.
“How did you think of that, boy?” Fronto demanded. “What made you dance with my bear?”
Rufus remembered the terrifying moment he stood at the great beast’s mercy, but he shrugged as if dancing with bears was an everyday occurrence.
“When I was small a travelling circus visited our village,” he explained. “It was nothing like the circuses in Rome, just some bad actors and their flea-bitten animals. They owned a bear, a little thing the same height as I was. They had taught it to dance. Just a few steps, but it would dance, and people would dance with it. It seemed to enjoy it. I suppose in my head I was dancing with the same little bear.”
He had danced around the bear, and the bear followed, its obsidian eyes never leaving him, as if it was concentrating every part of its brain on copying his movements. As it turned, a group of men appeared behind it. One motioned to him to keep dancing, while the others untangled a large net. They crept closer to the bear while he opened up the distance between himself and the animal a few precious inches at a time. Then the net whirled and the bear became a spitting, growling ball of fury, paws clawing at the all-enveloping mesh.
“You saved your own life, and, though you did not know it, you saved Fronto’s and Fronto pays his debts.” The trader wrapped an enormous arm around Rufus’s shoulders so he felt he would collapse under the weight of it. “I pledged it to Vitellius Genias Cerialis, and I pledge it to you now. You have a way with animals, and I can use that. I buy them and I train them for the arena and the circus. I’ll teach you every trick I know, and, if you come up to scratch, in a few years I will make you my heir and sit back and watch in comfort as you make me rich. We will draw up the papers tomorrow.”
A murmur ran through the group of workers. Rufus noted the frowns and understood Fronto’s generosity wasn’t received with universal approval. He saw their point. He doubted if they were impressed by the tousle-haired seventeen-year-old in the ragged tunic. The ambitious among them would resent him and attempt to obstruct him, but he was not concerned. Years of lifting sacks of grain at the bakery had made him strong. He would be ready for them. It was his good fortune that Tullia had been the daughter of a very senior senator. Her father was as well known for his devotion to his youngest child as he was for the cold-blooded manner in which he disposed of his political rivals. If the bear had harmed her, Fronto would have ended up in a sewer with an assassin’s knife in his liver.
“What if I don’t come up to scratch?” he asked.
“I’ll feed you to the lions.”
There was a long silence.
“Only joking boy …feed you to the lions,” the laughter shook Fronto’s great frame once more. “You should see your face.”
Fronto’s business was to the south of Rome, across the four arches of the Pons Sublicius. It was far enough from the city to deter crowds from coming out to gawk, but close enough to the cattle market at the Forum Boarium to ensure the trader a constant supply of food for his carnivores.
Inside the gates Rufus’s heart quickened as Fronto proudly listed the exotic treasures he bought and sold to perform at the great spectacles in the arena. The grass-eaters browsed peacefully in a series of wide paddocks. The trader pointed out the different types.
“Antelope,” he indicated a herd of graceful animals standing placidly in one enclosure. They were several shades of dusty brown, and varied in size from tiny fragile creatures the height of a small dog, to broad-chested giants with long spiralling horns and dark patches on their haunches.
“What are those?” asked Rufus, pointing to another small group. “I’ve never seen a horse with stripes.”
“They’re a type of wild ass. I tried to train them to pull chariots, but they are much more stupid than horses.”
“And those?” Rufus pointed to a dark-brown, hunch-backed, front-heavy creature built on the scale of a small donkey, but with short incurved horns, heavy brows, wide-set narrow eyes and a nose that trailed streamers of snot.
“Those?” Fronto grinned. “We just call those ugly.”
Beyond the paddocks and in a separate compound were squat huts built of heavy timbers. Fronto led the way towards them.
As they approached the buildings, Rufus was aware of a vaguely familiar scent, a powerful, pungent aroma which dominated everything around it. It took a few seconds before his memory swept him back a decade.
The galley from Carthage to Ostia had carried them as cargo. Two big females and two cubs. Now he was looking into those same murderous eyes, pale golden yellow, flecked with shadows of grey and staring back pure hatred. He still did not truly understand why he had been sold to the slaver. His father was a Spanish auxiliary who had settled in Mauretania at the completion of his service. He had been a better soldier than he was a farmer. Their little homestead in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains was a parched, dusty place in the summer where the rocks cracked with the frost in winter. His mother was a vague memory now, but he knew with certainty she had loved him, if only because of the contentment he felt whenever he thought of her. If he closed his eyes he could almost recall her face and the damp, morning smell of her long black hair. They were always hungry, but could she have stood by while he was dragged away crying? He supposed she must. That, he calculated, was in the eighth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius.
Fronto had a dozen lions, including three magnificent black-maned males. But there were also slim, athletic cheetah, and three lithe, spotted cats of a species unfamiliar to Rufus.
“They are leopard,” Fronto explained. “The crowd loves them. Big as a lion. Twice as fast. Once they get on top of a man, it doesn’t matter how well protected he is, he’s dead. Their teeth go for the throat and their claws go for his belly. You’ve seen a kitten worrying a dead pigeon, little paws scraping away like mad? Same thing with a leopard. If they can’t get his belly, they’ll get his balls. If not his balls, they’ll strip his legs to the bone. Doesn’t matter really. Just means it’s over more quickly if they get his belly.”
Finally, they came to what Fronto called his monster.
“Amazing isn’t it. You’d never think something like that only eats grass.”
Rufus gazed at the grey goliath standing alone in its paddock. The animal was about twice the size of a bull, with thick, leathery skin. Its head was large even compared to its body, but its legs were almost comically short. It had tiny eyes and from low on its wide, shovel nose projected two horns, one behind the other. The larger, nine inches across at the base, tapered over about the length of two feet to a deadly point, the second was half the size, but looked even sharper.
“I don’t know what to do with it. It looks dangerous, but it never seems to do anything but stand around. You can pat it like a dog. Why don’t you give it a try?”
The eyes which studied Rufus brimmed with sincerity. Fronto wore the look of a man who had never done wrong in his life; a man who would go to his grave without a stain on his reputation. A man Rufus did not trust an inch.
Fronto was testing him, and he believed he knew why. The shrewd trader was giving him his opportunity to prove himself in front of the men who might one day call him master. He looked again at the monster, which seemed to have grown even larger. The question was would he survive the test?
With more confidence than he felt, he grinned cheekily and said: “Of course.”
Titus, one of the slaves who formed Fronto’s welcoming party, held the gate open for him, then, as he shut it again, whispered: “Watch his ears.”
Rufus walked slowly into the enclosure. The tension made his heart race, but the world seemed a clearer place and his stomach tightened with anticipation. He saw that this paddock, although built like the others of wooden planks about the height of a tall man, was strengthened by horizontal beams. In places, raw white patches stood out clearly as if the wood had recently been splintered.
The heat of the sun beat on his back like a hammer as he marched further into the enclosure. Where the monster waited.
After about twenty paces he noticed what might have been a flick of movement at the side of the animal’s head. Yes, there it was again, an almost imperceptible twitch of the left ear.
Never taking his eyes off the beast, he subtly changed direction. Now, each step took him diagonally across its front, rather than directly towards it.
He couldn’t believe something so big could move so fast. One moment the monster was motionless, its small eyes staring unseeing into the middle-distance. The next its short legs were a blur of speed and it had covered half the distance towards him with its head lowered and that lethal scimitar of a horn pointed directly at his groin.
To turn and run directly towards the fence was to invite disaster. He would never outpace this animal. But his change of direction had taken him slightly out of its path and that gave him a fraction of a second to side-step the charge.
He waited until he could touch the lower horn with his outstretched hand before he dived low and to the right. With one movement he was on his feet again and his long legs flew as he sprinted towards the fence.
As he ran, he could hear the beast’s thundering hooves close behind and he knew it had turned its huge bulk in an instant and was pursuing him. The fence was so close now he could see the gnarled knots in the wood and the rusty heads of the nails which held it together. Behind him, the explosions of breath from the animal’s nostrils told him it was closer still.
One moment of hesitation and he was dead. He picked his spot on the fence, kicking up one leg and pushing with the other, so that for the final two paces before he hit it he was in the air. His front foot met one of the horizontal bars and he used every fibre of his being to turn forward momentum into an upward leap that would carry him safely over. Another inch and he would have made it. Instead, the knee of his trailing leg smashed into the top plank, sending a fiery stab of pain through him and turning a controlled jump into an untidy, somersaulting flight. While he was airborne, he distinctly heard the thundering crash of something enormous and fast-moving hitting something even more solid and unyielding. Half a second later he landed with an impact that knocked the breath from his body, loosened several teeth and left him wondering how many bones he had broken.
He lay, stunned, with the metallic taste of blood filling his mouth and dust clogging his nose.
“You show a fair turn of pace for a baker, but your vault could have been more elegant.”
Rufus opened one eye. Fronto was standing over him, his bulk blocking the sunlight.
“Come on, get up and let’s see what you’ve done to the poor old monster.”
He gave Rufus his arm and pulled him to his feet.
Wincing with pain, the boy limped to the fence, which now sported a splintered hole the size of a man’s fist. Rufus looked through the gap and flinched as he stared into the angry eye of the monster. It gave a shake of its head before trotting back towards the centre of the paddock.
“She‘ll have a bit of a headache, but she should be fine,” Fronto said proudly.
“What about me?” Rufus demanded. “She could have killed me. You said I could pat her like a dog.”
“I may have exaggerated a little,” Fronto admitted. “But that is lesson number one for you boy. You’ve proved you’re not frightened of animals, but you must learn to respect them.
“Next time you go into a paddock or a cage, study what is in it first. These animals are all dangerous in one way or another. Even the small antelopes will knock you into the middle of next week if they’re protecting their young.”
He picked up a piece of dung that lay at his feet and held it up to Rufus’s face.
“See? It’s all about profit. It doesn’t matter whether it stinks like shit, or if it smells of perfume, if it makes a profit it smells sweet.
“Now, we’ll start you at the bottom. Titus, show him how to muck out the wild pigs.”
The bottom made Rufus’s previous existence seem a positive paradise. Then, he had smelled fresh bread every day. Here, he was assaulted by a dozen different kinds of animal dung.
But every moment he spent with the animals he learned.
He learned how to feed and water them. Each species had a carefully planned diet to ensure it was kept in the peak of condition. Too much meat and the cats would become fat and lazy. Too little and they would lose their great strength.
He learned to look for the symptoms which would tell him when an antelope was sick with one of the wasting diseases that plagued their kind. One sign of sores around the mouth or hooves and the entire herd might have to be slaughtered.
He learned to spot the slight swelling that showed a doe was pregnant and needed to be moved from the paddock.
And he learned what happens to a man who gets careless in the company of lions. He would never forget the rags of torn flesh and splinters of bone that were all that was left of poor, slow-witted Titus who failed to recognise a lion’s growls of pain from a broken tooth. The other slaves did not hear his screams until it was too late and the overseer decided it was more economic to allow the animal to devour him - he was already dead - rather than bury him.
There was no question of killing the lion. Its value was ten times that of Titus and, as Fronto pointed out, its destiny was to kill men.
Day by day and week by week, his respect for Fronto grew. The animal trader had an unquenchable thirst for life that made even his competitors like him and Rufus was sucked along on a tidal wave of enthusiasm which often left his head spinning.
But when Fronto returned from his next trip to Africa to purchase stock to replenish the pens and paddocks, the grin that normally split his face was replaced by a weary frown.
“It’s getting worse,” he complained, as they leaned together on a fence watching two gazelle bucks butting heads in a mock test of strength. “Always they look for something bigger, something better, something more spectacular, something more exotic.
“Each time I see my suppliers, they claim the animals are scarcer or the herds and the packs that feed on them have moved further south - even the common ones like these - and they put their prices higher. I’d say they were holding out on me but I know from other traders it is the same wherever you go. The only consolation is I can pass on the costs, but for how long, only Jupiter knows.”
“Can’t you breed them?” Rufus asked.
“Breed them? I’m a trader not a nursemaid. Buy cheap and sell at a profit. Buy and sell. Anyway, most of them won’t breed. It’s been tried. You can do it with the antelope if you’re careful and give them a bit of space and peace and quiet. But the rare ones, the ones where the real profit is? Never. Those big cats? In their own territory they breed like rats. No predators apart from their own kind. But put them in a cage and it’s as if they forget how it’s done.
“Come with me.”
Rufus followed Fronto as he marched purposefully towards one of the far pens.
“They tell me you learn fast, boy. That’s good.”
He unchained the gate. “This one arrived today, from Africa. From now on she is your responsibility. Feed her. Understand her. Win her trust. Gain her respect.”
Rufus had his own leopard.
The cat was about six months old, the spots already showing on her flanks through the fading down of her cub fur.
“Her mother died on the passage from Africa. If I put her in a pen with a family of older leopards she’ll be torn apart.”
As yet, she had none of the pent up violence and hatred of humans that characterised an adult leopard. Instead, she exuded a kitten-like playfulness as she wrestled and toyed with anything moveable. To watch her in her innocent pleasure gave Rufus a feeling of joy such as he had never experienced.
He called her Circe.
Circe was the first thing of value Rufus ever owned and he vowed to form a bond with the cat which would never be broken. As Fronto conceded, he had learned quickly and learned well from the other animal handlers. He knew when to approach and when to leave well alone. When to pet and when to punish. He would tame the cub, turn her to his will.
He didn’t notice the sly smiles of his workmates as they watched him with the cat.
A month later, when Fronto next returned, he looked at the leopard lying at Rufus’s feet and slowly shook his head.
“Come. It’s time you visited the arena.”
The animal trader dressed in his finest for the occasion, and master and slave travelled to the capital in a one-horse cart.
“What are you gaping at boy?”
Rufus knew this journey well, but the approach to Rome never failed to awe him.
The true impact of the world’s greatest city came upon him slowly, as if in a dream.
At first, it was a gigantic mirage of orange and white shimmering in the heat, but, as they moved closer, the images in the dream took on structure and shape, and finally - unbelievably - solidity.
The city rose before him, ridge after ridge like the craggy foothills of a mountain. Yet there was nothing natural about this magnificence. Every part of it had been created by human hands. There were buildings of such vast scale and of such splendour that they could only be the palaces of Gods. Rows of huge pillars held up massive triangular roofs; great curved walls of stone rose like cliffs. And such colours; oranges and reds, silver and gold. The whole city glowed in the afternoon sunshine as if it was on fire.
Rufus’s errands between the bakery and the baker’s villa had allowed him to explore the crowded alleys and wide avenues. He was fascinated by the great triumphal arches and pillared, monumental buildings. He looked enviously at the inscriptions. Of course he could not read them, but he knew they were dedicated to the great heroes of the past: Julius Caesar, Augustus, Crassus and Pompey. The vast palace complex on the Palatine Hill, which he studied from the Sacer Clivus, drew him like a moth to flame. He never dared to approach the narrow stairway which would have taken him to its centre, but he knew in his heart that here was a paradise fit for Jupiter himself.
And, as he explored, he made an important discovery.
Rome was a slave city.
It was true. Slaves outnumbered Roman citizens by a margin of ten to one and if the Romans ruled Rome, slaves ran it. Slaves or former slaves were doctors, lawyers and moneylenders. They managed businesses for their masters. They made things, bought things and sold things. Many slaves were enormously rich and many more were trying to be.
It was rumoured slaves even had the ear of the Emperor.
Rome would be nothing without its slaves.
At the city gates, Rufus and Fronto were forced to dismount from the cart, for only wagons carrying Imperial couriers or transporting goods to the markets were allowed within the walls during daylight. The animal trader hired a curtained sedan chair carried by four muscular Syrians and directed them to the Amphitheatre Taurus. They set off at a steady trot with Rufus running alongside battling his way through the crowds.
The babble of noise which accompanied the frenzied comings and goings was an assault on the ears. Every Roman seemed to be talking to another and not all of them in the same language. Vendors shouted their wares from a myriad of stalls lining the street. The variety was mind-boggling. Within a few yards you could buy shoes, the leather they were made from and the knife you would use to cut it. Passing a spice shop, the air would be filled with the scent of cinnamon, pepper and frankincense. Mutilated beggars called for offerings of food from the entrances to a narrow side street while next door a fat shopkeeper offered honeyed almonds at exorbitant prices.
The Taurus was close to the Campus Martius, on the northern side of the city. Only its lower stories were made of stone, while the upper part was wooden, unlike the monumental Circus Maximus and the crumbling, but still impressive Magnum, the 30,000-seat theatre of Pompey.
Taurus had been gifted to the city fifty years before. Now, it was showing its age like an old whore whose best days are behind her. Tiberius was rumoured to have plans for a new and even greater arena, but a building on such a scale would take many years to construct, if the notoriously frugal Emperor ever sanctioned the cost at all.
The amphitheatre had forty entrances for the paying public, but Fronto led Rufus to a small, unmarked door which opened onto a narrow, torch-lit wooden stairway descending into the bowels of the complex.
As he followed the animal trainer, Rufus felt the same excitement he experienced when he entered the monster’s paddock. Fronto led the way through a labyrinth of passages, large and small rooms, and animal cages, in a fetid atmosphere that was rank with the odours of stale sweat, urine and excrement, animal and human. There was another smell, which overwhelmed the others and made his nostrils twitch. It puzzled him, until he was struck by a vision of the white bone and scraps of red meat which were all that was left of Titus after the lion had killed him. The smell was blood.
The realisation of where he was sent a flutter through his chest. During his years in the bakery Rufus had dreamed of the moment when he would sit in the stands above and cheer on the favourites whose names and careers he knew by heart.
“When will we see the gladiators?” he asked, his voice betraying his excitement.
Fronto turned to him and Rufus was surprised at the intensity of his gaze.
“You will see them in the arena and not before. Men - and women - pay good money to share their quarters with them before they enter the theatre of combat. There is an atmosphere, a tension, in that room, Rufus, unknown in any other place on this earth. I have seen couples with some of the finest bloodlines in Rome so overpowered by the stink of raw fear and excitement they rutted on the earth floor before them.”
He breathed heavily from his nose, as if he had just finished some hard physical labour.
“Do you know what these men on the verge of their deaths did? They turned their eyes away and looked at the walls. There is more dignity and honour in the meanest condemned slave than in these so-called nobles.”
They took a stairway leading upwards and came to a door which opened directly onto the killing ground. Rufus gazed across a flat earth-covered surface ringed with smooth planks to twice the height of a man. Whoever entered this trap would not escape by climbing its walls.
“What you see here is nothing,” Fronto whispered, his voice suddenly cold, and Rufus felt a faint shiver run down his spine. “This is an appetiser for the poor and the bored who have no money or nothing better to do. Remember. It is nothing.”
From behind came the distinctive clank of metal upon metal. Rufus turned to see three terrifying figures.
At first glance, they did not appear human. The leader wore a bronze helmet which covered his entire head, with slits for eyes and mouth, and with strands of hair delicately woven in metal across the scalp. Otherwise he was clad only in a loincloth and a wide belt which cut diagonally across his left shoulder before running round his waist. In his right hand he carried a short-handled, wide-bladed axe, with a second in a loop attached to the belt.
Behind him stood a giant, bigger than any man Rufus had seen. His features were hidden behind a full-face visor dotted with a pattern of small holes. His wide-brimmed iron helmet was crowned with a knife-edged comb, as if he were some kind of enormous fighting cock. Mesh armour protected his left side from shoulder to waist and he was armed with a trident in one hand and a net the size of a small blanket in the other.
The third gladiator was the smallest of the three, but his presence outshone his companions. His face was also hidden, but this time by a golden helmet moulded in the handsome features of a young god, and the magnificence of the mask was mirrored in the immaculately sculpted torso of the man who wore it. The oiled muscles of his biceps bulged and the veins stood out upon them like a pattern of tree roots. He fought without armour, the better to allow the crowd to feast on his beauty, and he carried a long straight sword comfortably in his left hand. His right held a small, rounded shield with an intricate gilt boss decorated with the features of the war god Mars.
Fronto and Rufus stepped aside to allow the gladiators access to the doorway. They stood silently, waiting, but each seemed to have a pattern of small movements designed to keep their bodies from tightening. They swayed from one foot to the other stretching first one set of muscles, then the next, or rolled their heads in an arc, working neck and shoulder joints. Their bodies gleamed and Rufus could smell the not unpleasant scent of some sort of oil or balm that coated their flesh.
From within the arena he heard a murmur as the crowd noticed movement which was hidden from the group in the doorway.
Rufus sidled forward, keeping as far from the intimidating figures of the gladiators as he could in the narrow passageway. Through a crack in the doors he saw a mixed herd of antelope and deer erupt from the centre of the arena floor, driven from the pens below.
As they emerged from the darkness, the terrified beasts were met with a solid wall of light and sound which drove them to panic and made them instinctively seek any avenue of escape. They charged around the walls in a group, eyes white with fear, nostrils flaring, and the sound of their flashing hooves magnified by the wooden boards beneath the few inches of packed earth echoed like thunder around the arena. The larger animals used their bulk to force past the smaller and weaker, but their efforts gained them nothing. There was no way out.
Eventually, the panic-stricken gallop slowed to a trot, then a walk. Finally the herd halted, confused and exhausted. A panting, nervous mass, their flanks gleamed with sweat and steam rose from their bodies in clouds.
Rufus too was panting, caught up in the excitement and terror of the animals. The noise in the arena had softened, but the very air seemed to crackle with the pent-up energy of a gathering storm.
Suddenly the roar erupted again, and the animals exploded into movement. Rufus saw a light-brown blur flash across the arena. A lion leapt onto the back of one of the smaller antelopes and hooked its claws into the squealing beast’s flanks.
From the far corner of the ring came the roar of another lion, and then Rufus felt a thrill of excitement shiver down his spine as he heard the unmistakable harsh, sawing cough of the leopard. His leopard.
The slaughter had begun.
In the wild, antelope use their speed, agility and numbers to outwit their hunters. In the arena their instincts counted for nothing. The big cats killed at leisure, each attack drawing louder cheers from the crowd as claws sank into flesh and then teeth closed on windpipe, bringing death by slow suffocation.
The smell of blood drove the antelope and deer into an ever-greater frenzy. Some now ran awkwardly, legs smashed as they tried to climb and even leap the amphitheatre walls in their desperation to survive.
The audience bayed for more.
But Fronto knew it would not last. He had seen it before. The lions and the leopard would become bored with killing and would settle down to feast on the carcasses of their victims. The antelope would reach a point where they could run no further, their lungs bursting and hearts close to exploding in their chests.
So the promoters of the arena had found an answer.
The hunters would become the hunted.
Rufus had watched with pride as Circe had killed first one, and then a second antelope. He had become so engrossed in the entertainment he was surprised when the double-doors opened in front of him and the three gladiators marched past him into the centre of the arena, raising the noise of the crowd to an even greater pitch.
The two lions raised their heads from their prey and roared defiance at this new threat. The leopard flattened herself down behind her last victim and waited.
Only now, as each gladiator lined himself up with one of the big cats, did Rufus fully understand what was about to happen.
“Lesson number two, Rufus,” Fronto whispered into his ear. “Never get too close to your work. The leopard could have made me a lot of money, but you ruined it. You turned it into a pet. Pets don’t fight well in the ring. Look at it. It’s confused and fearful. It doesn’t know what’s happening. But the lions have learned man is a danger to them. Watch them. They will fight. The leopard will only die.”
But Fronto was wrong. The two lions did fight, but so did Circe.
The first move was made by the huge gladiator in the cocks-comb helmet.
“He is known as Sabatis,” explained Fronto. “And he is a veteran of the arena. He will be the first of the venatores, the hunters.”
Sabatis raised his trident to acknowledge the crowd’s acclaim before he approached his lion, the big spear held steadily in front of him. At first, his chosen victim only snarled her defiance and tried to protect her feast. She had learned to fear humans, but hoped this one would go away and leave her in peace. As the armoured figure came closer the lion was forced into a decision. She charged.
“Watch how quick he is,” Fronto said.
Sabatis waited until the lion was within three paces before he stooped low, one knee on the ground. The cat’s leap should have taken him full in the body, but its hooked claws went inches over his head as he speared upward with the trident, the three barbed points sinking deep into the female’s unprotected belly. The lion squealed in agony as her momentum took her above and past the gladiator, threatening to tear the trident from his grasp. But Sabatis tightened his grip on the triple-headed spear and twisted, ripping it clear of the mortally-wounded animal’s flesh in a spray of blood and leaving her trailing feet of intestine from the terrible gash in her stomach.
The lioness landed in a cloud of dust and rolled over half a dozen times before slowly regaining her feet.
Her whole body shook as the pain coursed through her and she licked pathetically at the huge wound in her belly. Her strength was ebbing from her along with the great gouts of arterial blood that stained the earth. She was mortally wounded, but she was also angry and at her most dangerous.
This time there was no precipitous attack. She painstakingly manoeuvred into position for the leap that would take her great fangs to its throat. But her movements were difficult and every breath drove the pain deeper into her body. What she thought was a deadly leap was nothing more than a lurch which bared her chest to Sabatis who thrust forward with the trident, forcing two of the prongs deep into her heart. Blood poured from her mouth as she died with a shudder and toppled to the ground with the spear still in her.
The crowd screamed in adulation and roared the second gladiator to his task.
“This fellow hasn’t quite got Sabatis’ style,” Fronto murmured.
The axe man had been impressed by the speed of the lioness’s initial attack on Sabatis. He had intended to show his skill with the razor-edged hatchet, but now the crowd could sense his uncertainty.
He walked back to the edge of the ring and returned with a long spear in each hand. The tips of the spears were wide-bladed, narrowing to a needle point, with a cross-piece set a foot from the blade so the charging lion could not fight its way down the shaft and tear at its attacker even in its death throes.
The mood in the tiered wooden stands changed as the crowd saw the spears. They had anticipated a more equal, more dangerous contest and they registered their displeasure with boos and hisses.
Already nervous, the gladiator misjudged his initial thrust at the dark-maned male lion and only succeeded in ripping the muscles of its shoulder, hurting it but leaving its movements unaffected. The second attempt was equally clumsy. The spear bit deep in the lion’s belly cavity, but failed to find any of its vital organs. Worse, the axe man lost his grip on the weapon and in his panic dropped the second spear.
If the gladiator had stood his ground, the lion might have been content to lick its wounds. But, armed only with a dagger, he decided to put as much distance between himself and his nemesis as possible. Its hunting instinct aroused, the lion charged.
Now the roars of the crowd were roars of laughter. In his fear, the gladiator lost all sense of direction and ran in circles, scattering antelope as he went, with the lion gaining on him at every stride. The laughter grew hysterical when he looked over his shoulder, tore off his bronze mask and soiled his loincloth all in the same instant.
Then the lion was on him, pinning the screaming man face down, shaking its head and working its great jaws at his shoulder. The screams grew louder as the lion bit through leather and into skin, but the thick shoulder strap saved the gladiator from greater damage for a few vital seconds.
Rufus watched with horrified fascination, unable to tear his eyes away from the doomed fighter. He barely noticed the slim figure who danced lightly across the arena to stand over the lion and its victim.
“This should be good,” Fronto said to him.
The man in the golden mask could have killed the lion with a single thrust, but he gauged the crowd’s humour with the same precision he calculated the damage the lion was doing his fellow performer.
Instead of striking instantly, he mimicked indecision with the mischievous confidence of an accomplished actor. The lifeless eyes of the young god mask merely added to the comic appeal. Should he strike? No, perhaps not. Was this his friend lying here on the ground in the process of being devoured? Perhaps yes. But the poor lion had to eat didn’t it? Well then, I’ll leave the decision up to you, the audience.
Most would have been happy to see the lion’s victim die. But when the young gladiator forced the blade home into the base of the animal’s neck, killing it instantly, the blow was received with universal approval.
Now he had his own performance to complete, and it was a piece of theatre that broke Rufus’s heart.
Circe fought because the young gladiator left her no other choice. She lay behind the carcase of her final kill, ears flat against her head, and watched suspiciously as he advanced. Even when he was close enough to touch her with the sword, she stayed motionless, unable to decide whether the strange apparition was harmless or something altogether different.
Rufus felt bile rising in his throat. He understood there was only one outcome to the contest, but he could not stop himself calling out to the leopard.
“Attack Circe. Kill him or you’re going to die. Please, do something …” his anguished cry tailed into silence as Fronto gripped him by the arm. He turned to bury his head in the folds of the animal trader’s cloak, but Fronto’s strong hands forced his face upward and turned him to watch the spectacle unfold.
Circe did not die a brave death, or even a dignified one. She was butchered, slowly, one piece at a time, for the entertainment of the crowd.
With a barely perceptible flick of his wrist, the golden-masked figure drew the tip of his sword across the tender flesh of the leopard’s nose, drawing blood and making the animal scream with pain as she retreated backwards from the protection of the antelope corpse. Still she did not attack, and the gladiator marched relentlessly forward with a measured pace that gave the spotted cat no time to consider her next move.
The sword flicked again, slicing away part of Circe’s ear and leaving her half-blinded by a flood of red which covered her face mask. Now the pain was unbearable and the cat launched itself at her tormentor, a spring-heeled, snarling, yellow and black harbinger of hell, whose needle-pointed claws raked at the soft, vulnerable skin of his stomach.
But the gladiator had been waiting for just such an attempt.
To the mesmerised crowd in the tiered stands, it was as if his whole being flowed in the same instant from one spot on the arena floor to another a few feet away. To the cat it was as if she was attacking one of the insubstantial white strips of cloud which scarred the azure sky above them. One moment he was there, so close she could almost feel her claws sinking into his flesh, the next he was gone and the rear of her body went rigid with shock and turned into a searing ball of unbelievable agony.
The crowd shrieked with amazement and Fronto shouted with them.
“Di Omnes. Will you look at that?”
As he melted away from the cat’s attack, the gladiator had positioned himself to deliver a single sweep of the long sword that severed her tail an inch from the root.
Circe spun in circles, almost insane with pain, squealing pathetically and trying without success to lick the stump of her tail. Eventually she came to a shambling halt and turned again to face her torturer.
Rufus watched Circe’s suffering in an agony of torment. Even at the risk of his own life, he would have rushed into the centre of the arena to stand between her and her executioner, but Fronto’s vice grip on his shoulder held him where he was. Gradually the horror of what he was witnessing became too great, and it was replaced by a great emptiness. He willed the gladiator with the god’s face to bring the uneven contest to a merciful end, but knew his efforts were in vain.
Every cut of the fighter’s sword drove the crowd to new heights of ecstasy and each blow turned the once-proud animal into a shambling, bleeding mass of raw meat.
He removed an eye with a spearing thrust. A casual slash chopped off the leopard’s other ear. As the tormented animal tried to close with him, he flayed her; expertly replacing the dark rosettes which had made her one of nature’s most beautiful animals with obscene patches of scarlet flesh and white bone.
Soon, Circe was swaying on her feet, exhausted by her efforts and by the loss of the blood which dripped into the packed earth.
The gladiator turned to walk away.
Somehow Circe found the strength to break into a tired loping trot then a full-blown charge that carried her towards the fighter’s exposed back.
The crowd screamed a warning, but Rufus knew the gladiator had no need of it. He had choreographed this moment, just as he had choreographed every second of the one-sided contest.
He turned in a single graceful movement with the sword already extended in front of him, and sank the long blade into the leaping animal’s throat, driving a yard of iron down the length of Circe’s body. The blow split her heart, killing her instantly.
Rufus, sobbing now, but still drawn irresistibly to the dreadful slaughterhouse of the arena, could visualise the grinning, triumphant features behind the mask as the gladiator marched from the arena acknowledging the tributes of the crowd.
But, as he traded the harsh glare of the arena for the shade of the corridor, the fighter’s confident stride faltered, as if he somehow gained his energy and strength from the sun itself.
Hatred welled up inside Rufus like the magma of an erupting volcano and for an instant he was on the point of launching himself at Circe’s killer.
Then the gladiator removed his golden helmet.
The saddest eyes Rufus had ever seen gazed from a face as handsome as the mask which had hidden it, but more so, for this was the face of a living, breathing thing and not some soulless metal façade that killed without compassion or conscience.
His hair was the colour of a cornfield in high summer, but his eyes were the dull grey of a winter’s morning. The sadness in them had depths Rufus knew he could never, or hoped never, to fathom.
The second surprise was that the gladiator, who had looked and acted like a veteran of a hundred combats, was only a few years older than Rufus himself, probably in his early twenties.
When he spoke, it was in a guttural German-accented Latin that Rufus at first found difficult to understand, and it was addressed to Fronto.
“This is the boy?”
“Yes. This is him,” Fronto confirmed.
The young gladiator stared at Rufus for a second.
“I am Cupido,” he said, an unspoken question in his voice.
Rufus hesitated, but Fronto replied for him.
“This one is Rufus. He is my slave, but one day, if he learns, he will be my partner.”
“So Rufus, you hate me now? For what I did to your animal?”
Rufus blinked away a tear, but said nothing.
“I was told you must be taught the reality of the arena. The cruelty? It was part of your training, I think.” Cupido fixed Fronto with a long stare, making the big man shiver.
“It was not something I took pleasure in. It was what I was paid to do. So, I tell you now in good faith, so that we will not be enemies - this is another lesson you must learn - do not waste your hatred on someone who does not have the luxury of choice.”
With a nod, he walked away.