MARCUS AURELIUS, the great Roman emperor and philosopher, remarked: “I wouldn’t mind the games being brutal and degrading if only they weren’t so damned monotonous.” Although the Romans devoted an enormous amount of ingenuity to ringing in variations, there is no doubt that Marcus was right.
But the mob had developed a morbid taste for the spectacles which had to be gratified. Nietzsche believes that the great driving power which had made the Romans masters of the world had to be given a vent. With no worlds left to conquer, their force was dissipated in watching these holocausts.
So I’ll only touch on some of the high points of the remaining four days of the games. A walled city was constructed overnight in the arena and besieged the next morning by legionnaries with battering rams, catapults and burning arrows. The city was defended by Persian troops.
The Romans advanced under cover of their interlocked shields while the Persians threw down boulders, boiling oil and beams on the “testudo”, or tortoise, as the formation was called. Under shelter of the testudo, other legionnaires rushed the wall with a battering ram, its head a carved ram’s head made of bronze.
Movable towers were brought up on rollers and drawbridges dropped from their tops over which the troops attacked. From other levels of the towers, catapults threw stones and clusters of javelins against the defenders, the legionnaires captured the city, but only after heavy losses.
Afterwards, there were fights with single-stick and quarter-staffs, the Paegniarii fought with their bull-whips, protecting themselves with their wooden shields, and the Postulati fought with darts. To keep the crowd amused during the noon hour, women were tied to bulls and dragged to death and little boys assaulted by men dressed as satyrs.
A confessed Christian named Antipas was put in a bronze figure of a bull and a fire lighted under the image. The man’s screams came out of the bull’s open mouth as though the animal were bellowing. Chimpanzees were made drunk on wine and then encouraged to rape girls tied to stakes.
When these man-sized apes were first discovered in Africa, the Romans believed that they were genuine satyrs, the mythological beings who were half man and half goat. There were also man-sized apes called tityrus with round faces, reddish color and whiskers. Pictures of them appear on vases and they were apparently orangutans, imported from Indonesia.
As far as I know, the Romans never exhibited gorillas although these biggest of all apes were known to the Phoenicians, who gave them their present name which means “hairy savage.”
There were also amusing touches, or what the Romans considered amusing. A jeweler who had sold some fake stones was sentenced to the arena. The wretched man was driven into the arena and a lion’s cage rolled out before him.
While the jeweler fell on his knees and prayed for mercy, the door of the cage was pulled back—and out walked a chicken. The jeweler fainted from shock while the emperor had the heralds announce: “As the man practiced deceit, he has now had it practiced on him.” The jeweler was allowed to leave the arena alive. (This actually happened during the reign of the Emperor Gallienus in 250 A.D.)
The Romans had a robust sense of humor. At the time of Caligula, a gladiator had his right arm cut off so he was helpless. The crowd considered this uproariously funny. Another gladiator, named Bassus, strolled around the arena defending himself with a golden chamber pot. But at least one trick played by Caligula would seem to us today, if not funny, at least a grim form of poetic justice.
There was a group of people who used to wait under the stands by the passageway along which condemned prisoners were led to the arena. These people were degenerates of the most revolting type. They would follow the prisoners, pawing, spitting and mauling them while recounting the tortures they would soon face.
The sight of the cringing wretches acted as a sexual stimulus to them. (Ilsa Koch, the wife of the German supervisor at Buchenwald, was a pervert of this same sort. She used to fondle the condemned prisoners being taken to the gas chamber as they were led past her.)
These perverts were a great nuisance to the guards in charge of the prisoners and strict orders were given to keep them away from under the stands, but somehow they always managed to bribe or force their way in. In their efforts to enjoy the suffering of the prisoners to the last moment, they crowded into the passageways that led to the podium and sometimes even onto the podium itself.
On one occasion, Caligula gave orders for the guards not to drive them away. Delighted, the sadists flung themselves on a batch of prisoners headed to the arena, kicking and pinching them as the captives struggled along. These degenerates became so absorbed in their sport that they didn’t notice where they were going.
Suddenly they heard a gate slammed behind them and found themselves in the arena with the condemned prisoners! The perverts ran wildly up and down before the podium wall, screaming that they were Roman citizens and that a terrible mistake had been made. After enjoying their antics for a while, Caligula ordered the wild beasts to be loosed and the perverts died with the others.
Not all the acts put on dealt with blood and sex, although unquestionably these became the main attractions. The Roman shows went through somewhat the same evolution as did burlesque in America.
Originally, burlesque shows were a rough-and-ready sort of vaudeville featuring dancers, novelty routines, comedians and, of course, plenty of pretty girls although the girls were only a background to the feature acts. As the tastes of the audiences grew more crude, the girls became strippers and the whole show revolved around them.
Burlesque, which had produced such great comedians as W. C. Fields, Fanny Brice, and Bert Lahr, finally featured comedians who did nothing but tell dirty jokes and only came on to give the girls a chance to change their G-strings.
However, to break up the steady series of strip routines, there always had to be an occasional singer, an occasional vaudeville turn, a few dance teams, and so on.
In much the same way, the Roman mob had to be given some kind of break between the gladiatorial combats and the wholesale slaughter of animals by the venatores. These “fill-ins” might be ballet dancing, little skits like our “black-outs,” or exhibitions of trained animals. Apuleius describes one of the dances:
“A number of beautiful girls and boys in costume gave a Greek Pyrrhic dance. Lines of dancers wove in and out of circles, sometimes all joining hands and dancing sideways and then separating into four wedge-shaped groups with the base of the triangles making a hollow square. Then the boys and girls would suddenly separate and dance opposite each other.”
The skits given in the arena were typical bedroom farces which have remained unchanged for two thousand years. A man and woman would be in bed. There’s a loud knocking. “By gracious Vesta, it’s my husband!” the woman screams.
The man dives under the bed but the new arrival is only another of the woman’s lovers. They get in bed and there’s another knock. That man also dives under the bed and so on until the husband really does arrive. Then after some byplay, one of the lovers crowns him with a chamber pot and everyone runs out of the arena.
The trained animal acts must have been very remarkable. The Romans had an unlimited number of animals available for the games, and the bestiarii could select only those individual animals which showed promise—a long cry from today when a lion tamer, for example, has to take virtually any animal he can buy, borrow or beg.
Also, the Romans had unlimited time and plenty of cheap labor for cageboys, trainer’s helpers, and so on. They taught elephants to walk a tightrope, horses to dance on their hind legs and bears to pull chariots while another bear acted as driver. They also had trained ducks and geese as well as performing ¦ monkeys.
The Thessalians had “bulls as well trained as chariot horses” which would lie down, ride in chariots or fight each other on command. All these feats modem trainers can duplicate, but the Romans also taught lions to retrieve hares and bring them to their master’s feet uninjured, after first having them kill bulls to prove their ferocity.
They also staged special hunts trained cheetahs (the African hunting leopard) coursing antelope, and caracals (African lynx) catching rabbits and partridges.
The Romans also exhibited unicorns. These animals were really oryx antelopes from Africa but the bestiarii would take a young oryx and bind his horns together as though grafting twigs.
The soft young horns would grow together, producing one straight horn which was a far better weapon against other animals in the arena. The legend of the unicorn probably originated from this custom although some students believe that the original unicorn was the one-homed rhinoceros of India.
Individual fights were often staged between animals, and some of these animals became as well known as the famous gladiators. Statius wrote a beautiful ode to a lion who was killed by a younger opponent in the arena at the time of Domitian:
“Poor fellow, what good has it done you to learn to obey a master weaker than yourself, to learn to leave and re-enter your cage on command, to retrieve your quarry for him and even let him put his hand between your jaws?
Once you were me terror or me arena and all the other lions shrank back when you marched past. You died fighting, as bravely as any soldier, and even when you knew that you’d received your death wound, you waited with open jaws for the enemy to finish you off.
“Yet know that the people and the senate mourn for you as though you were a famous gladiator and among thousands of other beasts gathered from Scythia to the banks of the Rhine, Caesar’s face only fell when you died although it was nothing but another lion lost.”
There are accounts of trained lions being used to pull chariots for the editor of the games and also several cases when trained lions saved their bestiarii masters from wild animals. Then, of course, there’s the famous story of Androcles and the lion.
Androcles was a Greek slave who escaped from his master and, while wandering around the desert, met a lion with a thorn in his foot. Androcles pulled out the thorn and the lion never forgot the kind deed. Later, the lion was captured and shipped to the arena and so was Androcles.
The starved lion was turned loose in the arena to devour the escaped slave but the lion refused to harm the man who had befriended him. A leopard was turned loose to do the job and the lion killed the leopard to defend his pal. The crowd demanded that both Androcles and the lion be freed.
Afterwards, Androcles made a living by exhibiting the lion in taverns. Gellius and Aelian both swear to the truth of this story (it happened during the reign of Claudius) so I’ll believe it. Ordinarily, I’d have my doubts. Anyhow, it’s one of the best authenticated legends in history.
What happened to Carpophorus? I don’t know so I’ll invent an ending suitable for this strange man.
A wealthy noblewoman asked Carpophorus to bring one of his trained jackasses to her room at night promising him a fabulous sum of money. Carpophorus naturally complied. The lady had made elaborate preparations for the event; four eunuchs had placed a feather bed on the floor, covered with Tyrian purple cloth embroidered in gold, and had arranged soft pillows at one end.
The lady instructed Carpophorus to lead the jackass to the bed and get him to lie down, and then with her own hands she rubbed him with oil of balsam. When the preparations were complete, Carpophorus was ordered to leave the room and return the next morning. This performance is described in great detail by Apuleius in “The Golden Ass.”
The lady demanded the jackass’s services so often that Carpophorus was afraid that she might kill herself but after a few weeks his only concern was that she might totally exhaust the valuable animal. Still, he made such a fortune from the business that he was able to purchase a genuine unicorn’s horn.
Of course, Carpophorus knew all about the orxy-unicorms used in the arena, but this horn was different. It was pure ivory and over seven feet long. There were only a few of these horns in Rome and they were enormously valuable because if poisoned wine were served in a cup made of a unicorn’s horn, the poison would bubble and betray its presence.
Carpophorus suspected that these horns were faked in some way, but after carefully examining his purchase he became convinced that it was real ivory and did not come from any known animal. The bestiarius’ ambition was to find a unicorn and exhibit it in the arena.
Unicorns were supposed to be tropical animals, but Carpophorus discovered that these horns were imported from the Baltic. This, he decided, explained why the Roman animal catchers in Asia and Africa had never gotten any unicorns.
He managed to scrape up acquaintance with the crew of a Viking ship that had come to Ostia to trade and do a little piracy on the side during the voyage home. The Vikings had some broken pieces of unicorn horns with them and Carpophorus was able to get one member of the crew drunk at Chile’s tavery.
The sailor told him that the horn came from a great fish which fishermen occasion-ally caught in their nets. The Vikings called it anarwhal. The fish might be called a sea-unicorn for it had one long horn growing from the tip of its nose.
Carpophorus didn’t swallow this yam. The horn was ivory and fish didn’t grow ivory. Still, he thought that unicorns might sometimes swim rivers and be caught in nets so that was how the legend started. He traveled to the Baltic with a “negotiator ursorum,” a bear-catcher, but was unable to get any unicorns.
But he got something almost as valuable—three great white bears •unlike any he had ever seen before. These bears came in on icebergs near Ultima Thule, the last outpost of land to the north. Today we call it Iceland.
Carpophorus had the crazy idea that these bears must come from some great land lying to the west, for surely they could not spend all their lives on the floating icebergs. On his way back with the bears, he advanced this theory to a young centurion who was in charge of one of the frontier forts in Scotland built to keep the Picts and Scots from raiding down into Roman Britain.
“There is no land to the west,” the centurion told him confidently.
“How do you know?” the bestiarius demanded.
“Because if there were, this damn government would have us legionnaires over there policing the place,” said the centurion downing a cup of strong wine.
The bears made a great hit in the arena. The Roman writer Calpumius describes how the arena was flooded and the bears dove into the water and fought seals. (Polar bears were exhibited in the arena, but at what period is uncertain.)
But when the time came for the next act, the bears couldn’t be moved. They were still eating the seals, and polar bears are mean animals to handle at the best of times.
The emperor motioned to the archers to kill the beasts for the shows ran on a strict time schedule. Carpophorus refused to see his precious bears killed. He plunged into the knee-deep water and tried to drive out the bears with his flail.
Hampered by the water, he could not avoid the animal’s angry rushes. So he died, as did most of his profession, under the teeth and claws of his savage wards. The Romans never realized that they held in their hands the clue to the discovery of great new world.