IN THE EARLY DAYS when the games were merely athletic contests there were no gladiatorial combats. Gladiators were introduced by accident. Two brothers named Marcus and Decimus Brutus wanted to give their dead father a really bang-up funeral.
The brothers were wealthy patricians, the ruling class in Rome, and providing outstanding funeral rites for a dead parent was an important social obligation. The usual processions, sacrificed animals and prayers weren’t enough for the brothers, but Marcus came up with an idea.
“There was an old custom, dating back to prehistoric times, of having a few slaves fight to the death over the grave of some great leader,” he reminded his brother. “Why not revive it to show how much we revere the memory of the old man?”
Decimus turned the suggestion over in his mind. Originally this ceremony had been a sort of human sacrifice and the souls of the dead slaves were supposed to serve the chieftain in the next world.
The fighting was to make sure that only brave men capable of being good followers would follow the dead leader. Educated Romans like the Brutus brothers didn’t believe this old superstition but the dead man had been a great soldier and fond of rough sports.
“Nothing would please father more,” he admitted. “If the priests agree, we’ll do it. Our social position will be definitely established.”
The priests had no objections and half of Rome turned out to watch the fight. Three pairs of slaves fought and the crowd loved it. The brothers became the most popular men in Rome for having put on such a good show. Politicians, eager to be elected, decided to put on similar exhibitions.
The following statistics will show how fast the idea caught on:
264—B.C. 3 pairs of slaves.
216—B.C. 22 pairs of slaves.
183—B.C. 60 pairs of slaves.
145—B.C. 90 pairs fought for three days
Soon it was taken for granted that anyone running for office had to put on slave fights—the bigger the better.
Promoters began to buy up able-bodied slaves, criminals and prisoners of war especially for these fights. The promoters would then rent the men out at so much per head to any ambitious politician. These professional slave-fighters became known as “gladiators,” meaning “swordsmen.”
As long as only a few gladiators were engaged, the fights were generally given in the Forum, but when several dozen fought there wasn’t enough room. So the fights were moved to the Circus and the gladiators staged their combats as an extra attraction together with the chariot races, the acrobats, the wild animal trainers and the other performers.
Unless the show was subsidized by some wealthy man in honor of his ancestors, an admission fee was charged and the whole affair was strictly a business proposition, but later politicians started putting on the shows for free to get votes, or the government staged them to keep the mob quiet.
Unfortunately, no gladiator was kind enough to leave a collection of memoirs or, if any did, the manuscript hasn’t survived. However, we know plenty about them as many of the Roman writers such as Suetonius, Martial and Tacitus describe the fights in considerable detail.
We know, for example, that one of the most famous gladiators was named Flamma and, although we know very little else about him except a list of his outstanding triumphs, we can by combining stories about several of the gladiators give a reasonably accurate picture of one of these professional killers.
Let’s suppose that Flamma was a huge, heavy-set bull of a man. Most gladiators were, as their statues and the portraits of them cut on monuments show. He may well have been a private soldier, condemned to the arena for insubordination. We know of one such case and we’ll suppose the man involved was Flamma.
Flamma, then, had been given a bawling-out by a young officer, fresh out of military school and he told the officer off. The officer struck him with a cane and Flamma knocked him down. For this offense, he was sentenced to the arena.
Flamma hoped to be matched against some other ex-soldier and fight with regulation sword and shield, which he knew how to handle, but the penalty for striking an officer was death and the high brass was determined that Flamma wouldn’t leave the arena alive.
So he was put into one of the new “novelty acts” which were springing up. The Roman mob bad tired of the standard combats so the promoters invented fights between a Retiarius, who wore no armor but carried a net and a trident (a three-pronged spear), and a Secu-tor, who was equipped as a Gaul; that is, he had a fish insignia on his helmet as did the Gauls, and carried a sword and shield.
He wore a breastplate and his right arm and left leg were protected by armor. His left arm and right leg were bare to give him greater freedom of movement. Except for its fish symbol, the helmet was very plain so as not to offer a spot where the Retiarius’ net or trident could catch.
Flamma was to play the part of the Secutor or “chaser.” It was up to him to catch the nimble Retiarius or “netman.”
The edges of the Retiarius’ net were fringed with small lead weights, so when the net was thrown it would open to form a circle.
Similar nets are still used by fishermen in various parts of the world today. If he could succeed in catching the Secutor in his net, the Retiarius could pull the heavily armed man off balance and dispatch him with the trident.
The Retiarius always had the advantage in these fights and, even with well-trained gladiators, the betting was generally five to three on the netman. In this case, Flamma knew nothing about the business, while the Retiarius was an expert. The odds on the Retiarius were fifty to one with no takers.
When Flamma appeared in the arena in his Gaul’s outfit, he was greeted by boos and catcalls from the mob. They knew he was a mutineer and also he was nothing but a palooka who couldn’t be expected to put up an interesting fight. Flamma was a fairly simple fellow and his spirit had been broken by the court-martial and the sentence.
When he saw that everyone was against him, he dropped his sword and sat down to let the Retiarius finish him off. The crowd, feeling that they had been swindled, burst into shouts of “Chicken!” “What’s he afraid of?” “Why does he die so sulkily?” “Whip him!” “Burn him!”—for a gladiator who refused to fight was whipped and prodded with hot irons until he changed his mind.
But FIamma’s whole regiment had turned out for the fight and they stood up in the stands, shouting for him. When Flamma heard their familiar voices, he picked up his sword and cried, “All right, boys, I’ll do my best for the honor of the regiment!”
The Retiarius had been parading the arena, taking bows and making dates with the pretty girls for after the fight. Now he settled his net and came for the soldier.
As he approached Flamma, the Retiarius sang the traditional chant of his profession: “I seek not you, I seek a fish. Why do you flee from me, 0 Gaul?” meanwhile making tentative casts with his net. Then he pretended to slip and fall, hoping to get Flamma off balance.
When that didn’t work, he danced around the heavily armored man, calling him a coward and daring him to come on, but Flamma had too much sense to wear himself out chasing the agile Retiarius around the arena. He stood his ground and made the other man come to him.
The Retiarius circled him, holding the net by one end and slinging it at Flamma’s feet, hoping to have the long net wrap around the Secutor’s legs and trip him. Then he suddenly changed his technique and threw the net in a cast. Flamma turned it with his shield but one of the lead pellets hit him in the left eye, partially blinding him.
The Retiarius saw his chance and, rushing in, knocked the sword out of the soldier’s hand with his trident. Both men ran for the sword but the light Retiarius got there first and threw the sword into the stands. Then he turned to finish off the unarmed man.
It seemed as though Flamma was through but the Retiarius made the mistake of first showing off with some fancy net casts. Flamma managed to give the trident a kick that sent it flying across the arena.
The terrified Retiarius turned to run after it, but before he could get away, Flamma grabbed him by the tunic. As the Retiarius went down on his knees, Flamma gave him a rabbit punch with the edge of the shield and killed him.
The victory, although totally unexpected, didn’t seem to help Flamma. The emperor simply signaled for another Retiarius to come out and finish him off. But here the condemned man got a break. Flamma’s nickname around the barracks was “loach,” as loaches have whiskers like a catfish and Flamma had a bristling beard.
The soldiers in the stands bad been yelling: “Go it, loach!” and the crowd had taken up the yell after Flamma showed that he was really willing to fight. Now a “loach” had killed a “fisherman” and the crowd thought this was such a joke that they demanded that Flamma be spared.
Very few emperors dared to ignore the will of the people in the circus. Often notorious bandits and murderers were saved in this way, to the indignation of the judges. So Flamma was sent to gladiatorial school to learn his new trade.
There were four big gladiatorial schools in Italy at this time (about 10 A.D. under Augustus Caesar). They were known as The Great School, The Gallic, The Dacian and the School for Bestiarii (animal fighters).
Later, there were dozens of schools maintained by rich enthusiasts of the fights just as today rich men have racing stables. Flamma was sent to The Great School in Rome.
No vestige of this school remains but the gladiatorial school in Pompeii is still in good condition, so I’ll describe that, although The Great School must have been much bigger.
The school was a rectangular building some 170 feet by 140 feet with an open court in the middle where the men could practice. Around the court ran a roofed passage with small rooms opening into it rather like a cloister.
The rooms were only ten by twelve feet, but each man had his cell where he could be alone. There was a kitchen, a hospital, an armory, quarters
for the trainers and the guards, and even a graveyard. There was also a prison with leg irons, shackles, branding irons and whips. Opening into the prison was a room used for solitary confinement with a ceiling so low a man couldn’t sit up and so short he couldn’t stretch out his legs.
The remains of four gladiators were found in the Pompeian prison—the men had been unable to escape when the city was covered with the lava flow from Mount Vesuvius.
The school was owned by a big promoter but was actually run by an old ex-gladiator who knew all the tricks. These trainers were called lanistae.
Every precaution was taken to keep the gladiators well guarded. The Romans never forgot the lesson they had learned in 72 B.C. when a gladiator named Sparta-cus with seventy of his comrades escaped from the school and took refuge in the crater of Mount Vesuvius.
As all these men were professional fighters, getting them out of the crater was quite a problem. They were joined by escaped slaves, robber bands and discontented peasants. Under Spartacus’ leadership, this band of outlaws defeated two Roman generals and seized all southern Italy.
They nearly captured Rome itself before being wiped out by legions hastily recalled from the frontiers.
Flamma first had to take an oath: “To suffer myself to be whipped with rods, burned with fire or killed with steel if I disobey.” Then he was given a cell whose previous occupant had been killed in the last games.
There was a stone shelf that served as a bed, with a straw-filled mattress on it, and a niche in the wall where Flamma could keep a statue of whatever god he fancied.
There was no other furniture. On the walls were scratched girls’ names with addresses below them, pictures of naked women, “Sabinus hic” (Kilroy was here), prayers to various gods, dirty cracks about the gladiator master and the dates of fights. In Pompeii, these drawings still survive.
There were also a few crude drawings of actual combats—a Secutor enveloped in the net but still stabbing at the Retiarius with his sword, and some fights between different types of, gladiators. Over one figure was scribbled “Bebrix, 20 wins” and over another “Nobilior, 11 wins.”
Nobilior was down, making the sign for mercy to the crowd by holding up one finger of his left hand. Below him was the sign 0 which meant “killed.”
Being a phlegmatic man and used to iron discipline, Flamma settled down in the school without much difficulty. Other gladiators had more trouble. The barracks had to be constantly patrolled night and day to make sure the men didn’t commit suicide, but even so some men were able to outwit the guards.
One man, on his way to the school in a cart, managed to stick his head in the turning wheel and broke his neck. Another man took a pottery bowl in which he was given water, broke it into small pieces, and then ate the pieces.
Flamma couldn’t understand what was bothering these men. The food was fine, the bed comfortable, and girls were brought in once a week. He had to fight only about twenty times a year and there were no long marches, sudden ambushes or long campaigns as in the army. Frankly, he’d never had it so good.
For the first few weeks Flamma practiced sword strokes against a wooden pole in the exercise court and then against a dummy hung from a pole under the direction of the lanista.
He had to learn to use his left hand as readily as his right, as some fighters were suckers for a good southpaw. In order to build up his muscle, the weapons given him were twice as heavy as the ones he’d use in the arena.
Then he fought other gladiators using blunt weapons. At last real bouts were put on, but stopped when one man was wounded.
The men all messed at a long table and their meals were carefully prepared by expert dietitians. They were fed a great deal of meat and barley—meat because of its protein content and barley because, so it was believed, the rich grain covered the arteries with a layer of fat and so helped to prevent a man from bleeding to death from a wound.
Perhaps what sold Flamma on being a gladiator more than anything else was the beautiful armor he was allowed to wear in the arena.
As the son of poor Italian peasants, he had never owned anything really impressive in his life and was a pretty simple fellow anyhow. (Right up to the first World War, soldiers insisted on wearing full dress into battle and many a man frankly joined the army so he could wear a busby or a nice red uniform with brass buttons.
Even today a general has seriously claimed that the reason so many men join the Marines is that the Marine Corps still retains its ornate full dress, and maybe the general is right.) To a man like Flamma, fine armor meant a lot. His helmets had ostrich or peacock feathers.
His breastplates were inlaid with gold and silver. His sword hilt was set with precious stones. His bronze shield was covered with brass studs and painted a brilliant red on the inside. Designs showing gladiatorial fights were engraved on his brassards and cuisses by famous artists.
Slaves kept everything polished up for him so that all Flamma had to do was wear the stuff—very different from the army where he’d had to shine his equipment himself.
The trainer watched Flamma’s style carefully and decided to use him as a Postulati, fighting in full armor with a sword and lead mace against all comers, who were allowed to use any weapon that they wished.
Flamma’s first public appearance as a professional gladiator was at ludi privati (privately sponsored games) given by a politician.
For weeks before the event, professional sign writers had toured the city writing ads for the games everywhere they could find space—even on tombstones. There are still old tombstones in Roman burying grounds with the inscription:
“Post no bills” engraved on them. Here’s a typical ad written on a wall with red paint:
“Weather permitting, 30 pairs of gladiators, furnished by A. Clodius Flaccus, together with substitutes in case any get killed too quickly, will fight May 1st, 2nd and 3rd at the Circus Maximus.
The fights will be followed by a big wild beast hunt. The famous gladiator Paris will fight. Hurrah for Paris! Hurrah for the generous Flaccus, who is running for duumvirate!”
Below is a personal plug for the sign writer reading:
“Marcus wrote this sign by the light of the moon. If you hire Marcus, he’ll work day and night to do a good job.”
It was a fine day and a big crowd turned out that filled the circus. Owners of neighboring houses that overlooked the amphitheater rented out their roof tops to people who couldn’t get seats. (Later the Circus Maximus got so high that this source of revenue was lost.)
Around the base of the stands the moat of running water kept the arena cool. The crowd had programs to guide them in betting. The programs were written in a sort of sporting code and one of the later ones looked like this:
v. Pugnax Ner. III M.
p. Murranus Ner. III
m. P. Ostorius Jul. LI Ess.
v. Scylax Jul. XXVI
This meant that a gladiator named Pugnax, a Thracian (fighting with a small, round shield and short, curved sword) was pitted against Murranus, a Myrmillo (Gallic arms like the Secutor). Both came from the Neroniani School of gladiators founded by Nero at Capua.
Both had won three times. (If it was a man’s first fight, T for tyro was put after his name.) The “v” and “p” were written in by the owner of the programs later. The v stood for victor and the p for perished.
The second line meant that Publius Ostorius (apparently a freeman, judging from his double name, who probably fought for hire) and winner in fifty-one, fights was opposed to a man named Scylax who had won twenty-six times.
Both were from the Julian Gladiatorial School. The “Ess” stands for Essedarii, which means that they fought from chariots. Scylax was the winner but Ostorius’ life was spared (possibly because he was a Roman citizen) by the crowd. The “m” stands for “missus” (let go).
After A. Clodius Flaccus had ridden around the arena in his hired chariot, followed by his stooges, there was a parade of the gladiators, each man wearing the armor and carrying the weapons with which he was to fight.
Very fine it must have looked, too, the armor flashing in the sun, the feathers in the casques nodding, the powerful gladiators striding along and the fifty-piece band playing a march.
The gladiators halted in front of the emperor’s private box and, raising their right hands straight out, chanted:
“Hail, Caesar! We who are about to die greet thee!”
Then they turned and in military formation marched out through Porta Libitinensis (a small gate under the stands) to their room.
After a few preliminary bouts of acrobats, trained animals and trick riding, it was time for the fights. The gladiators were mainly matched against a group of German prisoners of war. This was because a highly trained gladiator was a very valuble investment and the lanistai did everything they could to keep the men from getting killed unnecessarily.
The best way to safeguard a gladiator was to pit him against a nonprofessional. When gladiator fought gladiator, the match was frequently fixed, at least in this comparatively early period. Even if the mob demanded a fallen man’s life, the victor only pretended to kill him.
He was then hauled out with a hook as though a corpse and later sent to some provincial circus where he wouldn’t be recognized. A lot depended on the editor giving the games. He could insure better fights if he insisted on the men fighting to the death, but that cost extra.
The Germans were armed with their national weapon: short javelins. They had no armor but wore heavy bearskins as protection. However, they outnumbered the gladiators sent against them two to one. Still, the highly trained gladiators didn’t have much trouble except with one man.
He was a Norseman, a giant with long blond hair and beard. He was fighting with an enormous two-handed sword. He killed two gladiators, cutting off their heads in spite of the gorget that protected their necks. He got such a hand that the fight was stopped and the Norseman promised his freedom.
The applause went to his head for he insisted on making a speech to the crowd in broken Latin. The Norseman said that he’d killed six legionnaires in battle before he was captured, that the Romans were all yellow-bellies and one Norseman could handle a legion of them, and that he could personally lick any man in the crowd.
The crowd were sportsmen enough to admire his nerve and applauded, but in the stands was a young officer whose father had been killed fighting the Germanic tribes. This fellow didn’t like Nordics and he jumped into the arena and challenged the Norseman to fight.
The Norseman accepted and as this was obviously a real grudge match, the crowd was all for it. Not having any arms with him, the officer borrowed Flamma’s armor and sword. Then he and the Norseman went to it.
The combatants were so evenly matched that there was none of the usual shouting and cheering from the stands; the crowd held its breath, watching every move. There was no sound in the giant amphitheater but the clash of the swords.
In spite of his armor, the young officer had counted on being quicker than the big Norseman in his cumbersome bearskin but the Norseman displayed an amazing and unexpected agility. Twice he beat the Roman to his knees and only a miracle saved the young man.
Then the Roman, leaping back to avoid a stroke from the great two-handed sword, slipped in a pool of blood. He went down and the Norseman straddled him, shortening his sword for the death stroke.
A gasp went up from the crowd, for it was all over now. Suddenly the prone man brought up his shield between the Norseman’s legs.
As the big man doubled up in agony, the Roman rolled away and, bounding to his feet, plunged his sword into his opponent’s armpit where the heavy bearskin did not cover him. The Norseman went down while the crowd screamed in delirious excitement and the band played frenetically.
Naturally, all anyone remembered of that set of games was the young officer’s brilliant victory, but Flamma was well content. He had disposed of his two Germans in a neat, businesslike way and as an ex-soldier he had learned to do the job assigned to him and let it go at that.
He greatly admired the young officer’s feat and was proud that his armor and sword had been used, but he was only a gladiator and that sort of grandstand stuff could well be left to some red-hot young aristocrat with more guts than sense.
The lanista kept his eye on Flamma. He liked the soldier’s way of fighting: nothing spectacular, but dependable. In the next few years, Flamma defeated Greek Hoplomachi in full armor and fighting with pikes, Dimachaeri with daggers in each hand and An-dabatae on horseback.
His usual opponents were Sam-nites who were equipped much like the Secutors. The Samnites were the first professional gladiators because the big gladiatorial combats began shortly after the Samnite nation was conquered by the Romans and the prisoners were used as gladiators.
For a long time, the words “gladiator” and “Samnite” were interchangeable but as Romans conquered other nations, new styles of gladiators were constantly being introduced so the Samnites became simply one type of fighter. However, they never lost their appeal and might be called the “standard gladiator,” all other sorts being more or less novelty acts.
Flamma was beaten a few times but was always saved by the crowd, which gave the “thumbs up” signal that meant a fallen man was to be spared. Flamma, winning or losing, always put up a good fight and the crowd liked him.
There has been a lot of discussion exactly as to how the mob signaled their wishes. Until recently it was believed that “thumbs down” was the death signal and “thumbs up” meant the man was to live.
Some authorities today think that the death signal was made by stabbing with the thumb at the spectator’s own chest meaning “let him have it here” and the signal for release was to extend the hand flat with the thumb bent under the palm.
Others think that the thumb was only used to signal death, that if the man was to be released the crowd waved their handkerchiefs. No one knows. Perhaps there were many different gestures and they went by fads; some being popular at one period and others at another.
Not being a flashy fighter, Flamma had a slow publicity build-up but gradually people began to notice the big man who never went in for any grandstand plays but nearly always won.
Some fighters put on a regular act like modem wrestlers—taking great swipes at each other, banging their shields around, pretending to fall, staggering as though they had received a mortal wound and then heroically returning to the fray.
Again as with wrestling, there was often a “hero” and a “villain.” The hero was usually some clean-cut young Roman, often a freeman fighting for hire or some rich young wastrel who had run through his inheritance and turned to the arena as a last resort.
The hero always got a careful build-up and was given a big ovation as he explained to the crowd that he was only fighting to get enough money to bury his father or support his widowed mother.
The villain was a tough-looking brute who came out yelling insults at the hero, spitting at him, and promising to massacre the bum. The hero always won. Such fights naturally had to be fixed or the gladiatorial schools would have run out of villains.
The fights were by no means always staged. The crowd was pretty shrewd at detecting fakes and also it was hard to persuade a gladiator to throw a fight if he thought he could win because it would be up to his opponent whether to kill him or not, regardless of what previous arrangement might have been made.
Still, up to the reign of Tiberius (or, roughly about 20 A.D.) there was a good deal of give and take in the arena. A highly trained gladiator was a valuable man and knew it. An experienced gladiator wouldn’t fight a tyro. Many of them openly expressed their contempt of the crowd and used to stop in the middle of a fight to cuss the people out in the manner of Mr. Leo Durocher.
They developed an enormous esprit de corps. A gladiator prided himself on bearing any wound without a cry and even when mortally wounded would shout to the lanista for instructions. The lanista was allowed to stand on the sidelines while his man fought, like a prize fighter’s manager, and shout instructions.
This was a great help to Flamma, who wasn’t too smart and often needed someone to shout: “Try him with an up-percut under the palette” (the shoulder-piece) and so on.
Slowly, by hard work and considerable luck, Flamma worked his way up to being one of the top gladiators in Rome. He never faked a fight, he always did his best, and he gradually won a following in the city.
Sculptors made statues of him; his head appeared on coins as Mars, the god of war; he was wined and dined in wealthy homes and given an estate by a rich lady admirer. Crowds of women followed him around and on street walls were scribbled: “Flamma is a girl’s sigh and prayer” and “Oh you Flamma!
You’re the doctor who can cure what’s wrong with me.” He never did as well as the gladiator Spiculus who was given a palace by Nero, or Veianius whose son was made a knight, but Flamma wasn’t complaining.
He began to grow rich. After a successful fight, whoever was putting on the games had to present the winning gladiators with a bowl of gold coins, the exact amount being specified by the crowd. Also, like Diodes, Flamma sold tips on the fights, having a good idea which of two gladiators had the best chance of surviving.
At this time, a gladiator had to fight for three years. Then he was excused from actual combat but remained a slave, working at the gladiatorial school for another five. But the crowd could at any time demand that a gladiator be given a wooden sword, which meant that he could retire from the arena.
Before the actual combats, the gladiators warmed up by fighting with wooden weapons and so the wooden sword symbolized that in future the man would never have to fight for his life.
After one of his most brilliant fights, the enthusiastic crowd voted Flamma the coveted wooden sword Flamma refused it indignantly.
“Are you crazy?” he roared at the stands. “I’m making more money than anyone in Rome, I can have any woman I want, I’m living in a villa and I’m the toast of the empire. Leave the arena? What for?”
“Good old Flamma!” howled the delighted crowd. Flamma refused the proffered wooden sword four times, the only gladiator who ever turned down this offer not once but several times over. As a result, his name has come down to us over nearly two thousand years.
When he finally retired, he was given an ivory rectangle, luce a G.I.’s dogtag, to wear around his neck. It was inscribed with his name, the name of his former owner, and the date on which he was set free. Flamma married and lived to a gray old age in his villa, telling everyone who’d listen that the modern gladiators didn’t have the stuff the boys did when he was a young man.
When he died, his devoted family had the record of his victories carved on his tomb.
Flamma’s attitude toward his profession was not unique. A Myrmillo, during a period when fights were few, was heard to complain that he was wasting the best years of his life. Epictetus, a Roman writer, says that the gladiators used to pray for more fights so that they could distinguish themselves in the arena and make more money.
(Not too surprising, when the famous toast of the armed forces in Great Britain used to be: “Here’s to a sudden plague and a bloody war!” —the only two events that could speed up promotion.)
Although never nearly as popular as the sword fights, boxing was also featured in the arena. It was, originally simply an athletic event as with our college boxing, and then the promoters decided to liven it up to appeal to the crowd.
The leather straps over the knuckles were studded with leadlike brass knuckles. These devices were called “caestus” and later were even equipped with nails. The caestus of a famous fighter, covered with blood and brains, were hung up in one school to encourage young hopefuls.
Statius gives this description of a boxing match. The editor opens the fight by shouting:
” ‘Now courage is needed. Use the terrible caestus in close fighting—next to using swords, this is the best way to test your bravery.’
“Capaneus put on the raw oxhide straps covered with lumps of lead—and he was as hard-as the lead. His opponent comes out, a young, curly-haired boy named Alcidamas.
Capaneus takes one look at him, laughs and shouts, ‘Haven’t you anybody better than that?’ They lift their arms, deadly as thunderbolts, watching each other. Capaneus is a giant but getting old. Alcidamas is only a youth but stronger than he looks.
“They spar, feeling each other out, just touching their gloves. Then Capaneus moves in and starts slugging, but Alcidamas holds him off and Capaneus only tires his arms and hurts his own chances.
The young fellow, a smart fighter, parries, ducks, leans back and! bends his head forward to avoid the swings. He turns the blows with his gloves and advances with his feet while keeping his head well back. Capaneus is stronger and has a terrific right but young Alcidamas, feinting right and left, distracts him and then getting his right hand above the older man, comes down from on top. He gets home on his forehead. The blood runs.
“Capaneus doesn’t realize how badly he’s hurt but he hears the yelling of the crowd and stopping to wipe the sweat off his face with the back of his glove, he sees the blood. Now he really gets mad and goes for the boy.
“His blows are wasted on the air; most of them only hit his opponent’s gloves and the boy stays away from him, running backward but hitting when he gets a chance.
“Capaneus chases him around the arena until both of them are too tired to move and they stand panting and facing each other. Then Capaneus makes a wild dash. Alcidamas dodges and hits him on the shoulder. Capaneus goes down!
He falls on his head and tries to get up but the boy knocks him down again. Suddenly Capaneus jumps up and goes at the boy, nailing with both fists. The boy falls and Capaneus bends over him, hammering him on the head.
The crowd yells, ‘Save the poor kid! His skull’s cracked already and Capaneus is going to beat his brains out.’ The attendants rush in and pull Capaneus off his victim. ‘You’ve won!’ they tell him. Capaneus bellows, ‘Let me go! I’ll smash his face in! I’ll spoil that pretty fairy’s good looks that make him so damned popular with the crowd.’ The attendants had to drag him out of the arena.”
Not surprisingly, the old-type circus acts consisting of acrobats, tumblers and animal trainers had a tough time competing with the gladiators and chariot races. One after another they began to drop out and it looked as though they’d be dead as vaudeville.
But one man by the name of Ursus Togatus resolved not to be beaten by a bunch of plug-uglies and horses. Ursus could shoot a bow and arrow with his toes while standing on his hands, juggle five glass balls, and had a troupe of trained bears that acted out a play while dressed in clothes.
Pretty tame stuff, but he must have been well liked at one time, as he had his picture painted on vases as a souvenir of the circus. He was a tall man with abnormally long arms and legs. He seems a trifle pudgy but apparently he was limber enough. He had a long, clean-shaven face and looked like an exceptionally clever horse.
Ursus was one of the few people in show business who was ever able to adapt himself to a new trend and he made circus history. He dropped his juggling and instead of a troupe of performing bears he kept only one—a really tough animal.
When the bear charged him, Togatus would run at the animal with a long pole, vault over his back and race for the arena wall. With the bear right at his heels, he’d use his impetus to run up the wall, jump over the bear again, and then tear back to his pole and repeat the performance. The crowd loved the act, as there was always a good chance that Togatus wouldn’t make it.
Other animal trainers quickly got the idea. One man walked on stilts through a pack of hungry hyenas. Another rolled around the arena in a large openwork metal ball while three lions tried to get at him. One of them finally succeeded in tearing his arm off through a hole in the ball but other performers copied the act.
Acrobatic troupes of men and women learned how to grab a charging bull by the horns and turn somersaults over its back. The Romans liked animal acts, especially if they were dangerous, so in spite of the gladiators there were always animals in the circus.
By 50 B.C., the exhibitions were rough enough, heaven knows, but they were still fairly well controlled and on a comparatively modest scale. But in 46 B.C., a victorious general named Julius Caesar with political ambitions arrived in Rome.
In spite of his triumphs, Julius was in the doghouse both with the Senate and the people. They suspected him of wanting to be a dictator. Cicero warned him. “You are only a dwarf tied to a long sword. You have the army but the people will never tolerate you.”
Caesar smiled. “Sulla, the dictator, tried to subdue the people by force and failed. I have other plans.”
Caesar knew the Roman mob. He put on the first of the really big shows in Roman history, rebuilding the Circus Maximus to hold them. There was a hunt of four hundred lions, fights between elephants and infantry, evening parades of elephants carrying lighted torches in their trunks, bull fighting by mounted Thes-salians and the first giraffes ever seen in Rome (Cleopatra sent him the giraffes as a present).
The chariot races alone lasted for ten days, from dawn to dark. There were also gladiatorial combats—how many isn’t recorded but the senators were so horrified that they passed a law limiting the number of gladiators any one man could own to three hundred and twenty pairs. Caesar may have bad a couple of thousand—practically a small army. He used them as a bodyguard when they weren’t fighting in the arena.
The law limiting the ownership of gladiators didn’t last long. The people went mad over these big games and didn’t care if Caesar became dictator or not as long as he kept them amused. But by now, a number of prominent men felt that the games were getting to be a danger.
The people would elect anyone to office who gave them a good show. A group of wealthy men decided to give the public more educational entertainment. They hired a troupe of famous Greek actors to perform some of the great classical plays.
In the middle of the first performance, a man rushed into the theater to say that some gladiators were fighting in the circus. In ten minutes, the Greek actors were playing to an empty house. After that the reformers gave up.
Although Caesar had staged the games simply as a popularity getter, they gave him an idea. He said to Dolabella, one of his top, advisors, “This is a perfect way to try out new weapons and fighting techniques. Our legions will be fighting tribes from all over the world. Let’s pit captives from different tribes against each other, each using his own weapons.”
This opened up a whole new era in the games. Not just a few professional gladiators fought but whole battles were staged. Tattooed Britons fighting from chariots went out against German tribesmen; African Negroes with shields and spears took on Arabs fighting from horseback with bows and arrows.
Thracians who used scimitars and had little, rough shields strapped to their left wrists engaged the heavily armed Samnites. Once the entire arena was planted to resemble a forest, and a company of legionnaires, condemned to the circus for various military misdemeanors, had to march through it while Gauls in their native costume and with their native weapons, ambushed them.
An engagement was staged between war elephants and cavalry to get the horses accustomed to the big animals. Meanwhile, Caesar and his general staff sat in the imperial box and took notes. The winning side was generally given its freedom, which insured a good fight.
Julius Caesar might be called the father of the games because under him they ceased to be an occasional exhibition of fairly modest proportions and be-came a national institution. By the time of Augustus, the people regarded the games not as a luxury but as their right.
Under the old Republic, the games lasted for sixteen days: fourteen chariot races, two trials for horses, and forty-eight theatricals. By the time of Claudius (50 A.D.), there were ninety-three a year. This number was gradually increased to a hundred and twenty-three days under Trajan and to two hundred and thirty under Marcus Aurelius.
Eventually there were games of some kind or other going on all the time. In 248 A.D. the crowd didn’t go to bed for three days and nights. Augustus and several of the other emperors tried to limit the number but it always produced mob uprisings. Marcus Aurelius disliked the games but in his official position had to attend, like a president opening the baseball season by throwing out the first ball.
He used to sit in the royal box and dictate letters to his secretaries while the games were going on. The mob never forgave him, any more than a modem crowd would forgive a president who sat transacting official business with the bases loaded and Mickey Mantle at bat.
Marcus Aurelius was one of the best emperors Rome ever had but as a result of his contempt for the games, he was also one of the most unpopular.
Claudius, who was probably insane, was very popular. He loved the games and used to make a great point of pretending to add up the betting odds on his fingers (although he was an excellent mathematician) as did the crowd.
He also used to jump into the arena to berate the gladiators for not fighting hard enough, send people in the crowd notes asking what they thought of some particular gladiator’s chances, and tell dirty jokes. Both Caligula and Nero, probably the two worst rulers in history, were greatly mourned by the crowd because they always put on such magnificent games. Nero, who used to light the arena at night by crucifying Christians and then setting fire to their oil-soaked bodies, was especially beloved.
Even after he was forced to kill himself by the Praetorian Guard, the people refused to believe that he was dead. For years opportunists kept cropping up, claiming to be Nero, and always got a following of people who remembered what wonderful games the insane emperor had provided.