THE ARENA HAD BEEN FLOODED during the night with salt water carried from the port of Ostia. (And how the Romans even with their unlimited manpower and wealth were able to accomplish this miracle I can’t imagine.)
The arena had been transformed into an enormous aquarium full of “sea monsters”—I suppose sharks and giant rays. Sicilian sponge divers with knives between their teeth dove from the podium wall into the artificial lake and fought the monsters.
Afterwards, there was a nautical engagement between two fleets of galleys, one fleet sailing in by way of the Gate of Life and the other through the Gate of Death. While the arena was being drained, a seal act was put on; the seals barking in response to their names and retrieving fish for their masters. Then a bullfight was staged on the soggy sand.
The bulls were aurochs, a species of wild cattle now extinct, musk ox and the European bison. The Romans perfectly understood the difference between these animals, having seen them many times in the arena, but as late as the eighteenth century naturalists were still confusing the different species.
The aurochs somewhat resembled the long-homed cattle of the old West except that they were considerably heavier and had short beards. An old bull’s horns might be over six feet long-The European bison is much like his American cousin but rather smaller. The musk ox are the same.
Bullfights were first introduced into the games by the Emperor Claudius because they were comparatively cheap. Probably even semi-wild animals could be driven to Rome by mounted men just as the wild long-horns were herded by cowboys or the modem Spanish fighting bulls can be herded by mounted men with wooden lances.
As long as the animals remain in a herd, they are fairly docile. Only when a single animal is cut off from the group does he become savage.
When the wild cattle first entered the arena, they were thrown dummies to toss. This trick put them in the mood to handle humans. Then the bestiarii dodgers entered the arena. The inner barricade to keep the animals in the center of the arena had been erected and burladeros (the Romans called them cochleas) such as are used in a modem bullring had been put up at intervals.
The dodgers darted out from behind the shelter of these burladeros and rushed across the arena, encouraging the bulls to pursue them. An experienced dodger could tell without looking back how far the bull was behind him. If he had a lead, he’d slow down to make it look good.
When the bull began to catch up, he’d put on a sudden sprint to reach the burladeros. As the man slipped behind the burladeros, the pursuing bull would often hit the wood with his horn, sometimes knocking off a large splinter two or three feet in length. One such splinter shot into the stands and killed a spectator.
Often two dodgers would work together, “spinning” a bull by keeping one man at the head and the other at the tail while the animal whirled around trying to reach first one and then the other of his tormentors. This trick could only be played with an inexperienced animal.
A bull who had been in the ring several times before knew the ropes and would concentrate on one man, but the dodgers could recognize such an animal almost immediately by the way he took up a stand and forced the men to come to him instead of charging about blindly.
After a few minutes of this work, the bulltumblers entered. They were both men and women, naked except for a loincloth. These performers were Cretans and were performing a traditional art which can still be seen in the frescos at Cnossus. I’ll admit that most antiquarians doubt if Cretans ever performed in an arena but there are Roman murals of men turning somersaults over a bull’s back, and I don’t think that there’s any question that this was a fairly standard act.
It’s still occasionally done in modern rodeos. One man would distract the bull’s attention while the other ran forward and grabbed the bull’s horns, immediately springing up and putting his feet on the bull’s forehead (aficionados will please remember that these were not Spanish fighting bulls but wild cattle). As the bull tossed his head, the tumbler would shoot into the air, turn a somersault, and land on the bull’s back, instantly sliding off while his friends shouted and ran in front of the bull to keep him occupied.
A variation of this stunt was to turn a back somersault and be caught by two waiting friends. A man with impetus of the bull’s toss to help him could go nearly fifty feet. Usually the bull instead of pursuing the man would stop, shake his puzzled head as if to say, “Where did he go?” and charge another tumbler.
In all these stunts, the tumblers were more afraid of the bulls’ hooves than their horns. If a man slipped he could often avoid the great horns but he could not keep the bull from trampling him. Then the animal’s great weight crushed his lungs and ruptured his liver.
There were frequent fights between the animals. An aurochs bull approached one of the bison who was lying down. The aurochs snorted, pawed the sand, but would not attack. A dodger ran between the two animals, inciting the aurochs to charge, but instead of the aurochs, the bison was enraged. He sprang to his feet and charged the man with a speed no aurochs could have equaled.
The dodger ran for the burladero as he had never run before but the bison would have had him if the aurochs had not attacked the bison. The bison whirled and tossed the aurochs, lifting him clean off the sand. When the aurochs landed, the bison gave him a quick, short thrust in the eye, breaking off part of the horn in the aurochs’ skull.
Then he spun away on his forelegs, not his rear, and trotted off leaving the mortally wounded aurochs dying on the sand. At this moment a wildly excited patrician lady tore off a valuable brooch and, for no reason except that she was mad with excitement, hurled it into the ring.
Her escort, a young knight, sprang from the podium, ran to the inner barrier, vaulted it and retrieved the broach. But the bison saw him. The animal turned and charged, killing the man almost instantly.
The head dodger nodded toward the Master of the Games, who had been watching closely from the edge of the inner barrier. The animals were sufficiently excited now for the next step. Also, they were growing sullen.
Except for the bison bull, none of them had succeeded in killing any of their tormentors and they were beginning to take up stands—called a querencia in modern bullfighting. Either the animals herded together or picked a section of the arena and stood there motionless. The dodgers and the tumblers could now do nothing with them until the animals had been given new confidence by a kill.
The condemned criminals who were to be killed by the animals to give them this confidence (in the bullring, horses are used for this purpose) were now driven into the arena. Among them was the pitiful young boy who had been Glyco’s minion, or male mistress.
The boy—he could not have been more than fifteen or sixteen—staggered out into the bunding light of the white sand, for the awning did not cover the central part of the arena and protected only the spectators. Glyco, sitting in the podium with his mistress, leaned over the marble balustrade and called to the boy. The youngster, hearing the familiar voice and hoping for a reprieve, ran toward the sound.
The motion attracted an aurochs which promptly charged. Just before he struck the boy, the lad was jerked into the air by an invisible wire that had been tied around him before he entered the arena and was operated bv the sailors in the over head scaffoldmg. the boy soared into the air with a scream, only to be dropped almost instantly in front of a bison.
The bison also charged, the boy was again pulled upwards, and this farce continued while Glyco and his mistress roared with laughter and the crowd howled its mirth. Eventually, either by accident or design, the boy was impaled by a charging aurochs. The long horn went completely through him and the bull charged madly around the arena, the shrieking boy pinwheeling around the horn with every shake of the bull’s head.
When the criminals were dead, the dodgers and tumblers rushed out again. This time they were followed by Thessalian horsemen who galloped alongside the bulls, grabbed them by the horns, and then flung them down—bulldogging as in modem rodeos.
Pliny describes this trick. Mounted men with lances also engaged the bulls while the venatores on foot, armed with swords and capes, also entered the arena. Carpoiphorus was one of these last.
Some of the wild cattle had been in the arena many times before. A pole vaulter made the mistake of trying to show his skill with one of these experienced animals. He ran toward the bull and when the animal charged, tried to vault over his head. The old bull simply stood back and waited for the man to come down.
The expression on the man’s face as he clung to the top of his pole put the crowd into convulsions. Carpophorus was armed with a javelin and seeing the vaulter’s plight, stepped forward and drove his weapon into the aurochs’ side.
He had meant the bull to drop dead instantly but his stroke missed and the wounded animal rushed away, tearing the javelin from Carpophorus’ hand (a Pompeian fresco shows this scene).
The bull wheeled and came back. Carpophorus, a venator rather than a dodger, could not avoid the rush. He went down be tween the bull’s spreading horns.
The horns saved him. He clung to them while the mortally wounded animal smashed him repeatedly against the sand. Other venatores had run to his assistance. One of them grabbed the bull’s tail (also in the frescos), another threw his cape over the bull’s head, another plunged his sword into the animal’s side. Between them they managed to drag Carpophorus to one of the burladeros.
Even while they were carrying the wounded venator around the outside of the inner barrier to the Gate of Death, the bull followed them on the inside, watching the men. When they finally disappeared, the bull returned to the battle so suddenly that he caught the venatores following him.
He tossed one man fifteen feet in the air, bounded around like a spring lamb while the man was coming down, and then gored him again. The venatores finally managed to get the corpse away from him and over the inner barrier. Then they stood back to let the mortally wounded animal die.
When the bull was sure the dead man was gone, he walked slowly over and stood sniffing the bloody sand as though it were incense. Then he looked up at the howling mob with quiet satisfaction and stood there proudly until his legs buckled under him and he fell dead.
Carpophorus had two broken ribs and the arena doctor had to strap him up before he could go out for the next event. If you think that I’m exaggerating the punishment a man can take and still keep going, I’d like to mention that Camecerito, the famous Mexican matador, was carried from the ring after a bad goring and put on the operating table.
When Camecerito heard the crowd yelling for the next matador who’d been sent out to kill his bull, he jumped off the table, wrapped a towel around his belly to keep his guts from falling out, and ran back to the ring. He killed the bull and then fainted from loss of blood. Louis Procuna once drove eight hundred miles from Mexico City to Nuevo Laredo after a goring and when he arrived the floor of the car was literally awash with blood.
He still fought. I don’t know what wounds the Roman bestiarii were able to take but I do know they fought in event after event and must have received terrific injuries. They had to be tough to survive.
The next act bad a popular tie-in. A few weeks before, a whale had been stranded at the port of Ostia and thousands of people had traveled down from¦ Rome to see the monster.
A mock-up of the whale was raised to the arena on one of the elevators and then a trap door opened in its side, allowing the escape of several dozen lions, bears, wild horses, wild boars, stags, antelope, ibex, ostriches and leopards.
Meanwhile a number of see-saws had been placed in the arena, each with two condemned criminals in the¦ seats. As the man on the bottom was sure to be eaten, the desperate efforts of the prisoners to out-seesaw each other provided great amusement for the crowd.
Then the bestiarii came out again. Some of them were swung back and forth in baskets. The baskets were hung by a pendulum arrangement and at the bottom of their swing were close enough to the arena so an animal could grab them.
The bestiarii in the baskets could control the rhythm of the pendulum as a man on a swing can control his speed. The trick was to control your basket so when it reached the low point there wouldn’t be an animal waiting for you.
Venatores, entering the inner barrier by turnstiles or through swinging doors guarded by slaves who quickly barred them if an animal tried to escape, decapitated the ostriches by shooting curved arrows at them. These arrows must have operated on the principle of a sharp-edge boomerang although how they could have been shot from a bow beats me.
Carpophorus came on with a pack of fighting dogs which he had trained himself. Some of these dogs ;ould only have been Tibetan mastiffs from the description and as the Romans were getting elephants ind tigers from India, there’s no reason why they :ouldn’t have got dogs too.
He also had boar hounds, much like a harlequin Great Dane except they bad lender muzzles. He had some of the enormous Molos-ian hounds from Epirus and the Hyrcannians which were so savage that the Romans thought they must b part tiger.
Carpophorus’ best dogs were British, the British dogs being universally admitted the best of all breeds for fighting. The British used them in warfare and the Roman legionnaires were terrified of the brutes. It is said that one of them could break a bull’s neck. Unfor tunately, we don’t know what they looked like.
They are described both as “enormous” and “not very big.” Possibly they were like a Norwegian elkhound. Personally, I think that they were probably not bred basically for type but for courage as with the bull terriers used in pit fighting which may be almost any color and weigh fifteen pounds or forty-five pounds.
Carpophorus loosed these dogs and then went in with his spear. The dogs attacked any animal that their master indicated. The stags and antelope they killed by themselves, chasing the animal around the arena until it turned at bay, and then pulling it down. One deer fell on its knees before the royal dais as though imploring mercy. In response to the shouts of the crowd, Domitian spared the animal.
The dogs surrounded the more dangerous animals, rushing in and snapping to keep their quarry turning so he could not attack any individual member of the pack. Only when Carpophorus moved in for the kill would the dogs take hold, grabbing the animal by the paws, muzzle or testicles to hold him long enough for the spear to go home, They were also employed to dispatch the last of the wild cattle.
Certain of the dogs were trained to grab a bull by the nose and hold his head down for the fatal stroke. These dogs had undershot jaws, elevated nostrils so they could continue to breathe without loosening their grip, and bowlegs; the ancestors of the modem English bulldog.
Sometimes a bull would toss a dog When this happened, handlers were ready with Ion) poles to guide the dog into the arms of another handle, who broke the dog’s fall. One bull, left for dead, sud denly sprang up and killed a venator.
After this attraction, a number of fast moving novelty acts were introduced. Women were dragged behind chariots and the hounds set on them. “Legendary pageants” were staged showing the castration of Alys, Hercules being burned alive on a pyre, and Mucius Scaevola having his hand burned off.
A prostitute and her pimp gave an exhibition of the various positions of sexual intercourse but in the middle of an embrace, Carpophorus set the Molossian hounds on the couple and they were quickly torn to pieces. A robber was crucified and bears encouraged to jump up and tear the dying man from the cross. A man representing Prometheus was chained to a rock and a trained eagle turned loose to pull out his liver.
By the time the eagle was done with him, Martial tells us, “his mangled limbs still lived although all the parts dripped blood and in all his body was nowhere a body’s shape.” A man dressed as Daedalus with wings tied to his shoulders was thrown from the top scaffolding.
When he crashed on the sand, a wild boar was released to gore the corpse. A lion, who had turned on his trainer when beaten, was killed by a venator using a sword and cloak. “Although the beast won’t take the whip, he learned to take the steel.” A bear, trapped in the mountains with birdlime, was surrounded by a ring of bestiarii and whirled around on the bloody sand with lowered heard until a javelin dispatched him.
A pregnant sow was cut open by a venator’s spear and the litter of piglets spilled out of her side onto the sand. One piglet even lived.
Under the direction of the bestiarii, animal fights of all kinds were staged, lion versus tiger, a buffalo versus an elephant. A rhino tossed a bull as though it were one of the straw dummies. Then he killed a bear, a bison and two aurochs in quick succession. Finally an elephant was sent against him.
According to the story, the elephant picked up a sweeper’s broom and¦ blinded the rhino with the coarse bristles. The blinded rhino charged straight through the inner barrier and crashed into the podium wall. The elephant finished the stunned animal by trampling him, and was then given candy by his proud mahout. At last, the legionnaires were sent to clear the arena with their shield wall and line of spears.
Now came a delightful novelty. Instead of having the crowd find their own lunch, by order of the editor catapults flung roast partridges and pheasants among the stands. Slaves dragged basketfuls of other fancy foods up and down the aisles. Then the catapults showered the crowd with lottery tickets.
The holder of a lucky ticket might win a set of furniture, a suit of clothes, a sack of gold coins or a valuable jewel. To get in on the act, Domitian ordered that government lottery tickets also be distributed. A winner might get a merchant ship, a house, or even a large estate.
Some of the tickets were fakes. A man might get a ticket giving him a beautifully carved box. When he opened it, a hive of bees would pour out. Other people would find that they’d won ten man-eating bears, ten dormice, or ten heads of lettuce. As a joke, Elagabalus even had the catapults throw poisonous adders in the stands.
When distribution of the lottery tickets began, many people left the stands. The distribution was always the signal for a free-for-all fight, only slightly less bloody than the battles in the arena.
Only the lowest members of the crowd cared to expose themselves to the riot After the distribution was over, speculators flooded into the stands offering to buy sight unseen any of the tickets. Not knowing what they might get, many of the crowd sold their tickets without bothering to cash them in.
During lunch, there were a number of novelty acts. There was a dog race with monkeys as jockeys. There was a fight between big cranes and African pygmies, the pygmies armed only with sharpened reeds. Men fought huge pythons with their bare hands and snake charmers from the Marsi Snake Training School in Greece handled cobras.
At the end, there was a fight between women and dwarfs. As Statius wrote, “It was, enough to make Mars and the Goddess of Brave split their sides laughing to see them hacking each other.”
In the late afternoon, the gladiators came on again. Domitian had given permission for the court gladiators to take part in the games. These men were all freemen, fighting for hire, and made a magnificent show in their golden armor and waving peacock plumes as they entered the arena.
Their armor was solid gold, embossed with scenes of gladiatorial combats done by the leading artists in Rome. Julius Caesar provided solid silver armor for his gladiators; Nero topped him by giving his gladiators armor made of carved amber.
Now Domitian had tried to surpass both men by arming his gladiators in gold. I don’t know how many of these gladiators there were, but Trajan had five thousand pairs of gladiators fight to the death to celebrate his victory over Decebalius in 106 A.D.
These men were too important to use up in a general melee. Individual combats had been arranged. The crowd knew virtually every man in the outfit and cries went up of “Tetraites! Primus! Pamphilus!” We know these men’s names for their tombs still remain with a, carving of the gladiator, usually holding a palm in one hand as symbol of victory and his sword or trident in the other.
For these individual fights, unless they were between a Retiarius and a Secutor, a referee drew a line in the sand with his staff to mark the point where the two warriors were to meet. The two gladiators stood on either side of the mark while the referee gave the men their final instructions and slaves held their helmets and shields. The gladiators not fighting lounged under the statues of Victory which lined the podium walls.
The signal for the fight was given by a trumpeter, using a curved instrument like a French horn. The two men came together slowly, their faces obscured by their visored helmets, almost completely covered by their huge curved shields.
Hucksters selling souvenir glasses and small trays with the pictures of the gladiators painted on them moved through the stands. The crowd stopped breathing as the arena was filled with the clash of steel for many of the spectators had wagered all they owned and possibly their liberty on the outcome of the fight.
One man staggered. He recovered himself but blood was staining the golden armor. From fifty thousand throats came the shout “Habet!” (He’s wounded!) Some shouted the word gleefully, some in despair, depending on how they had placed their bets.
The wounded man fell to his knees. His opponent pressed in on him, using his shield and the full weight of his body to force the injured man down. The gladiator fell and made the sign for mercy as a great shout went up from the stands. Few people bothered to give either a thumbs-up or thumbs-down decision; they were too busy either paying off or collecting their bets.
Another pair entered the arena and still another. As the fights went on the crowd stamped with enthusiasm, howled with rage, clapped with delight or flung miracles of insults at the fighters. There were constant cries of “Good! Aim for breast! What’s the matter with you, you filth-gorged privy maggot! Let him have it! Give it to him!”
When one man went down and the victor turned to face the stands, the crowd went into a frenzy of delight, especially if they had been betting on him. Women especially broke into hysterical spasms, and not only the common women in the upper tiers. The noble ladies on the podium often lost their heads.
When one handsome young Myrmillo, only a few weeks before a simple farmboy living on the slopes of Apennine, paraded before the podium with his bloody sword upraised a great lady screamed uncontrollably and flung her brooch and necklace into the arena.
Then she stripped off her rings, tossed them onto the sand, and finally ripped off her undergarments and threw them also. When the young Myrmillo came on the crumpled garments, he thought that the lady had simply thrown him her scarf or cloak.
As he picked up the clothing to toss it back, the underwear unfolded. The simple boy stood gazing horrified at what he was holding. Then he dropped the garments and fled from the arena “more terrified of a woman’s underwear than he had been of his enemy’s sword.” The crowd thought this was killingly funny and nearly died laughing. The patrician lady’s husband was not so amused.
At that, he was more fortunate than the husband of Hippia, a noble lady who left her husband and children and fled to Egypt with a gladiator named Sergius. Juvenal says bitterly, “Sergius was maimed, getting old, had a battered face, his forehead was covered with welts from his helmet, his nose was broken and his eyes were bloodshot. But he was a swordsman!”
Whether Juvenal intended any pun, I don’t know. Many great ladies enjoyed the company of famous gladiators in their private apartments, but few ever ran off with their lovers.
Retiarii and Secutores were fighting now. One of the Retiarii was wearing a visored helmet which concealed his face; a very unusual uniform for a net-man. The Secutor was a steady old fighter while the helmeted Retiarius was a clumsy, nervous young man obviously unsure of himself.
Suddenly the Secutor took a quick step under the circling net, knocked the trident out of his opponent’s hand, and threw him down. The angry crowd contemptuously gave the death signal, which the editor instantly duplicated. The despairing Retiarius tore off his helmet and stretched out both hands in supplication to the crowd.
A horrified gasp went up. Everyone recognized the young man as Gracchus, a descendant of one of the noblest of the great patrician families. A drunkard and spendthrift, the young patrician had been abandoned by his family, and sinking lower and lower had finally ended in the arena as a professional gladiator.
Unflinchingly, the Emperor gave the death sign, but the Secutor shrank from killing one “so noble and so vile.” Amid a dead silence, the young man slunk from the arena.
The fights continued to rage. Slaves pushing two-wheeled carts collected the wounded, for these men were too valuable to be burned by hot irons or knocked on the head by a hammer.
The referees had trouble saving the wounded even when the verdict of the crowd was for them, for the victorious gladiator, mad with the excitement of battle, would often dispatch his defeated adversary on the spot. A mural in Herculaneum shows a referee trying to stop a Myrmillo from killing his helpless Samnite opponent.
When the crowd tired of the individual combats, companies of gladiators engaged. A platoon of Gauls’ fought a platoon of Thracians. Domitian was always a strong supporter of the Thracian gladiators; people became fanatical fans of certain types of gladiators just as they backed the Reds or the Blues in the chariot races.
One excited man in the stands leaped up during the fight to shout, “Smear ’em, Gauls! Those Thracians may be the emperior’s pet but they can’t stand up against you boys!” The furious Domitian had the offender dragged from his seat and thrown in the arena. Then he ordered Carpophorus to turn his Hyr-canian hounds loose on him.
After the gladiators had finished there were jousts between Equestres—mounted men on horseback in full armor with lances. The armor these men wore was not plate armor like the Medieval knight’s but breastplates, visored helmets, and greaves on their legs.
However, the Romans did know how to make jointed armor, that is, armor that can slide in and out like an armadillo’ plates as a man moves. The Secutores wore suet armor on their right arms. Possibly the Equestres were similarly equipped and may even have worn chainmail. Their lances were probably light like the lances used by the Light Brigade at Balaclava. I can’t understand why the Romans didn’t make more use of the Equestres in warfare.
An armored man on horseback ca handle almost any number of footmen as the Medieval knights demonstrated. After all, King Arthur lived only a couple of hundred years after the time of Domitia and may even have been a British governor trained b the Romans. He certainly used knights to good effect. But apparently the Romans always put their faith in their legions maneuvering on foot. It was a great mistake.
By the time the Equestres had finished their jousting, it was dark, but the games still continued. The catapults flung figs, dates, nuts, cakes and plums to the crowd. Free wine was distributed. Torches sprinkled with incense were lighted. The incense was of different kinds so the torches burned red, yellow, blue and green.
Silver stars were hung from the awning. In the arena, cavalry fought against chariots and heavily armored Hoplomachi fought equally well-armed Provocatores, the varicolored lights dancing on the sword blades and shields.
At the end, the arena was flooded again for a fight between African natives in war canoes while barges full of beautiful nude girls floated around the podium wall, chanting songs and throwing favors into the stands.