You are currently viewing Those About To Die 7 – The Gates Of Death‌‌

Those About To Die 7 – The Gates Of Death‌‌

OUTSIDE IN THE ARENA, while the andabatae were slugging it out, slaves were busy rolling out a model of a mountain through the Gate of Death up to the inner barrier.

On it were live trees, flowers, flowering shrubs, and even streams of running water, kept flowing by pumps worked by slaves in the interior. Set designers scurried over the mountain making last-minute changes and carpenters checked to be sure that everything was in working order.

The Master of the Games was watching anxiously as the wretched andabates slashed each other with wild blows, seldom inflicting a mortal wound.

The real gladiators who were known to the mob and had a chance of putting up a good fight might be given the thumbs-up signal but these miserable creatures, always condemned criminals of the lowest order, were unknown and could show no skill.

Their only hope was to exhibit such a desperate courage that the mob might be kind enough to have one or two spared for another day. So they fought with the mad bravery of desperation.

As a man fell, an arena servant, dressed as Charon who ferried, souls across the River Styx, motioned to slaves who followed him with a brazier full of hot coals in which irons were constantly being heated. With a hot iron, he tested the man to see if he were still alive.

If the fallen man twitched when the hot iron was applied, another arena servant dressed as Hermes, a god of the underworld, motioned his slaves to cut the rawhide straps that kept the andabate’s helmet in place.

Then he hit the prostrate man over the head with a hammer. Instantly the regular arena slaves stuck hooks in the corpse and dragged it out through the Gates of Death to the spoliarium where slaves stripped off the armor.

The body was then turned over to butchers who cut it up to feed the wild animals.

Although the patricians in Ac lower tier of seats regarded the pointless struggles of the andabates with contempt, the crowd loved them. They pretended to shout advice to the fighters, yelling, “He’s on your left! No, now he’s on your right!” deliberately fooling the blindfolded men to see them whirl around in terror and frantically slice the air.

But with the help of the slaves using the long forked poles, the remaining andabates were pushed together and the end was near. The Master of the Games turned to shout to the crews on the mountain: “Get off it or, by the gods, I’ll leave you¦ up there! All right, slaves, strike the set!”

At the beginning of the andabates’ fight, slaves had taken their positions behind the inner barricade. A slave with a long pole was standing by each of the elephant tusks supporting the overhang net.

Others stood ready with their hands on the planks running between the masts which supported the awning. At the Master of the Games’ cry, the slaves with the poles lifted the net off hooks set in the tusks so the whole net came to the ground, like a great tennis net a hundred yards long.

At the same time, the other slaves were slipping the planks out of their brackets on the sides of the masts. As the planks came loose, still other slaves seized them and rushed them out of the arena.

As the last plank were removed, the net was grabbed and pulled back between the masts to be hurried after the planks. The spectators now had a much better view of the arena although the central ring of masts still remained.

Meanwhile, the construction and planning crews on the artificial mountain leaped to the group while gangs of slaves, possibly assisted by trained elephants pushing with their foreheads, moved the great mass forward on rollers.

There were two empty spaces in the central ring of masts holding the overhead awning: one in front of the Gate of Life (over which was the imperial podium) and the other before the Gate of Death . . . the sag in the awning being supported by overhead guy ropes at these points.

The mountain was rolled into the arena from the Gate of Death through one of these gaps.

The fight between the andabates was now just about over. Only two couples were left. These men had thrown away their shields, joined their left hands so as not to be parted, and were stabbing at each other with their swords.

In one couple, the men killed each other. The arena slaves were rapidly and efficiently clearing out the remaining corpses and spreading fresh sand on the arena floor. At last, one of the two remaining andabates killed the other.

A shout of “Peractum est!” went up and the surviving andabate was led from the arena. Now he had at least a few days’ respite until another exhibition of andabates was forthcoming.

As the slaves raced from the arena carrying the last of the corpses, pipes set in the podium wall were turned on and began to flood the arena. The Master of the Games appeared on the podium and shouted that he had an important announcement to make.

Actually, this announcement should have been made by the young editor but he had been drinking huge quantities of cold wine and could hardly stand, let alone address the crowd. The Master of the Games shouted:

“Romans, it has been said that we are not a cultural people. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Simply because we are a strong, virile race and enjoy manly sports does not mean that we don’t appreciate the finer things in life.”

He’ was interrupted by boos, catcalls, and unpleasant noises made by placing the tongue between the lips and blowing hard. Someone threw a wine skin which he dodged. “Yes, looking at your noble, intelligent faces, my friends, I know that the next act will deeply appeal to the artistic nature for which Romans are famous.

We have with us today the distinguished Greek singer, Mezentius, who will singi that beautiful ode The Death of Orpheus’ while accompanying himself on the lyre.

As you know, Orpheus was the famous musician in Greek legend who could charm even wild animals with his music. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the great Mezentius!”

Amid bellows of indignant rage from the crowd, an artificial rock on the summit of the mountain swung open and out stepped Mezentius, draped in a white gown and carrying a golden lyre. While the furious crowd screamed:

“We’ve been swindled! Back to Athens, you damn fruit! What is dlis, the games or a musical? Wreck the joint!” the musician bowed to right and left and then struck the opening chords of the song.

There were now a couple of feet of water in the arena and the Master of the Games, who had been anxiously watching the plumb marks on the podium wall, gave a signal. A flat-bottomed barge covered with beautiful girls and hung with garlands of flowers floated out, the girls singing an accompaniment to the song.

As the girls were naked except for tiny gauze aprons which the motion of the barge kept blowing aside or pressing against their plump young thighs, the crowd stopped booing and began to take an interest in the proceedings. Now that he could be heard, the musician redoubled his efforts and the girls sang for all they were worth, waving their arms in time to the music and keeping their shoulders well back so that their breasts with the nipples carefully rouged would stand out.

Meanwhile, a new novelty was introduced. From crates and cages, slaves were slipping crocodiles and six hippopotami into the rapidly rising waters. The crowd began to applaud.

The barge, moved by paddlers hidden in the interior, drifted closer to the mountain where Orpheus sat among the flowers pouring out the words of the immortal ode. The water in the arena was so clear that the crowd could watch the animals swimming in it.

The great crocodiles, fifteen feet long, gliding along like shadows and the ponderous hippos walking on the bottom as though on land. Occasionally one of the hippos would rise to the surface, blow two columns of spray into the air, and then sink again. The crowd watched with interest for a few minutes and then began to grow restless.

The Master of the Games was an expert in timing. He sensed to the second when the crowd had had enough. He gave another signal.

Instantly a series of hidden doors on the sides of the mountain slid open and out wandered a number of wild beasts: leopards, bears, wolves and black panthers. Orpheus, absorbed in his singing, did not notice the animals until a panther strolled across the grassy turf directly in front of him.

The horrified musician stared in astonishment but continued his song, looking around him desperately and trying to signal the Master of the Games that a horrible mistake had been made. The girls continued singing gaily, tossing rose petals toward Orpheus and urging him to let them hear more of his golden voice.

But the unfortunate singer was no longer interested in educating the Roman mob. He dropped his lyre and began to run wildly around the mountain, screaming for help. The crowd laughed until they were sick.

It was well known that the elegant Greeks considered themselves superior to their Roman conquerors and here was one of the effeminate creatures putting on a typical exhibition of cowardice.

Also, this sudden twist had been completely unexpected, which is the basic element in all humor. A man shouted, “All right, you Greeks think you’re so damn cultured, let’s see you soothe these wild beasts with your high-toned music” and the crowd went into another roar of laughter.

The unhappy Orpheus dashed around a rock and ran head on into a leopard. The frightened animal sprang back and then struck at the man. His claws caught in the Greek’s robe and both man and beast went down together, the leopard mad with terror trying to disengage himself.

At the sight of struggling figures, two wolves rushed in and began to maul the man. Now one of the bears, a trained man-eater, saw the fight and began to shuffle forward. He stood swaying his long, snakey neck back and forth and then made a sudden rush. He cuffed the nearest wolf away and grabbing the singer by the leg started to drag him off, snuffling and grunting to himself. T

he leopard, still caught by his claws, was pulled along also. The wolves followed hopefully. Another bear came in from the other side and grabbed the screaming musician by the arm. The two animals pulled the man apart while the wolves rushed in to finish the job. The leopard made another frenzied attempt to free himself, and this time succeeded.

He dashed up the side of the hill and collided with another bear who was coming down to see what the trouble was. The two animals instantly began to fight while some of the ever-present wolves bounded up to pull down the loser.

The musician was dead and the animals were fighting for the parts of his body strewn over the hillside. The crowd was weak from laughter and the girls on the barge were laughing too. The Master of the Games gave another signal.

This time nothing seemed to happen. Then one of the girls on the barge suddenly gave a shriek of terror. She was seated on the gunwale and the water in the arena was washing against her bare feet. The barge was sinking. The other girls took fright. Jumping up, they began screaming for help.

A slave inside the barge had been watching through a knothole for the Master of the Game’s signal. When it came, he gave orders to pull out the plugs and sink the vessel. The paddlers inside the barge had escaped through a hatch and were now feverishly swimming for the podium wall, praying that they could reach it before the crocodiles and hippos got them.

Hippos are by no means the big, good-natured pig-like creatures that they seem. These animals were all bulls and in a very bad temper. A slave happened to touch one of the creatures. Instantly the hippo swung around, making the water swirl around him, and plunged his great tusks into the man’s body.

As the red dye spread, the crocs began to thrash around, sometimes seizing a hippo by the leg and sometimes each other. The crowd rose to its feet as one man at this new spectacle.

The barge full of screaming girls was now awash and some of the more determined girls had plunged into the water and were trying to swim to the mountain island or reach the podium.

Few of them made it for the Master of the Games had carefully selected girls who were non-swimmers. Those who reached the mountain were promptly attacked by the wild animals, now crazed by the scent of blood and the taste of the dead Greek. A few reached the podium wall and clung to it, screaming for mercy. The water around the barge was churned white as the crocs attacked the girls that still clung to the wreck.

Two of the mighty reptiles seized one girl and began twisting in opposite directions. One wrung off a leg, the other an arm. One gigantic animal that must have weighed well over a ton reared out of the water and grabbed a girl standing on the gunwale.

He submerged with her, carrying the shrieking girl as easily as an elephant carrying a carrot. Others of the enormous saurians were trying to knock the girls into the water with their tails. The barge, being made of wood, did not sink completely but there was no protection on it for the women.

Several of the hippos were approaching the barge, excited by the noise and the smell of blood. Although not carnivorous, the big brutes were as aggressive as tiulls. Only their eyes and noses showed above the ^vater as they floated studying the hysterical excitement on the remains of the barge.

The crowd was furious. People yelled, “Go on there, you big slobs! Do something! Get the fire!” for bulls that would not perform were occasionally goaded into action by throwing burning javelins into them.

Then one of the hippos charged the barge. Lifting his head and shoulders out of the water and opening his huge mouth to its fullest capacity, he plunged his two tusks over the gunwale and began to worry the vessel like a terrier shaking a rat.

The submerged wreck heaved and shook as two tons of enraged hippo struggled with it. The last of the screaming girls wers flung into the water and the white bellies of the crocs flashed as they twisted in the water, trying to wring off pieces cf their prey.

The mob was now uncontrollable. Women stood up in the stands drumming with their fists on the backs of people in the seats before them and screaming hysterically: “Kill! Kill! Kill!”

Even before the games started, smart young men could spot women who would give way to this madness and make a point of sitting next to them. While in the grip of hysteria, the women were unconscious of everything else and the boys could play with them while they screamed and writhed at the bloody spectacle below them. Old men, long impotent, sat drooling gleefully.

Even ordinarily normal men watched with mouths hanging half open, eyes staring eagerly to take in every detail, and then fought their way out through the crowd to take advantage of the prostitutes assembled in the arches under the building.

Children shouted and danced on their seats, as much to relieve their nervous tension as with’ joy at the sight below them. Only in the lower ring of seats were there connoisseurs who watched with dispassionate interest, commenting to each other on, the strength and ferocity of the animals and criticizing the girl’s figures as they were dragged to their death.

From above the watertight barrier which had been. hastily erected across the Gate of Death, rafts made of reeds and two-man boats of woven rushes were being” launched. The rafts held six men each, Negroes from the cataracts of the Nile armed with harpoons. In each of the rush boats which had extravagantly high bows and stems sat a single harpooner and one paddler.

These curious craft were paddled toward the seething water, around the remnants of the barge. One of the rafts silently glided toward a hippo and, at a given signal, the harpooners all plunged their harpoons into the massive back.

Now even the blase occupants of the podium became interested. The whole arena was quickly converted into a mass of foam, blood, struggling reptiles, bellowing hippos and shouting men. Several light dug-out canoes shot out. All but one headed for the mountain and a number of Egyptians stepped ashore.

Bestiarii had already come out of the interior of the structure and were driving the animals back into their holes with the lashing, lead-tipped whips. The Egyptians lined up along the water’s edge and stood with folded arms.

They were magnificently built men, naked except for loincloths, and they stood motionless as images. They had brought several heavy nets which lay beside them carefully coiled.

In the remaining dugout was a lean, wiry man who from his coloring was probably half Egyptian and half Negro. His dugout was manned by four expert paddlers who made the light craft fly. He seemed to be directing the harpooning, peering down into the water and then ordering the harpooners to take that animal or spare the next.

The crowd shouted furiously at him, “No! No!” but the man ignored them. When the angry cries of the mob rose to such a pitch that it seemed as though a riot threatened, Domitian turned to one of his aides and snapped an order.

The aide vanished and returned in a few moments with the Master of the Games. He gave the emperor some explanation that seemed to satisfy him for he nodded and continued to watch the show.

The water level in the area was dropping rapidly, for sluice gates had been opened and the water was pouring out even more swiftly than it had flowed in. All the hippos were dead now or in their death agonies and many of the crocs had been finished off by the harpooners.

The lean man in the dugout had landed on the mountain and was giving orders to the others. They lifted the nets and began to wade into the water which was now not much above their waists. The crowd grew silent, sensing that something unusual was about to take place.

The water was now so clouded by blood that it was impossible to see through it but the men prodded about with long poles. Then they raised a shout Splashing through the muck, they made a circle with the net and then began to drag it up the slope of the mountain.

There was a violent underwater explosion and a great crocodile reared up in the center of the net. The men dragged it ashore and their leader, stepped forward. The croc was thrashing about fiercely, striking at the men with his great tail and snapping his jaws together with a report that could be heard in the topmost tier of seats.

Watching his, chance, the Egyptian made a sudden plunge and, landing on the reptile’s back, locked his arms around the saurian’s neck.

The most sincere of all applause—a great gasp— went up from the crowd. Never had they seen anything like this. The croc began to roll and it was all the Egyptian’s assistants could do to keep him from going back into the water.

One man made the mistake of grabbing the gigantic creature by the tail and was knocked unconscious. Gradually the Egyptian locked his legs around the reptile and then, getting a half nelson on him, slowly turned him over.

Then he quickly grabbed the croc by the muzzle, holding his jaws shut At this incredible feat of strength, the crowd shrieked with astonishment and delight.

With the crocodile still on its back, the man carefully let go the jaws and then ran one hand down the annual’s belly. He stood up, holding his hand palm down toward the reptile and making mystic passes in the air with the other.

The huge creature lay motionless while the crowd held its breath. Then the Egyptian turned to take his bow.

He got his applause, full scale, although there were many who touched their amulets and made the sign of the evil eye, muttering, “Black Magic!” When the applause had died down, the Egyptian turned and touched the crocodile with his foot.

After a kick or two, the reptile rolled over and turned on the man with open mouth but the men with the net were ready. The saurian was quickly swathed in the meshes and dragged out of the now dry arena while the slaves rushed in with teams of mules to remove the dead hippos and crocodiles.

Carpophorus had managed to persuade the doctor to let him up so he could see the completion of this performance. Shaky from his emotional outburst as well as from loss of blood, he walked slowly to the Gate of Death, putting his hand against the wall occasionally to support himself. No one paid any attention to him.

The gladiators for the next turn were warming up by swinging their weapons and practicing cuts at each other, blocks and pulleys were being fastened to the artificial mountain preparatory to pulling it from the arena, cages were being brought up to secure the animals still inside the great structure, slaves with wheelbarrows of dry sand were trying to force their way through the mob coming in from the arena, and the Master of the Games was directing the organized chaos.

Carpophorus managed to force himself forward, occasionally losing his temper and cuffing a slave who jostled him, until be could see the upper tiers of seats and part of the awning framed in the curve of the gateway. Now that he was almost out of the tunnel, the full force of the crowd’s yells reached him.

Curiously, while fighting himself, Carpophorus never heard the crowd; he was always too intent on the business at hand. But he knew the high-pitched cries that meant the mob was really being carried out of itself and eagerly pushed his way forward.

He was first conscious of the odor of the damp sand mixed with the stench of the disemboweled animals. The venador was accustomed to the smell of death but this was the first time he smelled it in conjunction with dampness.

He saw the Egyptian wrestle the crocodile and was deeply interested, but with his technician’s trained eye, he also saw that it was not nearly as dangerous as it seemed to the crowd.

Although he had never seen crocodile wrestling, he knew that it had been exhibited in the Roman arena at the time of Augustus—in the Bestiarii School the teacher had read accounts of the feat from Pliny and Strabo.

He watched attentively while three more of the Egyptian’s team wrestled crocs after they had first been caught m¦ nets, each time to tremendous applause. When the Egyptians finally withdrew and the gladiators marched in, led by a band, Carpophorus made a point of meeting the Egyptian in the dressing room and standing him a cup of cooled wine.

The Egyptian was more affable than Carpophorus had feared he might be. Generally, a performer didn’t care to discuss the technique of his routine; there was too much danger some ambitious rival would steal it But this man was obviously nattered that a Roman— and although only a freeman, Carpophorus was a Roman—would deign to praise his act. After a couple of mugs of strong wine, the Egyptian relaxed.

“Well, it’s a good act, a good act,” he said modestly. “I’m from Tentyra—that’s on the Nile in southern Egypt—and the traditional business in our village has always been hunting crocs for their skins.” Carpophorus nodded.

Nearly every small town had some traditional profession and crocodile skins brought a good price as leather. “Some of the young men used to wrestle eight and nine-foot crocs for fun.

It’s not as dangerous as it looks if you watch out for the tail and I jaws. Crocs are pretty sluggish, you know, not likej trying to tackle a leopard or a lioness as you do.”

“Every man to his own. I’d hate to tackle a twenty-foot croc,” said Carpophorus, filling his friend’s cup again and already making plans to add crocodile wrestling to his repertoire.

“It takes practice, but with enough leverage you can turn one over on his back just as you would a man. Not one twenty feet long. That would weigh over a ton, and besides they don’t come that big often. That one you saw me wrestle was fifteen feet long, and let me tell you, that’s plenty of croc!”

“I could have sworn he was bigger,” said Carpophorus flatteringly. “What was the magic charm you used to keep him on his back?”

“Oh, that was business for the crowd. They. think we Egyptians are full of magic. Any croc will lie still if you turn him over on his back like that. I don’t know why it is; they just do.”

“But think of the strength it took to hold his mouth closed,” Carpophorus exclaimed admiringly.

“Nothing to it. A croc’s jaw power comes when he closes his jaws. They’ve got tremendous power there. But any good man can hold the jaws shut.”

“Well, well, you certainly know your business,” said Carpophorus. Privately, he was thinking what a fool the man was to give away this information. At the next games, Carpophorus would put on his own exhibition of crocodile wrestling.

“The big problem is getting them tame,” the Egyptian went on, holding out his cup for more wine. “Some of the sacred crocs get very tame. The priests can call them out of the water and feed them by hand. If a croc isn’t tame, he won’t eat in captivity, and also they’re too nervous to attack swimming humans unless they see others start doing it.”

“We have the same trouble with lions,” Carpophorus told him. “You have to put a ‘make-lion’ who’s a real man-eater in with a new bunch. Once they see the make-lion start killing, the others will join them.”

“I had an idea that was the way you worked it. There’s a big tame croc on a great lake in the heart of Africa. He is nearly twenty-five feet long and must weigh as much as an elephant. The natives use him as a combined judge and executioner.

A suspected criminal is led to the lake shore and the priests call the croc by beating on drums. The croc knows what the drums mean and comes swimming across the lake and crawls up the bank. Then the victim is pushed toward him with long poles. If the croc eats the man, he’s considered guilty.

If for some reason the croc won’t bother with him, he’s set free. That croc’s so old and feeble now that a native has to help him climb the bank by carrying his tail like a train. I’d love to get my hands on that animal. What a sensation he’d make in Rome!”

“Just how do you go about getting them tame in the first place?” asked Carpophorus casually, refilling the empty cup.

“That, dear friend, is my little secret,” said the Egyptian calmly as he drained the cup and rose. “I’ve got to see how those four crocs are getting along that we saved. Those are our tame stock; we don’t let them get killed. Thanks for the wine. Don’t get drunk and start giving away secrets.”

Black-bellied bastard, thought Carpophorus to himself as he watched the Egyptian’s retreating back. Who does he think wants to steal his lousy act anyhow? That’s the trouble with those Egyptians, always suspicious. I hope that damned croc of his eats him next week in Verona.


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