You are currently viewing Those About To Die 8 – Jewish Prisoners‌‌

Those About To Die 8 – Jewish Prisoners‌‌

IT WAS NOON NOW. The gladiators who had gone out after the crocodile hunt were Meridiani, second string men wlio fought during the middle of the day when most of the patricians had gone home for lunch and only the mob remained.

In the stands, baskets of food were opened, flasks of wine produced, and the mob picnicked while the unfortunates below them fought to the death.

During this slack period, the Master of the Games stopped long enough to speak to Carpophorus. “How are you holding up?” he asked, glancing at the mass of bloody bandages covering the venador’s right side.

“I’m all right,” said Carpophorus sullenly. As an experienced bestiarius, he hated to think of any animal, even a tiger, getting the best of him.

The Master of the Games considered. “Immediately after the noon period, we’re going to have a holocaust of prisoners. They’re to be killed by lions but I want to save the good man-eaters until the next day.

If the man-eaters are used today, they’ll be gorged and won’t work in the legendary pageants scheduled for tomorrow. But we don’t want any holdups in the show. The new lions will have to attack the prisoners at once; no running around against the barrier or crouching down in the sand.”

“What do you expect me to do!” snarled Carpophorus. “Wild lions won’t attack people without trained) man-eaters in the arena.”

“Don’t argue with me, just see that it’s done,” retorted the Master of the Games coldly. “Remember that there are five more days of these games ahead of us. Give me any more of your lip and I’ll have you in there with another tiger and your hands tied behind you.” The Master of the Games strode away.

After grumbling to himself Carpopborus began to think. It was not the Master of the Games’ threat that bothered him; it was his own reputation as a bestiarius who could perform miracles.

For a long while he sat with his head in his hands, snarling at the slaves dragging the dead Meridiana over his feet but refusing to move from the passageway. Then he had an idea, and rising painfully, headed for the lower pits where the prisoners were kept.

He went down ramp after ramp. Because they were easier to move and also not so valuable, the prisoners condemned to death in the arena were kept in the lowest levels while the animals were in the upper cells.

Carpophorus had seldom been down here and had to ask his way constantly of the guards stationed at intervals by the torches burning in brackets on the wall. Finally he reached the level he was seeking and after a long walk and many turns arrived in front of the oaken door where the captives to die that afternoon were kept.

They were Jews, taken prisoner during one of the many spasmodic uprisings, in Palestine. Carpophorus vaguely remembered some account of the business. Three villages high in the Masada hills had revolted. Why, he couldn’t recall.

Either they had objected to the eagles on the legionnaires’ standards, calling them graven images, or they had attacked a caravan because it was owned by Sarmatians or some such thing. Anyhow, it had taken a three months’ campaign to unearth them from their forts in the cliffs and men, women and children had been sent to die in the arena.

The Jews were always a troublesome people but if it wasn’t for them the Colosseum might never have been built After the fall of Jerusalem in 72 A.D., twelve thousand Jewish prisoners had worked on the construction of the great building and later had been killed there in the inauguration ceremonies.

The guards at the door slid back the heavy bolts, eagerly asking him for tips on the regular gladiatorial contests coming up late that afternoon. Carpophorus knew little about the gladiators but he told them to back Negrimus against Priedens, and entered the dark room.

At this level, the only air vents led to the floor above instead of to the outside and there was no light except that cast by a single torch in a wall bracket. The people were singing some sort of chant in a foreign language and Carpophorus looked them over.

Mostly women, children and old men with long beards. Nearly all the young men must have been killed in the fighting. That suited Carpophorus’ plans perfectly.

The crowd paid no attention to him and he had to shout to stop their singing. Finally the hymn ceased and Carpophorus called, “Do any of you speak Latin?”

No one answered so Carpophorus tried again in Greek.

An old man answered in the same tongue. “I speak Greek but in spite of that, I want it clearly understood that I am not a Sadducee nor do I have any sympathy with those of my people who learn other tongues and other ways.”

“Sure, sure,” said Carpophorus impatiently. “Now I have a proposition to make. We’re using a bunch of raw lions and they won’t attack unless you do exactly what I tell you to do. Now wait a minute,” he went on, holding up his hand.

“Even if the lions don’t attack, it only means we’ll have to use bears or wild dogs and they’ll kill you much more slowly than the lions will. Here’s my proposition.

You have a lot of kids here. Only the kids who are sick or crippled and will die anyhow have to go into the arena with you. I’ll use my influence with the Master of the Games to get the rest sold as slaves. I swear it by my gods.”

“I am sure that we would all prefer to die together,” said the old rabbi with dignity. “Nevertheless, I will repeat your offer.”

He repeated it while Carpophorus waited impatiently. The lack of oxygen in the room was making him dizzy and the stink was sickening. There were no toilet facilities and the crowd of victims had been kept there over a week.

No wonder, Carpophorus reflected, that prisoners often dashed out into the arena as eagerly as though they were being given their freedom. Any fate was better than being cooped up here and even a few minutes’ chance to get fresh air before the wild beasts attacked was a luxury.

He also understood why these holocausts were generally given on the first day of the games. The prisoners had to be got out of these cells as fast as possible before they all died.

When the rabbi had repeated the message, there was a wild outcry from the women. They screamed, clung to their children, and rocked back and forth in an ecstasy of grief.

Many of the men sank down and buried their faces in their hands, openly weeping. Carpophorus regarded this exhibition of emotion with disgust; as a Roman, he had been trained to conceal his feelings.

He wondered how the old rabbi could make any sense out of the confusion for everyone seemed to be talking ¦ to him at once, waving their hands, tearing their rags;

of clothing and holding out their palms to him as though expecting help. The rabbi listened calmly to the outburst, occasionally asking a question and shaking his head. Finally he turned to Carpophorus.

“I still think it would be far better if we all died together but the women are weak and will accept your offer. What is that you want us to do?”

Carpophorus was ready for that question. The technique he was about to explain was later observed by Eusebius, one of the fathers of the early church, among the Christian martyrs.

Exactly the same technique is used today by white hunters in Africa to induce animals to charge for photographic purposes or bring them in range for an easy shot.

“Well, first of all you’ve got to understand how these animals think,” he started briskly. This was his great subject and be felt contemptuous of these ignorant heathen who knew nothing of the mental workings of the great cats.

“A lot of people think that starving a lion or a tiger makes ’em vicious. I’ve seen cats so starved that when they were turned loose in the arena, they lay down and died at the feet of the people they were supposed to eat.” Carpophorus shook his head sadly at such bungling.

“Starving a cat only makes him weak. You’ve got to remember that most of the big cats can go for long periods of time without eating and then their stomach juices stop flowing. Even in a quiet cage, it’s hard to make them eat under these conditions, so you can imagine what it’s like getting them to attack strange prey in an open arena with that mob yelling their heads off.”

“Exactly what is it that you wish us to do?” asked the rabbi patiently.

“I’m getting to that,” snapped Carpophorus. “If you people just stand still, these raw lions won’t pay any attention to you. Keep trying to remember that you don’t smell like their natural prey so the poor things don’t even know that you’re good to eat.

We’ll try to help out there by covering you with zebra and antelope skins so you’ll seem more like their ordinary quarry. Now if you shout or yell or start running around, you’ll scare them. Lions are very sensitive creatures.

In a wild state, they only hunt at night, there can’t be any moon, it’s the female who does the actual killing, the weather must be just right and lots of other factors that we can’t reproduce here. So don’t start yelling or screaming as those women were doing just now or you’ll scare the yellow porridge out of these cats.”

“The women will be quiet, I promise you,” said the rabbi calmly.

“Well, see that they are. Remember you’ve got nobility sitting in those boxes and just the jewels they’re wearing are worth more than the whole lot of you. Nothing personal, you understand, just stating a fact. All right, now here’s what you’ve got to do. Stand quiet and spread out some so you don’t form a compact mass.

Then move your hands slightly and sway your bodies a little; just enough so the lions know you’re alive. Once they realize that you’re alive but not dangerous, they’ll charge. Remember, no quick motions or loud noises. Easy does it.”

“I understand,” said the rabbi. He turned and translated. The people listened despairingly. A new volley of questions went up and the rabbi asked of Carpophorus, “How do we know that you will keep your word and spare the children?”

“You don’t,” said Carpophorus frankly. “But what have you got to lose? The kids will be killed anyhow.”

The rabbi said sadly, “It is true,” and addressed the people. More cries and sobs went up while Carpophorus listened with increasing restlessness. Finally the rabbi said, “Select the children you will spare, if being sold into slavery is to spare them.” He turned away, unwilling to watch the sight.

Carpophorus approached the crowd. The worried mothers pushed their children forward, anxiously smoothing their hair in place, wiping their noses, and trying to twitch their rags into some semblance of neatness.

Carpophorus made his selections rapidly. The mothers clung to the children, rejected and selected alike, sobbing over them while the children stared at Carpophorus curiously and tried to finger his soft tunic and glittering belt buckle.

Carpophorus called the guard and told him to make sure that the two groups didn’t mix. Then he went to find the Master of the Games.

The Master was supervising the rebuilding of the, inner barrier. This time the barrier was constructed of plaster boulders to represent the Masada hills. A model of the principal city, originally built by Herod the Great about 50 B.C., was cleverly incorporated among the artificial rocks.

The scenery used in the shows was so elaborate that not even the vast storehouses under the Colosseum could hold it, and these props had been kept in rooms under the Temple of Venus nearby.

The lions would enter the arena through openings among the rocks as though issuing from their lairs. The remnants of the Meridian! were still fighting in the arena to amuse the mob while the work was going on.

Carpophorus explained his deal with the Jewish prisoners and the Master nodded abstractedly while watching the work.

“That’s all right. We’ll still have plenty of prisoners to make a good show. The extra children can be killed by baboons later. Are many of them little girls?”

Carpophorus fidgeted uncomfortably. “I promised! the old priest that I’d have them sold as slaves.”

“You promised? Do you think a damn bestiarius is running this arena?”

“I swore to them by my gods.”

“Well, unswear then. Do you think an oath to rebels counts with the gods?”

“Why not? I’m a Roman freeman. Before the gods, my oath is as good as the emperor’s.”

The Master looked at him curiously. “You’re not getting soft in your old age, are you? All right, I’ll see what I can do. But remember that I’m running an arena here, not a slave market. Start loading the lions into the barrier wall.”

Carpophorus glanced up at the stands. The podium was filling up again as the patricians returned from their noonday meal. The Master shouted to the Meridiani: “Finish it up there or I’ll get some action out of you with the hot irons.” Carpophorus went off to attend to the loading.

The lions were kept in far better quarters than the prisoners. The cells that contained them (still visible in the Colosseum) were inside the podium wall but below the level of the arena. Each cell was about eight feet deep and seven feet square.

A water channel ran before the cells so the animals were sure of a constant supply of fresh water. The lead pipes and bronze turnkeys of these systems are still functional. Directly above the cells and on a level with the arena floor were a series of passageways so the slaves could race around on their various chores without disturbing the beasts.

From these upper passageways down to the cells were narrow openings through which burning straw could be thrust into the animals’ cells to force the inmates out into the lower passageways. From hence they were driven up ramps, covered with herringbone paving to give the animals a better grip, to the arena.

Carpophorus went to the second level to check the cells. The door of each cell was an iron grill that could be swung back on a hinge against the wall of the lower passageway.

The door was nearly as big as the whole side of the cell so that the animal, panic-stricken by the burning straw, would have no trouble finding the opening and be able to rush out into the passageway before he got badly burned or suffocated by the smoke.

As soon as he was out of the cell, the iron grill door was slammed shut after him and the movable barrier was shoved along the passageway, forcing him up the ramp toward the arena. By this system, a whole line of cells could be opened almost simultaneously by slaves stationed by each door and then the animals rushed to the arena.

How the slaves caught between the animals and the movable barrier got out of the way in time I haven’t been able to figure out. Probably a lot of times they didn’t. But slaves were cheap.

Carpophorus didn’t want to keep the lions in the cramped spaces provided for them in the barrier cages any longer than was absolutely necessary. On the other hand, as soon as Domitian returned from lunch and settled himself in the royal box, he would give the signal for the afternoon games to begin and those lions had better start pouring out of the barrier wall when he waved his royal hand.

As Carpophorus went along the passageways, he passed slaves standing by the massive bronze sockets (still there) which held the windlasses to haul cages up the ramps and work the elevators.

After making sure that the slaves were ready with the straw in the upper passageway and that there was a man by each grill in the lower section, Carpophorus returned to the arena level. The patricians were back in the podium, including the foreign nobility who had obviously taken advantage of the break to get well liquored up.

The young editor was also in his box. Carpophorus reflected that the young patrician looked in worse shape than did the Jews who’d spent a week in the underground cells.

A frantic slave rushed to him. “Where in Venus’ name have you been? The Master of the Games is furious. The emperor is coming through the passage that leads to the Baths of Titus and the lions aren’t in place. The Master says that if you don’t. . .”

Carpophorus didn’t wait to hear the rest. The emperors had had three underground passageways built i for their convenience, connecting the Colosseum with the palace, the baths, and the Lateran hill. You never knew which one they’d use.

As Carpophorus raced down the passageways he shouted to the slaves in the lower level to open the cell doors. Immediately came the clang of the iron gratings being flung back and the slaves in the upper passageway fired their straw and thrust it down the holes.

From below came roars, snarls and strangled gasps as the burning straw fell into the cells, then the crash of the grills being slammed shut followed by the creak of the barrier being pushed forward and fresh snarls from the desperate animals.

The lions were being herded onto movable platforms like freight elevators that would take them up inside the inner barrier in the arena. As the lions from each line of cells were pushed onto the platforms by the movable barrier behind them, the slave gang boss gave the signal, the slaves started turning the windlasses, and the animals were hoisted up inside the line of artificial rocks above them.

A slave watching from an opening in the podium wall gave Carpophorus a running commentary on what was going on above. “The emperor’s coming into his box.

He’s stopped to speak to the Lady Livia. Now he’s waving to the crowd. Now he’s talking to that pinheaded kid he takes around with him. Now he’s getting ready to sit down.”

Carpophorus ran out through the Gate of Death and dived into an opening in the plaster boulders. The lions were in the cages prepared for them, the movable platforms composing the cage floors. Now the lions had to be sprung out of these cages into the arena when the signal came.

Meanwhile, the Jewish prisoners had been introduced by another elevator into the model of the city which they had once called home.

When Domitian gave the signal for the afternoon games to begin, the Jews opened doors in the sides of the model and stepped out into the glare of the arena. As Carpophorus had directed, they had been covered with animal skins.

The captives were greeted by boos, insulting shouts, and cries. “Circumcised dogs! Traitors! Now see if your God can save you. Let out the lions!”

The backs of the cages in the artificial hill were movable and could be pushed forward to force the lions out into the arena. Doors were opened among the rocks and as the cage backs were shoved in, the lions began to pour onto the sand. Carpophorus watched anxiously through a peephole.

The lions slunk rather than walked into the area or ran with great leaps along the sides of the inner barrier, looking for some way to escape. Several of them sprang up, hung to the plaster rocks for a few seconds with theu- claws, and then fell back.

Occasionally a lion running around the circle would suddenly turn and bump into the lion following. There would be angry snarls, lightning-like blows with the great paws and then the contestants would back away from each other to resume their anxious pacing.

A few of them approached the crowd of people standing in the middle of the arena, studied them for a moment, and then turned away.

The children still with the group had begun to cry and several of the women had fainted. Some of the men were trying to sing a hymn but their voices faltered at the sight of the terrible beasts around them and the sound died away. A lioness circled the group nervously, unsure what to do.

Carpophorus saw the old rabbi step forward and move his hands slightly as he had been instructed to do. The lioness only backed away. A young male with an orange mane had been scratching in the sand, either trying to find water or because he scented blood under the clean sand which bad been spread over the arena after the last of the Meridian; had been dragged out. He looked up and snarled at the rabbi.

The rabbi took a few steps forward. After all, Carpophorus reflected, there was no reason why he shouldn’t want to get the business over. What the people were suffering now was far worse than death.

The lion crouched down. Carpophorus watched the animal’s tail. The man swayed slightly from side to side. Suddenly the tip of the lion’s tail began to twitch. It’s coming, it’s coming, thought Carpophorus.

Another step forward will do it. Why don’t you take another step, you fool? He was tempted to shout to the man but restrained himself. His voice might frighten the lion.

Then he saw the lion gather himself together for the charge, digging in with his claws to get better purchase. The rabbi swayed again. So sudden was the lion’s attack that he was on the man before Carpophorus saw him leave the ground.

The rabbi fell and a scream went up from the crowd. The lion grabbed the man by the waist and ran with him as easily as a cat carrying a mouse, trying to find some secluded spot where he could eat in peace. A young black-maned lion from Nubia rushed forward and seized the man by the head. The women screamed again.

At the scent of blood, the other lions became restless. A lioness charged the closely packed group, bounded into the air and came down in the middle of them, striking blindly left and right. Two half-grown males, possibly her cubs, followed her. The crowd scattered like sheep when a collie rushes into their midst.

The lions lashed out at them as they passed, more in fear than from hunger. A scream and a woman was down. Another scream and a child fell, his head smashed by one fearful blow. A full-grown male reared up and seized one of the men.

The man’s whole head vanished m the jaws. A woman was dragging herself across the arena with a half-grown cub clinging to her leg. The cub was shaking his head and growling, trying to pull the woman down.

Now Carpophorus could hear the insane, unnatural yelling of the crowd. As Petronius, the Arbiter of Elegance, remarked contemptuously, “These rag-pickers enjoy their carnival of blood.”

This yelling was not the usual cheering of an excited crowd during a chariot race, or the enthusiastic cries that greeted a skillful exhibition of swordplay. The pitch of the crowd’s voices changed as does the cry of a pack of hounds when they see their quarry in front of them.

Carpophorus knew that when the mob was in this mood, men and women had been known to hurl themselves into the arena in a frenzy of excitement and drink from the pools of blood on the sand.

He knew that women in the stands were tearing long gashes in their cheeks with their fingernails and men were beating on the marble seats with their clenched fists until their hands were raw.

The dull, pointless existence of the Roman mob would be unbearable unless their emotions were given some vent. For this purpose the games existed. Death, torture, blood were the only spectacles that could really gratify the people’s basic longing. They became drunk on suffering.

Death and sex were the only emotions that they could still really grasp. The sight of a lion tearing a screaming woman apart gratified both instincts.

The Jews were dead. The lions had begun to devour the bodies. The corpses were jerked back and forth between the big cats and the sound of cracking bones was clearly audible.

Carpophorus took his eye from the peephole. He knew what was coming next. These lions would not. be saved as were the trained man-eaters and the arena must be cleared for the next act.

Ethiopian bowmen, magnificent in ostrich plume head-dresses, were forcing their way through the crowded aisles to balconies projecting over the edge of the podium.

Even as Carpophorus turned away he heard the twang of the bow-strings and the roars of the stricken beasts. As he left the inner barrier, slaves were already rushing out with their hooks for dragging out the dead animals and humans, carrying baskets of fresh sand and jars of perfume to pour on the arena.

There was need for the perfume. On the podium, the patricians were holding sachets of scent to their nosts and even the plebeians in the stands had covered their faces with handkerchiefs. In the hot stadium, the bicod and guts covering the arena sent up a fearful stench.

Slaves were setting braziers full of burning incense in the stands, and the fountains were sending up sprang, of saffron and verbena-scented water. Carpophorus ncticed that the young editor of the games was standing up in his box, trying to crack jokes with the crowd to prove how democratic he was. The crowd good-naturedly kidded him back.

So far, the games had been well up to standard and the mob felt friendly towaTd the young office seeker. But if the shows on the following days were not equally good, they would turn on him even though the youngster and his mother had bankrupted themselves trying to entertain the mob.

The inner barrier was hastily struck and the arena cleared for chariot races. These were to be novelty races, the real chariot races were held in the Circus Maximus which had been specially designed for them. To gratify the demand for racing, Domitian had increased the original four teams to six, adding Gold and Purple to the other colors.

For the Saecular Games, he had staged one hundred races a day, cutting down the number of laps around the Spine from seven to five to speed things up. However, vast as the arena of the Colosseum was, it wasn’t quite big enough for six four-horse teams to maneuver, so these races were more in the nature of a joke.

The first race was between chariots drawn by ostriches (called by the crowd “overseas sparrows”), the next by camels and the third by oryxes (African ante lopes). As it was virtually impossible for the charioteers to control the animals, the results were an ungodly mess and meant to be.

After the hysterical excitement of the massacre of the Jews, this interlude served as comic relief. Dwarfs in extravagant costumes ran alongside the chariots, deliberately frightening the animals, and pretending to get run over.

One of the dwarfs got disemboweled by an ostrich kick, he forgot that an ostrich kicks forwards instead of backwards like a horse—and the crowd considered this accident the funniest of the whole show.


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