You are currently viewing Those About To Die 9 – The Weapons‌‌

Those About To Die 9 – The Weapons‌‌

BY NOW, it was growing late and time for the main presentation of the day. As the sun dropped below the edge of the stadium, it became noticeably cooler and the sailors were sent aloft on the great masts to furl the awning.

As it was pulled back, the overheated air rushed upwards, making the sailors’ task more difficult as the vast expanse of cloth flapped wildly up and down but sucking in fresh air through the colonnade of arches surrounding the building.

There were audible sighs of relief as the crowd relaxed, the slaves removed the braziers of incense which were unnecessary now that there was circulation of air, and the patricians put away their scented sachets.

The podium was fuller than it had been at any other time during the day. Many patricians despised the usual run of the games, but now was the dme for the gladiatorial contests, and even the most discriminating members of the nobility took an interest in them.

Led by a band, the gladiators marched into the arena, spreading out as soon as they reached the open sand so that they covered the entire arena. They saluted the royal box and the young editor who was betting desperately with everyone around him.

The gladiators were the only part of the games which the sickly youth really enjoyed and, like all patricians, he considered himself an expert on manly arts. The crowd was wildly partisan, greeting the different units with shouts. “Hurrah for the Puteolaneans! Good luck to all Mucenans!

The hook for Pompeians and Pithecusans!” Here and there fights started among members of different factions.

The gladiators made a stirring sight in their magnificent armor and accouterments. Trained to march in military formation, they swept across the arena keeping perfect step.

Each group marched together with their special arms; the Hoplite in full armor, the Myrmillones with their curved scimitars, the Retiarii with their nets and tridents, the Paegniarii with their wooden shields and long bullwhips, the Essedarii coming last in their chariots with their lariat throwers beside them.

There were many classes of gladiators and many types of arms, but the mob not only knew each class but also most of the individual men.

At this time, the gladiators were still a highly trained group of professional fighting men with tremendous pride in their calling.

They had a great tradition to live up to. A hundred years before, Mark Antony’s gladiators, whom he was training for a big battle in celebration of his expected victory over Augustus Caesar, had stayed by him after his troops had deserted.

They had formed themselves into an army and tried to reach their master in Egypt, and when they could not find ships to transport them, had sent Antony a message urging him to return and let them defend him with their lives. Antony, however, had refused to leave Cleopatra.

Other groups of gladiators had acted as bodyguards for emperors. An important gladiator was still the best known personality in the Empire. Horace wrote bitterly, “If Malcenas says it’s cold today, it becomes the talk of Rome.”

Nero had asked to have his tomb decorated with carvings showing the victories of Petraites. Boys scribbled the names of famous gladiators on the walls of their rooms and innkeepers had signs up “Tetraites ate here” much as Sardi’s has pictures of stage personalities on the walls.

But already the rot that was to overtake this bravest and most terrible of professions had appeared. It first manifested itself when gladiators were set to fighting wild beasts. Pompey had pitted gladiators against elephants.

Claudius had cavalry fight leopards. Nero forced the Praetorian Guard to fight four hundred bears and three hundred lions. Neither the gladiators nor their lanistia managers knew when the men might be pitted against bears, lions or wild bulls at the whim of the crowd.

As long as the bouts were man against ¦ man, there was a fifty per cent chance of survival—or say forty per cent allowing for men who died of their’ wounds afterwards. At that rate, it paid a lanistia to build up a great fighter like Flamma.

But when men were sent out against wild beasts—unless they were trained bestiarii, who possibly ran little more risk than does a modern bullfighter—the casualties were ninety or a hundred per cent.

Under those conditions, the enormous cost of creating an expert gladiator wasn’t justified any more than building up a boxer whom you know will be killed in his first or second fight.

As a result, anything was grist that came to the gladiatorial mills. Supposedly a man could be sentenced to the arena only for robbery, murder, sacrilege or mutiny.

But with the enormous turnover caused by the animal fights, the demand for gladiators far exceeded the supply. In the law courts, “sentenced to the arena” was the commonest of all verdicts.

As the mob grew increasingly indifferent to good sword play, any criminal might have armor slapped on him and be thrust into the arena. Flamma would have been shocked at die exhibitions some of these men put on.

However, good fighting was still understood and appreciated by many of the mob. In the stands were old soldiers who knew how to handle a sword themselves, and the patricians in the podium had a traditional interest in fine fighters.

Today, the young editor, or rather his stern old mother, was determined to put on a really good show, one that a descendant of Horadus might be proud to present.

All the men in “the arena were experts in their own line and there was to be no shamming. Nothing like that miserable exhibition that had taken place at the time of Caligula.

On this unfortunate occasion, five Retiarii had been matched against five Secutores. At that time, it was fairly common practice for gladiators to take a dive and the emperor would then give the thumbs-up signal.

This trick preserved well-trained gladiators, and cut down the cost of the games. On this occasion, the Secutores defeated the Retiarii as had been previously arranged, for the whole match was as phony as a modern wrestling bout.

The mob became so furious that Caligula decided to give the thumbs-down signal. At this double-cross, one of the Retarii jumped up, grabbed his trident and killed all five of the Secutores who had their backs to him bowing to the crowd.

The whole affair had been a public scandal, and the mob was still highly suspicious of any gladiator who dropped without obvious wounds.

After the parade, all the gladiators left the arena except the Retiarii and the Secutores. In the old days only one such fight was held at a time, but now fifty pairs were to fight together.

The mob had come to regard gladiatorial combats mainly as an excuse for betting, so the more the merrier. The crowd considered the gladiators much as race track fans regard the horses: animated roulette balls or dice designed only for gambling.

As man after man fell on the bloody sand, a groan went up from the losers and a yell of delight from the winners. An unknown gladiator might be spared if he held up his hand after putting up a good fight. He was only a long shot and no one had expected him to win.

But heaven help a favorite who went down before the sword or trident of a dark horse. People had often waged their life savings on him and he had let them down. Then the stands were full of furious faces thrusting out their clenched fists with the thumb .downwards, or stabbing at the prostrate man with an outstretched thumb.

In such case, the young editor always followed the verdict of the crowd. He was putting on this show to get votes, not to antagonize the mob.

Carpophorus, his work finished for the day, strolled back to the Gate of Death to watch the fights. Near him, Negrimus, a Retiarius, was fighting Priedens, a Secutor. Carpophorus remembered the tip he’d given’ the guards on Negrimus and watched the fight with interest.

Negrimus threw his net and caught the Secutor, but before he could jerk the heavily armed man off his feet, Priedens had rushed forward still enveloped in the net and plunged his sword into the Retiarius’ thigh.

Negrimus went down but recovered himself, backing away from the Secutor still hampered by the folds of the net. Again Priedens struck, slashing his adversary on the left arm that gripped the net while the Retiarius tried to hold off the Secutor with the trident in his right hand.

That portion of the crowd watching this particular fight yelped with eagerness as the Retiarius  received a deep gash on the leg that crippled him.

As the Retiarius relied mainly on agility to avoid the armored Secutor, Carpophorus supposed that the guards had lost any money that they might have wagered on his tip, but Negrimus managed to run his trident between the Secutor’s feet and bring him down.

Instantly Negrimus pinned his opponent to the ground with the trident, and then leaning with both hands on the shaft, looked to the editor of the games while the helpless Priedens made the sign for mercy.

The crowd voted for death and the young editor I turned thumbs down. As the trident was a poor weapon which to inflict a mortal wound, the Retiarius usually dispatched his fallen adversary with a dagger thrust through the visor, but Negrimus had either lost his dagger in the scuffle or preferred not to use it.

Instead, he called over a Secutor named Hyppolitus who had won his bout to kill the prostrate man for him. Priedens managed to struggle to his knees when the trident was removed and as Hyppolitus ran his sword into the Secutor’s throat, Negrimus pushed him from behind onto the blade.

(We know this bout happened, even to the names of the men and where they were wounded, as it is told in a series of pictures scratched, on a wall in Pompeii. However, it happened in the Pompeian amphitheater rather than in Rome.)

Carpophorus was mildly pleased with the result, and determined to look up the two guards afterwards and demand a percentage of their winnings. As the other fights did not interest him and he was feeling the effects of his wounds, he returned to the spoliarium to have a drink and lie down.

After this first bout, there was a full-scale battle between the Essedarii in their chariots, with laqueurii (lariat throwers) riding with them, and Hoplite infantry in armor and carrying spears. The Hoplites were Greek mercenaries who fought for hire under their own officers, either against an enemy or in the circus.

On entering the arena, the Hoplites formed a closed phalanx, the equivalent of the British hollow square that broke Napoleon’s chas-seurs eighteen hundred years later. The phalanx was six men deep, the men in the last rank having spears twenty-four feet long, if we can believe Livy.

How they were able to manage such long weapons Livy does not say. The men in the next rank had somewhat shorter spears, and so on to the men in the front rank who had spears only six feet long.

This meant that the chariots were faced by a solid wall of spears and the front rank men were protected by six spears each.

The Hoplite did not stand in close order as might have been expected but at intervals of three feet apart, to allow the spears in the back to come through and give the men more room to handle their weapons.

The officers stood inside the phalanx with drawn swords shouting orders. “Polybius, your spearhead is a good two hand’s breadth out of line. Philip, keep your dress to the right. Epaminondas, you’re not braced; a fly could knock you over in that position.”

The Essedarii were using light, two-horse chariots. They galloped around the immovable phalanx with wild cries, suddenly swinging their horses in as though to force them on the spears and then whirling away again at the last moment.

They were hoping to induce some of the younger Greeks to follow their motions with the spears, then the following chariot could dart into the opening thus formed, but under the iron discipline of the Hoplite officers the line of spearheads never wavered.

After a few false rushes, the Essedarii changed their tactics. They could not afford to tire their horses. There were two men in each chariot, the charioteer and the lariat man.

As they came in again, the lariat man in the leading chariot built himself a loop by the spin known today as the Butterfly—that is, he spun a small loop vertically in front and to the left of his body. Then he brought it abruptly to the right and tossed the open noose toward one of the second rank Hoplites.

If the Essedarii had been trying to catch a running animal he would have swung the loop several times around his head before making the throw to give him more control over the loop, much as a baseball pitcher winds up before a throw, but the Greek would have seen the cast coming and ducked or turned the loop with his spear.

This quick, unexpected, underhand toss was by far the better technique.

Even so, the toss failed. The loop struck the horsehair crest in the helmet of a front-rank man and was deflected. Instantly the Essedarii jerked his rope clear for fear that a Hoplite might grab it and pull it from his grasp.

As the chariot thundered past, another Essedarii tried the same throw. He also missed, but in a following chariot still another Essedarii dared the overhead throw, knowing that the Greeks were concentrating on the other ropes.

The long lariat snaked out over the ranks and settled around the neck of a man in the last rank. With an exultant whoop the Essedarii took a turn of the rope around a horn projecting from the rim of the chariot while the driver swung his team away and gave them their heads.

The half-strangled Hoplite was dragged through the ranks, losing his spear and breaking the formation. Instantly half a dozen chariots rushed for the gap, the drivers yelling to their horses and beating the reins on their backs.

“Close ranks!” shouted the Hoplite officers, and the chariots were again confronted by a line of unwavering spears. All but one driver was able to swing away in time. The foremost chariot plunged into the spears.

The horses screamed like humans as the spearheads plunged into their chests and they came down on their knees. The lariat man jumped out and ran, but the charioteer could not escape in time. He died as his horses had, with a spear through his chest.

Other chariots darted in to take advantage of the gap, hoping to break the phalanx before the Hoplites could disengage their spears from the bodies of the thrashing horses.

The horses had been impaled on spears held by men in the third and fourth ranks. The officer in charge of that section of the phalanx took in the situation at a glance.

“Third and fourth ranks, kneel!” he shouted with lungs of brass. “Fifth and sixth ranks, three paces for ward.”

As one man, the third and fourth ranks dropped to their knees, elevating their spears as they did so and bracing the butts against the ground. The last two ranks took three measured steps forward to preserve the spear level. The oncoming chariots veered away.

The spears were torn clear of the kicking horses and the beasts dispatched by an officer’s sword with two quick strokes at the base of the animals’ skulls. From the rear came the shouted order: “Fifth and sixth ranks, three paces to the rear—march! Third and fourth ranks, rise!”

The phalanx was itself again, ready to meet the next charge of the Essedarii.

Two chariots were coming in abreast now. Surely they intended to hit the phalanx full on, sacrificing themselves so the following chariots could plow through the broken line. The Hoplites braced themselves for the shock.

At the last instant the chariots split, turning to left and right. The lariat man in the left-hand chariot threw his noose with the quick, underhand toss, aiming for a man in the rear rank. An officer cut the rope through with a single slash while it still hung poised in mid-air.

He had served in the Near East and his sword was of Damascus steel. The other lariat man took advantage of the distraction. He had been playing his rope, doing a spin now known as the Ocean Wave, in an attempt to hold the Hoplites’ attention and distract them from his friend.

When he saw that his comrade’s throw had been foiled, he instantly flung his own rope, leaning far over the side of the chariot and putting the whole force of his body into the motion, using his arm mainly to guide the rope.

He caught a man in the fifth rank, jerked him off his feet, and began towing him through the other lines.

Among the Hoplites, homosexuality was regarded not only as natural but as an idealized and noble rela-. tionship between an older and a younger man. In the phalanx, the young men in the front ranks each had a lover among the older men in the rear ranks.

This situation was believed to increase the efficiency of the regiment for no man would run away and forsake his lover in a crisis. But the relationship also posed difficulties.

As the Essedarius dragged his captive through the ranks, the man’s boy-lover dropped his spear and threw himself on his friend’s body to save him. The two men together cut a wide swathe through the ranks.

An officer passed his sword through the boy’s throat and the cry of “Dress ranks! Dress ranks!” went up from the officers and the non-coms alike. But the damage had been done. The phalanx was broken, and the yelling Essedarii were charging in from all directions.

The commanding officer saw that the solid phalanx could not be saved, but there was one desperate expedient left. He gave the order, “Squads right and lefll Open lanes and hold!”

The phalanx was divided into squads and each man knew his position in the squad as well as in the phalanx. The men on the right of the squads took two steps to the right and those on the left, two steps to the left.

Lanes appeared through the phalanx through which the chariots raced. Before the Essedarii could recover, the commanding officer had snapped another order and the phalanx had begun to close again.

The commander of the Essedarii was a tough old experienced Briton, his red hair twisted into pigtails and his face and arms blue with tattooing. He had fought the Romans under the great warrior queen Boadicea and knew something about charging disciplined troops with chariots.

He realized that if the phalanx was once allowed to reform it might never bej broken again. Shouting his war cry, he urged his shaggy little ponies into one of the lanes and then, springing from the chariot, started laying about him with his battleaxe.

Other Essedarii followed his example and within seconds the phalanx was broken up into little groups of desperate men fighting back to back against the charging chariots.

“Reform! Reform!” shouted the officers, but the phalanx could not reform. The men flinched from the plunging horses and were forced back into each other so that there was no room to wield their spears.

The long spears of what had been the rear rank men were now useless and only the short spears of the front rank men could be employed.

Attacked on all sides, no man dared to look over his shoulder for fear of being brained from in front with an axe or of finding one of the fatal lassos settling around his neck, but from behind him came screams and groans as his companions were cut down and at any instant he might feel a stab in the back as the Essedarii pressed in on the remnants of the phalanx.

The Hoplite commanding officer stood within a circle of his men who had turned at bay before the wild rush. Around them the rest of the Greeks were being massacred by the blood-splashed Essedarii.

The savages’ yells, their crouching figures, the delight with which they dispatched the wounded men, made them seem like Furies released from the pit. The fight was over, and in the stands the members of the crowd who had bet on the Essedarii were already yelling for the bookies to pay off.

The Hoplite general raised his voice in a last order. “Form the Leuctrain wedge and forward!” he shouted.

The disciplined group around him broke their ring and with the general taking his position at the point of the wedge, moved forward behind their spears. It was a formation much like the old “flying wedge” in football—a triangle of men moving forward with increasing speed.

Their spears were shortened and held close to their sides in the same direction as the point of the triangle. The wedge plowed through the Essedarii, picking up more of the Hoplites as it progressed until it became a formidable body of men against which’ nothing could stand.

The Essedarii refused to face it and ran for their chariots but the horses had stampeded. Dismounted, the Essedarii were helpless before the steady advance of the spearmen.

The wedge swept around the arena, crushing all resistance and hamstringing the horses still attached to the chariots. When the Hoplite general saw that all real opposition was over, he gave another order.

“Break ranks. Deploy and kill at will!”

With the first shout that they had given throughout the battle, the Hoplites broke their rigid formation and scattered over the arena. They paid no attention to thumbs-up or thumbs-down decisions and, indeed, the crowd was too awe-struck by what they had seen to make any motion.

One after another, the Essedarii were hunted down and speared. Then the Hoplites reformed and marched across the arena towards the gate, heads back, chests out, the non-coms calling the step.

They would leave Rome the next day to fight in the arena at Pompeii and from thence proceed to Africa to take part in subduing a Nubian chief who had revolted against Rome.

The Hoplites’ victory was not popular with the mob. They despised Greeks as effeminate, and no one likes to have his illusions shattered. Besides, the Essedarii had won the favor of the crowd because of their pictur-esqueness and their unusual skill with the lassos.

The Hoplites with their rigid discipline and haughty airs antagonized the rabble. Taunting cries of “Dog’s-head, Dog’s-head!” were raised to remind the arrogant Hoplites of the great battle of Cynoscephalae (Greek for Dog’s-head) in which the forces of Greece went down in defeat before the Roman legions.

The Hoplites paid no attention to the jeers. Only once did a Hoplite deign to reply to the taunts. A half-drunken man shouted, “Why don’t you relax, Greek? The war’s over!”

A young Hoplits officer glanced up at him. “Which one?” he inquired contemptuously. Then the Hoplites marched out through the Gate of Death still holding, their faultless formation.

As a climax, a fight was staged with war elephants supported by two companies of the heavily armed’ Samnites. Thirty elephants took part in the battle, fif teen on each side, all carrying castles on their backs full of armed men.

One group was composed of Indian elephants and the other of African. To the patricians and generals in the podium, this battle was of particular interest because it would prove, once and for all, whether the Indian or African elephant was superior for warfare.

The elephants were all males and had tusks. The females were useless for warfare as they would instinctively run from a tusked bull. Curiously, the African elephants were generally smaller than their Indian cousins although a full-grown African elephant is much bigger than an Indian one.

This discrepancy was because the Indian mahouts were much more skilled at capturing and keeping elphants than were the Numi-dian mahouts. The Numidian animals were young bulls and many of them in poor condition.

All the elephants were heavily padded for protection. Most of them came from the government herd in Laurentum near Rome. The Romans occasionally found them useful for warfare, especially against a savage foe who would panic at the sight of the great creatures.

It was the policy to spare the elephants as much as possible, both for reasons of economy and because the crowd disliked seeing them killed. When Pompey first exhibited an elephant hunt in the Circus Maximus, a wounded elephant had raised his trunk toward the crowd in the same appealing gesture that a fallen gladiator used when asking for mercy.

The sight was so pitiful that even the brutalized mob rioted and the hunt had to be called off. (This gesture is apparently instinctive with elephants. J. A. Hunter, the famous Kenya professional hunter, told me that he has seen mortally injured elephants make the same motion when he moved in to finish them off.

His native trackers refused to allow him to shoot, saying, “The elephant is asking to be allowed to die in peace.”)

However, although it was the men rather than the elephants who were to die in this engagement, the elephants like every other living thing that entered the arena had to take their chances.

The crowd watched, tense with excitement, as the two groups approached each other, the elephants trumpeting as they saw what was ahead of them and curling up their delicate trunks to keep them out of harm’s way.

The Indian mahouts sat astride their elephants’ necks while the Numidians rode sidesaddle; that is, sat sideways on the necks. The Indians used an ankus to control their mounts, a goad with a curved end like a fishhook.

The Numidians’ goads were shaped like the letter L. We know these details from a study of the coins put out to commemorate the fights with pictures of the different types engraved on them.

There were three armed men in each howdah, or “castle” as the Romans called them, on the elephants’ backs. As the two herds rushed together the elephants used their trunks to pull the opposing mahouts off theii perches.

If they succeeded, the battle was won, for an elephant without his mahout would not fight and simply turned tail. When this maneuver was not successful, the two elephants fought with their tusks, giving angry gurgling cries and each trying to plunge a tusk into his opponent’s soft belly.

Meanwhile, the men in the howdahs hurled javelins at each other or tried to pick off their opponents with arrows.

One of the young African elephants was the first to flee. Buffeted and gored unmercifully by his bigger, better trained Indian adversary, the young bull could take no more. He turned and ran, pursued by the victorious Indian bull.

As he dashed around the arena in terror, the howdah came loose and the occupants were flung to the sand. Directed by his mahout, the Indian bull stopped the chase and turned on the men.

Each war elephant had his own special technique for killing men and once he had killed a man, he would always afterwards use that same method no matter what the circumstances.

This bull grabbed the men with his trunk and then impaled them on his right-hand tusk. Other victorious elephants were kneeling on their victims, trampling them, or picking them up with their trunks and then throwing them on the sand or against the podium wall.

Meanwhile, the two companies of Samnites had broken into small groups and were following the elephants, sheltering themselves behind the great beasts to avoid the hail of javelins and arrows as modem troops often go into battle under cover of a tank.

Once the attack had joined, the Samnites went into action, trying to hamstring the opposing elephants with their swords or rush under the animals and plunge spears into their vitals.

The men in the howdahs protected their mounts as best they could. Sometimes they were not successful. One elephant dropped stone dead, killed by a javelin-hit in the eye.

Another bull, hamstrung by the Samnites, continued to fight on his knees, grabbing the shields of the Samnites who closed in for the kill and tossing them into the air until he was surrounded by a circle of shields.

The applauding mob gave the thumbs-up signal that this heroic animal might be spared, but a crippled elephant was worthless and a Well-thrown javelin finished him off.

In spite of the efforts of the Numidians, the African contingent was going down to defeat The Indian ma houts had pulled several of their elephants out the fight, and the elephants were picking up thrown javelins from the sand with their trunks and handing them up to the men in the howdahs. T

he Indians re-formed and prepared to finish the battle. But here came an interruption, the first one of that long and bloody day. Domirian, after a hurried parley with the generals who shared the imperial box, instructed the young editor to stop the fight.

There was no longer any question in the minds of the high brass watching the combat that the Indian elephants had proved their superiority, and there was no point in killing more of the valuable animals. The crowd, generally so blood-thirsty, applauded the decision.

The Romans liked elephants. Later, Commodus would amuse himself by killing three elephants in the arena, probably by shooting them full of arrows from the safety of the royal box, but at the time of Domitian there was still some lingering feeling of sportsmanship, especially when it involved such a huge, noble animal.

The elephant fight concluded the first day’s entertainment. It was growing dark and torches had been lighted in the wall brackets.

The crowd trickled out of me vast stadium, tallying up losses or winnings, arguing over the events, making plans for the morrow, and quarreling as they tried to force their way through the packed entrances.


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