All Ephesus was on the tiptoe of expectation about the great spectacle that was soon to be exhibited in its amphitheatre. The preparations were on a scale of magnificence that exceeded anything that had within the memory of man been witnessed in the city. Several things had combined to bring about this result.
A wealthy merchant of Ephesus was going to expend two hundred thousand drachmas in gratitude to Diana, the great patroness of the city, for the preservation of his life. It was a vow that he had made when in imminent danger of shipwreck in the course of a voyage to Massilia, and he thought that he could not do better than fulfill it by giving a popular entertainment. The Roman Governor of Asia had added as much more. It was a handsome gift, but it may be doubted whether it represented a tenth part of what he had put in his pocket by the plunder of the provincials. But the Governor knew what he was about. There would be a chorus of a hundred thousand voices to praise his generosity, and he might reckon on its drowning a score or two of complaints about the extortion which he had practised and the bribes which he had received. Then the city had more than doubled the amount thus raised, by a vote from the municipal funds.
The Emperor had sent a present of money from his private purse, besides putting at the disposal of the managers of the spectacle a select troop of forty gladiators from his own establishment. The Prince's liberality found, as such liberality commonly does, many imitators. There were some especially notable gifts in the way of wild beasts; all parts of Lesser Asia of course contributed. There were panthers from Cappadocia, bears from Cilicia, and elks from Pontus. The Parthian king sent two magnificent lions and a tiger, and lent, for the purposes of the show, a troop of performing elephants, which he had himself hired at a vast expense from one of the princes on his Indian borders. Another Indian prince sent some curious apes which had cone from beyond the Ganges. There were even giraffes and ostriches from Africa.
Altogether, the show promised to be one of the greatest splendour, and the city was thronged with visitors from far and near. Among these were some connoisseurs, who were familiar with the splendid spectacles of the capital. And now a whisper went round that an exhibition of a peculiarly exciting kind was to be added to the usual entertainments. A number of persons who had been found guilty of holding the "odious superstition" of the Christians were to fight with wild beasts.
Public opinion was, indeed, not a little divided on this matter. Ephesus had not forgotten the venerable figure of St. John, and there were many, not themselves Christians, who regarded these cruelties with horror. Some had an intense curiosity to know whether the disciples would be rescued from their danger in the same marvellous way that was recorded of their teacher. On the other hand, there were many who looked forward to the promised exhibition with delight. These were bigots, not many in number, but very fervent and energetic, who sincerely hated all that threatened to undermine the old faith. And there was a multitude of people who, like Demetrius and his fellow-craftsmen some fifty years before, felt their livelihood to be endangered by the new belief. The silversmiths, who made models of the temple, or of the curious figure of the goddess herself; the less skilful artisans, who manufactured facsimiles of the meteoric stone, the "image which fell down from Jupiter," which had been an object of worship from times going back far beyond history; the bakers, who made a peculiar kind of cake stamped with the sacred image; the tavern and lodging-house keepers, who entertained and fleeced the pilgrims who crowded to pay their devotions at the shrine—all these looked upon the Christians as personal enemies. Lastly, the general population, though without any particular knowledge of or interest in the matter, regarded them with a vague suspicion as persons who threatened to diminish in some way the prestige of the great city of Ephesus.
The amphitheatre was a huge building, which must have contained—when closely packed, as we may be sure it was on the occasion about to be described—as many as thirty thousand spectators. The centre was occupied by the arena, in which the various spectacles were to be exhibited—a circular space, about two hundred yards in diameter, and covered with sand, from which substance, indeed, it got its name. Round it, tier upon tier, rose the seats of the spectators. These were divided into wedgelike portions, broad at the top, and tapering down to a comparatively narrow width at the bottom. The uppermost rows might have held about two hundred seats, the lowest something like five-and-twenty. A strong railing separated the lowest row from the arena. Between each two divisions there was a passage by which the various rows might be approached.
This railing, indeed, did not go round the whole circle. On the north side were ranged a number of enclosures, each with a strong door of its own, opening into the arena. From some of these the gladiators entered; in others the wild beasts that were intended for exhibition were kept. Others, again, served to hold the chariots before they started for a race. Above these receptacles was placed the seat of the Governor. His retinue and friends occupied other seats close by, and the notables of the city were placed at a greater or less distance, according to their rank. This was the aristocratic part of the amphitheatre, but generally the lower rows of seats were occupied by the more respectable class, while the upper were assigned to slaves and the lower class. A huge awning sheltered the whole of the audience from the sun or an occasional shower of rain. That part of it which was stretched over the seats of the Governor and the aristocratic company generally was of a rich purple. The effect of the sunlight falling through it was particularly striking.
The audience began to assemble as soon as it was light, for there was likely to be a crush for places; but it was about ten o'clock when the flourish of trumpets announced the arrival of the Governor. A small bodyguard of soldiers in the half-equipment usual on such occasions preceded him. His colleague of Bithynia, who had been specially invited to attend the spectacle, walked by his side. Next to him followed the Ephesian merchant who had contributed so liberally to the cost of the entertainment; and behind him came a long procession of the notabilities of the city, and then the "chiefs of Asia," local dignitaries of much importance, the priests of Diana, the town clerk of the city, the members of the Senate, and the officials of most of the chief towns of Western Asia Minor. The whole assembly rose to greet them, welcoming with special enthusiasm the great contributors to the entertainment. When all had resumed their seats, the Governor gave the signal for the proceedings of the day to commence.
The first part of the show was, we may say, ornamental. The ostriches, which had never been seen before in Ephesus, were especially admired. Yet greater applause was excited by some performing animals. A hunting leopard caught a deer, and brought it back unharmed. Still more astonishing, a wolf pursued and overtook a hare, and laid it uninjured at the feet of its trainer. But the palm was given by common consent to the troop of performing elephants. One animal traced the name of the Emperor in Greek letters with its trunk on the sand. Two others imitated a fight of gladiators with great skill. But most astonishing of all was the performance on the tight rope, when two of the animals carried a litter in which a companion, who represented a sick man, was lying. At midday there was an interval for refreshment, and the theatre became the scene of a gay and noisy picnic. The Governor delighted the people by his condescension in taking his meal in public. Every spectator was able to flatter himself with the social distinction of having lunched in the company of the chief magistrate.
The afternoon was devoted to exhibitions of agility and skill. Gymnasts lifted astonishing weights and made astonishing leaps, or constructed themselves into pyramids or other curious erections. Then there was fencing with foils and sword-play with staves, high leaping and long leaping, foot races, and quoit-throwing. It was the rule that there should be no bloodshed in the first day's performance; and the rule was not distasteful to a Greek audience. Greek feeling, indeed, was distinctly adverse to the cruel spectacles in which human life was so wantonly wasted. The more brutal taste of Rome had gone far to corrupt it, but the very best society at Ephesus, that which prided itself on a pure Greek descent, still held aloof from the theatre when these spectacles were going on.
However this may have been, there was no visible falling off in the attendance on the morning of the second day, and the interest was undoubtedly keener. A hundred pairs of gladiators contended during the day, and though this number was insignificant compared with what had been seen at Rome in the great Imperial shows, it was considered a more than respectable exhibition for a provincial city. During the early hours of the day there was little loss of life. The gladiators were always willing to disable rather than to kill an antagonist. They showed a forbearance which they hoped to have another day shown to themselves. And the spectators were unusually good-humoured. The weather was not too hot, and the awnings were admirably made to keep off the sun and admit the breeze. The Governor, too, by an arrangement with the tavern-keepers, had lowered the price of wine sold in the building, so that a quart could be bought for half a drachma.
Accordingly all went well; the wounded were permitted to escape with their lives, with the exception of an unlucky Thracian, who slipped where some blood had been spilt upon the sand, and spitted himself on his adversary's sword. But early in the afternoon an unfortunate mishap irritated the spectators. One of the most popular combats was that between a "netman" and a "fisherman," if we may so translate the classical names. The first was armed with a net and a trident, or three-pronged fork; the second had the ordinary weapons of a soldier. Zeno, the "netman," was a favourite with the Ephesians. He was a native of the city, he had fought for several years without ever suffering a defeat, and he was noted for the audacious agility with which he baffled his antagonists.
On this occasion he carried his tricks a little too far. He had already disabled three opponents, in each case bringing down roars of laughter by the comical way in which he made sport of his enemy—just as a matador makes sport of a bull. To put himself almost within reach of his sword; to elude him; to "net" him with a dexterous throw; and then, after dragging him, helplessly struggling in the folds, from one side of the arena to the other, to administer a disabling wound—had been the game which he had three times repeated, to the intense delight of his patrons. But the pitcher that goes often to the spring is broken in the end, and Zeno's fourth antagonist was his last. The man was a heavy, clumsy-looking fellow, and seemed to promise an easy victory. Deceived by his appearance, and elated by his previous successes, Zeno committed the fatal error of despising his enemy. He had thrown his net and missed his aim—that, of course, was a common occurrence: indeed, to finish the combat at the first encounter would have been held nothing less than a blunder. What the populace wanted to see was a victim gradually reduced to helplessness. Then he turned to fly. Here, commonly came in the best of the sport. To see the heavy-armed soldier toiling in vain after his light-footed antagonist; feeling him, time after time, almost within reach of his sword; sometimes striking out and missing him by little more than a hand's breadth (the dexterous netman often found the moment after the delivery of a fruitless stroke an excellent opportunity for a throw)—all this was a prime amusement to the crowd. But in this case the "fishman" was, though no one knew it, an athlete of uncommon strength. With a bound, of which no one would have thought a heavy-armed man to be capable, he leapt upon his antagonist, caught him by his girdle, and drove his sword into his back with such force that the point stood out under the ribs in front. Zeno fell almost instantaneously dead upon the ground.
A hoarse murmur of discontent ran round the benches. But the blow had been a fair one; in any other case it would have excited shouts of applause; and now it was impossible to find fault with it. Still, the people were profoundly irritated. When another pair of gladiators appeared in the arena, they were received with shouts of "Away! Away!" Then some one cried: "The Christians! The Christians!" and another voice answered with, "The lions! the lions!" The next moment the cries were blended into one—"The Christians to the lions!" and this was taken up with furious zeal by the whole assembly.
The Proconsul waited till the first rage of the outburst had been spent. Then he rose in his place.
"Men of Ephesus!" he said, in a voice raised to its utmost pitch, "you shall have your wish. But if you will listen to me, wait till to-morow. Now the day is too far spent."
At the same time he gave the signal for closing the entertainment, and the crowd, who knew that he meant what he said, dispersed in silence.