Gateway to the Classics: The Burning of Rome by Alfred J. Church
The Burning of Rome by  Alfred J. Church

In the Circus

Two days after the conversation related in my last chapter Subrius and Lateranus were deep in consultation in the library of the latter's mansion on the Esquiline Hill. The subject that occupied them was, of course, the same that had been started on that occasion.

"Licinius tells me," said the Prætorian, "that he has spoken to Piso, and that he caught eagerly at the notion. I must confess that at first I was averse to the man. It seemed a pity to throw away so magnificent an opportunity. What good might not an honest, capable man do, if he were put in this place? It is no flattery, but simple truth, that the Emperor is a Jupiter on earth. But it seems hopeless to look for the ideal man. That certainly Piso is not. But he is resolute, and he means well, and he will be popular. He is not the absolute best, the four-square and faultless man that the philosophers talk about; very far from it. But then the faultless man would not please the Romans, if I know them; and to do the Romans, or, for the matter of that, any men, good, you must please them first."

"And how does the recruiting go on?" asked Lateranus.

"Excellently well," said Subrius, "within the limits that are set, that every man should choose one associate. Asper and Sulpicius have both chosen comrades, and can answer for their loyalty as for themselves. Lucan has taken Scævinus. I should hardly have thought that the lazy creature had so much energy in him; but these sleepy looking fellows sometimes wake up with amazing energy. Proculus has chosen Senecio, who is one of the Emperor's inner circle of friends."

"Ah!" interrupted Lateranus, "that sounds dangerous."

"There is no cause for fear; Senecio, I happen to know, has very good reasons for being with us, and, of course, he is a most valuable acquisition. When the hour comes to strike, we shall know how and where to deal the blow. Then there is Proculus, whom you have chosen. And finally I, I flatter myself, have done well. Whom think you I have secured?"

"Well, it would be difficult to guess. Your fellow tribune Statius, perhaps. I should guess that he is an honest man, who would like to serve a better master than he has got at present."

"Statius is well enough, and we shall have him with us sure enough when the time shall come. But meanwhile I have been doing better things than that. What should you say," he went on, dropping his voice to a whisper, "if I were to tell you that it is Fænius Rufus?"

"What, the Prefect?" asked Lateranus in tones of the liveliest surprise.

"Yes," replied Subrius; "the Prefect himself."

"That is admirable!" cried the other. "We could not have hoped for anything so good. But how did you approach him?"

"Oh! that was not so difficult. To tell you the truth, he met me at least half-way. These things are always in the air. Depend upon it, there are hundreds of people thinking much the same things that you and I are thinking, though not, perhaps, in quite so definite a way. And why not? The same causes have been at work in them as in us, and brought about much the same result."

"True! but we must be first in the field. So we must make haste."

"There I agree heartily with you. Delay in such matters is fatal. The secret is sure to leak out. And with every new man we take into our confidence—and we must add a good many more to our number—the danger becomes greater. Will you come with me on a little visit that I am going to pay? I have an acquaintance whom I should like you to see. He may be useful to us in this matter. I will tell you about him. In the first place, I would have you know that my friend is a gladiator."

Lateranus raised his eyebrows. "A gladiator!" he exclaimed in a doubtful tone. "He might be useful in certain contingencies. But he would hardly suit our purpose just now."

"Listen to his story," said Subrius. "I assure you that it is well worth hearing; and I shall be much surprised, if, when you have heard it, you don't agree with me that Fannius, for that is my friend's name, is a very fine fellow. Well, to begin with, he is a Roman citizen."

"Great Jupiter!" interrupted Lateranus, "you astonish me more and more. A citizen gladiator, and yet a fine fellow! I never knew one that was not a thorough-paced scoundrel."

"Very likely," replied the Prætorian calmly. "Yet Fannius you will find to be an exception to your rule. But to my story. The elder Fannius rented a farm of mine three or four miles this side of Alba. He might have made a good living out of it. There was some capital meadow land, a fair vineyard, and as good a piece of arable as is to be found in the country. His father had had it before him. In fact, the family were old tenants, and the rent had never been raised for at least a hundred years. Then there was only one son, and he was a hard-working young fellow who more than earned his own keep. The father ought, I am sure, to have laid by money; but he was one of those weak, good-natured fellows, who seem incapable of keeping a single denarius  in their pockets. It is only fair to say that he was always ready to share his purse with a friend. In fact, his practice of foolishly lending helped him to his ruin as much as anything else. That, and the wine-cup, and the dice-box were too much for him. About five years ago, a brother-in-law—his dead wife's brother, you must understand—died suddenly, leaving an only daughter, with some fifty thousand sesterces  for her fortune, not a bad sum for a girl in her rank of life. He had been living, if I remember right, at Tarentum, and, knowing nothing about his brother-in-law's embarrassments, he had naturally made him his daughter's guardian and trustee. Fannius, who was at his wit's end to know where to find money, his farm being already mortgaged up to the hilt, accepted the trust only too willingly. The son, disgusted at seeing extravagance and waste which he could not stop, had gone away from home, and was serving under Corbulo. Perhaps if he had been here, he might have been able to put a stop to the business. Well, to make a long story short, the elder Fannius appropriated the money little by little. Of course he was always intending to make it good. There was to be a good harvest, or a good vintage, or, what, I believe, he really trusted in more than anything else, a great run of luck at the gaming-table. Equally of course he never got anything of the kind. Then came the crash. The younger Fannius came back with his discharge from the East, and found his father lying dead in the house. There can be no doubt he had killed himself. The son discovered in the old man's desk a letter addressed to himself in which he told the whole story. The girl was living with an aunt. He had always continued, somehow or other, to pay the interest on her money. She was going to be married, and the capital would have to be forthcoming. This, I take it, was the final blow, and the old man saw no other way of getting out of his trouble but suicide. Suicide, by the way, is pretty often a way of shoving one's own trouble on to somebody else's shoulders. Well, the poor fellow came to me. He had brought home a little pay and prize-money. I forgave him what rent was due, and bought whatever there was to sell on the farm—not that there was much of this, I assure you. So he got a little sum of money together, enough to pay the old man's debts. But then there was the niece's fortune. How was that to be raised? It was absolutely gone; not a denarius  of it left. I would have helped if I could, but I was positively at the end of my means. Still I could have raised the money, if I had known what young Fannius was going to do. But he said nothing to me or to any one else. He went straight to the master of the gladiators' school and enlisted. You see his strength and skill in arms were all he had to dispose of, and so, to save his father's honour and his cousin's happiness, he sold them, and, of course, himself with them. It was indeed selling himself. You know, I dare say, how the oath runs which a free man takes when he enlists as a gladiator?"

"No; I do not remember to have heard it."

"Well, it runs thus:—

" 'I, Caius Fannius, do take hereby the oath of obedience to Marius, that I will consent to be burnt, bound, beaten, slain with the sword, or whatever else the said Marius shall command, and I do most solemnly devote both soul and body to my said master, as being legally his gladiator.'

"The young man had no difficulty in making good terms for himself. He was the most famous swordsman of his tribe. Indeed, I don't know that he had his match in the whole Field of Mars. He got his fifty thousand sesterces, paid the money over just in time to prevent the truth coming out, and thus cheerfully put his neck under this yoke. What do you say to that? Have I made good my words?"

"To the full," cried Lateranus enthusiastically. "He is a hero; nothing less."

The two friends had by this time arrived at their destination, "the gladiators' school," as it was called, kept by a certain Thraso. Subrius inquired at one of the doors whether he could see Fannius, the Samnite—for it was in this particular corps of gladiators, distinguished by their high-crested helmet and oblong shield, that the young man was enrolled.

"He has just sat down to the midday meal," said the doorkeeper.

"Then we will not disturb him, but will wait till he has finished," replied Subrius.

"Would you like to see the boys at their exercises, sir?" asked the man, an old Prætorian, who had served under Subrius when the latter was a centurion. "They have their meal earlier, and are at work now."

"Certainly," said Subrius, and the doorkeeper called an attendant, who conducted the two friends to the training-room of the boys.

It was a curious spectacle that met their eyes. The room into which they were ushered was of considerable size and was occupied at this time by some sixty lads, ranging in age from ten to sixteen, who were practising various games or exercises under the eyes of some half-a-dozen instructors. Some were leaping over the bar, either unaided or with the help of a pole; others were lunging with blunt swords at lay figures; others, again, were practising with javelins at a mark. With every group there stood a trainer who explained how the thing was to be done, and either praised or blamed the performance. Every unfavourable comment, it might have been noticed, was always emphasized by the application of a whip. Did the competitor fail to clear the bar at a certain height, fixed according to his age and stature, did he strike the lay figure outside a certain line which was supposed to mark the vital parts, did his javelin miss the mark by a certain distance, the whip descended with an unfailing certainty on the unlucky competitor's shoulders. Even the vanquished of two wrestlers, whose obstinate struggle excited a keen interest in the visitors, met with the common lot, though he had shown very considerable skill, and had indeed been vanquished only by the superior weight and strength of his adversary.


Boys Wrestling

From the boys' apartment the friends went in to see the wild beasts.

The show of these creatures was indeed magnificent, and, in fact, unheard of sums had been expended on obtaining them. The Emperor was determined to outdo all his predecessors in the variety and splendour of his exhibitions. Nor were his extravagances wholly unreasonable. A ruler who was not a soldier, who could not, therefore, entertain the Roman populace with the gorgeous display of a triumph, had now to fall back upon other ways of at once keeping them in good humour and impressing them with a sense of his greatness. The whole world, so to speak, had been ransacked to make the collection complete. Twenty lions, magnificent specimens most of them, had been brought from Northern Africa. To secure these monarchs of the desert, the most famous hunters of Mauretania had been engaged for pay commensurate with the perils and hardships which they had to undergo.

"I am told, sir," said the doorkeeper, "that they cost, one with another, fifty thousand sesterces  apiece. It is the taking them alive, you see, that makes it so expensive. And the pits, too, which are one way of doing this, often break their bones. So they are mostly netted; and netting a lion is nasty work. That fellow there"—he pointed as he spoke to a particularly powerful male—"killed, they tell me, four men before they got him into the cage."

Next to the lions were the tigers. They, it seemed, had been even more costly than their neighbours, for they had come considerably further. Secured among the Hyrcanian Mountains, they had been brought down to the Babylonian plains, embarked on board rafts on the Euphrates, and so carried down to the sea. The long and tedious journey had killed half of them before they could be landed at Brindisium, and their average cost had been at least half as much again as that of the lions. Panthers from Cilicia, bears from the Atlas Mountains, and from the Pyrenees, elks from the forests of Gaul and Germany, were also to be seen, and with them multitudes of apes and monkeys, and whole flocks of ostriches, flamingoes, and other birds conspicuous either for size or plumage.

The man was particularly communicative about the elephants. An Indian, he said, had been hired to bring over a troop of performing animals of this kind, and their cleverness and docility were almost beyond belief.

"One of them," he told Subrius and his companion, "can write his name with his trunk in Greek characters on the sand. Another has got, the keeper tells me, as far as writing a whole verse. A third can add and subtract. This last, having failed one day in his task, and being docked of part of his food, was found studying his lesson by himself in his house. You smile, sir," he said, seeing that Lateranus could not keep his countenance. "I only tell you what the keeper told me, but I can almost believe anything after what I have seen myself. And then their agility, sir, is something marvellous, even incredible. Who would think that these big creatures, which look so clumsy, can walk on a tight-rope. Yet that I have seen with my own eyes. And the man promises a more wonderful display than that. We are to have four elephants walking on the tight-rope and carrying between them a litter with a sick companion in it." At this the friends laughed outright.

"Clemens," said Subrius, "what traveller's tales are these?"

"I can only say," returned the man, "that my head is all in a whirl from what I have seen with my own eyes and heard during the last few days."

"Fannius will have finished by this time," said Subrius, when they had completed the round of the cages. "Lead the way, Clemens."

It was a singular sight that presented itself to the two friends as they stood surveying the scene at the door of the room in which the gladiators had been taking their meal. It was a large chamber, not less than a hundred feet in length by about half as many in breadth. The number of gladiators was about eighty, but as this was one of the afternoons on which the men were accustomed to receive their relatives and friends, there must have been present nearly four times as many persons. Some of the better known men were surrounded by little circles of admirers, who listened to everything that they had to say with a devotion at least equal to that with which the students of philosophy or literature were accustomed to hang upon the lips of their teachers. The gladiators bragged of what they had done or were about to do, or, putting themselves into attitudes, rehearsed a favourite stroke, or explained one of those infallible ways to victory which seem so often, somehow or other, to end in defeat. Others sat in sullen and stupid silence, others were already asleep, somnolence being, as Aristotle had long before remarked, a special characteristic of the athletic habit of body. The men were of various types and races, but the faces were, almost without exception, marked by strong passions and low intelligence.

"On the whole," said Lateranus, after watching the scene for a few minutes, "I prefer the brutes that do not pretend to be men. Lions and tigers are far nobler animals than these wretches; and as for elephants, whether or no we believe our friend Clemens' marvellous stories about them, it would be an insult even to compare them, so gentle, so teachable, so sagacious as they are, with these savages."

"True in a general way," said the Prætorian, "yet even here Terence's dictum could be applied. Even here there is something of human interest. Look at that stout fellow there."

Lateranus turned his eyes in the direction to which his companion pointed. The "stout fellow" was a gigantic negro.

"Good Heavens!" cried Lateranus in astonishment, for a pure-blood negro was still a somewhat uncommon sight in Rome. "Did you ever see the like? Or have they trained some gigantic ape to bear himself like a man?"

"No," replied the Prætorian, who had a soldier's appreciation of an athletic frame. "If so, they have trained it very well. I warrant he will be an awkward adversary for any one whom the lot may match with him when the day shall come."

"May be," said the other; "but what a face! what lips! what a nose! what hair! To think that nature should ever have created anything so hideous!"

"But see," cried Subrius, "there is one person at least who seems not to have found our black friend so very unsightly."

And, indeed, at the moment there came up to the negro a pretty little woman whose fair complexion and diminutive stature exhibited a curious contrast to his ebony hue and gigantic proportions. To judge from the blue colour of her eyes and the reddish gold of her hair, she was a Gaul, possibly belonging to one of the tribes which had been settled for many generations in the Lombard plains, possibly from beyond the Alps. Further Gaul had now been thoroughly latinized, and its people were no longer strangers in Italy. She carried in her arms a little whitey brown baby, whose complexion, features, and half woolly hair indicated clearly enough his mixed parentage. The negro took the child from her arms, his mouth opening with a grin of delight which showed a dazzlingly white array of teeth.

"See," cried Lateranus, "Hector, Andromache, and Astyanax over again! Only Hector seems to have borrowed for the time the complexion of Memnon!"

"But we are forgetting our friend Fannius," said Subrius. "Where is he? Ah! there I see him," he exclaimed, after scanning for a minute or so the motley crowd which so thronged the room as to make it difficult to distinguish any one person. "And he, too, seems to have an Andromache. I thought he was an obstinate bachelor. But in that matter there are no surprises for a wise man."

Fannius was just at that moment bidding farewell to two women. About the elder of the two there was nothing remarkable. She was a stout, elderly, commonplace person, respectably dressed in a style that seemed to indicate the wife of a small tradesman or well-to-do mechanic. The younger woman was a handsome, even distinguished looking girl of one and twenty or thereabouts. Her features were Greek, though not, perhaps, of the finest type. A deep brunette in complexion, she had soft, velvety brown eyes that seemed to speak of a mixture of Syrian blood. This, too, had given an arch to her finely chiselled nose, and a certain fulness, which was yet remote from the suspicion of anything coarse, to her crimson lips. Perhaps her mouth was her most remarkable feature. Any one who could read physiognomies would have noticed at once the firmness of its lines. The chin, just a little squarer than an Apelles, seeking absolutely ideal features for his Aphrodite, would perhaps have approved, but still delicately moulded, harmonized with the mouth. So did the resolute pose of her figure, and the erect, vigorous carriage of the head. She was dressed in much the same manner as the elder woman, naturally with a little more style, but with no pretension to rank. Yet at the moment when the two friends observed the group she was reaching her hand to Fannius with the air of a princess, and the gladiator was kissing it with all the devotion of a subject. The next moment she dropped a heavy veil over her face and turned away.

The gladiator stood looking at her as she moved away, so lost in thought that he did not notice the approach of Subrius and his companion.

"Well, Fannius," cried the Prætorian, slapping him heartily on the shoulder, "shall we find you, too, keeping festival on the Kalends of March?"

Fannius turned round and saluted. The Prætorian, after formally returning the salute, warmly clasped his odd acquaintance by the hand, a token of friendship which made the gladiator, who remembered only too acutely the degradation of his position, blush with pleasure.

"You are pleased to jest, noble Subrius, about the worshipful goddess. What has a poor gladiator, who cannot call his life his own for more than a few hours to do with marriage? And Epicharis, though Venus knows I love her as my own soul, has her thought on very different matters."

"Well, well, never despair!" returned the Tribune. "Venus will touch the haughty fair some day with her whip. But, Fannius, when are you coming to see me? It seems an age since we had a talk together. My friend here, too, who is to be Consul next year, wishes to make your acquaintance."

"I am not my own master, you know; but if I can get leave, I will come to-night."

"So be it; at the eleventh hour I shall expect you."

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