Gateway to the Classics: Lucius, Adventures of a Roman Boy by Alfred J. Church
Lucius, Adventures of a Roman Boy by  Alfred J. Church


It was late in the night when Lucius recovered his senses. He found himself in a large plainly furnished tent. A lad of about his own age sat by his side, more than half asleep. He roused, however, when the patient whom he had been set to watch moved on his couch and attempted to sit up.

"Hush!" he said, putting his finger to his lips, and gently preventing the young Roman from rising. "You are not to speak or move. These are the general's orders, and no one thinks of disobeying him. If you are thirsty you may have a draught of milk, and then you must go to sleep again as fast as you can."

Lucius was ready enough to do as he was told. He was weak and giddy, and was almost surprised to find how little he seemed to himself to care what had happened to him or where he was. While he was lazily guessing at the answers to these questions, and trying to bring back the last thing he could remember before his senses left him, he fell asleep again. When he next woke it was about an hour after sunrise. The lad who had spoken to him the night before, now wide awake, was still at his side.

"Tell me," said Lucius, "where I am and how I came to be here. I remember getting a terribly hard knock on the ground, and after that nothing."

"Hush!" said the boy; "you shall hear every thing when the general comes. And here he is."

As the words were spoken the giant of the battle of the day before pushed aside the curtain that hung over the entrance to the door, and entered, followed closely by a little gray-haired man, whose short spare figure was in curious contrast to his companion's huge frame. The little man was evidently a physician. He stepped up to the side of the couch, felt the patient's pulse, looked at his tongue, and asked the young attendant how he had slept.

"I warrant he has done pretty well in that way," he went on without waiting for an answer; "or we should not find you, my young friend, looking quite so rosy and fresh this morning. He has slept well, I am sure, and you not so badly. Well, sir," he said, turning to his companion, "I shall not have to bleed him, and he will get better all the quicker. Give him as much milk and bread as he fancies, and, if he cares for them, a bunch of raisins, but for the present no flesh or wine. And when he has had something to eat and drink, you may tell him what you want to say, but, remember, not before."

Lucius, who felt little inconvenience from his tumble beyond bruises and a general stiffness, and who was by this time exceedingly hungry, enjoyed with the heartiest appetite the jug of goat's milk and the loaf of coarse brown bread which, together with a bunch of raisins, were now put before him. As he was eating his meal, soldiers continued to enter the tent, and, after respectfully saluting the giant, to deliver some message with which they had been intrusted, to receive their orders, and to depart. It was evident that the giant was a person of consequence, and Lucius, recollecting the descriptions which he had heard of Spartacus' remarkable stature and great personal strength, had no difficulty in concluding that he was in the company of the rebel general himself.

Spartacus meanwhile, for Lucius was right in his guess, watched the young Roman disposing of his bread and milk, with something of a kindly smile upon his face. When the meal was finished he spoke, his accent and language being surprisingly refined.

"Now, young sir, we may talk without disobeying the good physician's orders. Doubtless there will be one or two things which you will be anxious to know. First about the battle; well, it was drawn; perhaps your friends will say they won. Certainly they made their way past us; there is no denying that. But then they left fully twice as many dead on the field as we did. So we will call it drawn. And now as to yourself. You were thrown from your horse. Perhaps you remember that. And then you were taken prisoner. But don't be uneasy. An exchange has been arranged. Three or four of my officers were taken; and we, on the other hand, laid our hands on seven or eight of yours. About nightfall there came a messenger with a flag of truce from the prætor, who, by the way, is as good a soldier as I have ever met, inquiring after you and the others. I did not stand out for terms, and, to tell the truth, I didn't want prisoners myself, and I did want the men that your people had taken; so the matter was soon settled. I have just got my officers back, and your companions are gone, and you shall go after them as soon as you are fit. But the physician says that you must not travel for a day or two. Meanwhile, I will treat you as hospitably as I can, if you can put up with the hospitality of a slave."

These last words were added with some bitterness of tone. Lucius replied with the frank and engaging smile which was one of his chief charms, "I have heard too much of Spartacus not to be proud to be his guest."

"Well, then," said the general, "you will amuse yourself as best you can till dinner-time, when we shall meet again. I, as you may suppose, have plenty to do, and must ask you to excuse me. You can take a little stroll if you feel strong enough, but don't go far from the tent. The physician would not approve, and perhaps there are other reasons."

Lucius, interested as he was at thus meeting with one of whom he had heard so much, was at first disposed to grumble at being detained. But when he attempted to rise he found that he was weaker than he had thought, and he was glad to stop and rest himself more than once during the process of dressing. This at last accomplished, he made his way out of the tent, supported by his attendant of the night before. There was a considerable open space in front, which seemed to be used as a sort of playground by the soldiers, and Lucius watched them with interest as they wrestled, jumped, and ran foot-races. He was struck, when he remembered that there was scarcely a man of the whole number but had been a slave, with the good order which prevailed. The good humor, too, of the contending parties was remarkable. Not an oath or angry word was to be heard, and the young Roman could not but feel that the rebels set an example which the camp which he had just left might profitably have followed. Shortly after noon he received another visit from the little physician, who prescribed another light meal, but promised him, if he would give a pledge to be moderate, somewhat better fare at dinner. About four o'clock in the afternoon the attendant conducted him to a bath tent, which was simply but comfortably furnished. The bath was followed by a short sleep. A little before sunset he was summoned to dinner. The meal was of the simplest kind. There was a soup of the kind which would now be called hotch-potch, two or three kinds of vegetables, and a roast pullet. There was a flask of wine upon the table, but Spartacus himself drank nothing but water. No other guests were present, and all the waiting was done by the lad whom Lucius had found watching by his bed the night before.

"I thought it best to be alone," said the host. "To tell you the truth, though I have some excellent officers they are not exactly the guests whom you would care to meet. I wanted too to speak to you. You are younger than any of the prisoners who have hitherto come into my hands, and perhaps have not yet learnt to think that there can be no good in a man who ventures to say No when Rome says Yes. Something too in your look makes me feel that I may be frank with you. You shall hear my story, and possibly some day you may speak a good word for me. In one way it won't matter to me, for I shall be gone. Yet I should like there to be some who will believe that I was not a mere robber. Well, you shall hear and judge.

"I was a shepherd, as my father and my grandfather had been before me. I worked on a big farm near Byzantium, as they had done in their time, and should have been content, I dare say, to go on in the same way to the end of my days. Well, my master—he was a Greek by descent—was ruined. How it came about I never rightly understood To tell you the truth, I thought little in those days except about boxing and wrestling and such things, for as far as these were concerned there was no one to beat me in the whole country-side. I remember hearing something about taxes not being paid; I can only say that my master was an honest man if ever there was one; and I should not like to say as much for the Roman—for it was a Roman—who got possession of the farm after him. Well, I did not care to take service with the new man. Few of us did. So then there was a choice before me; I might become a robber or I might enlist. Most of us chose the first. People at Rome wonder, I dare say, at the number of robbers there are in the provinces. This is the way in which they are made. Here were some eight honest men, men who had worked for their bread all their lives, turned adrift; and more than half of them took to the hills. And that sort of thing is going on, believe me, nearly all over the world. I have talked with men from all parts since I have been in command here, and I have heard the same story over and over again. If I were to go out into the camp here and bring in the first man that I found, you would probably say that he was a scoundrel, and perhaps you would not be far wrong. But then he could tell you such a story of what has made him a scoundrel that you would begin to think there was something wrong somewhere. Well, to come back to myself. I became a soldier. It was just a dog's life. You see, I was not a citizen of any kind, but, as they were pleased to say, a simple barbarian. So I had no rights, it seemed. I put up with it as long as I could, but there is an end to all things, even to a soldier's patience, which has indeed to be pretty long. One day an officer struck me with his stick. He had been drinking, and chose to think that because he was too confused to manœuvre the cohort it was my comrades' fault and mine. It made it all the worse to bear, that he was a little fellow who did not nearly come up to my shoulder, and whom I could almost have blown away with a breath, let alone using my hands. I felt as if I could have killed him, but I didn't. I just took him up and dropped him into the river, and then when he was half drowned dragged him out again. Of course I was arrested. They would have killed me, but you see I was the show soldier of the legion, the biggest and strongest man in it, and when they had their games used to carry off most of the prizes. So I was to be flogged. That I was not going to put up with; so before the time came I ran away. So it came to the first choice after all; I had to be a robber, for there was literally nothing else for me to do. Of course we called ourselves patriots, and we also preferred to rob a Roman or a Greek rather than a native Thracian, and a rich man rather than a poor man. I see you smile. It wasn't only because we got good plunder out of the one and little but hard knocks from the other. We preferred to set things right, to take away from the rich to give to the poor, and so forth. And we tried to do it, but it didn't always work quite right. We had to live, you see, and sometimes, as, for instance, in the depth of winter, there was very little doing. We were obliged then to live upon the poor. We had to make them give up their corn, and we took their sheep. And we had always to keep them in terror of us. If a peasant seemed to be any thing like friends with the soldiers, he had to have a pretty sharp warning, have his house burnt over his head, for instance, some night, if he did not have a dagger in his heart. Of course there were some who did try to make their market both out of the soldiers and out of us. And after about two years of it, when, to tell you the truth, I was getting pretty well tired of the life, one of these fellows trapped me and sold me. He sent a little lad one day up to a hold we had in the hills, with a message that a party of traders would be going past his house in the afternoon with a load that would be worth taking, and that we were to lie in wait in a place that he told us of. We need only send a small party, he said, for it would be an easy job. Well, the party of traders was really a party of soldiers, who had their armor and their swords and so forth under their long cloaks. And the scoundrel had hidden another party of men in his house. He was a scoundrel, sir, for we had paid him well for every thing we ever had from him; only he thought that our game must be up sooner or later, and that he had better make his market while he could. Well, he got no good out of it, for I had the pleasure of cleaving his head open with the last blow that I struck before I was taken. Taken we all were; we might have got away from the first party, but the others took us in the rear, and we were fairly trapped. Well, of course I looked for nothing but the cross. A deserter and a robber could hope for nothing else. But it wasn't to be. Just then there was a special demand for gladiators; a good many are always wanted, but this was something out of the common. I suppose some fine gentleman at Rome who wanted to get himself into office and hadn't done much to get a name was going to give a very splendid show—tigers fighting against lions, and bears against panthers, and of course men against men, two or three hundred pairs, I dare say, it might have been. The men, sir, are what really please. I have the best reasons for knowing it. The people will cheer a fine lion or a tiger, but their silence, their dead breathless silence, with their eyes fixed and their teeth set, when they see a man's life on the turn of the wheel, that shows what they really care for. I have watched them over and over again, for I was at the trade myself, as you shall presently hear, for a couple of years and more. Well, as I have said, there was just then a particularly great demand for gladiators, and word had been sent to the governors in the good provinces to be on the lookout and get all they could. By the good provinces I mean the provinces from which they get their supply—Gaul, and Spain, and Thrace. They like men from Europe, you see. Our fencing-master used to say that the fellows from Asia were hardly worth the carriage, though he did allow that he got some stout fellows from Africa. So it came to pass that I had the choice, death on the cross or to be a gladiator. Well, life is sweet, even to a slave, and I chose life. Again and again I have cursed the hour when I did it. Two or three days' pain,—yes, sir, you look surprised, but it lasts as much as three days sometimes, especially with a stout fellow like me,—and it would have been all over; as it is, what I have suffered no one knows. Well, I was taken to Rome and set to learn my trade. There were some seventy or eighty of us, and we were trained and taught like so many schoolboys. There were teachers for the beginners, and the great man himself, the master of the school, for they called it a school, gave us the finishing lessons. I was a pretty apt pupil, I fancy, and had learnt nearly all he had to teach in three months' time. Well, there was another man in the same school that I made great friends with. I was a fool to do it; a slave should never love, he is sure to break his heart if he does; he should have neither friend nor wife. But he can't help having a heart, and I was young, and, as I said, a fool. My friend was as unlike me as a man could be. Like to like, they say, but it often goes by contraries in friendship, I find. He was a slim fellow, tall as men go, but about a head shorter than I am, with yellow hair and blue eyes, and cheeks like a rose, as fair as a woman and as beautiful as a god. He came, I found, from somewhere in Gaul, from near a great river there is there that they call the Rhine. He was the very nimblest and most active fellow that ever I saw in my life; and we two were the old master's chief favorites. Well, by great good luck we were both in the same set. You know they have different kinds of gladiators. One will have a net and a thing with three prongs that they call a trident, and another will have a shield and a sword, and so forth. They don't commonly put two of the same set to fight together; it amuses the people better to match one kind of arm against another. We two friends then were in the same set, and we never were beaten; he, as I have said, was as nimble as a deer, and you wouldn't easily find my match for strength. So there was nothing, you see, to hinder us from being friends, and we began to hope that we should both get out of that accursed school alive, and that is not a thing, I assure you, that many do. How we used to talk over what we would do if only we could get away! I was to go back with him to his own country. You see I could scarcely say I had a country of my own to go to. And we were to hunt bears and wild boars and stags, bigger, he said, than were ever to be seen in the south. And I was to marry his sister, that was one of his dreams, poor dear fellow. He had left her a girl of seven or eight some eight years before, and he was never tired of telling me how beautiful and how clever she was. They make much of their women in those parts, I could see from what he told me. Well, one day there was a very splendid show, for some great man's funeral I think it was. Anyhow no expense was spared, and every thing was to be of the best. But it happened, by bad luck, that the supply of gladiators fell short. We two, as usual, had had it all our own way. Each of us had fought two or three times and had beaten our men. The time wasn't up, and the people hadn't had their fill of blood. And so some evil demon put it into the mind of some one of the crowd to cry out 'Spartacus and Arminius' (that was what they called him—his real name was Hermann). And in a moment all the theatre took up the shout. You see they wanted to pit us against each other. Neither of us had ever been beaten, and they thought it would be a rare piece of sport to see which would be the better man. Of course we hated to do it, but it had to be done. And there was reason to hope, too, that it might not end so very badly after all. We were both as good swordsmen as there were in Rome—perhaps better than any—and it would not be difficult to make a pretty play of fighting that would amuse the crowd without either doing the other any harm, and that is what we tried to do. You would have thought that we were fighting for our lives, for we struck and parried till the whole place rang again. It did well enough for a time, but then the people want blood. Pretty sword-play amuses them for a while, but it doesn't satisfy them. So they began to shout 'They are mocking us;' and I knew, and so, I saw, did Hermann, that it would be dangerous to go on any longer in that way. But what was to be done? Well, if one of us could get a wound that would be enough to put an end to the fight, but not enough to be dangerous; we might both escape. I say 'might,' for it wasn't certain even then. You have heard, I dare say, that when a man is wounded it rests with the people to say whether he is to die or not. But we hadn't much fear on this score. We were both favorites from having been champions so long. But who was to have the wound? who to give it? We daren't speak to each other. Every one was watching us, and there was a silence like as of death over the whole place. But we looked at each other, and if ever I read any thing in a man's eye I saw in his 'Let me have the wound,' and I am sure that I put into mine 'Let me have it.' Well, we stood a few minutes taking breath. Then we set to again. I knew what I meant to do, and I guessed pretty well what he meant; we had both of us the same thought. It was to slip, as it were, by accident, and wound himself on the other's sword. But you see it had to be done without letting any one see that it was done on purpose. Well, he managed it more cleverly than I; he was quicker and nimbler than I was by a long way. He contrived that we should get to a place where the sand was covered very thinly over the blood in a place where a man had bled to death—a young Spaniard he was; it was his first battle. I remember him well, and I remember how those gentry in the seats laughed when he tried to hold the wound together with his hands. Well, Hermann slipped in the blood in the most natural way in the world, so that my sword ripped an ugly-looking wound in his side before I was aware. But though it was ugly-looking it wasn't a really bad wound, and I thought it was well over. But—by all the gods it makes me mad when I think of it— it was all wrong. What made the people so savage that day I don't know. Any trifle will do it. I have seen days when they would spare nobody, not the best fighter in the school, and days when any bungler would escape. Perhaps it was the weather; there was a bitter wind blowing, and these Italians hate being cold above every thing. But whatever it was, when I looked up, expecting of course only to have to sheathe my sword and make my bow, I saw all their thumbs pointed towards poor Hermann—that is the way they have of saying 'Kill him.' If they want to keep him alive they turn them down. I had to kill him; yes, sir, kill my friend, my brother. I threw my sword on the ground, and there went up a roar, like as of so many wild beasts, round the theatre. Hermann heard it and said, 'You must do it. Kill me. I would sooner die by your hand than by any other man's. And if you don't kill me they will butcher us both. Give me the stroke, dear Spartacus, give it, and, if you will, avenge me afterwards.' And I did it, sir; yes, I killed him."


Spartacus and Hermann in the arena.

As Spartacus spoke these last words his emotion, which had been increasing for some time, entirely overpowered him. He started up from his seat, and threw himself on the ground, while his huge frame was shaken with convulsive sobs. Lucius watched him with something like terror. After a while he grew calmer and resumed his story.

"Young man, I sometimes wonder that after that day I ever remembered what mercy meant. Think what it was. You may have to kill an enemy; you may kill a friend who has turned enemy; but to kill a friend whom you love—The gods, if there are gods, which I sometimes doubt, or if they have any concern with a world in which such things can happen, the gods cleanse me of that blood! In a way, I know, he killed himself, for he took hold of my sword and drove it, pulled it, I should rather say, into his own breast. Well, that was all over; and the crowd shouted, and threw flowers to me, and couldn't make enough of me. Oh! how I longed that the earth would swallow them up—them, and me, and all the accursed city with us.

"From that day I thought of nothing but vengeance. The first thing to be done was to escape. Before long there came a new batch of learners to the school, and there were some among them whom, by carefully sounding them, I found to be bold and determined fellows. We laid a plot, but were very careful whom we let into the secret. Before long came the opportunity. There was to be a show at Capua, and some five hundred of us were marched off there to make sport for the provincials. Seventy of us broke away from our guards, who were very weak, and made for Mount Vesuvius. There is a large hollow on the top which makes a famous place for our encampment. Italy is a place, where, if you have a carcass, you will pretty soon have the eagles, or vultures, or whatever you will, gathered together; all sorts of recruits came flocking into my camp. There were men who had been sold for slaves when the provincials had been finally beaten by Rome— men of as good birth, some of them, as any noble of the Romans, who had been working in farm-gangs or in mines; ay, and there were Romans, too, who had lost their all, some of the conquered in the civil war, who had had every thing taken from them, and some of the conquerors who had spent all their plunder; and there were slaves without number. All that I had to do was to choose. Well, sir, I needn't tell you the story of my wars; most likely you know it. But I will tell you one thing: it is not of my own free will that I am here. When I was in Northern Italy, and had my way clear, as I had after beating the consul Lentulus in Picenum, I wanted to get across the Alps and let my men disperse to their homes. Some of them were willing enough, the Gauls and Spaniards and Germans among us; but the majority were against it. Some of them had no homes to go to, and a good many did not like to leave Italy. So they compelled me to come down south again,—yes, compelled me; I am only half master, you see. I can keep discipline; there is no more quiet camp than this in the world; no single man dare set himself up against me, but I can't control the whole. Well, they loved the vineyards, and cornfields, and gardens, and all the pleasantness of Italy, and made me come here. I know what the end will be; I am not fool enough to suppose that in the long-run we can win, and that is why I wanted to give those that I really cared for, the true gladiators, not these vagabond adventurers who call themselves such, a chance of escape. Sooner or later you must crush us. But we shall want a pretty strong net to hold us; and the dogs, and the hunters too, for the matter of that, will have one or two deep bites to remember us by. But caught, sooner or later, we shall be. For myself I don't care. I wouldn't ask to live, now Hermann is dead. If you could put me where we often talked of being, by his father's cottage on the Rhine, could I show myself there with his blood upon my hands? No; my days are numbered; and to die like a soldier is all I ask, and that is a prayer that a man can answer for himself. But I should like to know that there is some deliverance for these poor creatures. When will it come?"

"One of the greatest men in Rome," answered Lucius, "says that he hates these shows."

"Does he!" said Spartacus; "then I honor him. Well, it will come some day. Meanwhile do you remember my story; and now it is time for you to sleep."

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