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A Day at the Circus

By Mark C. Harwell

General Flavius Stilicho followed closely behind shorter and more slightly built Emperor Honorius, who led the royal family procession from the imperial palace down a private tunnel directly connected to the circus in Mediolanum.  Stilicho had a large nose with a boxing dent and a battle scar above his nostrils.  His sepia-colored hair was cut short in Roman military fashion.  To his right, his wife, Serena, walked straight-backed, her chin high.  He thought her a handsome woman, with pitch black hair braided and wound around her head, pinned in place by gold, pearl-studded combs that gave the appearance of a diadem rising from her scalp.  But he had not married her for her looks.  She was the niece and adopted daughter of Emperor Theodosius.

A roar echoed up the tunnel.  It reminded him of howling and snapping Alpine wolves fighting over a fresh kill late at night.  When he emerged from the tunnel into the imperial box, the noise opened up to a deafening roar like scores of ocean waves crashing against seawalls.  His nose recoiled at the pungent odor of massed, sweaty humanity.  This was the second of three days of festival races honoring the deceased Theodosius.  The unrelenting bright sun burned necks and stewed bodies among the raucous tens of thousands gathered.  He twitched his nose and scanned the assembled mob.  He spotted Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, a prideful looking, round-faced senator from Rome, in the center of a group of other senators who had made the trip north for the funeral games.  They were seated along with the other people of senatorial rank or wealth on the first two rows of the marble benches that stretched the full length of the stadium’s elongated U shape.  Symmachus and his companions looked detached and unenthusiastic.  Stilicho grimaced.  “Roman sops,” he murmured.

Above the senators’ heads, in the next five rows, men and women from every lower rank and social order screamed boisterously, waving colored flags and streamers for their favorite faction, and insulting the competing teams with lewd jeers.  Separated by class horizontally, the stadium divided vertically into four distinct colored factions.  The Whites, wearing white tunics, scarves, or dresses held the quarter of the stadium on Stilicho’s right.  Next came the Blues, then the Reds, ending with the Greens seated on the emperor’s left.

Young Emperor Honorius strode to his purple-cushioned seat in the front center of the imperial box.   Stilicho stopped next to him, where he had an excellent view of the circus’ starting gate and finish line.  But he was far more interested in keeping his eyes on the teenage emperor than the pageantry of the stadium.  This was Honorius’ first public appearance as the new emperor of the West.  Stilicho was pleased how the boy had handled himself thus far.  Honorius might grow to be a handsome man.  With the stonecutters’ embellishments, his face and curly brown hair would cut a noble figure that would do nicely for the bronze and marble busts.  Still, it was what hid inside the boy emperor’s skin that worried the general.  He had yet to see any confirmation that the son had inherited his father’s intelligence, courage, or humility.  He could not keep Honorius under his personal supervision forever.  He fretted what the all-powerful adolescent might do in his absence.

Stilicho waited for the imperial party to fully assemble.  His oldest daughter, Maria, took her place on Honorius’ left.  One year younger than Honorius, Maria had her mother’s dark hair, but had inherited Stilicho’s hazel eyes and large nose.  Her shiny black locks hung loose below her shoulders.  She held her nose high in an immodest pose.  Stilicho planned for Maria and Honorius to wed as soon as she became of age.  It pleased him that Maria took to the idea eagerly.

Next to Maria came her five-year-old sister, Thermantia.  She had a mass of curly red-brown hair that jutted from her blue headscarf like loose copper springs. Stilicho smiled knowing that should the need arise, his second daughter waited ready in the wings to take her turn in Honorius’ royal bedchamber.

Behind his daughters stood Galla Placidia, Honorius’ seven-year-old half-sister.  Galla seemed to Stilicho to have a permanent, stepchild’s jealous resentment about her.  Yet, even at this young age, he could see that she might rival her mother’s legendary beauty.  She had gray eyes the color of stormy seas, but filled with golden flakes that shimmered in the same way that shiny stones reflect light in still waters.

Last among the royal entourage, and standing behind Maria and Thermantia, came Stilicho’s seven-year-old son, Eucherius.  Although Stilicho might someday choose to wed Galla Placidia to a rich Roman senator, or to a barbarian king to secure the Empire’s borders, it seemed to him more than mere chance that God had given him a son who he could graft into Theodosius’ bloodline by marriage to Galla Placidia should the need arise.

Behind the royal family came the dignitaries invited by Stilicho in Honorius’ name, the foremost being General Gainas.  He was a tall man with short black hair wearing a blue Thracian robe over his russet tunic in a style common in Constantinople, capital of the East.  He had intense blue eyes set wide atop his broad nose, the bridge of which had been clipped by a Gothic arrowhead three years ago.  Trailing after the invited guests, male slaves bore earthenware jars holding wine, water and fruit juices, and silver trays stacked with small sweet cakes.  Last, came the Hun mercenary royal bodyguards. The four swarthy-skinned stout men wore chain mail to their shins and iron helmets crested from front to back with billowy purple-dyed feathers. They took positions guarding the entrance to the tunnel.

Honorius raised both his arms skyward and the raucous noise in the circus abated.  He looked about ready to take his seat, when a male voice suddenly screamed out from the White faction seats.

“Blues suck donkey dicks!”

A bombard of bread crusts, half-eaten fruit, and flying liquids immediately responded from the Blue faction pelting the Whites nearest the dividing line.  A melee ensued.  The border line between white and blue clad spectators undulated, resembling a streamer blowing in a gusty wind as the rows of fans shoved and beat each other.

Honorius snickered, obviously delighted that the Blues seemed to be getting the best of the Whites.

Serena sharply squeezed Stilicho’s hand and growled “husband” from the side of her mouth.

Stilicho thought the commotion comical, but he did not want to cross his wife.  Serena had a steadfast orthodox Christian faith with little tolerance for roguish behavior.  It also occurred to him that the moment offered the opportunity for a test of the boy emperor.

“Augustus,” Stilicho said turning to Honorius.  “Perhaps your serene guidance would be in order.”

The boy’s childish, delighted smile changed to a stately frown.  He lifted his arms high and screamed out in his high-pitched voice: “Citizens!”  Faces turned toward him from the blue and white battle line.  “Calm yourselves!  We have come together to celebrate my late father’s great reign.  Let’s not sully his memory by brawling.”

“Hail Theodosius,” a voice screamed from the Greens.  “Hail Honorius,” a chant began from the Reds.  Soon the entire stadium vibrated with the chorus of “Hail Honorius.”  The boy’s face beamed brighter than Pharos.  After several moments of letting Honorius absorb the adulation, Stilicho waved his arms for silence.  This time everyone in the crowd instantly obeyed.  “Citizens, your emperor thanks you for your praise.  Now, with the blessing of the Holy Trinity, let the races begin.”  Honorius immediately sat down.  After waiting a respectful heartbeat, everyone else in the imperial party took their seats.  The crowd noise in the circus resumed its excited, rolling hum of anticipation.

The city prefect, gray-headed Gaius Longinus, appeared from a gated passageway beneath the imperial box.  He walked to the middle of the track.  He wore a long yellow tunic with two broad red stripes embroidered with gold that ran hem to hem and over each shoulder.  He announced the day’s slate of races and praised the aedile, quaestor, or other public officials who had sponsored each race by providing the prize money.  The names drew a polite, but unenthusiastic cheer from the audience.

Stilicho’s mind wandered from the prefect’s speech.  He half-heartedly clapped his hands when four chariots appeared for the day’s first race.  He had never had much enthusiasm for the races.  From time to time he might take a special interest in a particularly talented driver, or praise the beauty of a well-matched team of horses, but the thrill of the colored factions that drove the crowds into such a fanatical frenzy completely escaped his understanding.  To him, the chariots were an outdated relic of ancient warfare.  He had never seen one in battle, though he had heard that some of the most primitive British tribes still used them.   A two-horse chariot could not match the speed of light cavalry.  Larger chariots on a battlefield were ponderous and difficult to control, sometimes doing as much damage to their own ranks as to their enemy’s.  Compared to his memories of the thundering charge of heavily-armored horses and the sheer terror wrought by lances impaling bodies and swords splitting heads, the chariot races seemed to him a pathetic pantomime of real combat.  But the crowd did not share his disdain.  As soon as each color-coordinated chariot appeared on the track, the respective colored faction in the stands roared with wild excitement.

Each chariot driver wore a simple tunic dyed the faction’s color.  Each steered his chariot once around the track preliminary to the race.  Men in the audience yelled encouragement to their faction’s driver and curses upon the other drivers.  The women screamed just as ardently.  A woman two rows up in the Blue’s section bared her chest and screamed to the Blue rider: “They’re yours if you win.”

Serena turned up her nose.  “Disgraceful.”

A smile cracked Stilicho’s lips.  He leaned toward Serena to speak into her ear.  “Do you suppose the man beside her is her husband?”

“I wonder what he has to say about such indecency.”

Stilicho laughed.  “My guess is that he’d willingly offer himself as his wife’s substitute if the driver is inclined in that way.”

Serena snarled.  “That’s disgusting.  I can’t imagine what they see in the driver.  The man is hideous.”

Stilicho studied the Blue driver.  His arms were covered with thick black hair.  A purple swell puffed under his left eye.  A grayish scar ran the full length of his right cheek.  “It’s not about his appearance, my dear.  If the Red charioteer were to change tunics with the Blue mid-race and win, I’m sure the woman would just as enthusiastically invite him to her bed.”

 Serena gasped.  She playfully slapped at his left shoulder.

He glanced toward Honorius who sat rigid and tense, his hands gripping his seat’s armrests in excitement, visibly restraining himself from joining in the Blue faction’s cheers for the Blue charioteer as he passed the imperial box.

 “I like the Blue’s horses,” Maria said.

“Yes,” Honorius exploded.  He drew a quick breath and then quickly resumed his statelier composure.  “Yes, they are magnificent aren’t they,” he said with poorly feigned indifference.

 “I like the Green,” Galla said.

Honorius scoffed.  “My dear little sister, the Greens didn’t win once yesterday and they don’t look to be a favorite today.  Maria has a much better eye for a champion than you.”

Maria smiled proudly.  Galla’s lower lip curled to a pout.  “I still like the Green,” she said.

 “And what says my master of soldiers?”  Honorius said.

Stilicho studied the shiny black stallions pulling the Blue chariot.  Their coats gleamed beautifully, but they stomped their hooves spasmodically and randomly jerked their heads in the harness.  They had the wide, white-eyed frightened look that Stilicho had seen in horses charging into massed spears.  This must be their first race. The charioteer noticeably strained at the reins holding back the horses.  Stilicho preferred the look of the Red team.  The dappled gray horses were not so lovely as the blacks, but their legs trotted in perfect unison.  The driver steered them with casual tugs.  The horses knew to save their energy for the race.

He turned back to the emperor.  Regrettably, the sole characteristic that he had observed in Honorius that he had inherited from his august father was Theodosius’ volatile temper.  Despite the fact that he despised sycophants, Stilicho learned long ago that if he coddled the boy emperor rather than irritate him, he would not provoke a tantrum.  “Augustus, I favor your choice, the Blues, though of course, like you, I do not adhere to any particular faction.”

Honorius nodded, appearing satisfied with his own expertise.  “Yes, magnificent … the black horses are magnificent.”

The four chariots pulled up to the starting line.  Grooms wearing faction color-coordinated livery grabbed the horses’ bridles.  They held the teams steady.  When all the horses had been calmed, the grooms scattered.  The circus grew silent, the masses collectively holding their breaths.  A trumpeter stationed high above the starting gate lifted his curled trumpet, waiting for Honorius’ signal.  Honorius raised a white cloth high in his hand, the crowd becoming utterly silent.

Honorius released the cloth.  A shrill blast sounded.  The horses leapt forward.  The circus exploded with the urgent screams of 30,000 voices.  The black stallions instantly jumped into the lead.  The Blue charioteer leaned far forward in the chariot giving his horses full loose reins.  By the first turn, he had established a one length lead over the other three.  The Red chariot hung back at the rear of the pack.

Stilicho noticed movement behind him.  He turned to see a uniformed officer from the eastern VIIth Claudia palatini legion emerge from the emperor’s tunnel.  The man hesitated, scanning the group, then marched directly to General Gainas.  He spoke into the general’s ear, then both men retired back to the tunnel.

At the third turn, the Blue chariot still held its lead over the other three.  As the Blue’s horses galloped past Stilicho, he noted the white lines of sweat already streaking their midnight necks.  The dapple grays pulling the Red chariot, now three lengths back, still looked relaxed.  “Go!  Go!” Honorius cheered.  Maria joined him in the chorus.  By the ninth turn, Stilicho could see that the black stallions’ strides were flagging.  The Red chariot driver started his move.  The dapple grays charged past the Green chariot.

General Gainas returned and tapped Stilicho’s right shoulder.  “Sir, may we speak in private?”  Stilicho nodded.  “Yes of course,” he said.  “Let’s just watch the end, shall we?”  He did not care so much about how the race would conclude, but he definitely cared about how Honorius would handle what Stilicho knew to be the Blue’s impending defeat.  He wanted to be close at hand.

At the twelfth turn the Blue chariot had lost its lead to the White chariot.  Midway to the thirteenth and final turn the Red chariot had overtaken both.  It crossed the finish line two lengths in front of the White and another length in front of the Blue.  The Green came in last.  Honorius slumped in his seat.  He had a sulking, pink blush to his face.  He looked as though he thought that he had somehow been personally responsible for the Blue’s defeat.

Stilicho stood and faced Honorius.  “As usual Augustus, it’s better to be lucky than skillful.”

Honorius squinted his eyes looking up.  “Lucky?”  He nodded slowly, his flushed skin returned to a pasty hue.  “Yes … the Red had appalling good luck.”

“If they’d race ten times instead of just once the Blue would certainly win nine,” Stilicho said.  “The Red would never be so fortunate again.”

“You saw that too,” Honorius said.  “Appalling … appalling good luck that Red.”

Stilicho bowed at his waist.  “Excuse me sire, but General Gainas needs to speak with me.”

Honorius waved the back of his right hand at him.  “Go.  Come back when you can.”  He straightened in his chair and turned to face the track.  “Appalling good luck that Red.  They won’t be so lucky next time.”

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Mark Harwell is a new writer who studied history at Rice University and earned a J.D. from the University of Texas.  He resides in Katy, Texas and writes historical fiction, mysteries and thrillers.  A Day at the Circus is a portion of his forthcoming novel.

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