My dearest Min,
I never wanted it to end like this. I never wanted to say what I felt only through ink on papyrus. That is what always set you apart from my other lovers – the things I could say to you in the afterglow, things I would never say to another in this life. But there are some thoughts that even I am too ashamed to speak out loud. Thoughts I had hoped to take with me to the grave
Grimy shadows clung to the walls, hiding from the daylight above, a haven for the rats. Torches guttered in iron brackets around the arena’s dungeons. Scented sawdust was scattered across the floor, masking other, fouler odours: the stench of enraged animals, the dull aggravating bite of vomit.The metallic taste of spilt blood in the air.
A brief howl echoed through the stone walls, before vanishing back into the depths. Frightening and strident, it set fear even into stout hearts who knew the sound; it was the angry bellow of a lion, prodded and tortured and thirsty for blood. Soon, Aiolos knew, it would have all the blood it desired.
Like the vermin in the shadows, his attendants scurried about. He lay down on the armoury’s thinly padded bench. One worked on his broad back, carefully bandaging an old wound. Another oiled his legs, rubbing and smoothing the taught muscles with his strong fingers. A dull roar shook the walls, and a cabinet bolted to the wall rattled. Aiolos cursed, and his servants fled. He stood, almost brushing his head on the beams of the roof, and opened the cabinet. The bandages pulled tautly across his back, and he felt a small trickle of fresh blood run down to his wide belt.
You have never heard me question my place in the world before. There have been times I nearly lost my nerve, shook so hard I thought I would drop my sword, but I have never before asked the simple question – why do we fight?
The answer seems so obvious – freedom! Freedom lured me in when I was a young man – freedom from my masters and the total freedom of the battlefield both.
The weapons were finely crafted, of good Iberian steel. They were his tools, with edges honed sharp enough to shave the hair from his forearm. One knife went inside his boot, the other on his waist. Lastly, he slid a plain gladius home into the leather sheath on his left hip. The protruding hilt of the short sword was unadorned, worn smooth from use. Aiolos pulled a short greave onto his left leg. Next came a linen manica on his right arm. He placed the helmet, gaping and fishlike, on his head. Lastly, he hefted a Murmillo’s rectangular shield.
He was ready.
As he left the armoury and climbed the stone stairs that ran through the wooden cages of the slave-pit, the throbbing roar grew louder. It shook sand from the walls and pulsed in time with his heart. His ascent stopped as he reached the arena’s entrance chamber, and the roars grew into a single coherent mass that dulled the senses. Aiolos knew that, once he reached the open air, the noise would pound on his brass helmet like a hammer.
It was not only that I desired to earn my manumission; the infamia that comes with being a gladiator means I can never climb the heights of the nobilitas like your husband, after all, so how much joy could I find in buying up property, statues and other trinkets? What thrill could the struggles of a normal life present me?
The entrance chamber was narrow and oppressive, and sunlight filtered down through grates overhead. On either side of the corridor, weapons were ceremonially hung beneath inscriptions of names. The former champions of the arena were remembered here, if nowhere else. Their deeds – the number of opponents they had slain, the emperors whose favours they had gained – were not recorded. All that was written was the manner of their deaths.
A fighter waited, sitting well back from the heavy metal gates, wrapping a dirty bandage around a thin cut in his arm. His fight had already been fought. He glanced up as Aiolos’s shadow fell on him.
‘I heard you were free of this place, Murmillo,’ said the warrior, revealling a deep spear-gash in his side as he twisted to face Aiolos. His festival season was over. Aiolos nodded his head, feeling no give in the straps of his heavy helmet. The warrior spat noisily in the dirty sand.
‘You couldn’t keep away, eh? Well, watch yourself. I’ve seen this one fight. He’s fast, and he’s got a vicious sweep.’ He stopped as a lion’s roar briefly silenced the crowd, and they both looked up at the sunlight tricking down through the grates overhead. The fight was over, and ten thousand voices briefly subsided. An announcer listed the men who would fight next, and they began to chant.
‘I always liked you, Murmillo,’ he said, dragging himself to his feet as slaves took up the chains that lifted the gates. ‘And I’ve got five sesterces down for you to win. Don’t die out there today.’
While I was still a slave, I burned to be free. But the arena offers me complete freedom, of the most savage and vicious kind – the freedom to fight, to bleed and spill blood. The freedom to kill.
That is why I came back when I won my manumission and became a libertini, again and again. You never understood why I did it – why I continued to risk disfigurement or death once I was free and my patron no longer required it – though you thrilled each time I came back to your bed, sometimes with wounds still bleeding.
But, as my esteem and wealth grew along with my scars, I began to realize that, for us, there can be no freedom from the arena.
His opponent waited for him on the sand.
The gates jolted open. The slow chant gave way to a bloodthirsty roar. The crowd’s appetite for blood had been whetted by the first rounds, by the captives being massacred and the lions running wild. It had been indulged by the clumsy new fighters and the elaborate set pieces recreating the victories of Rome’s history. But their appetite had not been satisfied. Women sang, men bellowed, children heckled, and a barrage of noise bore down upon the two gladiators.
Amongst it all, the Emperor sat, wrapped in regal purple, finely dressed nobiles in the seats all around him. Aiolos could hear nothing within his heavy bronze helmet – the crunch of his feet, the shudder of his breath; all else was swallowed up by the crowd.
Perhaps you believed you truly meant it when you asked me to give up this life, let this contest be my last. But we both know that the only reason you took me to your bed in the first place was because I fight, and no doubt you will find another victor to satisfy you after me. The gods know the nobile ladies do not seek us out for the handsomeness of our scarred faces and oft-broken noses. Any of the thousands of commoners in the crowd would suit you better.
Aiolos advanced, swapping shield back and forth as he stretched his arms out. The sand crunched beneath his sandals. It was raked smooth throughout the arena, with one exception – by one of the walls, a blood-mad lion lay dying, a hamstring cut, a blood-splattered spear buried in its ribs. It purred for a moment with the deep, terror-inspiring voice of the big cats, before the blood in its lungs choked it back into silence. The beast was doomed, but the groundskeepers knew to stay well away.
His opponent waited for him, patient, unmoved by the lion’s call. He was short, with the lithe and fluid carriage of a dancer. He had the weapons of the Thracian: the vicious sickle-sword, the small shield, the side-plume and the heavy mail belt. The trappings were those of a defeated Roman enemy; this gladiator, however, carried them with pride, for he had cut down more than his share of Murmillos and Hoplomachi. Aiolos wondered if they would be the last thing he ever saw, before he dispelled the grim thought from his head and focused on his breath.
He glanced up at his opponent’s master; the man sat close by the Emperor, beaming at the attention, and betrayed no nervousness in the way he moved.
Aiolos moved to the centre of the arena, drew his sword, and waited. Blood pounded in his ears. He fixed his legs to the ground like pedestals and forced out a deep breath. It whistled through the mouthpiece of his fish-shaped helmet.
The emperor signalled. The blaring horns cut through the din.
The fight began, and the crowd roared.
They could have been just like me, those sitting behind the walls. Perhaps some of them hope that, one day, it is they who will know the glory of the arena. But they do not realize that it is they that have the glory; the teeming masses that surround us are the only reason that we fight. It is for them that we endeavour and struggle. It is for their sport that we die.
Their voices rose exultantly as the two fighters moved together. The two fighters circled one another, and with each subtle lunge or hint of a thrust they gasped and held their breaths for a moment. A vicious thrill whispered across ten thousand faces with the piercing noise of the first blow, metal on metal.
Aiolos stepped quickly back as the Thracian advanced. He swung his unadorned sword, and his opponent swayed aside, but before Aiolos could recover the smaller man was stepping in, flicking the curved sword at him like it was a whip. The Murmillo raised his heavy shield, and the shock of the blow radiated through the wound in his shoulder.
He roared to match the crowd as he smashed his opponent’s blade aside and lunged forward, sword low, the disembowelling thrust of the gladius which the legionaries had used to conquer the enemies of Rome.
The blow had been his trademark move, fast and difficult to anticipate, but his opponent glanced it aside with his tiny shield, Aiolos’s blade slashing at the air a finger’s width from the Thracian’s exposed ribs. Before he could think Aiolos was behind his shield, charging, and the Thracian stepped aside from the felling blow. They broke off and began to circle once more.
The silence of the skirmish vanished, and the crowd’s roar beat down upon the warriors in full force. Aiolos kept back, lashing out probing jabs with his sword. His blood began to flow, the wound on his shoulder matched by vicious nicks from the sickle sword that began to dot his legs and arms. But this fight was not stopping for first blood. Aiolos was a head taller than the Thracian, and his shoulders were far broader, but the crowd could tell that the smaller man was quicker and had the advantage. Aiolos was past his prime.
And amongst them sit those in whose honour our lives are thrown away – the nobiles. Men like your esteemed husband, whose wealth allows them patronage over the games. The raw emotion of the crowd they are united, but it is they who moved stone and metal to build the arena, and it is they who buy and sell men as though they were naught but beasts of burden, to pit them against one another, until eventually, if they live, they may be set free.
And so long as the nobiles preside over this blood-soaked illusion of freedom and choice, the crowd loves them.
Aiolos cut wildly, and the Thracian parried the blade over his shoulder, knocking the gladius from his hand. Aiolos backed away, hiding behind his shield as he reached for the knife on his belt, but that too was knocked from his hand with the next parry. He grew still, forcing himself to breathe as he saw death approaching on the shining edge of the sickle sword. The crowd cheered in delight as his opponent moved in for the winning blow.
The lion roared as it pounced on the Thracian. The dying beast had dragged itself up, and the warriors had been too immersed in their struggle to notice it approaching or the enthusiastic cries of the crowd. The Thracian looked up and dove aside at the last second, losing his sword in his mad scramble to get away from the enraged beast. The lion’s claws raked at the back of his legs, rending muscle and tendon into shreds of meat.
The Thracian screamed. He pulled himself free with his arms, his lifeless legs dragging behind him in the sand. He threw a terrified glance over his shoulder, but the lion was finished; it collapsed to the ground, air rushing from its lungs. It had lived long enough to take one final revenge on its tormentors.
Aiolos put one foot on the lion’s corpse, pulling the spear free from its ribs. His shoulder burned with the effort. He walked over to his opponent, lying waiting on the sand. Their gazes met as Aiolos approached. The Thracian closed his eyes, face twisted in agony.
Aiolos lay the spearpoint over his throat and looked up at the Thracian’s patron. The man’s head was in his hands.
The crowd roared for blood.
The Emperor gestured.
Aiolos hesitated only a moment.
Yet even though I have seen through the illusion, I still play my part in it. And even though I am rich enough to live out my days in comfort, still I come back to the arena. For the false freedom of a normal life is no better than the freedom of the blade, and playing along with the illusion is no worse than never seeing through it at all. If that means the end for us, then so be it.
Your husband is a good man, for all the blood that is spilled in his name. May you be happy with him to the end of your days, Min.
Patrick Harrison is a writer of historical fiction from the South Coast of New South Wales. He studied Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong, graduating with distinction in 2011, and his fiction has been published in the Tertangala student magazine. He has also worked as a freelance copywriter, journalist, youth activist and retail worker.