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- Beric the Briton - 40/74 -


"Were you a gladiator once?" Beric asked.

"Certainly I was; and so were all the masters of the schools, except, perhaps, a few Greeks, whose methods differ from ours.

"I was ten years in the arena, and fought thirty-five battles. In thirty I was victorious, in the other five I was defeated; but as I was a favourite, and always made a good fight, the thumbs were turned up, which, as you may know, is the signal for mercy."

"Are you a Roman?"

"No, I am a Thessalian. I took to it young, having got into trouble at home. We have blood feuds there, and having killed the chief of a house with which my people had a quarrel I had to fly, and so made to Pola. Thence I crossed to Brundusium. I worked there in the dockyard for a year or two; but I was never fond of hard work of that sort, so I came on here and entered a school. Now, as you see, I am master of one. A gladiator who distinguishes himself gets many presents, and I did well. The life is not a bad one after all."

"It must be hateful having to fight with men with whom you have no quarrel," Beric said.

"You don't feel that after the first minute or two," Scopus laughed. "There is a man standing opposite to you with a sword or a trident, and you know very well that if you do not kill him, he is going to kill you. It makes very little difference, after you once face each other, whether there was any quarrel between him and you beforehand or not; the moment the fighting begins, there is an end of all nonsense of that sort.

"What is an enemy? A man who wants to do you harm. This man facing you is going to kill you, unless you kill him. There cannot be a worse enemy than that. After all, it is just the same with soldiers in a battle. They have no particular quarrel with the men facing them; but directly the arrows begin to fly, and a storm of javelins come singing through the air, you think of nothing but of trying to kill the men who are trying to kill you. I thought as you do before I entered the arena the first time, but I never felt so afterwards. All these things are matters of usage, and the gladiator, after his first combat, enters the ring with just the same feeling as a soldier marches to meet an enemy."

Beric was silent. He had no doubt that there was some truth in what Scopus said; his own experience in battle had shown him this. But he was still determined in his mind that, come what would, he would not fight for the amusement of the Romans. But it was of no use to say this now; it might be a long time before he was required to enter the arena, and until then he might as well apply himself to gaining strength and science in arms. It did not seem to him that there was any possibility of escape, but he might at least take to the woods, and stand at bay there, and be killed in a fair open fight. The next morning the exercises began. They were at first of a moderate character, and were only intended to strengthen the muscles and add to the endurance. For the first six months they were told that their work would consist only of gymnastic exercises-- lifting weights, wielding heavy clubs, climbing ropes, wrestling, and running on foot. Their food was simple but plentiful. All adopted the Roman costume, in order to avoid observation when they went abroad. Being a strong body, and individually formidable, they were free from the rough jokes generally played upon newcomers, and when, after six hours of exercise, they sat down to a hearty dinner, the general feeling among them was that things were better than they expected, and the life of a gladiator, with the exception of his appearances in the arena, was by no means a bad one. Pollio called in the afternoon, as he had promised, and had a long talk with Beric.

"In the first place, I have some bad news for you, Beric. Caius Muro remained here but a month after his return from Britain, and was then sent to command the legion in the north of Syria."

"That is bad news indeed, Pollio. I had looked forward to seeing him. I had made sure that I should find one friend at least in Rome."

"It is unfortunate indeed, Beric, for he would have spoken for you, and might have obtained a better lot for you. I hate seeing you here," he said passionately, "but it is better than being executed at once, which is the lot that generally befalls the chief of captives taken in war. Scopus is not a bad fellow when things go well, but they say that he is a fiend when his blood is up. He is one of the finest fighters we ever had in the arena, though he left it before I was old enough to go there. I know him well, however, for I used to come here with my elder brother, who was killed four years ago in Africa. It is quite the fashion among the young Romans to go the round of the schools and see the gladiators practising, and then when the sports come on they bet on the men they consider the most skilful."

"A fine sport," Beric said sarcastically.

"Well, you see, Beric, we have been bred up to it, and we wager upon it just as you Britons do on your fights between cocks. I never felt any hesitation about it before, because I had no particular personal interest in any of the combatants. After all, you know, life is dull in Rome for those who take no part in politics, who have no ambition to rise at the court, and who do not care overmuch for luxury. We have none of the hunting with which you harden your muscles and pass your time in Britain. Therefore it is that the sports of the arena are so popular with our class as well as with that below it. You must remember, too, that the greater portion of the gladiators are captives taken in war, and would have been put to death at once had they not been kept for this."

"I do not say they have anything to complain of, Pollio, but I am sure that most of them would much rather perish in battle than be killed in the arena."

"Yes, but it is not a question of being killed in battle, Beric; it is a question of being captured in battle and put to death afterwards. It may be the fashion some day or other to treat captives taken in war with generosity and honour, but it certainly is not so at present, either with us or with any other nation that I know of. I don't think that your people differ from the rest, for every soul who fell into their hands was slain."

"I quite admit that," Beric said; "and should have had no cause for complaint had I been slain as soon as I was captured. But there is something nobler in being killed as a victim of hate by a victorious enemy than to have to fight to the death as a holiday amusement."

"I admit that," Pollio said, "and though, since Nero came to the throne, there has been an increase in these gladiatorial displays, methinks there are fewer now than in the days before the Empire, when Spartacus led twenty thousand gladiators against Rome. There is one thing, if the creed of those Jews of whom Norbanus was speaking to you ever comes to be the dominant religion, there will be an end to the arena, for so averse are these people to fighting, that when placed in the arena they will not make even an effort to defend themselves. They do not, as do the Goths sometimes, lower their swords and fall on the points. Suicide they consider wrong, and simply wait calmly like sheep to be killed. I have been talking with some friends over the persecutions of two years ago, just after I left for Britain, and they say it was wonderful to see the calmness with which the Christians meet death. They say the persecution was given up simply because the people became sick of spectacles in which there was no interest or excitement. Well, Beric, are you ready to go out with me?"

"You will not be ashamed to walk through the streets with a gladiator, Pollio?"

"Ashamed! on the contrary, you must know that gladiators are in fashion at present, Beric. The emperor prides himself on his skill, and consorts greatly with gladiators, and has even himself fought in the arena, and therefore it is the thing with all who are about the court to affect the society of gladiators. But as yet you are not one of them although you may have commenced your training for the arena. But fashion or not, it would have made no difference to me, you are my friend whatever evil fortune may have done for you. The only difference is that whereas, had you not been in fashion, I should have taken you with me only to the houses of intimate friends, as I did at Massilia, now you will be welcome everywhere. Besides, Beric, even in Rome a chief who has kept Suetonius at bay for a year, and who is, moreover, a Latin scholar accustomed to Roman society, is recognized as being an object of great interest, especially when he is young and good looking. I am glad to see that you have adopted clothes of our fashion; they set you off to much better advantage than does the British garb, besides attracting less attention."

"I hope that you are not going to take me today to meet any people, Pollio; I want to see the temples and public buildings."

"It shall be just as you wish, Beric."

For hours Beric wandered about Rome with Pollio, so interested in all he saw that he was scarce conscious of the attention he himself attracted. From time to time they met acquaintances of Pollio, who introduced them to Beric as "my friend the chief of the Iceni, who cost us a year's hard work and some twelve hundred men before we captured him. Petronius has written so strongly to Nero in his favour that his life has been spared, and he has been placed in the school of Scopus;" and the languid young Romans, looking at Beric's height and proportions, no longer wondered at the trouble that the Roman legions had had in overcoming the resistance of a mere handful of barbarians. Beric on his part was by no means surprised at the appearance of these young courtiers. He had seen many of the same type at Camalodunum, and had heard Caius lament the effeminacy of the rising generation; but he knew that these scented young nobles could, if necessary, buckle on armour and fight as valiantly as the roughest soldier; though why they should choose to waste their lives at present in idleness, when there was so much work to be done in every corner of the vast empire, was altogether beyond his comprehension.

"Why is there a crowd gathered round that large building?" he asked Pollio.

"That is one of the public granaries. Corn is brought here in vast quantities from Sardinia and Sicily, from Spain and Africa, and since Nero came to the throne it is distributed gratis to all who choose to apply for it. No wonder Nero is popular among the people; he feeds them and gives them shows--they want nothing more. It is nothing to them, the cruelties he exercises upon the rich."


Beric the Briton - 40/74

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