THE LAST FIGHT IN THE COLISEUM

BY:Charlotte M. Younge

A.D. 404

As the Romans grew prouder and more fond of pleasure, no one could

hope to please them who did not give them sports and entertainments.

When any person wished to be elected to any public office, it was a

matter of course that he should compliment his fellow citizens by

exhibitions of the kind they loved, and when the common people were

discontented, their cry was that they wanted panem ac Circenses, ‘bread

and sports’, the only things they cared for. In most places where there

has been a large Roman colony, remains can be seen of the

amphitheatres, where the citizens were wont to assemble for these

diversions. Sometimes these are stages of circular galleries of seats hewn

out of the hillside, where rows of spectators might sit one above the

other, all looking down on a broad, flat space in the centre, under their

feet, where the representations took place. Sometimes, when the country

was flat, or it was easier to build than

When the Roman Emperors grew very vain and luxurious, they used to

have this sand made ornamental with metallic filings, vermilion, and even

powdered precious stones; but it was thought better taste to use the

scrapings of a soft white stone, which, when thickly strewn, made the

whole arena look as if covered with untrodden snow. Around the border of

this space flowed a stream of fresh water. Then came a straight wall,

rising to a considerable height, and surmounted by a broad platform, on

which stood a throne for the Emperor, curule chairs of ivory and gold for

the chief magistrates and senators, and seats for the vestal virgins. Next

above were galleries for the equestrian order, the great mass of those

who considered themselves as of gentle station, though not of the highest

rank; farther up, and therefore farther back, were the galleries belonging

to the freemen of Rome; and these were again surmounted by another

plain wall with a platform on the top, where were places for the ladies,

who were not (except the vestal virgins) allowed to look on nearer,

because of the unclothed state of some of the performers in the arena.

Between the ladies’ boxes, benches were squeezed in where the lowest

people could seat themselves; and some of these likewise found room in

the two uppermost tiers of porticoes, where sailors, mechanics, and

persons in the service of the Coliseum had their post. Altogether, when

full, this huge building held no less than 87,000 spectators. It had no

roof; but when there was rain, or if the sun was too hot, the sailors in the

porticoes unfurled awnings that ran along upon ropes, and formed a

covering of silk and gold tissue over the whole. Purple was the favorite

color for this velamen, or veil; because, when the sun shone through it, it

cast such beautiful rosy tints on the snowy arena and the white purpleedged

togas of the Roman citizens.

Long days were spent from morning till evening upon those galleries. The

multitude who poured in early would watch the great dignitaries arrive

and take their seats, greeting them either with shouts of applause or

hootings of dislike, according as they were favorites or otherwise; and

when the Emperor came in to take his place under his canopy, there was

one loud acclamation, ‘Joy to thee, master of all, first of all, happiest of

all. Victory to thee for ever!’

When the Emperor had seated himself and given the signal, the sports

began. Sometimes a rope-dancing elephant would begin the

entertainment, by mounting even to the summit of the building and

descending by a cord. Then a bear, dressed up as a Roman matron, would

be carried along in a chair between porters, as ladies were wont to go

abroad, and another bear, in a lawyer’s robe, would stand on his hind legs

and go through the motions of pleading a case. Or a lion came forth with

a jeweled crown on his head, a diamond necklace round his neck, his

mane plaited with gold, and his claws gilded, and played a hundred pretty

gentle antics with a little hare that danced fearlessly within his grasp.

Then in would come twelve elephants, six males in togas, six females with

the veil and pallium; they took their places on couches around an ivory

table, dined with great decorum, playfully sprinkled a little rosewater over

the nearest spectators, and then received more guests of their unwieldy

kind, who arrived in ball dresses, scattered flowers, and performed a

dance.

Sometimes water was let into the arena, a ship sailed in, and falling to

pieces in the midst, sent a crowd of strange animals swimming in all

directions. Sometimes the ground opened, and trees came growing up

through it, bearing golden fruit. Or the beautiful old tale of Orpheus was

acted; these trees would follow the harp and song of the musician; but–

to make the whole part complete–it was no mere play, but real earnest,

that the Orpheus of the piece fell a prey to live bears.

For the Coliseum had not been built for such harmless spectacles as those

first described. The fierce Romans wanted to be excited and feel

themselves strongly stirred; and, presently, the doors of the pits and

dens round the arena were thrown open, and absolutely savage beasts

were let loose upon one another–rhinoceroses and tigers, bulls and lions,

leopards and wild boars–while the people watched with savage curiosity

to see the various kinds of attack and defense; or, if the animals were

cowed or sullen, their rage would be worked up–red would be shown to

the bulls, white to boars, red-hot goads would be driven into some, whips

would be lashed at others, till the work of slaughter was fairly

commenced, and gazed on with greedy eyes and ears delighted, instead

of horror-struck, by the roars and howls of the noble creatures whose

courage was thus misused. Sometimes indeed, when some especially

strong or ferocious animal had slain a whole heap of victims, the cries of

the people would decree that it should be turned loose in its native forest,

and, amid shouts of ‘A triumph! a triumph!’ the beast would prowl round

the arena, upon the carcasses of the slain victims. Almost incredible

numbers of animals were imported for these cruel sports, and the

governors of distant provinces made it a duty to collect troops of lions,

elephants, ostriches, leopards–the fiercer or the newer the creature the

better–to be thus tortured to frenzy, to make sport in the amphitheatre.

However, there was daintiness joined with cruelty: the Romans did not

like the smell of blood, though they enjoyed the sight of it, and all the

solid stonework was pierced with tubes, through which was conducted the

stream of spices and saffron, boiled in wine, that the perfume might

overpower the scent of slaughter below.

Wild beasts tearing each other to pieces might, one would think, satisfy

any taste of horror; but the spectators needed even nobler game to be

set before their favorite monsters–men were brought forward to confront

them. Some of these were at first in full armor, and fought hard,

generally with success; and there was a revolving machine, something

like a squirrel’s cage, in which the bear was always climbing after his

enemy, and then rolling over by his own weight. Or hunters came, almost

unarmed, and gaining the victory by swiftness and dexterity, throwing a

piece of cloth over a lion’s head, or disconcerting him by putting their fist

down his throat. But it was not only skill, but death, that the Romans

loved to see; and condemned criminals and deserters were reserved to

feast the lions, and to entertain the populace with their various kinds of

death. Among these condemned was many a Christian martyr, who

witnessed a good confession before the savage-eyed multitude around

the arena, and ‘met the lion’s gory mane’ with a calm resolution and

hopeful joy that the lookers-on could not understand. To see a Christian

die, with upward gaze and hymns of joy on his tongue, was the most

strange unaccountable sight the Coliseum could offer, and it was

therefore the choicest, and reserved for the last part of the spectacles in

which the brute creation had a part.

The carcasses were dragged off with hooks, and bloodstained sand was

covered with a fresh clean layer, the perfume wafted in stronger clouds,

and a procession came forward–tall, well-made men, in the prime of their

strength. Some carried a sword and a lasso, others a trident and a net;

some were in light armor, others in the full heavy equipment of a soldier;

some on horseback, some in chariots, some on foot. They marched in,

and made their obeisance to the Emperor; and with one voice, their

greeting sounded through the building, Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant!

‘Hail, Caesar, those about to die salute thee!’

They were the gladiators–the swordsmen trained to fight to the death to

amuse the populace. They were usually slaves placed in schools of arms

under the care of a master; but sometimes persons would voluntarily hire

themselves out to fight by way of a profession: and both these, and such

slave gladiators as did not die in the arena, would sometimes retire, and

spend an old age of quiet; but there was little hope of this, for the

Romans were not apt to have mercy on the fallen.

Fights of all sorts took place–the light-armed soldier and the netsman —

the lasso and the javelin–the two heavy-armed warriors–all combinations

of single combat, and sometimes a general melee. When a gladiator

wounded his adversary, he shouted to the spectators, Hoc habet! ‘He has

it!’ and looked up to know whether he should kill or spare. If the people

held up their thumbs, the conquered was left to recover, if he could; if

they turned them down, he was to die: and if he showed any reluctance

to present his throat for the deathblow, there was a scornful shout,

Recipe ferrum! ‘Receive the steel!’ Many of us must have seen casts of

the most touching statue of the wounded man, that called forth the noble

lines of indignant pity which, though so often repeated, cannot be passed

over here:

‘I see before me the Gladiator lie;

He leans upon his hand–his manly brow

Consents to death, but conquers agony.

And his droop’d head sinks gradually low,

And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow

From the red gash, fall heavy one by one,

Like the first of a thunder shower; and now

The arena swims around him–he is gone

Ere ceased the inhuman shout which hailed the wretch who won.

‘He heard it, but he heeded no–this eyes

Were with his heart, and that was far away.

He reck’d not of the life he lost, nor prize,

But where his rude hut by the Danube lay,

There were his young barbarians all at play,

There was their Dacian mother–he their sire,

Butcher’d to make a Roman holiday.

All this rush’d with his blood–Shall he expire,

And unavenged? Arise ye Goths and glut your ire.’

Sacred vestals, tender mothers, fat, good-humored senators, all thought

it fair play, and were equally pitiless in the strange frenzy for exciting

scenes to which they gave themselves up, when they mounted the stone

stairs of the Coliseum. Privileged persons would even descend into the

arena, examine the death agonies, and taste the blood of some specially

brave victim ere the corpse was drawn forth at the death gate, that the

frightful game might continue undisturbed and unencumbered. Gladiator

shows were the great passion of Rome, and popular favor could hardly be

gained except by ministering to it. Even when the barbarians were

beginning to close in on the Empire, hosts of brave men were still kept for

this slavish mimic warfare–sport to the beholders, but sad earnest to the

actors.

Christianity worked its way upwards, and at least was professed by the

Emperor on his throne. Persecution came to an end, and no more martyrs

fed the beasts in the Coliseum. The Christian emperors endeavored to

prevent any more shows where cruelty and death formed the chief

interest and no truly religious person could endure the spectacle; but

custom and love of excitement prevailed even against the Emperor. Mere

tricks of beasts, horse and chariot races, or bloodless contests, were tame

and dull, according to the diseased taste of Rome; it was thought weak

and sentimental to object to looking on at a death scene; the Emperors

were generally absent at Constantinople, and no one could get elected to

any office unless he treated the citizens to such a show as they best liked,

with a little bloodshed and death to stir their feelings; and thus it went on

for full a hundred years after Rome had, in name, become a Christian

city, and the same custom prevailed wherever there was an amphitheatre

and pleasure-loving people.

Meantime the enemies of Rome were coming nearer and nearer, and

Alaric, the great chief of the Goths, led his forces into Italy, and

threatened the city itself. Honorius, the Emperor, was a cowardly, almost

idiotical, boy; but his brave general, Stilicho, assembled his forces, met

the Goths at Pollentia (about twenty-five miles from where Turin now

stands), and gave them a complete defeat on the Easter Day of the year

  1. He pursued them into the mountains, and for that time saved Rome.

In the joy of the victory the Roman senate invited the conqueror and his

ward Honorius to enter the city in triumph, at the opening of the new

year, with the white steeds, purple robes, and vermilion cheeks with

which, of old, victorious generals were welcomed at Rome. The churches

were visited instead of the Temple of Jupiter, and there was no murder of

the captives; but Roman bloodthirstiness was not yet allayed, and, after

all the procession had been completed, the Coliseum shows commenced,

innocently at first, with races on foot, on horseback, and in chariots; then

followed a grand hunting of beasts turned loose in the arena; and next a

sword dance. But after the sword dance came the arraying of swordsmen,

with no blunted weapons, but with sharp spears and swords–a gladiator

combat in full earnest. The people, enchanted, applauded with shouts of

ecstasy this gratification of their savage tastes. Suddenly, however, there

was an interruption. A rude, roughly robed man, bareheaded and

barefooted, had sprung into the arena, and, signing back the gladiators,

began to call aloud upon the people to cease from the shedding of

innocent blood, and not to requite God’s mercy in turning away the sword

of the enemy by encouraging murder. Shouts, howls, cries, broke in upon

his words; this was no place for preachings–the old customs of Rome

should be observed ‘Back, old man!’ ‘On, gladiators!’ The gladiators thrust

aside the meddler, and rushed to the attack. He still stood between,

holding them apart, striving in vain to be heard. ‘Sedition! Sedition!’

‘Down with him!’ was the cry; and the man in authority, Alypius, the

prefect, himself added his voice. The gladiators, enraged at interference

with their vocation, cut him down. Stones, or whatever came to hand,

rained down upon him from the furious people, and he perished in the

midst of the arena! He lay dead, and then came the feeling of what had

been done.

His dress showed that he was one of the hermits who vowed themselves

to a holy life of prayer and self-denial, and who were greatly reverenced,

even by the most thoughtless. The few who had previously seen him, told

that he had come from the wilds of Asia on pilgrimage, to visit the shrines

and keep his Christmas at Rome–they knew he was a holy man–no

more, and it is not even certain whether his name was Alymachus or

Telemachus. His spirit had been stirred by the sight of thousands flocking

to see men slaughter one another, and in his simple-hearted zeal he had

resolved to stop the cruelty or die. He had died, but not in vain. His work

was done. The shock of such a death before their eyes turned the hearts

of the people; they saw the wickedness and cruelty to which they had

blindly surrendered themselves; and from the day when the hermit died

in the Coliseum there was never another fight of the Gladiators. Not

merely at Rome, but in every province of the Empire, the custom was

utterly abolished; and one habitual crime at least was wiped from the

earth by the self-devotion of one humble, obscure, almost nameless man.

Stories
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