Enter the Arena
The sword thrusts towards the hoplomachus’ neck, and he sticks out his small shield with little time to spare. The hoplomachus counters with a jab towards the opposite side of his counterpart, and the murmillo struggles to move his giant shield to deflect the blow. He is caught off balance, and the hoplomachus rushes while the murmillo is still trying to recover, knocking him on his back. Crowd roaring, the victor holds his sword above the murmillo, turning his face to watch the spectators. They boo in disapproval and point their thumbs down, signifying that the loser did not fight well. The hoplomachus plunges his sword into the unprotected neck of the murmillo. Some turn away at the grotesque sight. Others continue to cheer.
Sighing, I pick up my cornu and play a jeering, embellished tune as the dead fighter is dragged away. The fresh blood of the murmillo drips across the sand, leaving a trail of beading, scarlet blood in the dusky sand before it vanishes, evaporating into the midday sun, with but a rosy stain to remember him by. A fresh layer of sand will be spread tonight, after all the bloodthirsty are gone and only the groundskeepers remain.
And so goes my life as a musician in the Roman Colosseum.
As a musician, my job is to play music to fit the occasion. If the loser fights valiantly, the crowd can choose to spare his life, and I play triumphant music. If he gets destroyed, like the match that just occurred, he will be slaughtered.
Glancing around from my perch in the imperial box, I can see the whole crowd of thousands upon thousands. People of all backgrounds are here. The rich, the poor, and most importantly, the emperor. It’s as if all of Rome can be seen in one stadium. However, as different as they might seem, the people have clustered here for one sole purpose: blood. There are around a dozen matches occurring at the same time in the vast arena, with various different gladiators doing battle: the hoplomachus, murmillo, retiarius, galerus, and several more types. They wear different body armour and have varying styles of attack. Most of them are slaves.
Another battle has started in front of the imperial box, this one with the legendary gladiator Hilarus. He faces a volunteer by the name of Marcus Attilius. It should be an easy win for Hilarus, but the athletic Attilius is doing his best tiring out Hilarus. Most of the raucous crowd is fixated on this title fight. The music I play gradually builds until Attilius is able to upend Hilarus onto his back. The crowd lets loose a deafening roar, and every pair of eyes is glued to Caligula and his men, awaiting their decision. I also need to see if they grant Hilarus a reprieve, since my music will match their choice. But I can’t quite see…
The crowd yells even louder, but I don’t know if Hilarus has been saved or not…
Caligula would definitely save Hilarus, wouldn’t he? They know each other and are great friends…
…But what if he wants Hilarus dead? What if?
Pushing out the second thought of my mind, I tentatively play a happier melody. No one seems to react, so I build confidence until the song reaches a full crescendo.
But then Caligula starts to turn his head. And then the crowd goes silent. And all eyes go on me.
He stares at my frozen figure for a second, lips curling up into a smile. His fingers beckon me towards him, but it’s as if my legs are stuck in a thick mud. I can’t move…
What will he do to me?
“Someone, please give me a sword,” his voice booms. Caligula’s been known for being a cruel and tortuous man, but will he kill me? Would he kill me?
A sword is handed to him, but so is…a helmet? A tiny shield?
It hits me with such an overwhelming force that I nearly fall backwards.
Caligula wants me to fight in the arena.
I look around me, trying to spot an escape route. A single path has formed by the crowd, but it directs me to the front of the box. I have no choice. But I still can’t move. Caligula is laughing. He’s sneering.
Suddenly, a guard lifts my tiny frame and hurls me past the railing and onto the sand. I land with a sickening crack that echoes throughout the arena like thunder, and my vision nearly goes black. Staggering to my feet, the sword, helmet and shield land beside me. I gingerly pick them up, not sure in which hand the sword should rest. Almost every gladiator is right-handed, but I’ve always felt more comfortable with my left. I slip on the oversized mask, and face my opponent, feeling like a child who tried wearing his parent’s clothes. He must be a thraex, with a small square shield that barely covers his torso. I’ve only seen them fight a few times, and I have no idea what his approach is to me.
And it’s begun. I allow him to advance, watching him to see his strategy. His attacks begin, and my very slight knowledge of the sport takes over. The thraex is launching a merciless attack on me. He thinks that a quick kill will spare me in a way. But I’m not going down easily.
His footsteps are getting closer and closer. He occasionally knocks my sword to the side, like a predator playing with his prey. But I’m not going down easily.
He can’t seem to create a sustained attack, awkwardly jabbing at my sword rather than my body. The fact that I’m left-handed seems to be throwing him off balance. The majority of the crowd seems to be rallying behind me, the underdog. Every second I stay alive is another voice layered on top of another, eventually creating one impenetrable wall of sound. My body is feeding off of this energy, and I feel more confident with every parry I execute and jab I land. The thraex is getting impatient, and I sense that he wants to end this battle soon. I’m right.
The feet leave the ground first. All of a sudden, he’s hurling his bulky frame towards me. My instincts take over, and rather than trying to block his attack, which would be futile, I dive for his leg. The sword slices cleanly through the unprotected flesh, and the thraex screams. He’s dropped his sword onto the ground, and it falls far away. He’s on his back. He’s down.
I step toward him, glancing at the crowd. They roar. Without hesitating, I take my sword and drive it into the thraex’s neck as he stares at me with eyes that are as dull as a grey tile. I return his gaze, before turning to fix my eyes on Caligula. He chuckles, and tilts his head, acknowledging my victory. The rest of the Colosseum is roaring as I stride towards the Victor’s exit.
I know that Caligula’s taken notice. He’ll make sure to pit me with the strongest and most experienced fighters. I’m sure he wants me dead.
But I’m still alive.
And I’ll be ready.