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"As he that bindeth a stone in a sling, so is he that giveth honour to a fool."--PROVERBS XXVI. 8.
From the hour of midnight the streets and ways leading to the great Amphitheatre were alive with people, all tending toward the same goal: men and women in holiday clothes and little children running beside them. The men were heavily loaded with baskets of rush or bags of rough linen containing provisions, for many hours would be spent up there waiting for amusement, whilst the body would grow faint if food were not forthcoming.
So the men carried the provisions which the women had prepared the day before--eggs and cooked fish and such fruit as was cheap this season. And everybody was running, for though the Amphitheatre was vast and could hold--so 'twas said--over two hundred thousand people, yet considerably more than two hundred thousand people desired to be present at the opening of the games.
They were to last thirty-one days and spectacles would be varied and exciting. But the great day would be the opening day, the one on which everybody desired to be inside the Amphitheatre if possible and not outside.
Therefore an early start had to be made. But this nobody minded, as what is the want of a little sleep compared with the likelihood of missing the finest sight that had been witnessed in the city for years?
The Cęsar, of course, would be present. He would solemnly declare the games to be open. There were free gifts from him to the people: a thank-offering to the gods for his safe return from that arduous expedition in Germany; and he would show himself to his people, receive their acclamations and give them as much show and gaiety, music and combats, as they cared to see.
So they went in their thousands and their tens of thousands, starting in the middle of the night so as to be there when the great gates were opened, and they would be allowed to pour into the vast enclosure, and find as good seats for themselves and their families as they could.
And when at dawn, the great copper gates did slowly swing open, creaking upon their massive hinges, it was as if the flood-gates of a mighty sea had been suddenly let loose. In they poured, thousands upon thousands of them, scrambling, pushing and jumping, scurrying and hurrying, falling and tumbling, as they pressed onwards through the wide doors and then dispersed in the vastness of the gigantic arena, like ants that scamper away to their heaps.
Like so many pygmies they looked now, fussy and excited, perspiring profusely despite the cool breeze of this early dawn.
Give them half an hour and they'll all settle down, sitting row upon row, tier upon tier of panting, expectant humanity. After much bousculading the strong ones have got to the front rows, the weaker ones up aloft in the rear. But all can see well into the arena, and there are those who think that you get a better view if you sit more aloft; certain it is that you get purer air and something of the shadow of the encircling walls.
There is no sign of cloud or storm to-day. Jove's thunders spent themselves during the morning hours of yesterday when clap upon clap, awe-inspiring and deafening, made every superstitious heart quake with terror at this possible augury of some coming disaster. To-day the sky is clear and--soon after dawn--of that iridescent crystalline blue that lures the eye into myriads and myriads of atoms, the creations of the heat-laden ether that stretches away--far away to the infinite distance beyond.
The beauty of the late summer's day was accepted as a matter of course: as part and parcel of the holidays and festivals ordered by the Cęsar. These too were the people's just dues: emperors had to justify their existence by entertaining their people. Grumblings at their luxury and extravagances were only withheld because of other luxuries and extravagances perpetrated for the amusement of the people.
And from early dawn there was plenty to see. Even though you did not watch the citron-coloured sky overhead as it slowly changed its diaphanous draperies for others that were rose, then crimson, and then gold, finally casting off these two, and showing its blue magnificence unadorned. There were the soldiers on guard at the doors, their yellow helmets shining in the sun, their naked legs bronzed below their tunics. There were the late-comers to watch, those who had not cared for a midnight vigil and were arriving late, like lazy ants creeping to their heaps, finding all places occupied, running hither and thither in search of an empty place.
Then, on the north side there were the tribunals of the senators, the patricians, and the knights, with--in the centre--gorgeous with purple draperies and standards--that which the Cęsar would occupy. Rich stuffs covered with gold embroideries fell over the edge of these tribunes and fluttered lazily in the morning breeze; chairs and cushions were disposed there, and it was interesting to make vague guesses as to who would occupy them.
The Emperor's tribune was decorated with flowers: huge bunches of lilies in pots of earthenware and crimson roses trailed in festoons overhead. There was no doubt that the Augusta Dea Flavia would be present then, lilies were her favourite flowers, they were always to be seen wherever she appeared.
The tribunes of the rich were so disposed that the sun would never shed an unpleasant glare into them, and over that part of the Amphitheatre an awning of white and purple striped stuff threw a pleasing and restful shadow.
Soon after the second hour the spectacle began. Processions of men and beasts who would take part in the combats and the shows. The Numidian lions--in heavy iron cages, drawn by eight pack horses--were snarling as they were dragged along, lean and hungry-looking, with bloodshot eyes that threatened, and dribbling jaws waiting to devour. The pack of hyenas from the desert, a novelty not yet witnessed at the games, the crocodiles from the Nile and the wolves from the Thracian forests.
It was amusing to hear the snarl of the lions and to think of them as they would appear anon pitted one against the other, or engaged in deadly combat against the crocodiles. But still more exciting would it be when the prisoners of war, lately captured in Germany, would have to try their heavy fists against the masters of the desert.
The procession of the beasts had lasted close upon an hour. The public waxed impatient. Beasts were well enough, but their prey was what the people desired to see. Women clamoured as loudly as the men. Children stood up upon the benches to catch sight of the prisoners, the malefactors, the rebellious slaves who would furnish the sport later on.
Presently they began to arrive and were greeted with loud acclamations--trembling, miserable bundles of humanity with hideous death staring at them all round, the pungent odour of wild beasts stinking of death, the glowering eyes of an excited populace testifying that no mercy would be shown.
The slaves mostly looked the prey of abject terror, backboneless, and with the cold sweat already pouring from their huddled-up bodies; they were men caught in the act of murder or of theft, confirmed malefactors most of them, now condemned to the arena to expiate their crimes and afford a holiday for the people.
Some of the most hardened criminals had been dressed up to look like the German rebels whom the Emperor was supposed lately to have vanquished, with tow-coloured wigs and coverings of goatskin around their torso: they were marched round the gigantic arena, with clanging chains on their wrists and ankles.
The public was delighted at their appearance. It confirmed the prowess of the Cęsar, for the men had been selected for this special exhibition because of their height or the breadth of their shoulders. Everyone was curious to see them, and howls of execration greeted them as they passed. It was felt that they deserved far more severe punishment than was meted to ordinary criminals. They had rebelled against the might of Cęsar, and in a manner had made attempt against his sacred life.
But the most interesting part of this early morning show was undoubtedly the black panther whom the native prince of Numidia had sent as a tribute to the imperator. Wild rumours as to its cunning and its ferocity had been in circulation for some time, but no one had ever seen it; it had been kept closely guarded and heavily chained in the gardens of the Cęsar's palace, and since its arrival from the desert was said to have grown to fabulous size and strength.
Its inclusion in the spectacle of to-day had come as an exciting surprise, for it was known that the Cęsar thought a great deal of the beast, going out daily to watch it through its iron bars, and delighting in its ferocity and cruel rapaciousness. He had caused a special house to be built for it in a secluded portion of his garden, with a swimming-bath carved out of a solid block of African marble. Its feeding trough was made of gold, and capons and pea-hens were specially fattened for its delectation.
Many were the tales current about the Cęsar's fondness for the creature and his pleasure in seeing it fed with live animals, which he would himself throw into the cage. It was even said he had fed the brute with human flesh, the flesh of slaves who had disobeyed or merely offended him: one of his chief amusements being to force one of these unfortunate wretches to thrust an arm into the cage, and then to watch the panther as it scrunched the human bones, and licked the human blood whilst cries of unspeakable horror and agony rent the air with their hideous sounds.
And now--in order to delight his people--the greatest and best of Cęsars would grant them the spectacle of his most precious pet. Loud clapping of hands and thunderous shouts of applause greeted the entrance of the magnificent cage which was drawn out into the arena by sixteen negro slaves. The bars of the cage were gilded, and it was surmounted by the imperial standard and the insignia of imperial rank. Its pedestal was of carved wood and mounted on massive wheels of steel. In the front were four heavy chains of steel, and to these the sixteen negroes were harnessed. They were naked save for a loin-cloth of scarlet cloth, and on their heads were fillets of shining metal, each adorned with five long ostrich feathers which had been dipped in brilliant scarlet dye.
The weight of the cage, with its solid pedestal and heavy iron bars, must have been terrific, for the sixteen powerful Africans strained on the chains as they walked, burying their feet in the sand of the arena, their backs bent, the muscles of their shoulders and arms standing out like living cords. In a corner of the cage cowered the powerful creature, its broad, snake-like head thrust forward, its tiny golden eyes fixed before it, a curious snarl--like a grin--now and then contorted the immobility of its powerful jaws. The sinewy tail beat a restless tattoo on the floor of the cage.
Now and then when a jerk on the uneven ground disturbed it from its ominous quietude, the brute would jump up suddenly--quick as the lightning flash--and bound right across the cage, striking out with its huge black paw to where one of the rearmost negro's back appeared temptingly near.
The cunning precision with which that paw hit out exactly between two iron bars highly pleased the public, and once when the mighty claws did reach a back and tore it open from the shoulder to the waist, a wild shout of delight, echoed and re-echoed by thousands upon thousands of throats, shook the very walls of the gigantic Amphitheatre. Children screamed with pleasure, the women applauded rapturously, the men shouted "Habet! habet!" He has it! The unfortunate slave, who, giddy with the loss of blood, rolled inanimate beneath the wheels of the cage.
It was at this moment, when the excited populace went nearly wild with delight, that a loud fanfare of brass trumpets announced the approach of the Cęsar.
He entered his tribune preceded by an escort of his praetorian guard with flying standards. At sight of him the huge audience rose to its feet like one man and cheered him to the echoes, cheered him with just the same shouts as those with which, a few moments ago, it had acclaimed the ferocious prowess of the panther, cheered him with the same shouts with which it would have hailed his death, his assassination, the proclamation of his successor.
He was clad in a tunic of purple silk, wrought with the sun, moon and stars in threads of gold and silver, and on his chest was the breastplate of Augustus, which he had had dug up out of the vault where the great Emperor lay buried. On his head was a diadem of jewels in shape like the rays of the sun standing out all round his misshapen head, and in his hands he carried a gold thunderbolt, emblem of Jove, and a trident emblem of Neptune.
He was surrounded by his own guard, by a company of knights and a group of senators and patricians, and immediately behind him walked his wife, Cęsonia, and his uncle, Claudius, the brother of Germanicus.
He came to the front of the tribune, allowing the populace a full view of his grotesque person, and listening with obvious satisfaction to the applause and the cheers that still rose in ceaseless echoes upwards to the sky.
He did not hear the ironical laughter, nor yet the mocking comments on his appearance, which was more that of a caricature than of a sentient man. He was satisfied that all eyes were turned on himself and on the majestic pomp which surrounded him. The standard-bearers were ordered to wave the flags so that a cloud of purple and gold seemed to be wafted all round his head, and he ordered the Augustas to group themselves around him.
The people watched this pageant as they had done the earlier spectacles. It was all a part of the show stage-managed for their amusement. They were interested to see the Augustas, and those who knew mentioned the various names to their less fortunate neighbours.
"Cęsonia standeth next her lord. She gave him a love potion once, so 'tis said, because his passion for her was quickly on the wane. And 'tis that love potion which hath made him crazy."
"And there are the Cęsar's sisters, Drusilla and Livilla. Drusilla is very beautiful."
"And there is Julia, the daughter of Drusus. She had been willing to step into Cęsonia's shoes."
"But Dea Flavia, daughter of Claudius Octavius, is the most beautiful amongst them all!"
"Hail to Dea Flavia Augusta!" came from more than one enthusiastic throat.
She was clad all in white, with strings of pearls round her neck and a fillet of diamonds in her golden hair. Her face was very pale and her lips never smiled. In her hands she held three tall sprays of lilies scarce whiter than the smooth surface of her brow.
Everyone noticed that the Cęsar specially commanded her to sit on his left, Cęsonia being on his right, and that the Augustas all frowned with dissatisfaction at this signal honour paid to Dea Flavia.
Anon Caius Nepos, the praetorian praefect, came to the front of the tribune, and in stentorian voice commanded everyone to kneel. All those in the tribune did kneel immediately, the guard holding the standards, the senators and the knights. The Augustas all knelt too, and the patricians in the tribunes to right and left. Some of the people knelt, but not by any means all, and Caius Nepos had to repeat his command three or four times, and to threaten the immediate dispersal of the audience and the clearing of the Amphitheatre before everyone at last obeyed.
Caligula alone remained standing, and not far from him the praefect of Rome leaning against the partition wall.
The Cęsar then blessed his people, and at the word of Caius Nepos--the praetorian praefect--cries of "Hail Cęsar! Hail, O God! Hail the Father of the Armies! the greatest and best of Cęsars!" broke out on every side.
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