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"Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth."--ECCLESIASTES III. 21.
Caius Julius Cæsar Caligula was in excellent spirits, smiling and nodding to those around him and to his people all the time. His face certainly looked sallow and his eyes were bloodshot, but this may have been due to ill-health, for without doubt his temper was of the best. Only once had he frowned, when, looking behind him, he saw that the praefect of Rome had remained standing when everyone knelt to acclaim the Cæsar.
But even then the frown was quickly dissipated and he spoke quite pleasantly to the praefect later on. The Augustas grouped around him were continually laughing as he turned to them from time to time with a witty sally, or probably with what was more in keeping with his character--a coarse jest. And he watched the spectacle attentively from end to end. Firstly the play in verse on the subject of the judgment of Paris, a perversion of the legend favoured by the Greeks--a travesty wherein Paris--renamed Parisia--was a woman, and three gods were in rivalry for the golden apple, the emblem of her favours. Then the naval spectacle over the flooded arena, with ships and galleys executing complex manoeuvres on waters rendered turbulent by cleverly contrived artificial means; then the wrestling and scenes of hunting with wolves and boars specially brought from the Thracian forests for the occasion.
He watched the Numidian lions tearing one another to pieces, he exulted with the audience over the fight between a pack of hyenas and some crocodiles from the Nile. He encouraged the gladiators in their fights, and joined in the excitement that grew and grew with every item of a programme which had been skilfully arranged so that it began with simple and peaceful shows, and gradually became more bloodthirsty and more fierce.
It seemed as if a cunning mind, alert to the temper of the people, had contrived the entertainment so that with every stage of the proceedings something of the lustful love of cruelty, inherent in every Roman citizen, would be gradually aroused. The hunting scenes were a prelude to the combat between the lions, and these again were the forerunners of a more bloody bout between the hyenas and the crocodiles.
At last blood had begun to flow. The audience sniffed its sickening odour with a thrill of nostril and brain, and tongues and lips became parched with the fever of desire for more.
The other items--the play, the naval pageant, the scenes of hunting and combat of beasts amongst themselves--these were only the prologue. The real spectacle was at last to commence. For this the Romans thirsted--patricians and plebs alike, rich and poor, man, woman and child. These shows were their very life; they constituted the essence of their entire being; for these they rose at midnight and stood waiting, hour upon hour, that they might be near enough to smell the blood when it reddened the sand of the arena, and to see the last throe of agony on the face of those who fell in combat.
"Habet! Habet! Habet!"
The cry became more insistent and more hoarse. See the men and women leaning over the edge of the tribunes, their eyes wide open, their hands outstretched with thumb pointing relentlessly the way of death.
"Habet! Habet!" shrieked the women when a prostrate figure lay writhing on the ground, and the victor with head erect demanded the final verdict.
And up in the imperial tribune the Cæsar jested and laughed, the standards waved above his head, the striped awning threw a cool blue shadow over his gorgeous robes and the jewel-crowned heads of the Augustas.
The rest of the gigantic arena was a blaze of riotous colour now, with the mid-morning's sun darting its rays almost perpendicularly on the south side of the huge oval place. A sea of heads gold and brown, ruddy and black oscillating in unison to right or left like waters driven by the tide, as the combatants down below shifted their ground across the floor of the arena--fans of coloured feathers swinging, mantles caught by a passing breeze, every grain of sand on the floor of the arena a minute mirror radiating the light, everything glowed with an intensity of colour rendered all the more vivid by contrast with the dense shadows thrown against the marble walls.
On the south side every shade of russet and brown and green showed in the mantles and the tunics of the plebs, and seemed flecked with vivid gold under the light of the sun, whilst in the tribunes of the rich on the opposite side cool tones of amethyst and chrysoprase were veiled in tender azure by the shadow from the awning above. And at either end, to east and west the massive copper portals, like gigantic ruddy mirrors threw back these tones of gold and blue as if through a veil of sunset-kissed clouds.
Above, the sky of a vivid blue, translucent and iridescent with a myriad flecks of turquoise and rose and emerald that found their reflections in the marble walls of the arena or the shining helmets of the legionaries guarding the imperial tribune; and over the whole scene an impalpable veil of gold, made of tiny, unseen atoms that danced in the heat, and merged into an exquisite glowing harmony the russets and the purples, the emeralds and rubies and the trenchant notes of sardonyx and indigo that cut across the orgy of colour like a deep, gaping wound.
And through it all that sense of thrilling expectancy, so keen that it almost seemed palpable.
It vibrated in the air making every cheek glow with a crimson fire and kindling a light in every eye. It seemed to set every golden atom dancing, it was felt through every breath drawn by two hundred thousand throats.
Over the Emperor's head the striped awning flapped weirdly in the breeze, with strange insistent sound like the knocking of a ghostly hand upon the doors of hell.
Not a few miserable wretches whom the summary justice of the Cæsar's own tribunal had condemned to death were exposed to a band of swordsmen--executioners really, since the fight was quite unequal. Huge African giants with short naked swords pursuing a few emaciated wretches who ran howling round the arena, jumping improvised hurdles, rounding obstacles or crawling under cover, running, running with that unreasoning instinct of self-preservation which drives even before the certainty of death.
A hunting scene this, of novel diversion.
No one cared whether the victims were really guilty of crime, no one cared if they had been equitably tried and been justly condemned, all that the public cared about was that the spectacle was new and amusing. The African giants were well-trained for their part, playing with the miserable victims like a feline doth with its prey, allowing them to escape, now and then, to see safety close at hand, to make a wild dash for what looked like freedom, and then suddenly bounding on them with that short wide sword that cried death as it descended.
Rapturous applause greeted this show, and loud immoderate laughter hailed the fruitless efforts of the hunted, their falls over the obstacles, their look of horror, and the contortions of their meagre bodies when they were caught at last.
"Habet! Habet! Habet!" everyone shouted when one of the unfortunate wretches brought to bay tried to turn on his pursuer, and to pit two feeble arms against the relentless grip of well-trained giants, and against the death-dealing sword.
"Habet! Habet! Habet!"
"He has it!" they screamed. He has the hideous death, the gaping wound in the still panting chest. He has the final agony which helps to make a holiday for the great citizens of the world.
Now at last the sand of the arena has turned red with blood, the sickly odour mounts to every nostril; shrieks become more wild, like those of thousands of demons let loose. Anticipation and desire has been brought to its wildest pitch, and Caligula has every cause to be satisfied.
Cries of "The lions! the lions! Slaves to the lions!" resounded from every side. Thousands of feet beat a tattoo on the floor, and from behind the great copper gates a mighty roar filled the heat-laden air with its awesome echo.
In his gilded cage supported by carved pillars and drawn by eight Ethiopian slaves, the favourite of Caligula was slowly wheeled into the arena.
A huge sigh rose from every breast. The tumult was hushed; dead silence fell upon the vast concourse of people suddenly turned to stone, alive only by two hundred thousand pairs of eyes fixed upon the cage and its occupant.
The black panther--with its sleek black coat on which the midday sun threw tiny blotches of tawny lights--was cowering in a corner of its cage; its snake-like head, with the broad flat brow and wide curved jaws, was drawn back between its shoulders, its small golden eyes, gleaming like yellow topaz, were half closed in wary somnolence.
Slowly the cage was wheeled round by the panting negro slaves, and then it was brought to a standstill against the copper gates at the eastern end of the arena.
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