Coliseum (Part 1 of 8)
Ever since Caius was a little boy he had wanted to be a gladiator.
It had started when he was ten years old and his father had taken him to a show for his birthday. They lived in a small provincial town a few days’ travel from Rome, and the local arena was rather small, but to the young Caius it was like visiting the great Flavian Amphitheatre itself. He held his father’s hand tightly as they walked up the darkened steps and out into the bright afternoon sunlight. Everything was so bright and striking and memorable; Caius was instantly transfixed. He watched, rapt and unblinking, at the spectacles that were laid on that day. It wasn’t a very big show, but to the ten year old Caius it was the greatest thing he had ever seen.
And then the gladiators had come out.
Caius had heard his father and uncles talk of gladiator shows, but nothing they could have said would have prepared him for the impact these men had on the young Roman. He sat on the edge of his seat and devoured the glorious combat. The cries, the action, the sweat and the blood; but only the blood of those who lost, Caius noticed. The victors stood in the centre of the arena, filthy, exhausted, but triumphant. They were winners. To Caius, they were gods.
He was instantly hooked.
Caius was alive with energy on the walk home from his first gladiatorial show. He whooped and hollered and mimicked the fighting that had entranced him so. He picked up a stick from the roadside and fought invisible foes, the picture of boyish glee. His father, Aurelius, smiled to see his son so happy.
‘So, you enjoyed yourself, then?’ he asked as the boy stopped to catch his breath.
‘Oh Father,’ Caius enthused. ‘It was incredible! Can we come to the next show? Please?’
‘Of course,’ said Aurelius, kindly. ‘Now, let’s get home. Your mother will have supper waiting.’
* * *
Aurelius was good to his word and, when the next show came to the local arena, he took Caius, as promised. The boy now lived for these shows. Everything else had become secondary to him; his schooling, helping with the family wine business, everything. He was not neglectful of these things, but it had become obvious that his mind was always somewhere else.
That is, apart from when he was at the arena.
Taking in the gladiatorial shows soon became a regular thing for Caius and Aurelius. His mother, Lucia, was not in love with her son being so interested in such violent spectacles, but she was happy that Caius and Aurelius had found something to bond over. So it was that every month the local arena would be filled with eager spectators, and always amongst them would be the young Caius and his father. The more he saw the more he wanted to see. Caius felt a strange connection to these shows and the men who put their lives on the line to provide them. As he sat there, wonderstruck, he felt as if they were performing just for him. He would look around at the assembled faces and feel that he was somehow getting something more from the shows than anyone else. It was as if he was being told something, like he was being shown a path that was open only to him. Almost a year to the day when his father had taken him to his first show, Caius came to a decision that had been swirling around in his mind for some months.
He would become one of them.
He would become a gladiator.
Caius turned to his father and spoke with an earnestness that made what he said all but a certainty in his mind.
‘Father,’ he said. ‘I want to do what they do. I want to be a gladiator.’
‘Maybe someday,’ Aurelius said, kindly, thinking no more of it. Aurelius was a wine merchant, as his father had been before him, and so on. It was expected that Caius would carry on the family business in years to come, so Aurelius had dismissed his son’s declaration as mere boyish wonder.
But Caius was not be deterred.
After the show had ended, father and son were walking home in the early evening haze, and the boy was strangely quiet.
‘Is something the matter?’ asked Aurelius.
‘I meant what I said, Father,’ said Caius.
‘I want to be a gladiator.’
‘But my son,’ said Aurelius, choosing his words wisely. ‘We are wine merchants.’
‘But…’ began Caius.
‘Look,’ said Aurelius, stopping in the road to kneel in front of his impetuous son. ‘It is common for a young man such as you to be so full of ideas, but that is all they are, son, ideas.’
‘I remember when my father used to take me to the gladiator shows. Everything was so exciting! I wanted to be a part of it, too. It felt so thrilling, so adventurous. It was like a dream.’
‘That’s how I feel!’
‘But it is nothing more than a dream, my son. Your place is with the family. I will need you to carry on after I am gone. Now, let us forget about these silly whims and get on home.’
Aurelius stood and brushed the dust from his clothes. He set off down the road and stopped after a few steps when he realised that his son was not keeping pace him with. He turned around and immediately his face fell. Caius stood, rooted to the spot, and the look on his face pierced his father’s heart like a dagger. It was a look of wounded betrayal, of anger.
‘Silly?’ said Caius, slowly.
‘Silly?!’ shouted Caius. Tears were now glassing the young boy’s eyes. He felt let down by his father. He had found something that made him feel more alive than he could ever remember feeling, and his father had dismissed it as silly. Aurelius took a cautious step towards his son. Caius clenched his fists and remained motionless.
‘Caius, I only meant…’
‘I don’t care what you meant!’ raged the boy. ‘I will be a gladiator! I will!’ With his final words echoing off of nearby buildings, Caius launched himself from where he stood and hurtled past his father, running madly for home.
How dare he?
Aurelius sighed and carried on walking towards his house. He knew that he would need to talk to his son, but he was not looking forward to trying to get him to listen.
* * *
Aurelius arrived home and found Lucia seated at the dinner table, all three meals set out in their usual places. His wife was quiet, but when she looked up at Aurelius, she smiled thinly.
‘He is outside,’ she said, gently.
‘I’ll go to him,’ said Aurelius.
‘He seemed very upset. Did you two have a disagreement?’
‘Yes,’ Aurelius sighed. ‘He says he wants to be a gladiator.’
Lucia was quiet again for a moment.
‘I told him, though, that his place is here with us. With the family.’
‘Well, no wonder he’s upset,’ said Lucia, as she poked at her food.
‘What?’ Aurelius was confused.
‘My dear, he’s eleven years old. What were you like at that age?’
Aurelius sat down and took a mouthful of his dinner. He knew where his wife was heading with this.
‘Headstrong. Ready to take on the world and win.’ He smiled.
‘Exactly,’ said Lucia, smiling.
‘Are you saying that you want our son to become a gladiator?’ asked Aurelius, cautiously, knowing that gladiatorial shows were a subject that he and his wife had always had a difference of opinion on.
‘Not particularly, no,’ said Lucia. ‘But let me ask you something, husband. What did you want to be when you were Caius’ age?’
‘I was destined for the family business, you know that.’
‘That is not what I asked.’ Lucia smiled. ‘Men may grow, but at heart they are always little boys in their dreams. So, come, what was it?’
Aurelius looked down, a little embarrassed, and smiled.
‘A chariot racer,’ he said, quietly.
‘And who was it who told you that you could not chase that dream?’
‘Lucia smiled and placed a hand on Aurelius’.
‘Go to your son.’
Lucia was right, Aurelius knew that. He loved his father, and he knew he meant well, but a small part of him had never forgiven him for trampling his youthful dreams the way he had on that day all those years ago. Aurelius looked at his wife as he replayed the conversation he had had with Caius not an hour ago. With a sinking feeling he realised he had done to his son what his father had done to him.
‘What do I say to him?’ he asked, looking to his wife for guidance.
‘Just go to him,’ she said, gently. ‘The words will come.’
Aurelius smiled, stood, and kissed his wife tenderly on the forehead. She smiled again.
‘Help him find his way, Aurelius. I do not particularly desire that our son become a gladiator, but at the same time I do not wish him to harbour resentment towards us for the rest of his life because we denied him so.’
Aurelius placed his hand on his wife’s shoulder and gave it a loving squeeze. He sighed, ran his fingers through his hair and made his way to the back of the house. Stepping outside, he could hear the noise of something being hit repeatedly against something else. In an instant Aurelius saw Caius by the old pine tree. He had a large stick in his hands and he was beating it against the trunk in silent anger.
This wasn’t going to be easy.
Aurelius approached cautiously, not saying a word. The air was filled with the sounds of the stick being hit against the tree and the grunts from Caius’ exertion. Aurelius watched as his son thrust and swung the stick at the tree with worrying ferocity. He felt as if he was intruding on a private moment between a boy and his thoughts, but he knew the matter needed dealing with.
Caius spun around, the stick brandished and fire in his eyes. They blazed with anger and barely suppressed tears when they took in his father.
‘What do you want?’ he said, turning back to the tree.
‘Son, I came to talk to you.’
‘Go away.’ Caius remained facing away from Aurelius as he spoke. On any normal day Aurelius would have chastised his son for such disrespect, but he felt that this moment called for a different approach. He had seen his son upset before, but never like this. Something had ignited inside him and Aurelius was afraid of what might happen if he didn’t at least try and get a handle on the situation.
Aurelius swallowed hard with an uncomfortably dry throat.
‘I said go away!’ Caius shouted the last two words, causing Aurelius to take a step backwards. No, this was not the time to be meek. Caius was acting with such boldness, what was needed now was strength, conviction.
‘I will not,’ said Aurelius, firmly. ‘Not until we can talk about this.’
‘I don’t want to talk to you,’ said Caius, defiantly. He continued to bang the stick against the tree, but with somewhat less venom than before.
‘I did not mean to anger you, my son,’ said Aurelius, taking a deliberate step forward.
Caius stopped hitting the tree altogether and let his head hang low.
‘You called me silly,’ he said, quietly. Somehow, this was worse than the shouting.
‘I called the idea of you being a gladiator silly,’ reasoned Aurelius. ‘I did not call you silly.’
‘Same thing,’ snorted Caius.
‘Son, I…’ Aurelius laid a gentle hand on Caius’ shoulder, wanting desperately to have his son face him. He felt Caius tense under his touch, and, before he could register what was happening, Caius had spun around and pushed his father away, both hands shoving heavily at his chest. Unprepared for this sudden assault, Aurelius stumbled backwards and landed solidly on his backside. Anger and humiliation flared up inside him as he looked up at his son, standing over him like a conquering enemy. Neither spoke for a heart-piercing second.
‘Alright then,’ said Aurelius, quietly and coldly. Not breaking eye contact, the older man stood and faced his son. ‘Give me that stick.’
‘I said give it to me!’ The insistence in Aurelius’ voice made Caius’ eyes widen in surprise. Without thinking, he handed the stick to his father, feeling momentarily chastened. Still locking his son with an iron-hard glare, Aurelius took the stick in both hands and broke it in two across his knee. Tossing one half back to his son, he backed off a pace and held his half like a weapon.
‘You want to be a gladiator?’
Caius did not say anything for a moment or two. He looked at his father standing before him, poised and ready to strike. The anger he felt towards him was now tinged with a healthy dose of fear.
‘Well?’ pressed Aurelius.
‘In that case fight me.’
‘What?’ Caius blinked in confusion.
‘You heard me, I said fight me.’
Caius looked at the stick in his hand and then back at his father.
‘You were quick enough to put your hands on your own father a moment ago. If you are so certain that you want to fight for a living then prove it.’
‘Aurelius?’ The voice of Lucia made both father and son start. They both looked to the back door of their house where Lucia stood, silhouetted from the light inside. ‘What is going on?’
‘Go back in the house,’ said Aurelius. ‘This won’t take long.’
‘What are you doing?’ she pressed.
‘Seeing if our son is as serious as his word suggests,’ said Aurelius, his gaze returning to Caius. Lucia looked concerned, but she did as she was asked. Once the back door was shut again Aurelius grinned. ‘Come on then, show me what you’ve got.’ Without warning, Aurelius made his move. Thrusting his stick towards his son, he caught Caius completely off guard, cracking his stick painfully across the boy’s knuckles.
‘That hurt!’ protested Caius.
‘Good,’ said Aurelius, as he began to circle around Caius. ‘But you’ll have to put up with a lot worse than that if you want to be a gladiator.’ He struck again, this time catching the knuckles of his other hand.
‘Stop that!’ Caius cursed himself for the whining tone that had found its way into his voice, but as angry as he was at his father, he was definitely also frightened.
‘What’s the matter?’ jeered Aurelius. ‘Do you think your opponents will stop just because you tell them to? That’s a boy’s expectation, not a man’s!’ Aurelius struck a third time, but this one was blocked by Caius’ stick. The noise reverberated around the yard, and Aurelius felt the strength behind his son’s stick.
‘You’re not being fair!’ said Caius, very nearly shouting. He was now holding his stick with both hands, his breathing deep and purposeful.
‘Life isn’t fair, my boy, now stop thinking like a child and start acting like a warrior!’ Aurelius spun his stick around in an arcing loop, sending Caius off-balance. Pivoting rapidly on his heel, Aurelius caught his son in the back and sent him sprawling into the dirt. Caius would have felt the pain in his lower back, but the rage that boiled over in him masked it all. He remained face down on the ground for a moment, contemplating his next move.
Then Aurelius laughed.
‘I thought as much,’ he said, scornfully. ‘Just a little boy’s foolish dream.’
That was it.
Caius was on his feet and at his father in a second. His stick flew in all directions with a precision that had Aurelius reeling. He could barely parry half of the shots that his son rained down on him. Caius felt white hot with maddening anger. He wanted to hurt his father; he wanted him laid to waste before him, a quivering wreck beneath his might and power. Livid tears stung his eyes and streaked hot down his cheeks as he struck Aurelius from head to toe. Aurelius, his stick abandoned, covered his head with his hands as Caius drove him to the ground. Raising his stick over his head he was a heartbeat away from delivering what would be, were he holding a sword, the killing blow. His anger told him to do it, but, looking down at his prostrate father he saw him.
This was not the leering smile that Aurelius had taunted Caius with moments ago. This was a genuine smile of fatherly pride. Aurelius was battered and bleeding in a few places, but he looked as though nothing else on earth could please him more. It was enough to make Caius pause.
‘Well done, Caius,’ said Aurelius, talking thickly through a mouthful of blood. ‘Well done.’