Coliseum (Part 2 of 8)
Reality washed back over the young Roman as he saw his father, lying beaten on the ground and knowing it was he who had put him there. A painful lump sprang up in his throat, and he became very aware of the ugly stick that was clenched in his hand. Guiltily, he threw it away, and looked pleadingly at his father.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said in a small voice. ‘You just made me so…’
‘Angry?’ asked Aurelius, extending his hand.
‘Yes,’ said Caius, helping his father to his feet.
‘Good, because through that anger you have shown me two things.’
‘What, Father?’ Caius placed Aurelius’ arm around his shoulder and began helping him towards the house.
‘That you are indeed serious about becoming a gladiator, and that, with training, you will grow to be a great gladiator indeed.’
Caius felt a marvellous swelling in his chest as untold possibilities began to stretch out before him. He was going to be a gladiator, and he was going to be great.
‘Do you mean it, Father?’
‘I just feel sorry for your opponents,’ smiled Aurelius. ‘Now, come. Help your old father into the house so that your mother can shout at me for allowing you to beat me so.’
* * *
Aurelius was correct that Lucia was less than impressed when she laid eyes on her battered and bruised husband, but she did not shout.
‘Caius,’ she said kindly. ‘Please prepare for bed. I will bring your supper to you after I have spoken with your father.’
‘Yes, Mother,’ said Caius, a little concerned that his dream of becoming a gladiator may have been short-lived. If his mother wanted to she could talk Aurelius out of agreeing to let Caius train, and that worry must have shown on his face. Aurelius smiled at his son.
‘Go on, Caius. It’ll be alright.’ Father and son looked at one another and in that moment Caius felt buoyed that, if nothing else, Aurelius was going to argue his case. He left his parents to it, his mind swirling with images of combat and glory. Once they were alone, Lucia began tending to Aurelius’ cuts and bruises.
‘I understand why you did what you did,’ she said, as she filled a bowl with water from the jug on the table. ‘But did you have to let him get so carried away?’
‘I’ll be fine,’ said Aurelius. ‘It’s just a few scrapes.’
‘Oh really?’ Lucia pushed the bowl towards Lucia and motioned for him to look at himself in the water’s reflection. He bent over the bowl and saw a bloodied mess staring back at him.
‘By Jupiter!’ He knew that Caius had really taken it to him, but his adrenaline must have been pumping too hard for him to register just how much of a beating he had taken.
‘My thoughts exactly,’ said Lucia, pulling the bowl back towards so that she could dampen a rag to mop up the worst of her husband’s face. Despite the mangled face that had looked back at him from the water bowl, Aurelius could not help but smile.
‘I’d hardly say this was amusing,’ scolded Lucia.
‘I’m not amused,’ said Aurelius. ‘I’m proud.’
‘And you should be, too.’
‘And why is that, because our son has shown a worrying flare for violence? Oh yes, I’m thrilled.’
Aurelius winced as Lucia tended to a cut above his eye.
‘As I said to him, it has shown me that he’s serious about his dream of becoming a gladiator.’
‘I understand that, but is that really the life you want for our son? Tonight he was against his father who was out to prove a point. If he becomes a gladiator he will be against men who will want to do more than prove a point.’
‘Lucia, I’m aware of that.’
‘They’ll want to kill him!’
‘And he them.’
‘And you’re okay with this?’
‘I won’t lie, I’d always assumed that Caius would enter the family business, when the time was right, just as I did. However, he showed me tonight that there’s a fire inside him that would never be quenched by working as a wine merchant.’
‘You’re talking about a desire to kill. I don’t want our son to be a killer.’
‘Neither do I, particularly, but I’d like to think that what attracts Caius to this path is the glory to be found in combat, and not in killing.’
‘Look,’ said Aurelius, taking his wife’s hands in his. ‘You were right. As much as I am grateful to the gods for the life we have, I’d give anything to go back to my youth and be given the opportunity that we’re presenting Caius with. Just to find out for myself. Who knows, I could have been a champion chariot racer, or I could have been terrible at it, but at least I would have known.’
‘Hmmm,’ said Lucia.
‘Not that I don’t have faith in Caius, but it’s not as if he’s just going to walk into an arena, is it? He has to go through training first, and then only if he’s accepted into a school. Wanting it, even as badly as Caius does, is not a guarantee that he will make it. But knowing how badly he wants to try, I don’t think I could live with myself if I simply refused him the opportunity. Could you?’
‘Well, no,’ said Lucia, reluctantly. ‘But you mentioned him getting into school. What about his regular schooling? I don’t want Caius missing out on an education just so he can chase a dream that may not pan out for him.’
Aurelius felt like he was on firmer ground here, and smiled.
‘Well, that’s no problem,’ he said, confidently. ‘Caius will not be able to apply to a training school until he is at least eighteen, so there is plenty of time for him to complete his education. Then, if the path of the gladiator is not for him at least he’ll have something to fall back on.’
Lucia was silent for a moment.
‘I just don’t want him to get hurt,’ she said, quietly.
‘Neither do I, but it would be foolish of us to think that we can always prevent anything bad from happening to him.’
‘I suppose you are right.’
‘Why don’t you take Caius his supper and I’ll clean myself up?’ said Aurelius. We can talk about this some more with him in the morning.’
Lucia stood, arranged a plate of food for Caius, and kissed her husband tenderly on the forehead before leaving the room. Aurelius pulled the wash bowl towards him and looked at himself one more time before starting to wash.
* * *
‘In here, Mother.’
Lucia entered her son’s bedroom with his supper. Caius was dressed for bed and sitting at the window, looking out at the night sky.
‘I brought you something to eat,’ said Lucia, kindly. She placed the plate of food next to the bed.
‘Thank you.’ Caius spoke, but he did not look at his mother.
‘Well, goodnight, my son,’ she said.
‘I’m serious about this, Mother,’ said Caius, turning from the window to face her. Lucia released the door handle and turned back into the room.
‘I know you are,’ she said, quietly, as she sat down on the bed. ‘That is what worries me.’
‘Don’t you believe in me?’ There was an undeniable look of pleading in Caius’ eyes. In that moment he needed his mother’s faith, her trust. Somehow, he felt that would legitimise everything.
‘Caius, I believe that you can do anything you set your heart to.’ Caius’ eyes brightened momentarily. ‘But,’ continued Lucia. ‘It would be dishonest of me to say that you being a gladiator did not scare me.’
‘It scares me,’ said Lucia, interjecting. ‘But nowhere near as much as the thought of your disappoint in me scares me.’
‘Do you mean…?’ Caius hopped up on to his knees, excitement building inside him like a volcano.
‘If this is what you want, what you truly want…’
‘Then you have our support.’
Caius scooped his mother up into a tight hug that knocked the breath out of her.
‘Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!’ said the boy, bouncing up and down with joy.
‘On one condition,’ said Lucia, hoarsely, as she was jangled about by her clamouring son.
‘Anything! Anything! Name it!’ Caius felt on top of the world. He would agree to any caveat if it meant being allowed to chase his dream.
‘You finish your schooling first so that you have an education to fall back on.’
Caius released Lucia, looking a little crestfallen.
‘Just in case,’ smiled Lucia, ruffling her son’s hair. ‘You can’t begin training officially as a gladiator until you’re eighteen anyway, so that gives you plenty of time to build up your mind as well as your body.’
‘But I can still train at home between now and then, can’t I? To make sure I’m good enough to apply to a training school when I’m eighteen?’
‘As long as it doesn’t interfere with your schoolwork or your chores then yes, you can start as soon as you like.’
Caius beamed. He was back on top of the world.
‘Oh, there is one more thing,’ said Lucia.
‘What?’ said Caius, instantly anxious that another potential spoke was about to be put into the wheels of his plan.
‘Find another sparring partner besides your father.’ She smiled. ‘Our customers will not want to trade with a man who looks like he was trampled by a herd of oxen.’
‘Now get some sleep, my big, strong gladiator.’ Lucia leaned over and kissed her son on the forehead. She then stood and made her way out of the room.
‘Goodnight, my son.’
Caius went to sleep happy that night. His dream was coming true. It would be a long road, but with his parents’ support he felt nothing could stand in his way.
* * *
Both Caius and his parents were true to their word. Aurelius and Lucia gave their son their blessing to set his sights on becoming a gladiator, and Caius continued his schooling and carried on helping with the family wine business. As the boy grew and entered his teen years, any time that was not spent learning or working was spent training. Caius knew that what he was doing was not real training – that would come when he enrolled in a gladiatorial school – but while his schooling was exercising his mind, his spare time was devoted to exercising his body. He knew, or at the very least strongly suspected, that to be in with a chance of being accepted to a gladiator school he was going to need to be in top physical condition when he finally got the chance to apply.
He still attended local shows with his father, as well. That had become a mainstay of their relationship. Caius lapped up every bit of gladiatorial competition that he could feast his eyes on. He would sit there, barely talking to Aurelius – sometimes not at all – and drink it all in. He studied the gladiators in every detail; how they walked; how they carried their weapons; and how they fought. Winner or loser, the gladiators had become heroes to young Caius. He would sit at these shows with one thought firmly in his head: one day. One day that will be me down there.
Then, on Caius’ sixteenth birthday, Aurelius surprised his son with a trip to Rome to see a show at the Coliseum. Caius was beside himself with excitement, and all the way from their home to the centre of Rome he waxed rhapsodic about the Coliseum and the calibre of competition that they were going to see. Aurelius smiled at his son’s incessant chatter. Caius was taller than his father now, and noticeably physically honed. The boy had proved his seriousness, and then some. Many was the evening that Aurelius had watched his son train after supper. His dedication was truly admirable. As they entered the massive structure of the Flavian Amphitheatre, Aurelius thought back to when Caius had first expressed a desire to train to be a gladiator. Seeing his son so full of life and showing such perseverance made him realise how close he had come to stamping out a fire in his son’s heart. He would never have forgiven himself.
‘Thank you, Father, so much,’ said Caius, as they took their seats.
‘It is my pleasure, son,’ said Aurelius, warmly.
Those were the last words Caius spoke to Aurelius during the entirety of the show. Everything else that came out of his mouth during that time was directed at the action in the arena. Whoops of triumph, groans of disappointment; Caius was completely transfixed. It wasn’t until after the show had finished, completely filled with adrenaline and excitement that he addressed his father again.
‘That was incredible!’ he enthused, as they filed out of their seats and made their way towards the nearest exit.
‘I’m glad you enjoyed it,’ said Aurelius, smiling.
Caius couldn’t remember a time when he had enjoyed himself more, but Aurelius was not finished with the birthday surprises.
‘You know,’ he said, casually, as they left the Coliseum for the teeming street outside. ‘A certain someone might just have found out where the gladiators like to go after a show.’
There was a moment of silence as Caius comprehended what his father had just told him.
‘Father, do you mean…?’
‘As luck would have it, it’s a little tavern a few streets away that we supply to.’
Caius’ eyes widened in surprise and anticipation.
‘What do you say to a quick drink before we call it a day, then?’
‘Yes!’ said Caius, pumping his fist in the air in excitement. ‘I have so much that I want to ask them!’
‘Let’s go and see, then.’
* * *
Father and son walked through the city towards the tavern, Caius a bundle of raw nerves and Aurelius glad to still be able to surprise his son. As with any evening after a big show at the Coliseum, the tavern was busy, and the communal area out front was thronged with people talking and drinking. Caius craned his neck to try and see any faces he recognised from the arena. Aurelius smiled.
‘Come, son, let’s go inside. I doubt any gladiators who might be here are drinking outside with the rest of us.’
Aurelius led the way as they eased their way to the tavern’s interior. He nodded at a few people he knew, before spotting the tavern’s owner.
From across the tavern, a squat, bald man looked over. His expression brightened when he saw Aurelius.
‘Aurelius, dear friend, welcome!’ The two men shook hands warmly, as Caius continued to look about the tavern, trying to spot anything that looked remotely like a gladiator. As Decimus withdrew his hand, he looked at Caius.
‘This cannot be Caius!’ he exclaimed. ‘Your son is but a boy, surely. What I see here is very much a man!’ Decimus clapped Caius on the back as he finished speaking.
Aurelius smiled, proudly.
‘This is indeed my son, Caius,’ said Aurelius. ‘Sixteen and in every way a man.’
‘Well, by the gods,’ said Decimus, slapping himself on his large, round head. ‘How time slips by us, eh?’
‘A pleasure to meet you, sir,’ said Caius, politely, extending his hand.
‘Most welcome,’ said Decimus, shaking Caius enthusiastically by the hand. ‘Most welcome. My, the grip on this lad! Aurelius, have you sold your oxen in favour of the strength of your son?’
Both Aurelius and Decimus smiled at Caius, who looked down, sheepishly.
‘It’s funny you should mention his strength, Decimus, because Caius wants to train to become a gladiator when he’s of age.’
‘Does he now?’ said Decimus, once again eyeing up Caius, approvingly.
‘And that’s why we’re here this evening.’
‘Oh?’ The tavern owner’s eyebrows raised and he looked momentarily confused.
‘Yes. We’ve just been to the show at the Coliseum, and…’
‘Are there any gladiators here tonight?’ asked Caius, interrupting his father.
‘My son would like to meet some, if at all possible.’
Decimus smiled and puffed out his expansive belly.
‘Well, as you well know, Aurelius, my tavern is favoured by many a fighting man.’ At this, Caius’ eyes lit up. ‘I have room in the back that I keep for certain clientele.'
‘Can we…?’ asked Caius, hopping excitedly from foot to foot.
‘I don’t normally allow other customers into the back room.’ Decimus began. He smiled upon seeing Caius start to look crestfallen. ‘However, my boy, your father and I go back many years, and if it’s gladiators you desire then it’s gladiators you shall have.’