When Eucher arrived at the Flavian amphitheater, his assistants left for their seats at the top of the arena. His bodyguard set chairs on the podium and then withdrew. Only Gallus remained, sitting beside his master in a silver chair, his hands folded in his lap. Despite the heat, he kept his azure robe wound about him.
Eucher’s gaze wandered from Gallus to his own hands, where he studied the pads and furrows. They were young hands, strong hands. They had never seen war or labor or gentleness. They were thick and hairy, like a German. They were manicured, like a Roman. Eucher recalled Gallus’s black hair splayed from between his fingers, and he stretched them.
Gallus noticed and looked away.
They sat in the great four-tiered amphitheater built by the Flavian emperors centuries ago. They were in time for the day’s executions, but Gallus wouldn’t watch.
Eucher had little patience for timidity and little understanding of it, either. He had seen the commonest of slaves, who bled from the whips of their masters day-after-day, turn joyfully vicious upon reaching the safety of an arena’s stands, but Gallus found no satisfaction in justice. After all, he wasn’t Roman.
The cheering rose as the show began. Gallus closed his eyes with slow insistence.
Two criminals entered the arena, a man and a woman condemned for robbing a martyr’s shrine. It was unusual to see women given to the violence of the arena. Few prisoners found guilty of capital crimes were women. Few people were even condemned for sacrilege any longer. The charge usually removed inconvenient men, not unimportant ones.
The woman’s death would be artful. She would die performing some myth, as was the custom. A matronly stola draped in an emerald shower from her shoulders to her feet, and the man wore a dusty tunic smeared with pitch, his back adorned with stubby wings of yellow wax.
Two beast-fighters, trained for the shows in North Africa, their faces burnt from years in the sun and their naked brown arms striped with white scars, pressed close behind the prisoners. Following distantly, harnessed and controlled by two other men, came a bull with gilded horns. Muscle corded its thighs and hardened its back like stone under its slick flow of black hide. It paused as it entered the light, strangely fearful despite its strength.
From the woman’s ankle to the bull’s thick neck the men attached a tether, and at a signal from the show’s editor, one of the beast-fighters whipped the bull. It charged the man with wings. The tether tore the woman from her feet, and the impact with the hard arena floor shattered her skull. It was a quick death, an unexciting one.
The allusion played out in the arena came to Eucher then. It was the myth of Pasiphae, who was driven mad by Neptune until she finally mated with a bull.
When he recognized the myth, he understood the part the condemned man would play. The inventor Daedalus had built a scaffold for Pasiphae to unite with the bull. Later, he created wings for his son to escape from her monstrous offspring, the Minotaur. So the condemned man was Icarus, Daedalus’s son, who tried—who would try—to fly to freedom and fail.
“Icarus” dropped to his knees and raised his hands to Heaven, while the crowd roared. Two arena slaves beat him with sticks until he stumbled to a wooden tower at the center of the arena, where he began to climb. His story would be finished later.
The slave who managed the arena drew the audience’s attention to another myth unfolding across the arena.
Two men stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the wall, their skin gray from days without sun and food. Long hair hung past their shoulders. Honey held milky strands of horse tails to their shaved heads. Corroded iron chain linked their legs. Leather straps lashed trousers of lynx pelts to their groins and thighs, while hobnailed military boots ripened the mockery. An imperial edict prohibited the wearing of skins in Rome, so outfitting criminals in the arena like the rudest of barbarians fed the audience’s appetite for justice.
Unlike Pasiphae, this was a modern myth.
These men were freed slaves who worshiped Mithra, once patron of emperors, of armies, of Rome. When imperial agents had assaulted the god’s sanctuary and set the carved god afire, these condemned freedmen attacked them. To some they were guilty of treason. To others they were guilty of sacrilege. Rome was of two minds: they honored the Nazarene, but they still worshiped those who first gave them the world.
“The Respectable Tribune Eucher is a man who appreciates justice.”
Eucher turned at the mentioning of his name.
A young city official seemed to be speaking with a man next to him, but his words shouted above the crowd. Leaning forward, the official rested his elbows on the short wall that separated the senators’ podium from the main seating. His crafty eyes glanced sideways and down at Eucher. “You wouldn’t find his father here, were he in Rome. No, the Vandal Stilicho wouldn’t wash his good Christian beliefs in the blood of Roman justice. He’d rather be destroying our past.”
The slur angered Eucher. Honorius, not his father, ordered the temples closed. Ambitious men found it easier to accuse Stilicho of making decisions in the emperor’s name, especially if a decision were as unpopular as destroying a cult still dear to many.