The editor, a senator of the family Ceionii, sponsored the beast show once every five years, though it wasn’t nearly as extravagant as it once was. Eucher saw the editor seated some distance to his right, his physician next to him, waving a shallow bowl under his nose, trying to calm him. The aged man was prone to fits. The folds of his rose toga extended and collapsed like a ligament as he gestured wildly.
Farther down, a span of bare marble surrounded the editor, the area belonging to the most illustrious of all families, more distinguished than even Eucher’s—the family Anicii. Those who didn’t attend usually offered their places as gifts, but the Anicii registered their moral objection to the shows by keeping their area conspicuously empty. The objection of such a family didn’t go unnoticed. Like a plague, it spread.
Another vacant spot belonged to the editor’s nephew nephew, Eucher’s friend Volusian, although his absence had nothing to do with morality. Eucher smiled.
Unlike his uncle, Volusian was far too cautious to be demonstrative, far too ambitious to remain merely a senator, and far too astute to be publicly linked with the worshipers of Mithra. Of course he was a Mithran, but at nineteen he already aspired to govern Africa, where an unscrupulous man could amass a fortune from the collection of taxes.
The editor dictated something to his heralds, who in turn wrote on egg-shaped placards that informed the audience about each event. When one left with his messages and came near the senators holding the slate aloft, Eucher read about the crimes of the condemned, about the African cats, the gilded bull, and the beast-fighters imported from Carthage. Written beneath all of this was the cost that was borne by the editor, permitted by the generosity of His Clemency, Flavius Honorius, Augustus of the West.
Eucher sneered at the thought of Honorius, Eucher’s cousin by blood and uncle by decree. Honorius was soft and dull, petulant and easily amused, without even the imagination of a Nero or the bloody resolve of a Domitian. Years ago, he abandoned Rome for the safe, impregnable marshes of Ravenna. He appeared at few shows, seldom appeared outside his imperial palace at all.
The audience hushed again as two men rose through trapdoors into the arena. Cheers assailed each beast-fighter as he emerged from the tunnels beneath the wooden floor. One was oiled and naked but for brown woolen trousers and a dented bronze helmet. Yellow tresses flowed out from under his crude helmet. Clumps of goat hair stuck to his chest, though his broad, oiled back glistened with the pinkish sheen of a roasted boar. He carried only a spear. His role in the farcical campaign to ensue was obvious; he represented a foolish infantryman, the Barbarian.
The other man wore a sleeveless red tunic trimmed in gold, military trousers, and a shining iron helmet. A smooth cuirass of iron clamped around his sinewy torso and three strips of leather hung down over his groin. He carried a sheathed sword and a net. His role was also obvious; he was a dignified officer, the Roman, who stood like a vital spring amid the insouciant flow of the dead.
Walking behind the Barbarian, the Roman flashed scarlet and spread a net between both hands, while the Barbarian leapt and swung his spear to excite the crowd as he approached the tiger.
Eucher felt the heat rise in his cheeks. He had no love for barbarians, but he couldn’t ignore the stares. The men around him stared at him, and in seeing his fair hair, they thought of the barbarians descending on Rome like a cloud of flies on a fat carcass.
The tiger crouched near the wall, waiting. When the hunters came near, the tiger tried to back up, but there was nowhere to go. It waited. The hunters came closer. The beast launched itself at them in a momentary resistance to the inevitable.
After the Roman flung his net, the screeching tangle of white fur dropped and rolled between the men. Sliding his blade into its belly, the Roman spilled the contents into the sand. After digging through the wet entrails, he lifted his sword, dangling a dripping necklace from its tip. He tossed the prize into the plebeian seats, where a handful of men fought so ardently for it that it was torn to pieces.
When the Roman approached the leopard, it rose and stepped backward, scattering squawking birds behind it. Ravens complained from a distance, stepping ever closer to the corpses, while gray pigeons followed, leaving their perches atop the poles that held the protective netting around the arena wall.
The Roman and the Barbarian stabbed the leopard’s back legs. After a dozen wounds it collapsed, then tried to drag its limp hind end away from the swords. Listening to the demanding voices above them, the beast-fighters slowed their strikes to a torturous rhythm until the cat was dead.