Slaves tended a score of fires lit around the arena wall, while smoke from the smoldering tower and the fires mixed with the sweet aroma of three staked and burning calves. The clever effect prepared the crowd for the feast to follow.
High above, the great velum, torn and cracked in places, was drawn incompletely to its height above the amphitheater. Like the rest of Rome, it deteriorated under the absence of attentive caretakers. The network of awnings had once successfully blocked out the summer heat, but now the pale skins mirrored in form the scattered corpses in the arena.
Unimpeded, the sun reflected off the polished marble and sand, thickening the air with the stench of bodies, both living and dead. Like a vision of hell, the fires, smoke, screams, flies, and sweat mingled into a terrible confusion.
A man dressed in a hooded robe like the mythic ferryman entered the arena. He hefted a large mallet and led a train of black-robed slaves. He checked the men and beasts to be sure they were dead, smashing several on the head to the crowd’s delight.
Other slaves in natural wool suddenly emerged into the arena as if they had peeled from the walls. They proceeded to gather the corpses of men and beasts into the central mound near the smoldering tower.
It was often observed that moonlight spoiled flesh faster than sunlight, but it seemed to Eucher that Diana could have done little better than Apollo that day. As bodies mingled bone-on-bone in the sand, Roman ecstasy mounted until forty-thousand voices were roaring their pleasure.
“You’re a brutal people,” Gallus had once told Eucher. “You’ve seen the fruit of your fathers’ victories ferment to blood, spoils of a war that no longer makes deserts of foreign lands but of your faith. Where violence once served, brutality now preserves, feeding the taste without satisfying the appetite.”
His words were elegant words, disdainful words. He shared his opinion freely, for Eucher valued his judgment, though it was a slave’s judgment, often deliberated under a narrow lash.
Gallus’s eyes were shut, skin drawn tight over the contour of his cheek, a lattice of sun and shadow that twitched with strain. Eucher demanded he attend the show and watch, but Stoic acceptance is for philosophers. Christians feel pain. Gallus glimpsed the struggles of angels and demons where Eucher saw men. He knew a god as Eucher knew an emperor. A violence too intimate turned Gallus away.
Eucher smiled. He admired his slave’s fidelity; what he shared with his master, he shared with no one else.
A moral corruption had taken hold of Rome. Until Eucher’s zealous uncle closed the gladiatorial schools, each blow delivered with courage and strength had been a pulse returning life to Rome. Those blows could even return freedom and respectability to the man. But Honorius had taken from Rome everything but an artistic slaughter. The arena offered merely an uninspired and rigged game. Despite a capricious law forbidding the execution of criminals by beasts, Rome did it anyway. Eucher hoped that in the same way, gladiators would one day return to the arena floor. It wasn’t laws that ruled Rome, after all, but men.
As the crowd seethed, Gallus remained opaque to the lurid spectacle below. Like a hand numbed by cold, he felt nothing. He claimed his pleasure had no surface, but Eucher knew his fictions.He leaned toward Gallus and said, “This is how red begins.”
Defiant eyes fluttered open again, squinting from the brightness of the sun. Although slaves were allowed only on the wood benches near the vulgar women, Eucher granted Gallus a considerable advancement. When a senator had protested, Eucher threatened the man with his father’s name. Prudence convinced the man to allow a common slave on senatorial marble.
“When I was a boy,” Eucher continued, “Mother told me where colors come from.”
Shouts echoed from all around as a beast-fighter severed the horns from live ibexes and tossed them into the stands above us. Pale addaxes were herded in next, their loosely-spiraled horns an even greater prize.
“She has the vision of a goddess, you know. If she were Greek, she would have been a poet. If she were Egyptian, a priestess. But as a Roman, she was a mother.” Eucher leaned closer to Gallus. “Blue, she said, is justice, and it covers all the world. She said it would always protect me. Green is love, and it supports the world. She said God would always love me. But this, Gallus, is where red begins.”
“Red is a color.”
“Red is what happens when men draw swords. Red is the sun and fire.” Pausing to look him over, Eucher added, “Red shows us what we are. You need to be reminded often.”