From his position in the shadows of the passageway, Gaius Naevius Capito had a panoramic view of the aftermath of the mock battle. A crude reconstruction of a Celtic settlement stood in the middle of the Statilius Taurus amphitheatre, which was littered with the dead. Capito lifted his eyes to the galleries. He could see the new Emperor at the podium, flanked by a cabal of freedmen jostling for attention, with the senators and imperial high priests seated at the periphery in their distinctive togas. Above the podium the crowd was squeezed shoulder to shoulder on the stone seats lining the upper galleries. Capito felt a shiver in his bones as the crowd roared. He looked on as a pair of officials prodded a slumped barbarian with a heated iron. The man jolted. The crowd jeered at his attempt to play dead and one of the officials signalled to a servant wielding a massive double-sided hammer. A second official finished sprinkling fresh white sand over the blood-flecked arena floor. Then they retreated to the passageway, resting in the shadows a few paces away from Capito.
‘Look at this shit,’ one of the officials moaned as he held up his blood-smeared hands. ‘It’ll take me bloody ages to clean this mess off.’
‘Gladiators,’ the other official grumbled. ‘Selfish buggers.’
Capito frowned at them as the servant with the hammer strode over to the Gaul and towered over the fallen man, smiling gleefully as he smashed the hammer into the barbarian’s skull. Capito heard the crack of shattering bone and grimaced. As the highest-ranked gladiator of the Julian school in Capua, he took great pride in his handiwork. But this spectacle had left a bitter taste in his mouth. He’d looked on from the passageway as gladiators dressed as legionaries had massacred their opponents — a mixture of condemned men and slaves armed with blunted instruments. There had been little skill involved. He considered it an affront to his profession.
An official dragged away the last of the dead with a metal hook.
‘A bloodbath,’ Capito muttered to himself. ‘Just a bloodbath.’
‘What did you just say?’ one of the officials demanded.
‘Nothing,’ Capito replied.
The official was about to speak again when the editor called out Capito’s name in a sonorous tone that soared up to the highest galleries. The crowd roared. The official jerked a thumb towards the blood-splattered sand.
‘You’re on,’ he growled. ‘Now remember. This is the showpiece event. Twenty thousand people have come here to see this. The Emperor is up there and he’s counting on you to give Britomaris a bloody good hiding. Don’t let him down.’
Capito nodded cautiously. His fight represented the main event of the first major spectacle given to the people by Emperor Claudius. The afternoon had seen a recreation of a pitched battle involving hundreds of men, with the gladiators predictably triumphing over the ill-equipped barbaric horde. Now the pride of the imperial gladiators would fight a barbarian playing the chief of a Celtic tribe. But this was not any old barbarian. Britomaris had already notched up five victories in the arena, to the surprise of seasoned observers. Barbarians without any proper schooling in the way of the sword usually met a grisly demise on their debut, and Britomaris’s run of wins had unsettled the veterans at the imperial school. Capito dismissed such concerns and reassured himself that the men Britomaris had faced in previous bouts were lesser warriors than he. Capito was a legend of the arena. A bringer of death and winner of glory. He flexed his neck muscles as he swore to teach Britomaris a lesson. His confidence was further boosted by the fact that he wore the full complement of equipment, including leg greaves, arm manicas and a plate cuirass, as well as a long red cloak draped over his back. The armour was to guarantee victory. With the Emperor in attendance the idea of a Roman — even a gladiator dressed as a Roman — losing to a barbarian was too much to stomach. But the heavy armour had its drawbacks. With the heavily decorated helmet over his head, the complete panoply caused Capito to break out in a suffocating sweat.
The official handed him a short sword and a rectangular legionary shield. Capito gripped the sword in his right hand and took the shield with his left. He focused on the dark mouth of the passageway facing him from the opposite side of the arena floor. The gladiator watched a figure slowly emerge from the shadows, head glancing left and right, as if bemused by his surroundings.
A barbarian who’d notched up a few fortuitous wins, Capito told himself. Armed with a blunted weapon. The gladiator vowed to put Britomaris in his place.
Capito stepped out into the arena and marched towards the centre where the umpire stood, tapping his wooden stick against the side of his right leg. The sun glared down and rendered the sand blisteringly hot under his bare feet. He glanced up at the crowd lining the galleries. Some were slaking their thirst from small wine jars, while others fanned themselves. A large group of legionaries packed into one corner of the gallery were in boisterous mood. There were women too, Capito thought with a lustful smile. He felt a pang of pride that so many people had come to see him, the great Capito.
The metallic stench of blood choked the air as Capito felt the full force of the heat rising from the ground. Right at the top of the arena, above the highest gallery, dozens of sailors manipulated vast awnings in an attempt to provide shade to the crowd. But the sun had shifted position and foiled their efforts. The freedmen in the upper galleries were in shade, while the dignitaries below had to suffer the heat.
Trumpets blasted. Capito tightened his grip on the sword. The crowd simultaneously craned their necks at the passageway opposite him. The gladiator shut out the noise of the arena and focused solely on the barbarian pacing heavily towards him.
Capito suppressed a smile. Britomaris looked almost too big for his own good. His legs were wide as tree trunks at the thigh and his arm- and shoulder-muscles were buried under a layer of fat. He tramped ponderously into the centre of the arena, as if every step required great exertion. Capito couldn’t quite bring himself to believe that Britomaris had won five fights. His opponents must have been even worse than he had first imagined. The barbarian wore a pair of brightly coloured trousers and a sleeveless woollen tunic fastened at the waist with a belt. He had no armour. No leg greaves or manicas or helmet. His weapons consisted of a leather-covered wooden shield with a metal boss and a spear with a blunted tip. The umpire motioned with his stick for the gladiators to stop, face to face. The men stood two sword-lengths apart.
‘All right, lads,’ the umpire said. ‘I want a fair and clean fight. Now remember, this is a fight to the death. There will be no mercy, so don’t waste your time begging the Emperor. Accept your fate with honour. Understood?’
Capito nodded. Britomaris showed no reaction. He probably didn’t even speak Latin, thought the imperial gladiator with a sneer. The umpire looked to the editor in the podium, seated not far from the Emperor himself. The editor gave the sign.
‘Engage!’ the umpire bellowed, and with a swoosh of his stick the fight began.
The barbarian immediately lumbered towards Capito.
His swift attack caught the imperial gladiator by surprise. But Capito read the jerk of his opponent’s elbow as he made to thrust his spear and quickly sidestepped, dropping his right shoulder and leaving the barbarian stabbing at thin air. The barbarian lurched forward as momentum carried his cumbersome frame beyond Capito, and now the imperial gladiator angled his torso at his rival and slashed at his right calf. Britomaris let out an animal howl of agony as the blade cut into his flesh. The crowd appreciated the move, cheering at the sight of blood flowing freely from the calf wound and spattering the white sand.