Smarty Sparty (Part-2) – Smelly armpits and downward thumbs

Jean-Leon_Gerome_Pollice_Verso

Pollice Verso (” Thumbs down”), an 1872 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Nubians were folk from the region that is formed by the south of present-day Egypt and north Sudan. Unlike their other brethren from sub-Saharan Africa, nubians were not dark-dark but lighter-skinned and better looking, with sharper features. Tall and well built, the men were well hung and the women? Them too. The Nubian women were walking harvest-ready baobab fruit trees.

Though I would have loved to be born in Nubia, this is not about Nubians or how well they were hung. Please, don’t way-lay my thoughts.

Nubians made very useful slaves. If you were a Roman woman from the upper classes, with your husband away, fighting some distant battle, maybe even shtupping some distant Germanic blonde and you were horny and bored and had a Nubian slave, you had already found out that he could satisfy you sexually like none of your over-consumed, pot-bellied, wine-soaked, smelly, erectile dysfunction-stricken Roman lovers ever could. And since half of Rome was homosexual, hey, a shipload of fresh Nubian slaves was like an Iphone or Xbox store that has a new upgrade on sale.

I remember the first time Spartacus fought the Nubian, a hulking sullen character you wouldn’t want to mess with. I can see that morning clearly since I was there. We were brought into the arena with a lot of pompa and grandura and made to do a slow loping lap of the ground, waving our arms, fists tight, like we were raring to fight. Well, I’ll tell you one thing. I wasn’t too keen to fight. I was an Indian and Indians make shitty slaves, man. I could do your taxes, oh yeah, but fight? Forget it.

But there I was, Spartacus leading us on the lap, the crowd going crazy, screaming, “Ave! Ave! Morituri te salutant!”  (Hail to those who are about to die). As we turned one full circuit and came up to the VIP box, there was the great Marcus Licinius Crassus with his wife, Tertulla, and another couple. Crassus had this relish in his hawk eyes and his wife was really hopped, high-strung with the anticipation of the adrenalin orgy. He was one of the most powerful men in Rome, definitely one of the richest.

A fair-skinned boy slave swung a large fan behind the Roman general and Tertulla while they picked on the fruit-laden tray that had been placed on a small marble-topped table in front. Another slave, an olive skinned young girl of unknown nationality, kept topping up their cut-glass goblets with wine. Every time she came close and leaned over to pour the wine, Crassus idly fondled her butt, running his bejeweled fingers along the cleft quite openly, giving her butt cheeks a squeeze and pat on their way out, while Tertulla looked on indulgently with a ‘boys will be boys’ expression of mock exasperation on her face.

Sorry about the sex bit. There’s just too much sex in any Roman story, that’s all. What am I supposed ta do? Romans were horny bastards. I’m only trying ta create the ambiance.

The boss, Batiatus, had organized a pretty elaborate show. First came the openers, like The Crusty Cuzzins at a 70s’ Elton John concert. These were farcical duels, actually more like choreographed dance routines, between two actors with wooden swords.

There was also Orgasmus there today. Orgasmus was a Libyan slave who had been a clown and mimic in a circus in Tyre when the Romans sacked the city in 91BC and took him away. Since then he had been indispensable. Batiatus would loan him out frequently to drinking parties at the nobles’ palaces, to make them laugh. Trust me, if you were a noble man in 1st century BC Rome, constantly having to watch your ass, you desperately needed ta laugh.

One of Orgee’s stand-up routines was acting like a wine-besotted Roman noble trying to get it up while his mistress (also played by Orgee) waits, eyeing her sundial impatiently. Orgee was the only slave who could get away with making fun of his Roman masters, but he knew he was skating on very thin ice. If he let out one and it wasn’t funny or if the nobles at the table had had a bad day, Orgee could be history. In ancient Rome, being history didn’t just mean being fired.

Back at the arena, suddenly the trumpets came on and that was the signal for the opening acts to leave the arena. Orgee and the rest of the openers bowed and scurried away. The games were about to begin. The corpulent lanista, Batiatus, waddled out into the open to draw the lots as the flutes, horns and water organs began their cacophony and the crowds went ballistic in anticipation. A roar arose from the crowds,” Spartacus! Spartacus! Spartacus!” Oh yeah, Spartacus had already gained a certain notoriety, as a one-man chop-shop-cum-wrecking yard.

Their lives were brutal and short, but gladiators were idolized by the masses for their bravery, endurance and willingness to die. They forfeited their lives in the arena and the spectators honored them in return. (Sounds like a shitty deal to me though). Archaeologists have dug up wine jugs, lamps and funerary monuments with graffiti on them – boasts, apparently inscribed by the gladiators themselves – ” Celadus the Thracian, thrice victor and thrice crowned”, “ Lashivus the Nubian, heart-throb to the young girls”, ” Cretinus the Gaul, he took to bed the Goddesses.”

The lots were drawn. Spartacus’s wasn’t the first fight. It would be the German and the much smaller Sicilian. Seeing him the crowds broke out with screams of “ Habet! Hoc habet! I guess that’s Latin for ‘He’s had it, oh he’s had it’.

The fight was frighteningly short. It took just two minutes for the hulking German to floor the Sicilian, one of his arms was twisted and dangling like it had been dislocated and the tendons all but severed. On one side of his mouth, there was a gaping gash where his lower jaw had been. Moaning, the Sicilian writhed in the dust and shakily raised his left hand index finger, the established sign that he was pleading for mercy.

The German stood over him, his right arm raised, his head turned toward the VIP Box. If the chief guest gave a thumbs-down, the German would plunge his nasty jagged-bladed pilum (a kind of javelin) into the Sicilian so hard that it would drive into the ground almost a foot, impaling the guy. If it was a thumbs-up, the fallen fighter would be spared and the same murderous German, relieved, would help the Sicilian up and take him off the grounds.

While the chief guest, who happened to be Crassus today, had the final say, the usual practice was to heed the wishes of the crowd. So he waited as the crowds, now up on their feet, went ballistic.

While a few cried plaintively,” Mitte! Mitte!” (Let him go), the majority made it clear they wanted the Sicilian dead, with blood curdling screams,” Iugula! Iugula!” (Kill him). The games had just begun, this was the first fight and they wanted blood right away, to sort of get things going. Have you seen what happens to viewership when a home-run happens within first two minutes? It’s the same thing. These guys wanted the party to begin with a boilermaker.

Usually, when the fight had been well fought, with the gladiators more or less evenly matched, there was a certain unwritten rule that gave the vanquished man a reprieve. After all, he had fought valiantly, given them all a spectacle that they had enjoyed.

The Sicilian however went down too early to be able to prove that he might have fought well, given more time. Crassus’s thumb turned down without a moment’s hesitation and the German’s pilum slammed into the Sicilian, his body rising in a heave and falling back into the dust, limp.

The German was unlucky in a way. Since the fight had been too short, the prize money was little. All he got was a crummy laurel crown and an equally crummy palm branch and three lousy talents thrust to him on a silver tray. The Sicilian was carried out through the porta libitinensis to an underground dungeon-like space with stone walls where he was stripped off his armor and weapons. Those belonged to Batiatus and would be returned to him. He would have them cleaned, repaired and shined for reuse. The German, the victor, exited the arena through another door, the porta triumphalis, preening to the hoots and yelps. If the Sicilian had been spared, he would have left the arena through yet another door, the porta sanavivaria. Heck, ceremony was everything.

———————————————-

In the gladiatorial shows of ancient Rome, something stood out that would have looked surreal to anybody in the modern world : the blood-lust and the callousness shown by spectators toward the fallen. And yet, the modern world has grown up believing that this was ‘western civilization’ at it’s nascence. For the present-day human, such voyeurism is reserved for events like cock-fights or dog-fights.

Gladiators being essentially criminals on death-row, the establishment was reassuring it’s citizens through these public displays of punishment, that the proper social order was been maintained and at the same time, warning them of the consequences of criminal behavior. Inside the coliseum, ‘civilization’ triumphed over the wild and untamed, over the outlaw, the barbarian, the enemy.

At the same time, the condemned man, the gladiator, was seeking redemption in the eyes of the society, through a display of Roman virtues – courage and discipline. By the same token, a gladiator who valued his life too highly and flinched at the point of the sword, unable to face the moment of his death, was seen as sordid, pathetic animal not worthy of respect and honor.

Gradually through the centuries, as Christianity took hold and the Roman Empire morphed into the Holy Roman Empire, gladiatorial games were prohibited by Constantine the Great in 325AD, although they still went on in the far reaches.

Until one day in 405AD, when a Christian monk by the name of Telemachus, died when he entered an arena to stop a fight. He was stoned to death by the indignant crowds who were baying for blood and felt cheated of a spectacle. Thereafter, organizing a fight or participating in one became a capital offense, punishable by crucifixion.

—————————————————–

Once in a while, a gladiator survived the arena and lived long enough to be allowed to retire. His crimes (for which he had initially been forced to be a gladiator) would be pardoned and he would be presented with a specially engraved ceremonial sword, a modest life-long pension and a parchment that was a certificate of discharge which allowed him to live out the rest of his life as a free citizen. Over the past few months, Smarty Sparty had certainly begun looking like he would be one such retiree one day.

Till that morning, when the Nubian had his meltdown and Sparty and he split. I was there. I saw the whole thing.

But you’ll have ta excuse me now. What happened with the Nubian and Sparty will have ta wait. Batiatus just called my number. Erk! I have to fight that brutish Slav with body odor. The last time we shook hands he almost crushed my knuckles.

Guess maybe if I can catch Crassus’s eye before the fookin’ Slav bashes my teeth in, I can ask the general if he would like me to do his taxes.

(to be continued…)

1 thought on “Smarty Sparty (Part-2) – Smelly armpits and downward thumbs”

  1. Gary Robinson said:

    Looking forward to Part 3, Achyut. The introduction of sex has certainly spiced up an already fascinating account!

    Like

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