Aurelius knelt on the stone, warm on his bare knees from the blazing afternoon sun. He set down the urn of water mixed with wine beside Marcia’s sandaled feet. They had only just arrived, yet the powder on her face was already beginning to run. She frowned into the sunlight, motioning for Claudia, who knelt at her other side to fan her more vigorously. She adjusted her tunica and palla, pale pink today with gilded embroidery, uncomfortably. Aurelius could tell from the sweat forming at her neck, slowly ruining her elegant curls, that she wished she could be anywhere but here.
Marcia turned to the woman sitting nearby who was also flanked by her slaves. “Dalia, it seems you insist on dragging me out here on the most scorching of afternoons. Surely you could wait to see a match when the weather has turned more pleasant?”
Dalia, who was a lady of much more considerable girth than Marcia, had two slaves fanning her, even as she fanned herself. “My dear husband,” she drawled, unflatteringly, “has a keen interest in the matches today.” She sighed deeply, or perhaps was just having trouble breathing under the oppressive humidity.
Marcia’s frown deepened and she looked toward the group of men separated from the ladies. They had not spread themselves out upon the private box, as the ladies had. Instead, they gathered together, most of them on their feet, eagerly talking and exchanging coins. The arena was empty, except for slaves rushing around to prepare the sand and sell the oils taken from the gladiator’s bodies. They had a close seat in the Capuan Amphitheatre and today’s gladiator matches were to be impressive.
All high ranking citizens were given seats directly in front of the arena, leaving all open seats above them for the lower class. Already the stone seats were almost full with bustling plebeians hedging for a good view. Aurelius appreciated the Cornelii wealth that gave him the opportunity to sit so close. Often when a stray breeze sprang up, he could feel the sand from the arena on his face.
“And who is the favorite?” Marcia asked, though she hardly sounded interested.
Dalia took a long sip from her goblet. Aurelius knew that she put a rather heavy amount of wine into her water. She would be red and sputtering by the end of the day. But her husband was the retired Legatus, Gaius Aeratus, and the wealthiest man in Capua. The three slaves surrounding her now were only part of a small fleet, waiting at the back of the arena, with a litter to carry her away when she could no longer stand.
“Hmm, Priscus will make an appearance, I believe. Firmus, Graveolens, and Cabiros will also compete. Oh! And I do believe the school has recently acquired some new creatures. A lion, I hear. And a crocodile.”
Marcia sneered. “A crocodile. How entertaining.” She rearranged her clothing again and shuffled her feet anxiously.
Aurelius knew Marcia hated gladiator matches. She found them a disgusting display of brutality. But Dalia was a close neighbor and too powerful a friend to idly decline an invitation to the games. She would sit out the sun, blood, and small talk, if only to please the plump woman. Aurelius thought his mistress should be grateful that she did not have to engage in conversation with Gaius Aeratus, or any of the other lords present. They were more wild a group than the woman slowly drinking herself into a stupor.
Aurelius calmly poured a cup of wine for Marcia, heavily diluted with water, and offered it to her. She took it without looking, but cradled it in her lap. “Claudia, I want you to face me when the matches begin, understood?”
The young girl, barely ten years old, nodded. “Yes, mistress.” She shuffled herself accordingly, giving a slightly pleading look to Aurelius. He grinned at her and winked. With the roar of the crowd, he would be able to describe everything to Claudia anyway.
While Aurelius was a slave of the Cornelii household, and not a personal slave of the reigning matron, Marcia, she still brought him out to the games. She felt that a male would be more appropriate to the proceedings than more of her female servants. Aurelius never complained. He adored the gladiator games. He loved the sight of a savage, brutal battle between skilled fighters, the strategy, agility, and strength that went into each round. He loved the way one had to hold their breath when the sword struck out and found blood. He could feel everything; the shouting and screaming and wonderful euphoria of it all.
Already his pulse was racing, palms were sweating, and he suppressed the urge to jump to his feet and join the men in front of them. He wished he could partake in their conversation about ranks, odds, and strategies that all the gladiators would employ. But Aurelius was a slave, and it was not his place to join the conversation so easily. He even had to check his own expression, so that Marcia would never know just how much he enjoyed the show.
Suddenly, the crowd’s volume rose dramatically and Aurelius turned to look at the magistrate standing from his private box, not too far from their own. His scarlet toga shimmered impressively in the midday sun as he raised his arms for silence. Aurelius’ hands began to shake in excitement as the formal announcements were made, followed by the outline of the rules, and the names of the criminals being ushered into the center of the arena for their execution.
Aurelius surveyed the sampling of men below. Most of them were scrawny, half-starved, and desperate. Aurelius frowned. He did not like this part of the games. The execution of the prisoners was always short and uneventful. They were equipped with little more than wooden swords before facing a fully trained, armored gladiator.
Claudia leaned forward. “Anyone promising?” she asked quietly.
Aurelius sighed. “They look like beggars.”
She slouched as she fanned Marcia. “Remember last year when we had the war prisoners? I wish we could have real fighters for fresh meat. Or, perhaps, like that murderer from last month? His ruthlessness was ineffective, but most entertaining.”