“Death” is a common word used here. “Death by mauling or dismemberment” even more so. In the year since I arrived here, I have grown accustomed to the misshapen clamor that accompanies a place such as this. The roaring and rumble of the ever-popular lions, the sound a person makes when their blood is brought to life, the hematic screams of those watching in the crowd. The lions I sympathized with. The poor fools in the arena I took pity on. The homicidal crowd I contemned.
Every criminal here waits to die. Those who earn favors with the spectators, their “champions,” only buy themselves days at most. Sometimes not even days so much as lick of water or a crust of emmer loaf.
Even a title defender faces his downfall.
I say “his,” not “his or her.” There are not many women here, and those that do come through never fight. Not that they’re given much of an option. The only opportunity a female has to gain a day from the stadium is to offer her body to the ignoramuses they use as guards.
Even then, they do not fight. Even then, they gain nothing.
So here it has always come down to: the men pacing like the animals they rout, the women cowering in corners like diffident mice, the exotic beasts doomed to die by bestiarii or each other.
It doesn’t matter your crime, your innocence, your past. Men and women blended into the same outcome, the same carnage. Blood always looks the same when it runs. I have seen hundreds upon hundreds of souls perish here, at the Amphitheatrum Flavium. Such an “august” title for a place so obscene. The theatre is known by another name too; one no less regal, but with the suggestion of a threat hanging down from the syllables.
I couldn’t remember what it felt like to be clean. All I knew was dirt and dust, grime and soot. It was everywhere: my fingernails, my skin, my hair. Not that I’m used to appearing immaculate, but a bucket of water to pour over my head would be welcome.
The guards here are not so amiable. Most choose to leer from a distance outside of my cell, snickering and complimenting themselves on being masters of masculinity. Often they whisper vulgar nothings through the bars, offers I respond to with a mixture of curses and spitting.
There are a handful of other women here, true enough, but my cell is the most prodded. These fools find pleasure in my unsuitable defiance, waiting to see the day when I am brought out into the arena. They await for me to be crippled, broken, and ruptured.
What they do not realize is that I plan to fight.
I’d never thought about death before I came here. Not really, anyway. After all, I was death’s armament, a tool made to be drawn. I had never been allowed an opinion.
At the Colosseum it was somehow different. Death became so trivial it arrived at a constant blur, losing its sincerity. That lack of candor left a lot of time to think.
Since I started thinking, I promised myself I wouldn’t pretended to be one of those eccentric philosophers, the simpletons in Greece spouting complex nonsense about the stars and whatnot. While I respected them for their faith, I always held closer the idea of truth, of reality. So I decided upon always telling it.
Not that anyone could listen.
It’s a theater day, my second since I’ve been here.
How can I tell?
It’s when the arena is the most silent.
Sure, ruckus can still be heard, but it is given in precalculated pauses, foreseen gasps. Muffled voices read their fictitious last words from pages of script, published tales dotted and crossed by old feather pen. I can’t imagine these were stories meant to be brought to life, or at least with real blades and poison made of bull’s blood.
Such a lovely, epic way to die.
I have seen my share of theater. My master, Claudius, once spent nine months as a guardsman for a famous theatre in Verona. I liked it well enough I suppose, the imitation of life and death.
Here it is different. At this theatre, mimicry is a disguised liar, a cruel trick. Reality is an added factor, evident in so many productions and adaptations. Today they’ve chosen Romulus and Remus, a famous tale.
It’s close to the end, where Remus makes a mockery of the wall Romulus has built. The actors are brothers themselves, I think, each about twenty with identical dark hair and light eyes. I watch quietly as the two actors deliver their lines with shaky accuracy, knowing the end is near even though only one brother dies in this version.
When Romulus picks up the real sword he’s been given, I see he is crying. Someone in the crowd scoffs at his tears, ridicule that slips through the audience in murmured comments and indifferent blinks. A tear breaks off from Remus’s eye too, running down his crooked nose. The brothers regard each other with history in their eyes, a past shared and borrowed.
Remus says something I do not catch, whispered Latin from cracked lips. Whatever it is, it makes Romulus cry harder. He is trembling so bad I fear he’ll drop the sword. Which would not bode well for either of them. A guard near the bottom of the stage, Augustus, I believe, snaps at them to get on with it.
I want to close my eyes, to jump down from my perch and save them, to walk away. But I make myself watch, I won’t allow myself the luxury of illiteracy.
I wish that I had known their names.
The wailing is what wakes me. It’s startling and animalistic, but not from any creature I’ve ever heard. Grief drips from the sound, a guttural and awful howl. It echos off of the corridor that gives birth to my cell row, coming closer.
I get to my feet, grimacing when the room sways. They haven’t given me any water for almost two days, and I can feel dehydration looking over my shoulder.
I make it to the bars just as two guards come into view, dragging the source of the screaming between them. It’s a man, only a year or two older than I, with ragged, dark locks.
Just before they yank him around the corner, the man fastens a set of crazed eyes on me. His pupils are enlarged, so much so that they almost completely encase his grey irises. I cannot tell if he even sees me at all, or if he’s looking past me into whatever nightmare he’s just experienced.
My guess lies with the latter.
The weeping fades as a stomping pair of boots and callous grin come to replace it, halting outside my cell.
I wrap my hand around one of the bars, fingers itching to bind themselves around the guard’s throat instead.
“Tu es diende, puella.”
You are next, girl.
My blood ices over, but my heart catches fire.
“Ita sit,” I hiss.
So be it.
Executions take many forms here. Death by mauling is the most common. Death by sword is second place, followed by decapitation and the noose. Hangings are not as popular, no blood to satisfy the onlookers. Oh, how they love to be satisfied.
There’s an execution scheduled next. A murderer, so I’ve heard, a man named Aquila.
The stands are abuzz with gossip and excitement.
Murderers always excite them the most.
The shackles are tight on my wrists, the rust staining permanent bracelets into my skin. I am marched by four guards: two at my sides, one at my back, and one at my front. There’s an odd sense of flattery in their caution, they must know what I did.
There is a frightening roar from the spectators as the killer is brought out. It silences immediately.
The guards have shoved a girl into the arena.
She’s momentarily disoriented, as is the crowd, her bound hands thrown up against the blazing afternoon sun. Her short hair is a strange golden color, faded by the amount of dirt that has matted it to her skull.
I glance to my right at Claudius, but he looks about as confused as I am.
I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen the sun in whole, so my sight is paralyzed as two of the guards throw me onto the arena floor. The ground smashes against my rib cage before I can right my balance, starting a dull throb that echoes throughout my body. The sun is relentless, and it is a moment before my eyes begin to make proper adjustments. I lower my hands, my shields, and look at the spectators who have not made a sound since I arrived.
The girl smiles, her teeth somehow pearls compared to her hair. It’s a deranged smirk, clever and fearless. I have never seen such a look, so brazen in the face of euthanasia.
Neither has the crowd, whose murmurs create a sluggish hum around the perimeter. They are silenced as the girl’s charges are read: family bloodshed.
She killed her father, did she not?
I reply with a snarl.
The list goes on.
She poisoned her brother, did she not? Immo. She stabbed three men in the street, did she not? Immo.
Each reply is crisp and sharp, each syllable a knife thrown at a target.
After my ruling – guilty by all counts – they tell me I am to die by mauling. It will be a game cat, most likely, or a bull so they can watch it run me down.
The more blood, the better intentions.
I don’t argue with my sentence, after all my kills were as they were read. Even if I hadn’t been a murderer, it still would not have mattered.
There is no innocence here.
They won’t give her a weapon. Women never get them, never ask for them. It is not their fault per say, they do not know to ask.
The girl is no exception, but she does not weep. She does not scream. She does not plead.
I find myself captivated by the way she confronts her fortune: with feet planted apart and weight balanced across her shoulders. Her eyes are smart, canny, and so blue.
I have never seen such eyes.
– by Brittany Coffman