“A gladiator’s life is not so bad if he behaves himself, and while it lasts,” Narcissus said.
He was sitting beside Sextus, son of Maximus, in the ergastulum beneath the training school of Bruttius Marius, which was well known to be the emperor’s establishment, although maintained in the name of a citizen. There was a stone seat at the end where sunlight poured through a barred window high up in the wall. To right and left facing a central corridor were cells with doors of latticed iron. Each cell had its own barred window, hardly a foot square, set high out of reach and the light, piercing the latticed doors, made criss-cross patterns on the white wall of the corridor. Narcissus got up, glanced into each cell and sat down again beside Sextus.
“The trouble is, they don’t,” he went on. “If you let them out, they drink and get into poor condition; and if you keep them in, they kill themselves unless they’re watched. These men are reserved for Paulus, and they know they haven’t a chance against him.”
“Paulus’ luck won’t last forever,” Sextus remarked grimly.
“No, nor his skill, I suppose. But he doesn’t debauch himself, so he’s always in perfect condition.”
“Haven’t you a man in here who might be made nervy enough to kill him?” Sextus asked. “They would kill the man himself, of course, directly afterward, but we might undertake to enrich his relatives.”
Narcissus shook his head.
“One might have a chance with the sword or with the net and trident, though I doubt it. But Paulus uses a javelin and his aim is like lightning. Only yesterday at practise they loosed eleven lions at him from eleven directions at the same moment. He slew them with eleven javelins, and each one stone dead. Some of these men saw him do it, which hasn’t encouraged them, I can tell you. In the second place, they know Paulus is Commodus. He might just as well go into the arena frankly as the emperor, for all the secret it is. That substitute who occupies the royal pavilion when Commodus himself is in the arena no longer looks very much like him; he is getting too loose under the chin, although a year ago you could hardly tell the two apart. Even the mob knows Paulus is Commodus, although nobody dares to acclaim him openly. Send a gladiator in against another gladiator and even though he may know that the other man can split a stick at twenty yards, he will do his best. But let him know he goes against the emperor and he has no nerve to start with; he can’t aim straight; he suspects his own three javelins and his shield and helmet have been tampered with. I myself would be afraid to face Paulus, being not much good with the javelin in any case, besides being superstitious about killing emperors, who are gods, not men, or the senate and priests wouldn’t say so. It is the same in the races: setting aside Caesar’s skill, which is simply phenomenal, the other charioteers are all afraid of him.”