“Crucifixes along the whole road to Rome from Capua.” – Appian, The Civil Wars.
681 Anno Urbis Conditae, (year of city’s founding), 71 BC
Mile Marker XLII, Appian Way.
We pushed the slave to be crucified next to the cage’s door, lazy soldiers usually drag out the closest man they can. The old centurion laughed when the cruel hook snagged a slave by the shoulder like a fish from a barrel. “I know not of Spartacus or his vile evil deed’s!” he screamed, begging in pain repeating it all the way to the beam, where he was forced to lay with the aid of two legionnaires. The soldier chuckled when the hook came out and the slave tried to stop the first nail by defiantly balling his fist. The veteran devastated the slave’s hand with the hammer, willingly he opened the second, continuously disavowing and begging in agony with every blow. Soon the procession of cages began rolling along once again with a man hung on a cross. As the wretches screams faded with distance, we all wished for death while silently deciding who’d be next at the approaching mile marker. It was all for not, all revolting slaves would be thrown to the beasts when we arrived at the arena.
“I was with him on the mountain,” lied the old man in our rolling tomb. Triumphant Romans lined the Appian to watch our macabre spectacle. It made me think of then, when my thoughts were of girls, food and beatings, when Dionysus himself blessed me with the greatest day of my life.
“But I know not what name to give to the war which was stirred up at the instigation of Spartacus; for the common soldiers being slaves and their leaders being gladiators…” – Herodotus, The War Against Spartacus.
Goats grazed about me when Marsalis, a boy of thirteen and my friend, came sprinting up the trail with sweat beading off his bronze skin. “Slaves! Robbers!” he gasped, breathlessly pointing down the graveled path. “Come away Publipor! We must warn town!” he croaked.
“And the flocks Marsalis?” I asked, sarcastically amazed he’d abandon them and risk the beating.
“Damn them,” Marsalis said, suddenly stifling his voice emphasizing his terror. “Giant cut throats with knives and clubs, murderous painted furies by the look of them! A hundred, moving quickly, they’ll be on us Publipor, we must flee for our lives!” he said, as loud as he dared, bent at the waist gasping for air.
“Then go, it’d be a blessing if the town were ransacked and our bailiff ran through, maybe we’ll get a new one,” I said, calmly dismissive. Marsalis stared dumbfounded momentarily blinking before running off as quick as he’d come. Overwhelming childish curiosity urged me to see these ruffians for myself, I scampered behind a large boulder peering fascinated at the giant inked brutes’ below. They approached armed with butcher’s knives, iron skewers, wooden cudgels and various other implements of mayhem. Fate was to intertwin me that day to seventy-five arena hardened gladiators from the unknown world. They walked with the countenance of fugitives below and I froze in amazement at the alien sight.
Fate causes many things, like a nanny goat giving births to twin kids in spring. Such was the case last season with the goat bleating incessantly nearest me now. A runt, undersized and bullied, I took pity forcing his mother to nurse him. When hungry, he learned to butt my leg and beg, like he is now, forcing his mother to feed. Since then, he’s never strayed far remaining underfoot most of the time, just like he is now. Goats don’t get names, this one I named, “Useless.”
“You think this is the boy’s flock?” asked the escaped gladiator in Latin with a thick foreign accent.
“If so, he’s a lousy shepherd, leaving them alone like this,” replied another, motioning with his head. “No, he wouldn’t leave a flock this far with wolves and bears about,” reasoned another giant aloud. Useless suddenly jumped upon my hide, perching himself upon the same shelf of rock I crouched behind, bleating unremittingly at my face. Soundlessly shooing him, frantic motions with anger emblazoned on my face. Useless answered by bleating with his tongue protruding, our eyes locked. “Damn you Useless,” I thought, when I was suddenly ripped from my spot, clear from my sandals and suddenly suspended by a bulging arm with a knife held beneath my chin. “Don’t kill him yet, Crixus!” belted authority.
“Damn Italians all look the same Spartacus,” grumbled Crixus, setting me down roughly on bare feet. Crixus, a huge red-haired Gaul, mustached and inked with writhing blue snakes all over his body, held me suspended by one hand when his baritone voice called down. “What use is he?” he asked, returning his murderous look at me.
“They’re warned, Crixus,” Spartacus dismissed, waving his massive palm. “Bring him,” he motioned with one huge hand as Crixus shoved me from the rock backward. I was caught by a wiry man with ropy veins, his long mustache ran down the corners of his mouth, his skin stretched oddly tight about his body and face. He was covered in the weaves of a basket and intricate patterns, a thin tall frame betrayed his strength. Relaxing, he released me and began laughing in a deep slow draw, “Aw, Aw, Aw,” it made his Adam’s apple swing up and down while jutting his neck back to laugh heartily. I came to learn, Crastus laughed like that for everything, terrific and terrible alike.
“No meat on this thing Spartacus, I doubt even dogs would fight over this sack of bones,” joked Crastus, in his absurdly deep voice with an almost incoherently thick accent. Spartacus strode toward me, blotting the sun, standing a head taller than even the biggest of the giants in the group. Long black hair tied in the tail of a horse and a leather thong at his forehead kept it from dark piercing eyes. Dueling defiant stallions reared with flared nostrils marking his entire broad chest. Massive forearms swelled beneath thick leather wrist guards. He stood fearsome, holding a wicked black iron blade used to render pigs’ slack to his side.
“Where’s your friend, little one?” he asked, his deep voice stern yet soothing.
“Herculaneum.” I stuttered, Useless incessantly bleated, butting my already buckling leg, oblivious.
“How far?” he asked, kindly.
“Two miles, that way,” I answered, frightened motioning the direction with my head.
“You hungry?” he asked, I nodded and without time to jump his cleaver swung in a blur deftly quick and disturbingly close. Useless’ head fell from his neck, it rolled at my feet, he went silent. Four legs crumbled, blood soaked the path.
We skinned, gutted and roasted Useless over a spit with a few of his mates. That evening, fugitive gladiators and one Latin slave, made a meal of roasted goat and wild leeks. The grumbling in my stomach stopped as I giggled aloud thinking, “Useless was useful after all.” The evening was spent reclining with fierce men of the ring as they laughed and joked with each other in foreign languages. Thoughts of escape left my mind, discovering these terrible men were no longer frighting. “If they hadn’t killed me by now, then they probably wouldn’t,” I reasoned. The majority of fugitives seemed lost, like caged animals suddenly set loose. I told them how I’d herded here for years, that I’d been sold twice and how I knew every stream and valley to the south for miles. Admittedly I was having fun, it was a thrilling change of routine over chasing goats around hills, dodging snakes and running off dogs only to coax the flock back into fences and return to sleep in chains. I thought of my venite, the land boss, slapping a manacle about my ankle and turning the key, how angry my new compatriots would be when they learned of it. I entertained childish thoughts of my new companions rushing to my aid, as if I were one of them, and how they’d exact beautiful vengeance for my unjust abuse. That’s how I reasoned at the time, a child perceives things differently, but time has a cruel way of curbing such nonsense in men who live long enough to learn better. That night the thought of my bailiffs’ head falling from his shoulders like Useless’ made me smile and as I sat across the fire from Spartacus, I resolved then to do anything he asked. Inwardly, I feared all of us were dead come morning, but as a child wants to please, I craved his praise and suppressed those thoughts. Spartacus sat on the ground, his giant legs folded.
The greaves on his shins were scratched and worn, worked in ornate leafing as fire light played about his stubbled face. I felt the presence of Mars while the enormous man worked a sprig of grass in and out of his teeth, I noticed some of his lowers were missing with the remnants of a scar on his jaw, evidence of previous injury. His nose was caved, what was left of his right ear resembled something like cauliflower and I thought it strange for a man, so famous for killing, to have such a calm demeanor. He spoke in tones that soothed, leaving you hung on every word, a mix of authority and confidence, putting everyone including horses in a trance. Looking back, I’m ashamed of how eager I was for praise, but old enough now to know it was probably endearing to the men at the time. I blabbered on about the city of Herculaneum and its surroundings, when I noticed the hooded woman for the first time leaning in, speaking quietly into the famous gladiator’s ear. The wraith whispered inaudibly as I went on about the city’s fortifications and its layout. So engrossed with informing my new masters of its defenses, I hadn’t noticed when she withdrew her shroud. My gaze found her, I was struck dumb, unable to look away from the vision of Aphrodite herself before me as I suddenly stopped rambling. The dim glow from the fire light inflamed glacier blue eyes, they ran through me raising gooseflesh, I was lost; stricken. Never before, nor since, has such a creature so stunning walked among men, her black hair disappearing into the night, making the stars themselves her headdress. Her milky white skin, perfect ivory teeth, the curve of her waist and the firmness of her frame were evident even beneath her cloak. In that moment time stood still, the earth transformed and I fell deep into Poseidon’s watery kingdom as her eyes, bewitching to this day, even in memory left me drowning. She smiled, lightning struck, I was unable to move or awaken from the dream that was her, like a man mule kicked slowly returning to his senses.
“Pick the lads jaw off the ground man!” Oenomaus proclaimed, to uproarious laughter from the men. “Best not stare too long lad, old Spartacus will get jealous, now what was that you were saying, about the town’s garrison boy?” he coaxed.
“I…I…” I began, the stammering evoking more uproar from the fugitives.
“Aye boy!” yelled Crixus, his stern rebuke snapping me back to sense, “what defenses lay in Herculaneum?” he reiterated.
“It’s a retirement community for soldiers with twenty years’ service, Sulla’s veterans that’ve been land granted,” I continued. “They’re old, but armed and armored, men of repute, it also has big slaves from Gaul that are paid to put down grumblers.” I explained, between stealing looks at the woman.
“So, the Latin pip-squeaks have big dogs?” mocked Crixus, unimpressed.
“Yes…” I stopped stuck, not knowing what title to convey, the beautiful woman frowned.
“General, boy!” Crixus admonished sternly and I saw Spartacus close his eyes in frustration as if I’d made a mistake.
“Yes general,” I blurted, disdain on the woman’s face.
“How these runts came to rule the world is a mystery to me,” Crixus commented in Latin in a thick German accent. Crixus stretched out his huge arms, “how can it be their stupid gods have so much sway over Oden while you Celts waste time praying to trees, streams and rutting rocks!” he bellowed, to audible gasps of blaspheme. “These geezers will be fat and lazy off grapes and olives, so they’ve got trained dogs,” he said dismissively, “I’ll wager once their slaves see us, they’ll slit the masters’ throats and throw in with us,” he reasoned, smiling wickedly cruel, he turned and faced me. “What say you boy, how do these Romans treat their dogs?” he asked.
“Like…Romans general,” I replied, hesitantly.
Crixus, satisfied with the answer, turned to the men nodding to mean his hunch correct. That first night with the men, I noticed the differences between them other than language, hair color and tattoos. These were slaves from all over the Republic and beyond, just a day ago anyone of them may have had to face the other in the arena to cheering crowds. I could tell this was an alliance of necessity, born from desperation, a collage of men that’d be washed away at the first hard rain. But in that moment, I didn’t care, I was camped with the god of war and his legion. It was exhilarating and the rest of the warm night, I stole looks at the most beautiful woman the gods had molded in the fire light while Crixus spoke of escape from the Capua.
“I tell you it was the punk Flavius, the one with that pig of a woman, I just know it! Otherwise, we’d number two-hundred right now,” he reasoned, furiously jabbing the air to emphasize his anger and frustration over men left behind.
“He’s the best suspect, I’ll admit and I hated his every breath, but If he was our rat why’d he even come to practice today?” Oenomaus inquired.
“What choice would he have had? He had to practice to paint his deception, we would’ve known the turd curdled if he hadn’t,” Crixus reasoned, angrily. I’d no idea what they talked about, but it didn’t take much to realize they discussed a traitor. The woman nudged Spartacus, he rose and pointed at me.
“You!” his voice seized me. “You’ll serve as messenger, or an example,” ordered the general. It was the first command he’d given me and the fear to obey was overwhelming.
“Yes general,” I reflexively replied. The woman walked Spartacus to lay with her, as she sauntered him away, she smiled over her shoulder spreading a blanket.
“That rutting piece of shit spilled our plan, Oenomaus I know it!” Crixus continued, almost yelling, snapping me from her spell. “The belly ache, the sweating, for the god’s sake he was a coward but none more than today,” he continued, angrily.
“True Crixus, but it’s late, I’m exhausted, we’ve walked many miles and we must sleep,” Oenomaus replied, yawning. “Nothing worse than a traitor Publipor,” he spoke, laying on his side near the fire.
“Did you see his melon pop when the gate fell Crastus?” Crixus carried on, excitedly standing in the fire light balling his fists.
“We saw Crixus, you spat on his brains yes, yes, now catch me sleeping while you still your jaw?” Oenomaus interrupted for Crastus. Crixus grunted and walked angrily into the night. Rolling to my side, my eyes transfixed on the curve of the woman’s hip as I pretended to sleep until finally, I did.