‘They aren’t prisoners of war,’ said Big Dog.
‘Too well fed,’ said Piye.
‘Not auctorati,’ Dapyx put in. ‘Look like slaves.’ Those who volunteered to become gladiators were citizens.
‘Damnati ad ludos then,’ I added. ‘I wonder what they did.’ Slaves who had displeased or angered their owners were often sold into the ludus.
‘The Greek ploughed his master once too often, and got caught by his mistress,’ said Big Dog.
Dapyx laughed. So did Piye.
I snorted. ‘Not every Greek is a molles.’ Molles meant ‘soft’, and was a derogatory term for those who preferred to lie with men.
‘That one looks like one,’ said Big Dog, waggling his eyebrows and pouting. ‘Put a hand on his arse in the kitchen queue – that will tell you if I am right.’
I stared at the Greek, who looked like any other. ‘Piss off!’
Big Dog laughed.
Crixus had finished his speech.
We stopped talking. The voices from other cells – plenty of men were watching – also fell silent. I could hear shuffling feet in the cell to my left – no one wanted to miss the spectacle. Now came the moment that we had all gone through, the taking of the gladiatorial oath. It was, according to Crixus and the trainers, more binding than any other oath in the Roman world. It bound us all, made a familia of us, a brotherhood linked by blood, sand and the sword.
‘Miserable specimens you might be, but you are about to become gladiators,’ said Crixus in a loud voice. ‘Once taken, you will be comrades with every man inside these walls.’
We cheered. Spoons rattled off the bars. Feet were stamped.
The tall man and the Greek glanced at each other.
Like a master orator speaking at a public gathering in the forum, Crixus waited until it was quieter. ‘Repeat after me…’
Total silence descended on the ludus. The whining creak of a dry-axled wagon from beyond the walls – not a sound that would normally carry within – was shockingly loud.
‘To be burned, flogged, beaten…’
I was watching the tirones’ faces as they echoed Crixus. There was a trace of fear in the tall man’s expression, but he mouthed the words without hesitation. The Greek looked most unhappy.
‘And to be killed with cold steel – or whatever else is ordered.’
‘And to be killed with cold steel,’ said the tall man and the Greek. A moment’s hesitation, and they added in unison, ‘or whatever else is ordered.’
Crixus made a gesture, and slaves came forward from the direction of the forge, where our weapons, helmets and some armour were made. With thick lengths of wood as carrying arms, they were carrying a three-legged iron brazier. Its base was a dull red colour, a mark of the hot charcoal that had been placed within.
Everyone watching knew what would happen next, but it only dawned on the tirones when they saw the last slave coming with iron pokers. They quailed, but there was nowhere to go. The trainers and guards had closed in around them, sticks at the ready, weapons on their belts if either turned really stupid. Urged by Crixus, the two men lay down, and did not resist as their arms and legs were pinioned.
Into the brazier went the irons. Crixus stood, turning them every so often. When the first was ready, he lifted it up appraisingly. I could not take my eyes off the dull-red glow. Its end, I knew, had been twisted into an arrangement of letters. They read: LUD. CAP., which was cursive Latin for Ludus Capua, our gladiator school. Every man in the place had the same brand on the upper surface of his right forearm. Marked for life, even if you won the rudis and were freed.
‘A denarius the tall one screams,’ said Big Dog.
‘Done,’ I said. Before he could change his mind, I shook his hand.
Hiss. There is nothing quite like the sound of a branding iron being pushed against flesh. Nothing quite like the charred stench.
The Greek wailed and sobbed like a week old baby left a day without milk.
A groan escaped the tall man, and no more.
Delighted, I needled Big Dog until he went back to his bunk for the coin.