As the noise died down, the air of expectation resurfaced. Caligula stood up in the pulvinar. Silence fell. My mouth was horribly dry, my nerves were in tatters. I had emerged victorious from a contest I should never have won. Now I was to be butchered along with the rest of the wounded, just to satiate the already gorged-with-blood-and-death audience. Never had the futility of gladiator fights been more evident.
Caligula pointed. ‘Him and him.’
The guards separated out a murmillo and a secutor, neither of which I recognised, which meant they were from the ludus in Rome. Caring nothing for them, I paid them no more heed.
Next the emperor selected the one-armed man to fight a retiarius whose face had been slashed. Heavy bandaging all around his head held his face together – half of it had been hanging off in a bloody lump of flesh before.
As Caligula was deciding the third pairing, I heard shouting from the top of a section of the seating, under where the velarium would be attached to the wall. It was a woman’s voice, no, two or even three.
I strained my ears. ‘Mitte,’ I said urgently to Big Dog. ‘They’re asking for mercy.’
My hope that hearing their call, the crowd would swing behind them, failed. A few people joined in the demand, but as the women’s shouts grew louder, far more boos and jeers were hurled back. Fingers were pointed, lumps of bread hurled. People on the other side of the arena began noticing the commotion.
Undeterred, the two women stood and cupped their hands to their mouths. ‘Mitte!’ they shouted again and again.
‘They’re wasting their breath,’ said a guard.
A second added, ‘If they piss off Little Boots–’
He was still speaking when Caligula, hearing the clamour, turned and looked back into the crowd. He said something; one of his officials barked an order at a guard, and an instant later, half a dozen Praetorians were pounding up the steps that separated one section of seating from another. Seeing them come, the women fell silent and sat down. No doubt they were hoping to escape notice, but a barked threat from the Praetorians’ officer saw their terrified neighbours denounce them at once. Those few who had also been shouting mitte also stopped.
The women were dragged by the hair, screaming, down to the level of the pulvinar. A short interaction with the emperor followed, and then an imperial gesture saw both of them pitched over the parapet. They landed in a tangle of limbs, on top of each other, and Caligula laughed.
Large sections of the audience cheered.
‘They are savages! It could have been any of them,’ I said, utterly disgusted.
‘That’s why they react with such enthusiasm,’ said Siccum, who was not far from me. ‘The greater the terror, the greater the ecstasy. Vile, eh?’
The unfortunate women got to their feet. Sobbing, clinging to one another, they were forced to walk towards us by guards with outstretched spears.
‘I think they are related,’ said Siccum.
I stared. ‘No. No!’
It was Calpurnia and her daughter.