In all my time writing ‘The Emperor’s Knives’ I found myself coming back to one question time after time. At this point, of course, you’re probably thinking that I was pondering on the merits of the many and different styles of fighting that were seen in the empire’s arenas, over the hundreds of years that the gladiatorial arts held Rome’s population in their thrall. Or, you might wonder, was I perhaps taken up with the question of why it was that a little known Etruscan custom of human sacrifice came to be so popular, second only to chariot racing in the affections of Romans? In truth it was neither of these perfectly valid questions that pre-occupied me.
No, reader, the question that was exercising my mind was far more down to earth. Why was it, I mused, that the women of Rome were so very keen on gladiators. And when I say “keen”, I really mean it. To the apparent disgust of the more surviving writers of the time, Rome’s women found much more to attract them in the sweaty, scarred body of a professional fighter whose arena trade branded him as ‘infamis’ - lower than the lowest in the city - than in their own august and sensitively composed works. And, trust me, the gladiators knew only too well the power they wielded.
Women with money would hire gladiators as bodyguards for an evening out in the city, not simply for their protection but for the pleasure that might be had from their close attentions. The slave girl Chrysis in the Satyricon remarks that ‘there are those who can only get on heat with the absolute dregs…the arena certainly does it for some.’ More than a few famous Romans were reputed to have been fathered by the virile gladiators of the day, and even the real life imperial villain of the Empire series, the Emperor Commodus, was the subject of dark mutterings as to his true parentage. And he did grow up to be fascinated with gladiatorial sport…
Whether taken with a big pinch of salt or not, there’s no getting away from the fact that gladiators were widely associated with wild, sweaty, brutal sexuality. Gladiator figurines have been found with enormous penises, some even arching back to attack their owner in a particularly Roman visual satire. Gladiator blood was an especially strong juju, and a men marrying a bride whose customary hair parting had been performed with the customary spear head would have been doubly delighted were that spear head to have been dipped in the blood of a dead gladiator, with the power to make her faithful for the length of their marriage. Gladiators were even rented out for sexual purposes, it seems, an apparent perk of the role. These men, steeped in their literal infamy, drew women to them like moths to their flame, and were it not for the genuine opportunity for a man to meet his gods in the arena every time he fought (alright, many bouts were carefully staged, much like modern wrestling, but put two men together with sharp iron and bad things frequently happened) one might even be a little jealous of them.
Mind you, it wasn’t just the women who were turned on by the sight of blood on the arena sand. The arches (fornices) outside the arena, used by prostitutes to entertain their clients, were so busy that the name stuck, and to this day we still call the sexual act ‘fornication’. Well I do. I love a good old meaty Latin word under such circumstances.
So it wasn’t just the women who were aroused by the whole fight to the death thing. The fact of it, I suppose, is that deep down the human animal still harbours the same visceral instinct to glory in blood and death that sent the Romans into such ecstasies two thousand years ago. After all, it’s the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, no matter who much we’d like to think we’re better than they were. Scratch the 21st century metrosexual hard enough and you’ll find a Roman pleb with all his lusts and pleasures, beneath the surface? Now there’s a thought to close on.