The Circus Maximus, Roma Mater

[ Another sub-plot that had to go by the wayside is the matter of the betting on the races and the gladiatorial games. Gaius Julius hatched his plan for Thyatis' involvement in part to leverage the cash reserves he had built up. He felt absolutely sure that Thyatis would win, so thought he wound make a little money off of her on the side. This scene goes between "A hush fell over the men and teams in the starting gate." and "Galen, Emperor of the West." ]

            His cane rapping on the marble steps, Narses climbed into the viewing box of the Prasina faction. The entryway was draped with dark green swags and all of the slaves were clad in light green tunics. The lanista swallowed a laugh, seeing the way the Prasina were strutting about in their holiday best, all in various shades of viridian. Today, in deference to his hosts, the old gladiator was wearing a sprig of holly at his shoulder.

            “Narses! So good to see you. Come and sit.” The mentor of the Prasina, an overweight cheerful iron merchant named Sebastianus, waved to Narses, who grimaced but acceded to the request. “You were right! I should never have doubted you.”

            Sebastianus clapped the lanista on the shoulder and tried to help him into one of the winged chairs next to the balcony. Narses considered tripping the merchant with his cane, but then thought the better of it. Who knew when he might do business with the Greens again? Better to stay on good terms. The racing faction had grown powerful in the city. “Right about what?”

            “The crowd!” The Green waved grandly at the vast sweep of the Circus. Every seat, it seemed, was filled and on the upper decks many people were standing. “Gate receipts have never been higher.”

            Narses nodded sagely, though inside he was shaking his head at the man. This was the last day of the greatest games that Rome had seen in over a century. Even if the race card had donkeys and dwarfs on it, the citizens would have turned out. All of the games, plays, pantomimes, tragedies and foot races had been very well attended. In retrospect, the Emperor’s decision to delay the munera and to starve the populace of his or her accustomed entertainments had heightened everyone’s anticipation. The lanista tapped the head of the cane against his chin. Too many sweets spoil the taste. Hmm…

            “I’m glad that you accepted my proposal.”

            Sebastianus giggled, pressing his thick fingers against the lanista’s shoulder. “An equitable arrangement for both of us!”

            “I hope so.” Narses clasped his hands on the cane. “It should be a good race.”

            The lanista fought to keep from smiling. Once he had approached the various factions with Gaius Julius’ plan to race both Hamilcar and Diana, the mentors had fallen over each other to fill his hands with gold. Of course, only the Greens and their hated rivals the Blues had the coin to meet his price. Just that part of the transaction had netted him several million sesterces. A small, though doubtless weighty, portion of the gate receipts would flow into the school as well.

            The real money would come from the betting. Narses kept himself out of the frenzy, letting the patricians and the merchants and the various Imperial officers beggar themselves with ever more daring wagers. However, before he had even spoken a word of this to the mentors, Narses had made arrangements with the criminal cartels who controlled the betting. A very small percentage of the total wagers would come into his hands, less than one percent, but in exchange Narses had promised that there would be a fair race between his two entrants.

            Of late, the cartels had found that corruption of the races was so widespread – and well known – that betting had fallen off. In particular, before the Emperor’s abeyance, the Greens had won the last twelve major races. Who wanted to bet or give odds under those circumstances? When the various touts and bookmakers had circulated the word that, in honor of the dead of Campania, the race today would be straight up – no fixed chariots, no bribed drivers, no mysteriously lamed horses – the gamblers had come swarming out of the woodwork. The lanista expected to rake in another ten to fifteen million sesterces just from his percentage of the wagers.

            Visions of a real villa had begun to trouble his waking thoughts, replete with acres of garden and vinyards and fruitful orchards. A singular vision of a white wall covering with golden wisteria and small red flowers occupied his thoughts.

            Sebastianus’ chortling was lost in a sudden roar from the crowd. The chariots had come forth from the starting gates, the horses stepping smartly, their plumes dancing in the bright sun. In a careful line, the twelve teams walked out, making a long slow circuit of the stadium, letting everyone see them, their glossy coats and the smart-looking chariots. A cohort of musicians marched behind the drivers, their tubas, trumpets and bucinas winding out a long stentorian dirge. Before them, carried on platforms held up by poles and a hundred slaves apiece, preceded garlanded images of Jupiter and Juno and Minerva. Each driver rode easily, one arm raised in salute to the crowd and to the Emperor. Narses could see that Galen and his family had returned to the pulvinar on the far side of the stadium. The racing factions maintained their boxes beneath a tall tower in the southwestern corner of the Circus, conveniently close to the starting gates and the stables. The location was also in shade the entirety of the day.

            The Emperor’s box, though covered with a tiled pitched roof, was south facing and exposed to the brunt of the sun. The finish line, however, was directly across from the pulvinar, in front of the temple of Victoria. The Emperor would get a good view of the finish! Narses had been a guest in the box before, and today, with the intense afternoon heat, as well as the press of the crowds, he preferred his cooler location. Despite the assurance that there would be no fix in the race, the lanista was entirely certain that Hamilcar would win.

            Aside from Narses and the African himself, no one in Rome knew that the youth had been a champion driver amongst his people in Numidia. Even with his great success as a gladiator in the arena, Hamilcar often practiced in secret, particularly with the four-horse chariots in use today. The lanista had seen him drive. The youth was a natural with the two-wheeled car and a swift team.

            The chariots continued their circuit, the crowd raising a ringing cheer as they passed. The sound traveled around the stadium, pacing the drivers and their teams, making strange echoes. Narses settled back in the chair, quietly ignoring his hosts, who were working themselves into a cheerfully drunken fog. When one of the courtesans approached him, he politely declined. His attention was on the race, not these distractions.