Alexander and the Amazon Queen
Because I was young and strong I was sentenced to the arena so that my death could be an entertainment. I was trained to be a retiarius, a net man, at the emperor's school on the Alban Mount by Spaco. Spaco, from nearer Spain, had himself been condemned for killing a Roman sentry and fought twelve times before accepting his freedom. Though net men trained with only a girding, Spaco insisted that we stand like soldiers when he talked or demonstrated. He spoke in Latin and one of his slaves translated the commands into Greek, a more common language among gladiators. Spaco said that his rules were our only chance of surviving.
Don't turn your back on your opponent, even to run. Don't commit yourself too soon, or too late. Don't listen to the crowd. The net is an extension of your arm, not of your hand. Your arm starts at your waist, not at your shoulder. The net is never a club but is usually a whip. You will only be able to spread it if a fool turns his back to you or if you get close to your opponent. The hooks you affix to the end of your net should not be so large that they will catch on something besides your opponent.
Before my training, I had assumed the trident to be the major weapon of a retiarius. In fact it is sometimes a nuisance. It cannot slash like a sword, though most net fighters sharpen the edges of the fork. Spaco believed that it should almost never be thrown. It should be held forward of the balance. Some fighters preferred to loop the net around their necks and spar, holding the shaft of the trident with both hands. Spaco discouraged this style. The trident would seldom wound an opponent in the opening stages of a combat, and a fighter with a sword could often get past it. A good opponent with a good sword would always get past it. It was only a defensive tool until the end of the contest. To go on the attack the retiarius must use his net, which meant using his arm, which meant thinking about his arm starting at his waist. To use his arm, he had to be able to run, leap, somersault and roll. The retiarius makes his entire body a weapon.
My first combat was a battle, Alexander against the Amazons, in the rough circus under the Vatican hill during the September games. The circus of Gaius, as it was called, had permanent stands only on the edge of the Vatican plane, so many in the audience did not have as good a view as they would have had in the great circus below the Palatine, but the back seats of the great circus were wooden and some of them had burned during an enactment of the Trojan war when a fireball from a siege machine overshot and landed behind the senatorial seats, killing several hundred. Most did not die from the fireball or the fire it started, but from being trampled when the crowd surged towards the center exit on the north side. While the great circus was being repaired, Nero ordered that battles involving gladiatorial armies would be presented in the circus of Gaius.
In the Amazonian battle, I was in the army of the Amazon queen. When I have described this to Greeks, they assume that the outcome must have been fixed so that Alexander would win, as the histories record, but Romans do not insist that gladiatorial combats end the same way as the battles depicted. The siege of Troy that destroyed most of the stands on the north side of the great circus, for instance, had ended with the Trojans driving the Greeks away, a more popular result in Rome than that described by Homer. Never mind that Aeneas would not have bothered to flee to the banks of the Tiber and founded Rome had the Greek siege failed.
On the west side of the circus of Gaius, where the track curved between the Janiculum and the Vatican, a mound had been raised to support the palace of the Amazon queen. The Amazons in the queen's palace wore leather girdings and were naked above the waist, with arrows in quivers on their backs, even the queen. Nero had turned part of his favored gladiatorial school on the Campus, known to gladiators as the halls of perversity, into a training ground for female gladiators, but there were only about a dozen women available for the battle, all of whom were in the queen's palace. One of the women on the sentry level had lost most of a breast in a previous combat, the only true Amazon in the Amazonian army.
The palace looked like it was made of yellow and white marble, but this was only the deception of the painters who had disguised the wood. It was three floors high, the bottom two being open in every direction so that the audience could see the Amazon queen and her female consorts. The third floor had a low wall but was otherwise open. A staircase led from the first floor to the second, and there were dining couches on both of these floors. The third storey, reached by a ladder, was for the lookouts, three Amazons who relayed a description of Alexander's advancing army to the queen. The idea was that the queen would act undisturbed by the first reports of her sentinels and remain on a dining couch, drinking with her favorites, most of whom were engaging in Lesbian love to the delight of Nero and his retinue.
Gradually the calls from her sentries became louder and the Amazon queen climbed to the third floor and saw Alexander's army at the other end of the circus. She then walked across a ladder into the carriage on the back of her elephant, which had been brought with three other of the giant beasts from a separate tent directly below the high imperial stands. The woman atop the palace then blew long brass horns, summoning the queen's armies, and we began to flow out of two long tents beneath the track against the Janiculum.
Meanwhile Alexander's army, also initially in tents, was assembling on the opposite side of the field. First the scouts began moving across the wide turn in the track on the east end of the circus, followed by larger advance units, then Alexander on a great white horse, and finally the bulk of his army. There were about seven hundred on each side. The queen's soldiers consisted of both net men and Thracians, while most of Alexander's men were armed as Thracians, and many were in the heavy plates and mail of mirmillos. Alexander had about thirty horse to match the queen's elephants. There were no catapults, probably because the emperor was too close to the queen's palace. Some said that it was also because there had been so many contests that year that not enough gladiators could be requisitioned from the schools for reserve ranks if hundreds were to die in the early stages of a battle from artillery barrages.
The first units of Alexander's army were genuinely afraid of the elephants, an intentional surprise so successful that Alexander's generals had to order the archers to aim for their own men's backs to get them to advance towards the center of the field. The net men in the queen's army were also afraid of the elephants. Though we were supposed to stay in separate ranks, the rear units behind us pushed forward to stay ahead of the animals and I was pressed into the man before me and had to point my trident in the air. The man I was pushing and the man before him had to do the same. Our reluctance to fight amused the audience, which began to laugh uproariously while throwing apples at us. Some of the first net men at last began sparring with the front line of Alexander's mirmillos. Then a great shout rose from somewhere in Alexander's army. I was on the left side of the queen's army and could see the first lines of Alexander's army moving to each side, creating an opening for a wave of their Thracians to launch a direct assault on us. In moments, swords were cutting through net men only twenty feet to my right. The shouting grew louder and the clash of arms became so shrill that my ears hurt, blood flew in the air above us, and men began dying and piling up like fish washed ashore after a storm. I soon turned to run, as did those around me, but there was a wall of men behind me, and through the raised tridents and pikes I could see the dark grey skin of one of the elephants. Men were being crushed under it. I turned back to the battle, which now engulfed me. I thrust my trident forward and Thracians went around a small group of us as if we were only parting the wind. Someone knocked me over, and a Thracian cut the head from a net man — the head landed on my legs with its eyes looking stupidly at me, and even blinking, while my legs found their own horror and pushed me back into other legs, and I was standing again. I tried to remember Spaco's words. A good swordsman can always get past a trident. Fight with the net. A Thracian was fighting a net man beside me. I threw the net around his arm and the net man sent his trident into the Thracian's stomach. The Thracian cursed me as he died.
The Amazon army was retreating and fell back to the base of the mound where the queen's palace was now burning. The queen's elephant was twenty feet to the north of the palace, and the queen shot arrows from under the canopy on the animal's back into the ranks of Alexander's army. Her name was Althaea. She was the wife of a wealthy equestrian named Latinius, who was playing Alexander. Latinius had caught his wife lying with a Dacian slave. Both Althaea and Latinius owned slaves, but the Dacian happened to belong to Latinius, who crucified the offender in the kitchen garden behind their house. Latinius refused to put the man out of his misery even after two days on the cross, but encouraged his wife to use a pike to cut open the Dacian's side to end his pain. After this, Althaea asked Nero to let her resolve her marital discord with Latinius in the arena. The emperor agreed. Althaea had been taught by her father to hunt like Artemis and was said never to miss a mark.
I did not retreat as quickly as the rest of the queen's army and found myself at the front of the Amazon units in the center of the field. Alexander was now concentrating his efforts on surrounding the queen's palace. This meant that most of the fighting was at the sides of the circus and we net men at the center were able to hold our ground while the mirmillos opposite us made feints that our captains told us to ignore, because a counterattack would only stretch our line and make us easier to kill. We were now defenders of the queen. I would have died as Alexander's armies surrounded us had I not turned to see where the queen was at exactly the moment when an arrow entered the throat of her driver. She did not see this herself until the driver's limp body fell forward on the elephant's head, which the beast took as a signal to lower its front legs to the ground. The queen's canopy lunged forward, but did not tip completely because of the ropes under the elephant's stomach. It was then that I performed the lucky heroism that saved my life. I ran towards the now kneeling beast, pushed the driver from its head and picked up the stick that had dropped to the ground beside it. I had ridden an elephant on the farm near Cyrene where I grew up and had some idea of how to coax them. Climbing onto the trunk, the beast lifted its head and I sat behind the ears and tapped the top of the head until it stood up. The queen was yelling that I should guide the beast behind the palace, where she wanted to rally her army, but at first it walked towards the mirmillos at the front of the enemy's lines. Then it obeyed my taps and began to back towards the palace.
Nero had given orders that the Amazon queen was only to be harmed by Alexander's troops if the battle hung in the balance and killing her became necessary to carry the day. Such orders are given when patricians fight in games. The battle was by now lost and the queen's soldiers were scrambling to get behind her burning palace. The one-breasted Amazon was dying on the queen's bed, an arrow in her right eye, her legs thrashing towards the ceiling, oddly mimicking the flames that were rippling up the support columns. An arrow from Alexander's ranks grazed my thigh leaving a red stripe before sticking in one of the ropes that secured the canopy. One of the queen's generals on another elephant was now in front of us, yelling at the queen that she should surrender before her army was destroyed entirely. The queen, taking this as treason, shot an arrow through the neck of her own general. The base of the mound supporting the palace was so deep in blood that the wounded near it were crawling in red mud. Some of Alexander's Thracians before us had no enemies left to fight, so had pulled back to become spectators.
Alexander was staying beyond the range of the queen's arrows, but the flags behind him signaled that he would grant terms. Still the queen shot those soldiers of her enemy who were near enough. Then an agile Thracian snuck close and jumped onto the elephant's trunk. I had no weapon now and held my hand forward, expecting him to stab me with his sword. Instead he jumped onto the elephant's head, grabbed my hair as the beast shook its crown, and pulled me to the ground — landing almost between its left legs. The Thracian dragged me to the side of the track, nearly against the wall beyond which were the imperial stands. When I struggled he tried to hit me on the side of the head, but he misjudged the length of his sword and it dug into the ground. I tried to push him off and he hit me on the jaw with a much more powerful blow than I could give him. I was dazed but still conscious when I heard a great shout from the audience, which was applauding Nero for standing up and ordering a guard to signal the end of the battle. The Thracian above me had not seen the flag drop and was raising his sword again, this time to plunge the point into my chest. At that moment a white flower, perhaps thrown by one of the women in the emperor's entourage, landed on my chest. This stopped the Thracian just long enough for him to realize that the battle was over. This was lucky for him as well as for me, as it might have meant death had he killed after the emperor ended the combat.
A gate was opened in the wall on the side of the track and Nero came through, about ten feet from where the Thracian still sat on my chest.
The Amazon queen had been taken from her elephant and her arms tied behind her by a rope that was held by one of Alexander's commanders. Alexander dismounted his white horse and took the rope and pulled the Amazon queen toward Nero, where both of them bowed. Nero pointed at the sight and turned to the audience. He raised his hands.
The circus became quiet except for the cries of the wounded who were being dragged to the physician's tent by the clowns.
Nero continued to look at the audience but spoke to Latinius and Althaea.
“Latinius, will you forgive your wife her transgression, now that you have caught her again?”
“No, I will not forgive,” the general answered.
“Althaea, you have been defeated, as befits an Amazon who would fight her king. Will you be true wife to this man again?”
“Then you must give the punishment of your household,” Nero said to Latinius.
Perhaps none of my memories is as frightening as what happened next. Latinius bowed again to the emperor. Althaea also bowed. They turned towards each other. Latinius kissed his wife, who did not attempt to turn her face, then lifted his sword, and with no delay plunged it into her chest. Blood flew from the wound. Even more frightening than this act was the look of pure hatred on the woman's face as her knees collapsed and she fell to the ground only feet away from me. The hate was still in her jaw as her eyes went up into the lids.
I have heard that Latinius displayed the sword, which he never washed, on a pedestal in the atrium of his house. It remained there for some years until one night a son of the union of that fateful marriage put it through his father's heart, mixing Alexander's blood with that of the Amazon queen.
by John Ensminger
... who is a lawyer interested in ancient history, with many articles on funds and taxation to his credit, in addition to a theological paper regarding an embassy of Jerusalem priests to Rome during the reign of Nero. This short story is adapted from a chapter in his novel, The Sailing of Isis, set in first century Rome.