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Newcomers soon acquired a tough veneer of calm. Many at first went through torments of despair and emerged numbed and insensate to the fierce pain of fear. Others imitated the stoicism of their captors.
In any case, around the mess table they loudly and ribaldly talked of success and what it might bring. If a gladiator fought well and pleased the crowd, his name would become a byword overnight, and his ability a matter of interminable table talk. As he marched through the streets to the arena, he would see his name scribbled on the walls with fond epithets like "the maiden's sigh." If he cut a fine muscular figure, he might be paroled out at the wish of influential ladies to enjoy their food and wine. Despite their lowly estate as prisoners, gladiators were great public heroes.
Many months after his arrival at the school, Marius was finally ready for combat. The night before the games, he and the entire troupe sat down to a sumptuous banquet, while curious citizens were allowed to file through and watch the fighters gorging themselves. Wine flowed freely, and the food was rich.
The next morning they marched under guard to the mighty Flavian Amphitheater. A huge throng of proletarians had filled the upper stands since before sunup, while the elegant marble seats of the lower stands were occupied by patricians. On the north side, the emperor sat on a throne of gold and ivory, surrounded by his family and aides. On a fine day, there would be 50,000 people in the arena.
Straight and proud the gladiators marched in, the ceremonial gold-embroidered robes of purple falling to their ankles, the bronze helmets gleaming, the burnished breastplates showing through the folds of the cloth. As they passed the imperial box they raised their right hands and intoned the famous phrase, "Hail, Emperor, we who are about to die salute you!"
Back at the sidelines, they stripped off the robes and girded on their weapons, arm-plates and greaves. Busy officials examined the weapons to make sure all were razor-sharp. Then selected gladiators indulged the crowd with mock combat, using wooden weapons and demonstrating the various techniques of attack and defense.
The crowd leaned forward hungrily; hundreds of bright handkerchiefs were waved at one favorite or another.
VIVE LA DIFF�RENCE!
The Romans relished a match between men equipped and trained to fight in different ways. Marius' fight would please them. As in the fight in which he was saved from death, now in his first he faced a Retiarius, a net-and-trident fighter. His opponent, a Briton, wore only a short tunic and armor on his left arm and shoulder. In one hand he carried the carefully coiled net, roped to his belt, and in the other the long trident. He had to be quick, for he dared not meet the helmeted and armored Marius on equal terms. His strategy was to feint Marius into casting range of his net. Marius feigned a turned ankle, then leapt sidewards as the Briton cast his net. Before he could pull it back and run with it, Marius slashed the rope that he would draw it back with. Now the netman was without his one really dangerous weapon; he had only trident and dagger. The crowd howled for blood.
Slowly and deliberately Marius moved in on him, and the Briton, knowing the futility of flight, stood his ground and prepared to fight with the clumsy trident. It was easy for Marius—a few rushes, the trident parried, a short stab to the Briton's belly, then another through the throat, and it was all over. The crowd cheered. The emperor leaned over his box and handed Marius a green palm frond of victory—Marius' first.