Read the beginning of the first chapter of
THE DEADLIEST SPORT
The Second Year of the Reign of
Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus [Nero]
Near the End of the Sailing Season
Part One: Miriam’s Story
“Deliberate violence is more to be quenched than a fire.” Heraclitus
Friday (Shabbat) Evening, September 24
How different my life might have been if my twin brother, Binyamin, had not come back to fight his last bout in Alexandria. But he did. And so I can trace the beginning of my indelible sorrow to that Shabbat evening three years ago when, in the dying twilight of early autumn, I approached the pilastered entryway of Amram’s mansion. That evening, we were to celebrate Binyamin’s safe return after ten years as a gladiator from the famous ludus in Capua, the gladiator school Julius Caesar founded, the one that owned Spartacus more than a hundred years ago.
Our host, my late father’s life-long friend and business partner, has become with the advancing years more my charge than my partner. Amram has never been young, but since the Pogrom, when he lost his beloved Leah and their two daughters, sadness has pinched his lips, yellowed his cadaverous face, and engraved deep lines in his forehead. Then, with the death ten years ago of Noah, his only son and my betrothed, his skin withered like old parchment, and his once lacy Hebraic beard dwindled to a tangle of errant whiskers spiraling out of a receding chin. A knee-length, rumpled linen tunic (not quite clean) has always engulfed his spindly frame, a heavy leather belt cinching the bulk around his skeletal waist, but that evening, his fleshless arms and legs poked out of the ripples of fabric, their joints swollen into nasty red knobs and their skin blotched with eggplant bruises. And most disturbing of all, his filmy gray eyes gazed out from deepening, mauve-ringed hollows.
I remember that evening, walking the few blocks in the Jewish quarter from my family’s townhouse to the opulent fortress that Amram had built after the Pogrom. Wrapped in the quietude of Shabbat, I heard only the rasp of crickets, the swish of leaves, and the song of night birds as the moon-cast shadows of cypress and plane trees stretched across my path. A drowsy breeze sifted through the branches licking the dampness off the nape of my neck and flapping the hem of my blue ankle-length, short-sleeved linen tunic, the white tunica interior I wore underneath, and the soft woolen himation that enveloped me.
Binyamin would join us later.
Picking my way along the winding crushed-shell walkway, I wove around the frowning foliage and twitching boughs of the wasp-infested plane trees that shade the mansion. Myron must have spotted me through the grid that covers the porter’s hole because he emerged from his cell as soon as I reached the box hedge that frames the portico and opened the thick, iron-studded door to welcome me. His bullish frame, narrow-eyed face, and wooden expression make him the perfect doorkeeper.
After taking my himation, he ushered me to my favorite perch in Amram’s atrium, a padded stone bench beside the pool of floating lotus blossoms. Turning and adjusting my gaze, I took the moment as I usually did to admire the beds of dark blue irises and the rows of alabaster statues bearing lamps of eucalyptus oil. Then, sitting down, I smoothed my hair, tucked the flyaways under the gold-threaded braid that encircled the crown of my head, and pinched my cheeks for a little color. An instant later, two maids appeared: one to remove my calcei, my Roman boot-like shoes, and wipe my feet with a damp towel; the other, to place before me a small mahogany table and serve me a goblet of Palestinian wine mixed with honey-sweetened water.
As soon as I’d refreshed myself with the wine, waggled my toes, and slid them into a pair of slippers, a long-time friend of Amram’s, an Alexandrian businessman I hadn’t seen since I left Caesarea eight years ago, glided across the onyx-tiled floor, fastidiously groomed and meticulously dressed in an emerald silk robe that trailed in his wake.
“Good Shabbat, Miriam. I hope you had an inspiring Sukkot (Our Feast of Booths),” said Gershon ben Israel. The thick, silver tufts overhanging his intensely blue eyes bounced with enthusiasm just as they had when I first met him. We’d both sailed to Caesarea as guests of my cousin Eli on his ship, the Orion. “I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but you’re even more beautiful than when I last saw you. Your hair is the same chestnut brown; your eyes, the same crystal-clear blue—”
“And I have the same easy blush,” I added, curling my hand around my neck as if that could staunch the telltale tide.
“—But now you carry your height with regal elegance. Your father used to brag about you, you know. He’d say you look just like your mother, that you have her softly-fringed, jewel-like eyes, delicate features, and translucent alabaster skin. I see that the eighteen-year-old woman I knew in Caesarea has become, like wine, more precious with time.”
He paused, and then his voice thickened slightly. “My condolences on your father’s passing. I knew him from the Great Synagogue. He was a man of unwavering principles, a bulwark of decency.”
How kind of Gershon to characterize Papa’s intransigence that way. But Gershon never saw that rigid side of Papa, or if he did, he was too discreet to mention it.
Gershon still spoke like an aristocrat, his speech as unhurried as ever, but his voice sounded unnaturally loud, as if he were addressing an audience. At the time, I thought he just might be excited about being here. Only later did I learn that the desert’s Khamseen winds, those hot south winds that streak the hard blue sky with grayness and choke us with their dust, had scorched him with a fever that burned out much of his hearing. Otherwise the years had not diminished his charm, nor his loose-limbed grace, his trim, broad-shouldered athletic build, or his luxuriant cap of pearlescent curls, which he wore freshly oiled and styled in the latest Roman fashion. Only the ruffles draping his jowls and the dewlap under his chin, hanging lower than I remembered, attested to the passing years.
“What a delightful surprise!” I exclaimed. “Amram never told me you’d be here for Shabbat.”
“Pardon?” He said as his right hand pressed the rim of his ear forward.
“For Shabbat. I’m just surprised to see you. I didn’t know you’d be here,” I said, raising my voice and enunciating each word with an exaggerated precision.
“That’s because I didn’t know myself,” he said as he opened his verbena-scented hands, palms up, spreading out his long delicate fingers.
The swish of fabric was the only sound as Gershon folded into the seat beside me. He plucked the skirt of his robe as he crossed his legs and faced me, his amethyst seal ring momentarily stealing a spangle of light from an oil lamp when he clasped his hands and rested them on his knee. Then he explained:
“You may remember I buy grapes from the vineyards on the northern Plain of Sharon, and then, after their vinification, I have the wine bottled and shipped here to our upcountry brethren in the villages and towns along the Nile and to our own community of Alexandrian Jews.”
The Jews in Egypt willingly pay the price for a wine from the Holy Land, one that hasn’t been filtered on Shabbat.
“But as a special favor to Alexander when he was the procurator of Judea and then to his successors, Cumanus and Felix, I’ve been shipping the finest (and most expensive) of all wines, Faustian Falernian, that sweet white wine from the central slopes of Italy’s Mount Falernus. And I trust only your cousin’s shipping company to transport that wine. Other shippers would be only too glad to steal my cargo and substitute a cheaper wine with a counterfeit label.”
I nodded even though I was getting tired of listening to his earsplitting voice.
“Well, that was my plan for the season, to shepherd the Falernian wine to Caesarea and from there, my Palestinian wine, which is really the heart of my business, to Egypt.
“But Eli refused to take a chance on shipping my cargo from Italy. ‘Another spate of piracy along the Anatolian coast,’ he said, waggling his head in resignation. ‘And even if by some miracle you live through the attack and make your way to Judea, don’t count on surviving the religious and political turmoil there, let alone conducting your business. Any member of the Sicarii, that secret brotherhood of Judean assassins, his dagger hidden inside the folds of his cloak, would gladly elbow through the crowd to slit your throat along with anyone else’s he suspects of collaborating with the Romans. “Greek Jews,” that’s what those bloody militants call us, you know. Any Jew flush with a few Roman coins and he tops their list of faithless traitors.’”
“So you canceled your plans,” I said in an effort to wrap up the conversation. Any mention of the Sicarii still conjures up that deadly terror I experienced in Caesarea, so much so that right then and there I felt that familiar spasm ripping through my bowels. Besides, I was anxious to see Amram. And where on Earth was Binyamin? So I adjusted my skirts and shifted my weight to signal I was getting up.
But Gershon lifted a silky palm to detain me. So, despite my mounting impatience, I sat back and folded my hands in my lap to resist the impulse to pick at the threads of my tunic, something I do whenever I feel edgy.
“Yes,” he said, “but I decided too late. In anticipation of my absence, I’d arranged for contractors to renovate my home. By the time I canceled the trip, they’d already delivered the materials, and I’d dismissed my servants for the duration. So I arrived on Amram’s doorstep like a homeless beggar until they complete the work.”
I saw the smile in his eyes before it curved his lips.
“Well,” he said, throwing up his hands before rocking forward, rearranging his limbs, and rising to his feet, “I’m sure the unrest in Judea is temporary. What would this world be coming to if Rome couldn’t put down a few peasant uprisi—?”
At that moment, a team of boots pounding on Amram’s walkway bruised the quietude. The volume intensified until the cadence ended with a thud, and the crunch of a single pair of boots advanced toward the portico. I wheeled to my feet. Who would violate the sanctity of Shabbat by coming here in a litter?
The quick, firm tread of my brother’s deerskin calcei and the jingle of their silver buckles followed Myron into the atrium. Etched with the scars of violence, Binyamin reeked of power, his body still flaunting its unbridled sexuality despite the thickening of his midsection and the softening of his jowls over the years.
He was elegantly dressed in a tunic of the finest Scythopolitan linen worn girded at the waist with a heavy leather belt studded with Alexandrian glass beads in the design of a trident and net, the tools of his trade. Didn’t he realize the tattoos on his face, legs, and hands identifying him as the property of his ludus were enough to rank him with those despised even more than pimps and actors?
But unlike me, Binyamin has always flouted convention and slashed at boundaries. Our Aunt Hannah says he’s reckless because, having been born breech, he blames himself for our mother’s death from childbed fever. And so he is forever tempting the Fates to settle the score. But whether or not Binyamin blames himself and whether or not that guilt motivated him to sign on as a gladiator, Papa always blamed him.
“Hey there, everyone. Good Shabbat,” Binyamin said as he tossed his chlamys, a sporty traveling cape, onto the bench. After an introduction, he extended his hand to Gershon and greeted me with an indulgent smile that told me he’d come only to please me.
Gershon, an aficionado of the games, blinked slowly for a moment before recognizing my brother as Agrippa Fortitudo, the combatant in Caesarea who slew Orcus, the highly favored and most popular gladiator in the Empire. Then pursing his lips and lifting those silver tufts, he spoke in a whirl of words.
“Why you were hardly more than a novus auctoratus, a new hire! I couldn’t believe it! You chose the perfect moment to trap Orcus and close in on him. All that despite your own blood staining the sand.” Gershon mimed throwing the net low and aiming a trident at Binyamin’s right arm. Then, glowing with the excitement of every sports fan reliving a tense competition, Gershon sucked in a breath and blew it out in a soundless whistle.
“All four tiers of us in the stadium were on our feet, stunned into silence, you know, as Orcus, our undefeated darling, was losing his hold on the freedom promised with a victory that night.
“Then the shouts, the thunderous explosions of ‘Missum!’ [‘Let him be sent away!’] and ‘Mitte!’ [‘Let him go free!’] the spectators calling for Alexander to spare Orcus’s life. Why he didn’t, I’ll never know.” Gershon waggled his head as he tucked his upper lip inside his lower one. “Instead Alexander turned his thumb out, you had to plunge your dagger into Orcus’s chest, and another wretched life ended before its time. Your sister and I were sitting with Alexander in his tribunal that day, you know.”
Gershon shook his head ruefully and then continued.
“Soon enough ‘Charon’ appeared with his long-handled mallet.” At this point, the volume had leached out of Gershon’s voice. “He struck Orcus on the forehead, and a team of libitinarii lifted him onto a bier and carried him away. I tell you we all cried, those of us who could believe our eyes, that is. The rest just stood frozen in disbelief, their faces convulsed, their skin pale as a fish’s belly.”
With his chest inflated, his head tipped back, and a spark of pride igniting his half-closed eyes, Binyamin showed me he too was reliving the romance of that bout. A few moments later, the spell broken, he strode to the bench, and sitting there long enough to change into his sandals and toss his calcei to Myron, he took up whistling a bawdy Roman tune. I snared his eyes and shot him a sour look, which he countered with an impish gleam and a bite on his lower lip in mock humility. Then he reached over to the mahogany table to wipe his face on my towel and drain my goblet.