Danila Comastri Montanari



The story is set in 45 A.D., in the imperial city of Rome. In the amphitheatre of Statilius Taurus the season’s most important gladiatorial games are about to begin in the presence of the emperor Claudius and of his wife Messalina. The senator Publius Aurelius Statius, a cultivated and refined epicurean who hates circus games, attends the fights only for the sake of social conventions. His friend Servilius, the husband of the gossipy matron Pomponia, sits beside him.The long-awaited match finally arrives. Chelidon, the unrivalled champion of the arena, is about to kill Quadratus, an unknown weakling, when he suddenly falls down stone-dead.

The emperor Claudius himself appoints Aurelius, a former close friend of his, to investigate on the matter. Aurelius visits the gladiators’ quarters and meets some typical representatives of that violent and brutal world : Haeliodorus, born in a poor village in Sicily, fights only for money. Hercules, an obtuse Sarmatian captive, thinks he is invincible. Taurus was sentenced to the gladiatorial games after being found guilty of inciting a bloody massacre, but he is the only one who seems to have been touched by the death of the champion. Gallicus is a sly and well-educated Celt. Arduina, a fierce and powerful Britannic virago, far from regretting her former life on her faraway island, is enthusiastic about the success she enjoys with the Roman public. Last but not least, Aurelius meets the weakling Quadratus, a modest farmer unjustly sentenced by a corrupt court and the only true victim in the whole situation.

Through the espionage network of his friend Pomponia Aurelius learns that Chelidon had an affair with Rome’s most famous pantomime actress, the ravishing Nissa, who delights the audiences with her erotic shows at the theatre of Marcellus. The patrician-detective visits her in her dressing-room accompanied by his friend Servilius, who, after 30 years of faithful marriage, is secretly infatuated with the famous actress. After getting rid of his all too lenient friend, Aurelius talks to the woman in a rather brusque manner, and she admits to having seen the lawyer Sergius Mauricus for years now. Besides being a legal expert, Mauricus has no moral scruples about using any means to obtain the acquittal of his clients, among which stand out the senior figures of Rome’s organized crime.

Aurelius and Servilius manage to get invited for dinner at the pettifogger’s house, where the senator meets again Nissa, the entertainer of the evening, and receives the attentions of the mature matron Sergia, the lawyer’s notorious, unscrupulous sister.

Aurelius and his faithful freedman Castor go back to the circus and try to reconstruct the crime. The senator comes to the conclusion that Chelidon must have been murdered by a poisoned needle that was in some way thrown into the champion’s neck through one of the slits in the upper wall of the basement of the amphitheatre. The gladiator Taurus knows something about the matter and wants to tell the senator, but strangely enough he is killed before he can talk to him. Aurelius then starts to look into Chelidon’s past. He meets a ropemaker from Bononia [present-day Bologna], a town on the Via Aemilia, who knew the gladiator personally. The friendly craftsman tells him that Chelidon was actually saved from the scaffold by the lawyer Sergius Mauricus, who had then brought him to Rome along with some professional killers.

But in the meantime Servilius’s passion for Nissa has become an obsession and the ever-faithful gentleman is thinking about betraying his honest wife Pomponia. Aurelius is dumbfounded by his friend’s unexpected behaviour. With the help of Pomponia’s espionage ring he inquires into Nissa’s past. He suspects that she has known Chelidon for a long time. However, it turns out that Nissa is just an ex-prostitute who managed to get rid of her pimp and get away from the slum she lived in, with the help of a mysterious woman.

Another mysterious woman involved in the story is the other woman Chelidon met on the evening before the fight, an unknown matron of noble birth who always wears a thick veil to cover her face and who used to pay the muscular Chelidon to keep her company. Aurelius is deeply troubled, since he suspects that the masked woman might be Gaia Flaminia, the woman he married for convenience twenty years before and has long since divorced. She has now come back to Rome after a lifetime spent in the East. When the senator finally visits her, he is confronted by the withered Flaminia, whose face, hidden under a veil, has been deformed by a terrible illness. She admits to Aurelio to having paid the strong Chelidon on many an occasion to have sex with him, but on the eve of his death Chelidon had come to her in a very weak state and the matron, suspecting he had been given some kind of drug, had done her best to put him back on his feet so that he could face the match on the following morning. After Flaminia has finished her story, Aurelius is about to go away, when a sudden feeling of compassion overcomes him and he embraces the woman. After all she was the mother of his only son, who had died as an infant.

By now Aurelius is fully convinced that Chelidon’s murder is related to a betting ring whose business amounts to millions and centres around Sergius Mauricus and his gang. However, coming back to the gladiators’ quarters he finds that also Haeliodorus has been killed, after a sinister meeting with a masked lady. As it turns out, the training apparatus broke down and cut his head off. Aurelius also learns from his freedman Castor that the female gladiator Arduina was desperately in love with Chelidon, although her love was not requited.

Aurelius is puzzled and doesn’t know what to think. He finally decides to resort to the weak Nissa, whom Mauricus apparently controls like a puppet on a string. Meanwhile, his friend Servilius claims to have had an intimate relationship with Nissa and shows him a piece of her underwear as a proof. Aurelius meets the young woman and offers her shelter. She accepts after some hesitation, and eventually gives her love to the senator as a token of gratitude, but a few days later she runs away , once again aided by a female accomplice. The senator rushes to the theatre of Marcellus, where the actress is due to perform in the evening. But soon after he finds her dead body in the girl’s own litter parked in a grove nearby.

Thanks to Castor, Aurelius narrowly avoids being lynched by the actress’s furious fans. His trusted freedman and assistant tells him that Sergius Mauricus has sent his agents to harangue the plebs against him, thereby starting a real revolt. But with a coup de main Aurelius manages to become the leader of the rebels and deflects the threatening procession towards the lawyer’s house. Sergius proposes a mutual non-aggression pact, but Aurelius refuses because he has already realised that behind Chelidon’s death there is not just a betting ring, but a wide-reaching conspiracy to dethrone his old friend, the emperor Claudius. The cunning lawyer, aided by some treacherous generals, has been planning to stir up a rebellion against him in the arena. Sergius scoffs at Aurelius’s threats, knowing that there are no witnesses alive who can report his crimes.

The day after, the emperor himself summons Aurelius to his residence at the Palatine. Sergius Mauricus and his sister have formally accused the senator of murdering Nissa and of inciting the plebeian riot. Claudius is distraught : he knows perfectly well that his friend is innocent, nonetheless all the evidence is against him. The emperor is about to countersign Aurelius’s arrest warrant, when the loyal Castor rushes in and hands him the documentary evidence of Sergius Mauricus’s conspiracy, given to him by the powerful matron Flaminia, who was moved by her ex-husband’s unexpectedly kind behaviour towards her. Mauricus is arrested while her sister, who was responsible for Nissa’s escape as well as her execution, tries to run away but falls down a staircase and dies, tripped up by the emperor’s young nephew Nero. The senator Statius, the freedman Castor and the emperor Claudius drink to their narrow escape and the day after they meet at the circus, where the season’s last gladiatorial games are taking place.

Aurelius, however, doesn’t believe that Mauricus is Chelidon’s murderer, and still thinks that the gladiator was killed by an arrow from a blowpipe. Before the fight he goes down to the basement, where he meets Arduina, getting ready to fight with a pack of wild beasts. Holding her unusually light spear in his hand, he realises that it is empty. He deduces from this that only she could have hid the lethal blowpipe in her weapon. When Aurelius confronts her with this, the female gladiator admits to her passionate love for Chelidon, by whom she was scathingly rejected, and she confesses to the senator that she killed him out of revenge. Arduina then violently attacks Aurelius, trying to kill the only person who knows the truth about the murder. But the wimpish Quadratus, in an unusually courageous move, puts his sword between the senator’s body and the virago’s weapon. After a short fight Arduina is defeated, and bursts into tears at the prospect of a shameful death on the cross. But Aurelius, feeling sorry for her, allows her to die honourably with her weapons in her hands, and the woman enters the arena ready to be torn to pieces by the wolves.

At the end of the show all the gladiators have died except for Quadratus, who has been pardoned by the emperor thanks to Aurelius’s intercession, and Gallicus the Celt, who is seriously wounded. The senator meets the cunning Celt in his own house, assisted by his personal doctor and by Xenia, one of his slave women. As soon as the gladiator recovers, he and Xenia set up a theatrical company, specialising in the same kind of shows which had earned the dead Nissa such tremendous success. As far as the latter is concerned, the gentleman Servilius reveals to Aurelius that he had actually been faithful to his wife all the time, and had only pretended to have a relationship with Nissa because he was jealous of Aurelius’s many amorous exploits.


Translated into English by Elisabetta Zoni